Alzire of Bayreuth


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Kitso Lynn Lelliott’s work in the Neues Schloss resembles an artistic ghost-story. By means of images and sounds, the artist evokes the presence of Alzire, a young woman who has worked and lived at the court of Wilhelmine of Bayreuth. There are few traces of the young woman. Not even her real name is recorded. “Alzire” is the name given to her by Margravine Wilhelmine, based on the tragedy by the same name, “Alzire, ou les Américains”. It was written by French philosopher Voltaire, who the Margravine adored. All we know of Alzire, the human being, is based on a burial script by Hofprediger Schmidt for the so-called “Hofmohrrin”. Not even 25 years of age, she died in Bayreuth on May 22nd, 1751.

She had come a long way. As her country of birth, Surinam in South America is mentioned. Then under Dutch colonialism, Surinam is a place of slavery, with horrible conditions for people working on the sugar plantations. Also a place of rebellion.  Many people enslaved in Surinam are of West African ancestry.

Alzire story leaves many questions: What brought a woman from the Americas to the court of Wilhelmine of Bayreuth? What were the conditions of her journey? Did she act as a servant in Bayreuth, performing not only the duties of the trade but also acting according to the popular ‘exoticism’ of the time, when it was fashionable to have people from Africa and the Americas work at the European courts mostly as servants and musicians, also at the court in Bayreuth.

And, as a reminder: 22 years before Alzire’s death, in 1729, Anton Wilhelm Amo, Black intellectual at the University of Halle, had held his first disputation under the title De iure Maurorum in Europa (On the rights of Moors in Europe). Both their lives lead to a shift in perspective on the well-rehearsed narrative of European “Enlightenment”

And Alzire: Was she subject to a gaze? How did she look back? And did the eyes of the two women, Wilhelmine and Alzire, meet: seeing that both their migrations to Bayreuth most likely had not been willful ones?

Lelliott’s work imagines as an audio-visual fiction the ‘visions of future’ of a global woman whose story, as the ones of millions of people, has not been recorded.

We thank the Neues Schloss Bayreuth, particularly Christine Maget and Heike Schulte, for the cooperation; as well as Dr. Rainer-Maria Kiel for the inspiration to work on the story of Alzire.

– Exhibition text by Katharina Fink