Art History Research Connects 18th and 19th Century Spaces, Relics to Contemporary Understandings of Atlantic Africa

Hermann von Hesse (Art History, Art & Design) is a 2023–2024 HRI Campus Faculty Fellow. Von Hesse’s research focuses on the nexus between the material cultures of the African Atlantic world, the Black Diaspora and early modern European imperial and capitalist expansion and the contemporary legacies of these historical processes.

Learn more about HRI’s Campus Fellowship Program, which supports a cohort of faculty and graduate students through a year of dedicated research and writing in a collaborative, interdisciplinary environment.

What is unique about your research on this topic?

My book manuscript is titled “Love of Stone Houses”: Urban Merchants, Ancestral Spaces and Sacred Objects on Africa’s Gold Coast (forthcoming University of Chicago Press). In this research, I examine how Gã, Fante and Euro-African (biracial) merchants on the Gold Coast increasingly began to use ancestral and inalienable stone houses and the sacred heirlooms they contained rather than captives as mortgages to secure European and American credit and merchandise at the end of the legal slave trade in 1807. Examining the historical and socio-economic contexts of material cultures and structures simultaneously foregrounds the human agents and ideas involved in their production and usage. It also contributes to the vital and difficult intellectual project of analytically bridging Africa and its trans-Atlantic diasporas from the era of the slave trade to the present day.

“My research shifts African and African Atlantic (art) histories from their stereotypical focus on trade goods and sacred relics often associated with African material cultures (especially in the Western imagination) toward property and real estate: specifically, the ancestral stone houses of the Gold Coast, established by African and Euro-African merchant families involved in the transatlantic slave trade and/or legitimate commerce.

In doing so, my research seeks a broader understanding of the diverse and dynamic cultural uses and meanings of material spaces and goods in the African Atlantic world.”

Hermann von Hesse

By interrogating these legacies, I discuss the complex and often ignored moral consequences of European imperial projects, which entwined with African merchants’ own commercial and dynastic ambitions transformed these houses from permanent signifiers of ancestral veneration and family memory to commoditized real estate.Through the prism of Gold Coast houses, I capture and refract disparate sources and research methodologies—oral traditions, archival research, visual cultures, historical linguistics, and ethnography—to produce an account of how merchant families rode the currents of Atlantic commerce with all its anxieties, opportunities, and losses. This interdisciplinary methodological approach enables a new analysis of these historic establishments’ material and spiritual cultures, which were negotiated and reinforced by ancestral legacies but also threatened by family disputes over changing social hierarchies, power dynamics, economic insecurities, and the contestation of real and movable property.

What drives your interest in this research?

I’m descended from Euro-African merchants on the Gold Coast, and I grew up living in 18th and 19th century stone houses some of which like the Wulff House in Osu contain intramural graves. The cellar of the Wulff House contains the graves of Danish Jewish lawyer, Wulff Joseph Wulff (1809-42) and likely his Ga-Danish wife, Sarah Malm (c. 1815-98). I’m related to many of the personalities I’m writing about, and this is the main driver of my research.

How has the fellowship seminar impacted the way you approach your research?

Feedback from the fellowship has encouraged me to consider discussing the comparative contexts of my research along the Atlantic rim. A colleague’s feedback also encouraged me to consider submitting an article in Law and Society.

Fig. 1. Elmina, Gold Coast (Ghana) in the late nineteenth century, depicting a Euro-African merchant’s stone house built in the early nineteenth century, wrongly dated to 1750 CO 1069-34-61, TNA, Kew.
Fig. 2 The revered intramural graves of Wulff Joseph Wulff (square-shaped) and wife, Sara Malm (likely not the grave of their daughter, Wilhelmine Josephine as family lore insists), Frederiksminde, Osu.