The career of German artist Dierk Schmidt (Unna, 1965) has always been related to social, political and institutional critique. Schmidt makes use of the aesthetic and the visual to disrupt positivist and liner concepts of history with respect to the omissions and violence in colonial narratives — one of the core themes running through his work, along with a need for the restitution of plundered objects and the related international law — the manipulation of museum discourses and the contrived and dramatic state of televised politics.

The retrospective held by the Museo Reina Sofía assembles some of Schmidt’s most ambitious projects. In The Division of the Earth (2005) — two series of large-scale canvases on the division of Africa at the Berlin Conference of 1884 — the structural violence targeted at the African continent is represented in a system of diagrams and chromatic codes to render the real effects of abstract, political and economic strategies in specific territories and communities.

In Schmidt’s view, colonial greed stems from capitalism, and he reflects on its destruction of the environment and its instability and alienation in Think It All – Untitled – Run Away (1995) and McJob (1997). Similarly, colonialism is manifested in a certain way of exhibiting ethnographic objects and in resistance towards restitution, which grants continuity to colonial mental structures. Since 2009, Schmidt has realised this institutional critique in actions with the activist collective Artefakte, and in works such as Berlin Castle Ghosts (2002–2004), thus calling out the contradiction implicit in the German authorities’ reconstruction of an 18th-century imperial palace to be used as a museum of world cultures.

Museum devices are revised in the series Broken Windows (2013–in progress), where the artist cites this ubiquitous support in museums to allude to the decontextualization and fetishism of the ethnographic object, and to the decline of experience, in which these glass structures, painted by Schmidt, remain frames and frameworks through scratches and perforations, referring at once to the colonial practices of plundering and initiatives of resistance and restitution.

Dierk Schmidt’s oeuvre can be defined as a continual exercise of updating and relocating, and he is always mindful of the contexts providing the backdrop for his artistic practice. Consequently, for the exhibition Guilt and Debts he has devised a site-specific project related to the role of the Palacio de Velázquez — where the show is displayed – directly after it was built in 1883 and in view of its housing, in 1887, part of the monographic exhibition of the Philippines, Mariana and Caroline Islands, before becoming the Biblioteca y Museo de Ultramar (the Museum-Library of the Overseas). Moreover, Schmidt brings to the fore another time in Spain’s colonial history: the early years of the Franco regime and its imperialist ideology via collections amassed from the Sahara by archaeologist Julio Martínez Santa-Olalla.