Objects/Subjects in Exile. A conversation between Wayne Modest, Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, and Margareta von Oswald
Berlin, late November 2016. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Curator at Large for documenta 14 and I meet at SAVVY Contemporary, a non-profit art space founded and directed by Ndikung since 2009, situated in Berlin's northern district Wedding. Wayne Modest, Head of the Research Center for Material Culture, Leiden, Netherlands, the research institute of the National Museum of World Cultures, which unites some of the most significant Dutch ethnographic collections, including those of the Africa Museum (Berg en Dal), Museum Volkenkunde (Leiden) and Tropenmuseum (Amsterdam), joins us via skype.
The current issue of L'Internationale Online prompted me to initiate this conversation in order to find a different approach to the notions of crisis and migration – through the perspective of objects. More particularly, I proposed to take so-called ethnographic objects as points of departure for our discussion; objects categorised as "non-European", and thus as "foreign". As it happened in response to the recent arrival of refugees in Europe, the heated debates around ethnological museums have re-drawn lines between "us" and "them". In both contexts, notions of difference and questions about who and what can be defined as "Western" or "European" reappear. It is therefore pertinent and urgent to ask: what does/can constitute a common "we"? Who is included and excluded from this common denominator, and on what bases? To what extent could it even be productive to think of objects as migrants in exile, and thus to think of "object diasporas", as the archaeologist Paul Basu did?1
To discuss those questions, I invited Modest and Ndikung, who are both curators and researchers engaged in questioning definitions of difference and otherness. Both have been exploring historical and contemporary hierarchies between the West and the non-West, and yet they speak from different institutional, national and disciplinary perspectives. I hoped their situatedness would illuminate some of the difficulties and potentials of rethinking migrant objects. "Coming and seeing from the Caribbean", as he put it, Modest addresses these issues within Dutch institutions that oversee problematically-connoted ethnographic collections. Ndikung brings with him another nexus of potentially contrasting perspectives, saying that he is "thinking from the African mind and physical space". As an independent curator of contemporary art, he is challenging the ethnological museums' legitimacy, most publicly Berlin's controversial Humboldt-Forum2. Set to open in 2019, this monumental new cultural site in the centre of Berlin is meant to bring together the collections of the Ethnological Museum and the Museum for Asian Art. Framed by the façade of a reconstructed 18th century Prussian castle, it is one of Germany's, if not Europe's, most hotly contested museum projects.3 Ndikung has questioned the Forum's politics of ownership and representation.
Our conversation was frequently interrupted by laughter, in particular when observing that they disagreed less than their institutional affiliations might suggest. The following are excerpts from our conversation about the relation of objects to subjects and some of the challenges facing ethnographic collections today.
Objects as Accidental Refugees – Processes of Objectification / Subjectification
MO: In a talk4 given at Berlin's now-closed Ethnological Museum, Arjun Appadurai linked the fate of objects in Berlin's future Humboldt-Forum and migrants who have come to Germany to seek new homes. Identifying both as "accidental refugees", Appadurai described these objects and the refugees as "narratives in search of a plot, players in a story without a resolution". He stated that the stories of refugees tend to be reduced to dislocation and suffering, constructing their identities as unstable, incomplete, and damaged. The stories of objects don't usually tend to be about such journeys of displacement, relocation and rehabilitation; instead, they are more frequently framed in terms of their origin. Questioning the fact that the "refugees are seen as artefacts of excessive circulation whereas the objects are seen exclusively as fixed and stable", he therefore argued for a more balanced narrative. What would your comments be on this proposal?
WM: It's not new to think about the mobilities of things. However, I like Appadurai's suggestion to tie the fate of objects together with the movement of people, of migrants. And there is truth in saying that we, as museum professionals, don't necessarily consider the trajectories objects carry with them, or what he calls their "accidental refugee status". If one were to take exile within the Caribbean context as example, which emerged out of the forced, violent migration of people within the colonial project – a project of slavery – then one could think of those people who live in the Caribbean as forced migrants. On the other hand, they have also been able to fashion a new place for their formation in the Caribbean. And some of those migrants moved a second time, from the Caribbean to Europe – double diasporic – becoming a part of Europe with their historical and cultural connections. So one of the difficulties I might have with Appadurai's provocation would lead me to ask: at what moment do these people stop being conscripted to the unending narrative of the migrant? The fact that my home is accidental does not mean that it cannot be or become home.
BN: What I find interesting in Appadurai's presentation, and what I would like to shift to, is his thinking on humanity. I don't think we have a refugee crisis. I think we have a humanity crisis, one that we have had for the past 600 years or more. It seems to me that while formerly colonised countries seized their independence, the transition from object to subject never really happened – from the point of view of the West/ former coloniser. What these people have in common with objects in museums is an essential crisis of objectification. The people who were taken during the Middle Passage had to be dehumanised and objectified. The same thing concerns the so-called objects in museums, because they too have their subjectivities. They had to be objectified to be placed within those museum spaces. With the abolishment of slavery, a kind of subjectification of former objects took place. However, this process has not been completely accomplished. The people coming today, so-called refugees, are still seen as objects. We are doing the same thing with these beings, bodies, and spirits as what we have done with objects in ethnological museums.
WM: I would not disagree: this is a question of humanity. It is a question about who has been allowed or denied the right to be human throughout the colonial project, and today. I am insistent on addressing this issue within a broader question of citizenship here because it is a long history of vulnerability that refugees share. It is the history of being reduced to a subject allowed limited rights, which are different to the rights of citizens and don't account for a more complex understanding of their rights as humans. Many people – and I am going to make it personal, many people who look like me – struggle to claim a particular kind of humanity. You know that when you walk down the streets. You know that when you go through the airport. Visa regimes reduce us to a kind of biometrics of exclusion. So I concur with you that this idea of the refugee is a stand-in for a specifically racialised person who is not regarded as belonging, and who has been denied humanity for a long time. The idea is that they, the refugee, that racialised other, are now coming to what we – the European – thinks of as our space. To threaten our rights, threaten what is ours. This then results in this great anxiety – now called the refugee crisis.
Regarding ethnological museums and their collections [he pauses], I agree that there is a practice of objectification. There is a way in which these objects have been conscripted into the same narrative – the "exotic", the "other", the "outsider", the alien. And these objects become representatives of those notions. So I agree they too act as stand-ins.
These objects are like citizens in exile that share similar genealogies – or biographies as Igor Kopytoff5, New York] would say – of citizenship with earlier migrants. In some cases objects also share something with refugees: the place from which they came, or the vulnerable position they hold as "not belonging". I have great difficulties with statements like "you should go back to your own country", which are sometimes made to those racialised subjects deemed not to belong. Europe consistently forgets that people are not just here by accident; it is not easy, even possible, to make such statements after Europe's colonial project. You can't say to someone from Suriname who moved to the Netherlands in the 1950s: "go back to your own country". That is a denial of history. Nor can you say that to someone from Curaçao or Bonaire living in Amsterdam today, or to somebody of Jamaican heritage in Britain. Because after the colonial moment, one has to think of another constitution of what it means to be in Europe, or to be European. And such discussion is not only limited to the rights accrued during the colonial time. In this current globalised moment, Europe can't claim to be a place for only one group of people. For me, those objects participate in that "other constitution" of this Europeanness. They do so with all of the dense, difficult, uncomfortable vibrations they contain in the museum. This is where I could connect with Appadurai. My reason for being cautious about this perspective, which I am still working through myself, is that this is not an argument to give fodder to those who believe that these objects should not to be returned to their countries of origin.
In Search of a Space for the Process of Working Through
At this point, our discussion turned to a debate around restitution. Ndikung used the example of the throne from the Bamun people of Foumban in Cameroon, which is currently located in Berlin's Ethnological Museum, to argue for its return and the renegotiation of its place in the local community after more than 100 years in Berlin's museumscape. While Modest concurred about the importance of restitution, he also highlighted the danger of, on the one hand, thinking about restitution in non-complex ways, or on the other hand, in a framework of nostalgia that believes that to give back is to somehow retreat to an earlier stage in history, pretending that this history never happened. Giving back, Modest suggests, does not remove the responsibility to redress historical wrongs – the wounds still remain. Both agreed that the notion of "repair", as used for instance by French-Algerian artist Kader Attia6, presented an interesting alternative. In their eyes, it could mark the impossibility to return to an imaginary place and time before colonialism, "when things hadn't been broken yet", highlighting the necessity for a space which Modest frames as "the space for working through".
WM: The objects sit in a space of contested, entangled relationality. "Working through" implies that one has to question, debate, to feel uncomfortable; to box and fight about the objects and their meanings in the present. This is what Appadurai is getting at, I think. One should not only account for a temporal moment before the objects came here, which limits their meaning to their rituals, but also engage with their histories, with the unequal relationships which turned some subjects into objects, some humans to non-humans, and with the unequal power under which they moved. In such a process, one reflects on how we constitute the subject of the present, and the contestations over that subject. I think that one of the possible ways these objects can remain in Europe should be as ghostly presences, here to remind us of the trajectories to the present; that we are not as good as we sometimes want to think we are, or as kind as we think we are. Our present is formed from a disturbing past and we are implicated in this.
BN: This makes me want to go back to the concept of the diaspora. I had to think of Edouard Glissant's conversation with Manthia Diawara7, in which he mentioned the consent of not being a single being. We, as people in the diaspora, have to be cognisant of this. You are no longer a single being. Of course this is also applicable to those subjects in the museums. They are not single beings. Their being within those spaces has had an impact on them. I see your argument about some of them having to stay here, to be able to remind us of that history. This plurality of beings also says that they have to deal with a particular space of repair, which includes this physical space in Europe, but also, the physical space in, let's say, Cameroon.
MO: So where do you locate this "space for working through"? Can it be the ethnological museum? Is it actually possible to work within this space as a space for repair, with its difficult histories of appropriation, both material and symbolic?
BN: I don't know. If you ask Simon Njami, he would say: "No need for ethnological museums". I am not as radical. Rather than thinking about whether it is necessary to have those museums or not, it is important to look at the power dynamics that exist within such structures. What does it mean to rebuild a former Prussian Palace [in Berlin]? To name it – and there is a lot of power in naming, taxonomy, nomenclature – Humboldt, and then to house objects in it that were collected through dubious means? To me, we should be questioning the coloniality of power. So, maybe the point I am trying to make is that the space for repair or working through should be a space wherein the so-called objects regain their subjectivities. A space where they, organically and not artificially, resurrect to life again.
WM: I want to relate to your ideas by asking another question. This has to do with me being a little bit less optimistic that 400 years of colonial past can be undone quickly, or that these institutions are just going to disappear. Instead of asking "should these museums remain or can they be the places where repair can happen?" – my question would be whether or not people within those infrastructures are interested in this reparative work. An ethnological museum is one of the multiple spaces that can be mobilised to do this work. In addressing their very troubled histories, they are, in my view important structures for working through the difficult past, to open up to other forms of knowledges, to be part of a redressive framework in the present and to fashion more equitable futures.
The Post-Ethnological Museum?
MO: Notions like the "post-ethnographic" and "post-ethnological" museum have recently been used by Clémentine Deliss8 and James Clifford9 to refer to alternative strategies of working with ethnographic collections. Do you find these notions productive?
BN: I can't speak directly about "post-ethnographic" and "post-ethnological," as I am not a specialist in these concepts. I am sure they are thought-through. I have a lot of respect for Clémentine Deliss and the work she did in Frankfurt. But in general, it seems to me that we invest a lot of time in the construction of terms and names and don't really look at what is actually to be done. What are the concepts? What is behind those names? Who are the people doing this? And who are the people you aim to reach when you do this? I talk about the three Ps: public, personal and practice. How do you really want to affect these three Ps by changing the name? Let me put it this way: the best post-ethnological museum concept in London means little or nothing to someone in Nigeria who has no access to, nor possibility of seeing, the Benin bronzes languishing in a space with a fancy name for example. We hear about the concept of "shared heritage" too often from the likes of Professor Parzinger10 and his acolytes. How shared is that shared heritage? Again, for that person in Nigeria, surely it is less about how the museum or practice is called, than it is about how he/she could live in the company of, practice a ritual with, or just fully experience his/her cosmogony.
WM: I agree with Bonaventure in acknowledging the innovative and important work of both Clementine and James, both of whom I highly respect. But what forms of practice, ideas, different co-relations are we restructuring by adopting these names? That is what I would ask. I am interested in a transition in which we move away from a representation that says this is who those people are, or a practice that hides from its historical violence, and continues to conscript certain humans into what I call the "deep cultural" and incommensurably different. I am more interested in a shift towards a place that acknowledges the museums implicatedness within certain pasts and uses this to reposition it as a space where questions of redress, where repair can be inaugurated. Now, if this is what we call the post-ethnographic, then I can understand it. But if it is just renaming to say that we now include contemporary artists, I remain impatient. Because no matter how much we do it, it will be the same people doing it. It is not to say that a name is not important. But one needs to do more work to fashion the changes that I suggest before calling it that [post-ethnological or post-ethnographic]. And the label "world cultures" does not do that either.
1 — Basu, P. 2011, "Object diasporas, resourcing communities: Sierra Leonean collections in the global museumscape", Museum Anthropology, vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 28-42
2 — Bloch, W. 2016, "'So etwas wie Unterwerfung'.Was soll das Humboldt-Forum? Ein Gespräch mit dem Wissenschaftler und Documenta-Kurator Bonaventure Ndikung", Die Zeit, 21 January, viewed 23 January 2017.
3 — For a critical discussion of Berlin's Humboldt-Forum, see Von Bose, F. 2013, "The making of Berlin's Humboldt – Forum: Negotiating history and the cultural politics of place", darkmatter. In the ruins of imperial culture, 18 November, viewed 23 January 2017.
4 — "Dictionary of Now #4: Sharon Macdonald, Tony Bennett & Arjun Appadurai – THING", Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, 10 October 2016.
5 — Kopytoff, I. 1986, "The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process ", in A. Appadurai 1986 (ed.), The Social life of things: commodities in cultural perspective, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge [Cambridgeshire
6 — Attia has been working on the metaphor of repair and reparation in connection with the concept of reappropriation most prominently in his installation The Repair, for documenta 13 (2012). For an artist's statement, see for example: "Repair: Architecture, Reappropriation, and The Body Repaired", 2013, viewed 26 February 2017.
7 — Diawara, M. 2011, "One World in Relation. Édouard Glissant in Conversation with Manthia Diawara", NKA. Journal of Contemporary African Art, no 28, Spring, pp. 5-19
8 — See for example Deliss, C. 2013, "Trading perceptions in a post-ethnographic museum", Theatrum Mundi, 17 June, viewed 23 January 2017.
9 — James Clifford discussed the notion during a recent presentation he made: "A post-ethnological museum", Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, 30 September 2016, viewed 26 February 2017.
10 — Hermann Parzinger has been the Director of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation) since 2008. The Foundation holds the majority of Berlin's museum collections