Empire Records

Ian Wallace on Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism

Folded photograph of the expulsion of Palestinians from Ramle, 1948. From Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s exhibition "Potential History,” 2012, various locations.

Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, by Ariella Aïsha Azoulay. London and New York: Verso, 2019. 634 pages. 

INSTITUTIONAL EFFORTS to de-imperialize museum collections over the past several years have offered technocratic solutions to an existential problem. Following French President Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 commitment to repatriate Sub-Saharan African objects housed in French museums and the subsequent, widely publicized report by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy proposing that the restitution of cultural property should be implemented on a state level, the British Museum has announced that it will return bronze reliefs looted from the kingdom of Benin to Nigeria—but on the basis of a long-term loan. This is becoming a common strategy for “decolonizing” museum holdings. Such loans are usually renewed every few years in perpetuity, allowing Western institutions to retain ownership of cultural artifacts while gesturing at reparation. Sarr and Savoy suggest that stolen objects might be copied using technologies like 3-D scanning so that they can be returned to their original cultures while effectively remaining in Western hands. Similarly, the argument that objects should only be returned to their cultures of origin once the latter have built institutions that match the resources and technical ability of those in the West—one of the stipulations of the British Museum deal—is indicative of the greater problem: Imperialism, as photography critic and theorist Ariella Aïsha Azoulay tells us in her new book, cannot be unlearned using imperialist tools.

Azoulay’s 2012 book Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography framed looking at photographs as a skill that requires the acknowledgement of relationships and kinds of belonging that transcend national borders and categories of citizenship. With Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (Verso, 2019), her focus expands from photographs to documents and objects in archives and museum collections. For Azoulay, not only museums but also the discipline of history itself must be de-imperialized. “Our approach to the archive cannot be guided by the imperial desire to unearth unknown ‘hidden’ moments,” she writes. “It should rather be driven by the conviction that other political species were and continue to be real options in our present.” Azoulay proposes a methodology and an ethics for engaging with historical and archival materials that refuses to relegate them to a foreclosed past. Instead, she invites us to see in these objects the imminent potential for fostering nonimperial forms of identification and meaning. Plunder, she emphasizes, is “an ongoing process,” and the archive is not only a repository of documents but a regime of operations and procedures that are tightly interwoven with imperialist dogmas.

Drawing based on a photograph by Soichi Sunami of African objects displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in 1935.

Potential history, Azoulay tells us, is “onto-epistemological,” meaning that it is at once a question of the nature of things and the way we understand them. Her book’s central aim is thus to subvert what she calls imperialism’s “progressive credo”: the imperative, following the understanding of the archive as a catalogue of concluded events, that a people, a culture, or an act of colonial violence be relegated to the past in order to make way for the future. An early twentieth-century Congolese sculpture of a colonial Belgian tax administrator who was killed after shooting into a crowd of villagers, for example, is taken as emblematic of museums’ inability to adequately grapple with colonial violence on the terms of those who experienced it. Azoulay argues that the sculpture’s inaccessibility to outsiders—our lack of knowledge about its purpose or the exact circumstances of its creation—is a constitutive part of its intended function and meaning, rather than a gap to be filled in in its narrative history. Though this example might just as easily be taken as indicative of a lack of attentiveness in how museums study and present colonial objects, the implication is that such objects should simply not be studied as works of art.

Azoulay builds from her previous work on photography to develop the concept of an “imperial shutter.” This, like a camera’s shutter, enacts a series of temporal, spatial, and differential splits (present/past, here/there, citizen/noncitizen, perpetrator/victim, et cetera). Imperialism, in other words, frames history like a camera’s lens; with the right tools, its exclusions, restrictions, and differentiations can be sensed as still-present potentialities. If, as Azoulay demonstrates, a vivid history of mass rape in Berlin during the American occupation of 1945–52 can be read through precisely what does not appear in photographs of German women’s benign interactions with occupying soldiers, then a story of ongoing Palestinian dispossession might likewise be read through the seized documents housed in Israeli government archives whose access is restricted to Israeli—that is, non-Palestinian—citizens. Throughout the book, Azoulay reproduces photographs from these collections documenting the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their land as pencil-drawn sketches: a shrewd way to bypass the institutions’ refusal to allow reproductions and an apt illustration of the embodied kinds of engagement that doing potential history requires. (As a gesture toward the “potential” in her personal history, Azoulay, who is Israeli, has adopted her paternal grandmother’s Arabic name since her last publication.)

Drawing based on a photo of a mass trial of immigrants deemed “undocumented,” 2018, Texas.

Shifting her focus to the language of imperialism and its imbrication with transnational political structures, Azoulay suggests the concepts of “worldly rights” (rather than “human rights,” which, she argues, imposes imperial order) and “worldly sovereignty” (as opposed to national sovereignty) as answers to their imperial counterparts. Azoulay’s concept of “world” is close to the idea of the commons—the shared resources available to the members of a society, as familiarly theorized by Michael Hardt and Antoni Negri—and describes an investment in places, objects, and certain kinds of social relationships that preexist imperialism. The scope of its implications, however, remains somewhat abstract. What would it mean for people to be, as Azoulay puts it, “in a world of their own”? Emphasizing the violent origins of the objects in museum collections, Azoulay suggests that “separating people from the objects they hold in common, and objects from the communities that create them and give them meaning, is what we now call art.” It is beyond dispute that such deracinating acts are the foundations of an encyclopedic museum. But is this a unique characteristic of objects that were created in the precolonial world and seized for Western consumption? What implications might this idea carry for the other kinds of objects that we also call “art,” given that so many of their makers, throughout the twentieth century, were grappling with precisely the question of art’s specious autonomy from everyday life, the market, and politics?

In the book’s interstitial subchapters, Azoulay makes her most direct, and compelling, proposals. She suggests, for instance, that museum workers might understand asylum-seeking as “a counterexpedition by people in search of their objects and destroyed worlds.” As in her previous work, the tools Azoulay proposes are powerful precisely because of the way they implicate the faculty of imagination as a challenge to seemingly incontrovertible histories. Potential History might best be thought of, then, as a theoretical companion to the interventionist strategies of groups like Decolonize This Place, which has recently staged counternarrative tours and demonstrations at New York museums, or as a rebuke to bureaucratic acts of restitution. It reminds us that imperialism is not just a set of technical procedures, but a way of looking at and being with objects that prematurely forecloses their capacity to tell us how things might have been.