Stolen Moments

Kate Sutton on “Unexpected Lessons: Decolonizing Memory and Knowledge”

Carey Baraka, Aleya Kassam, bethuel muthee, Neo Musangi, and Keguro Macharia.

IN ONLY A MATTER OF YEARS, decolonization has leapt from the radical imagination, to the seminar room, to the personalized mugs and bumper stickers of Etsy. An unruly cousin of the placated “postcolonial,” decolonization has temporarily displaced the Anthropocene as the discerning institution’s lost cause of choice, launching a thousand Zoom panels in the process, but rarely does it actually breach the inner sancta of the art institution (i.e., the collections and the boards).

There are glimmers of hope, though. While France has led the charge on repatriation for a few years now, in April, Germany announced that it would start the process of returning its Benin bronzes, and last month it revealed an online database to help research objects of questionable provenance. Countries such as the Netherlands are now seriously talking about following suit, with “restitution” tabs popping up on museum websites like mushrooms after rain.

Then again, colonialism was never just about extraction; it also entailed the overriding of epistemological infrastructures (or “epistemicide,” to quote the social theorist Boaventura de Sousa Santos). Even in current conversations on object movement and restitution, the framing of key questions can preserve (or even service) existing hegemonies, effectively giving former colonial powers a pat on the back for their benevolence while leaving deeper structures of exploitation and domination unchallenged. As the ever-astute cultural observer David Dark has put it, “Reconciliation without reckoning is just marketing.”

Berlin-based curator Isabel Raabe had these issues in mind when she created the Talking Objects Archive, an online repository for “decolonial thinking” slated to go public in 2024. As part of the research phase, Raabe joined forces with Mahret Ifeoma Kupka, the Museum Angewandte Kunst’s curator of Fashion, Body, and Performance, to found Talking Objects Lab, a think tank that has since forged partnerships with individuals and institutions across Africa, including Jim Chuchu and Njoki Ngumi, of the multidisciplinary Nairobi-based collective the Nest; El Hadji Malick Ndiaye, curator at Dakar’s Musée Théodore Monod d’Art Africain; and Chao Tayiana Maina, of African Digital Heritage, an organization that tackles object return from an African perspective, maintaining an international database of items held abroad.

What is the sound of a drum when it’s not being played? The question reverberated through the first hours of Talking Objects Lab’s inaugural event, the two-day symposium “Unexpected Lessons: Decolonizing Memory and Knowledge.” In back-to-back keynotes, Nana Oforiatta Ayim, the curator, novelist, art historian, filmmaker, and founder of the ANO Institute of Arts and Knowledge, and economist and musician Felwine Sarr each turned to the drum as an example of an alternative epistemology. “Every community produces a different way of knowing,” Ayim observed. “What should be impossible is that one dominates over another…This idea of universality. I mean, who came up with that? . . . It’s an impossible construct, and yet we’ve all bought into it within this colonial context.”

Felwine Sarr, Nana Oforiatta, and Aïcha Diallo.

“Unexpected Lessons” tuned in to those typically silenced in debates on object return—that is, when Africans are even invited to the table at all. The symposium was split between a jaunty in-person stage at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin and a livestream from Nairobi. The latter program was curated by Chuchu and Maina with a focus on “emotional labor,” an oft-overlooked and -undervalued subject in the current debates.

The opening footage, Vox Pops: Kenyan Thoughts on Decolonisation and Object Return, hit the streets of the Kenyan capital, prompting passersby with questions like “What are the effects of colonialism?” “What does object return look like to you?” and “Can there be justice for formerly colonized countries?” A young man in a bright-red vest and a Bob Marley trucker hat pushed back at the premise, crediting colonialism for his education. Another respondent contended that returned objects just wouldn’t be that meaningful. One woman confessed, “To be honest, I have not visited a museum in a long time.” She does, however, wear Maasai ornaments. (“Though I don’t know if they are traditional.”) A man in a suit resorted to a proverb: “History will always glorify the hunters until the lions tell their story.”

Still from Vox Pops: Kenyan Thoughts on Decolonisation and Object Return.

The broadcast then shifted to a quaint garden-party setup on a grassy lawn, where Chuchu, Maina, and Ngumi joined independent curators Kahira Ngige and Rosie Olang in a kind of parlor game. Reading aloud arguments on object movement that had been harvested from the internet, the group deliberated on whether each was a “Them Problem,” an “Us Problem,” or, perhaps most crucially, a “Distraction.”

The first argument fretted over the gaps that would be left in museum collections were objects to be returned. “Firmly a them problem,” Chuchu said, grinning. “We’ve been living with absence on this side, and we’ve survived.” Though, as he immediately qualified, there really can be no equivalence between “an additive absence and a subtractive absence.”

In response to the assertion that the museums acquired these objects “fair and square,” Olang noted how curatorial language has conspired to change the rules of the game, be it through the dubious practice of labeling acquisitions as “gifts,” strategic omissions of provenance, or insidious attributions of artifacts to peoples, rather than to specific artisans, effectively cementing stereotypes about the authorless nature of “tribal art.” “Even when you look at the databases” Chuchu noted, “. . . the attribution of objects is to communities, and not to individuals,” which is antithetical to “the way that the West consumes art.”

Kahira Ngige, Njoki Ngumi, Rosie Olang, Jim Chuchu, and Chao Tayiana Maina.

“For me, what’s exciting here is this idea of ‘fair and square,’” Ngumi retorted. “I mean, the audacity! Did you go to talk to every object and ask, ‘Were you acquired fair and square? . . . It’s such a falsely but audaciously moral statement.”

What about the concern that returning some objects would inspire other countries to make restitution claims? Everyone laughed: “Yes, and . . . ?” 

How can we be sure that the objects are returned to the right people? The group all agreed: “This is an us problem.” Although, as Ngumi observed, “that question is already framed to make us think that the people currently in [possession] of the objects get to determine…who ‘the right people’ are.”

What if the communities they belonged to no longer exist? “Whose fault is that?!” Ngumi quipped.

As for “finders keepers”? Chuchu found the position refreshing in its brutal honesty: “The thing about conquest is that you take stuff. . . There’s nothing in our history that says the guy who won war the war feels guilty about it later on.” 

Kahira Ngige and Njoki Ngumi.

Later, in a live wrap-up, he expounded more on the role of emotional labor in the day’s talks. He wondered if this attempt “to put a measure on our feelings” was also a part of an effort to “humanize the Black voice by saying that, ‘aside from being characters in a story about extraction, we are also people who have feelings and memories and ideas.’” He acknowledged that “a lot of the work of decolonization is about infusing the idea of Blackness with humanity, [something] that has been denied for many centuries,” but lamented “the additional labor that the Black voice has to do to validate itself within these conversations.” Here Olang intervened: “I don’t want to do the labor of having to validate my humanity. . . I would want to say that it’s is a ‘distraction,’ but I know it’s not, because that work still has to be done.”

Maina noted the laughter pealing throughout the game, but also stressed that “it’s not coming from a place of joy.” Rather, she said, “it’s coming from a place of sadness; its coming from a place of anger; it’s coming from a place of fatigue.” I thought back to the Vox Pops video, where a charming young man in a denim jacket and backpack had jokingly described his ancestors as having “failed.” “They should have allowed themselves to be taken away,” he said. “Right now, I would be abroad living a better life.” Ngumi cited another moment in the footage, when a grandfather recalls how he uses his traditional flywhisk while watching TV with his grandchildren. “These are the things we are told are rumors in Kenya: tender grandfathers, families that are happy to stay together. All of this brokenness is rooted in the same colonial traumas.” Earlier in the day, Chuchu had observed that “Africans are always talking about children,” but that families have handed down generations of unprocessed trauma. He addressed the sense of privation the lack of heritage has instilled in the younger generations, whose relationship to their material history often seems irretrievably severed. “The tools [we] have to address that trauma are less, not more,” he said. “We have more language, definitely, but we have less receipts.”

Still from Vox Pops: Kenyan Thoughts on Decolonisation and Object Return.

Healing, like decolonizing, is another term that has been banalized and much abused, and yet it still holds within it a possibility of moving forward. The last panel of the day—an open discussion in Berlin among artists Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro and Elsa M’Bala and writer Magnus Elias Rosengarten titled “Who heals here?”—laid everything out on the table. In his earlier talk, Sarr had highlighted the role of inherited trauma and the “blank of memory” that can be passed down through generations. M’Bala picked up on this thread and spoke of the power of these blanks, paraphrasing Maya Angelou: “You need to know where you come from to know where you’re going.” Growing up in Germany, the artist recalled, was like “fighting for air.”

“Healing is constant,” Bikoro offered. “It’s not a medicine where you take something once, and then you feel better. . . It’s about living with pain.” She urged the need to “get away from these rhetorics or this stereotype that [art] heals everybody, that it shows the way or is the answer,” and warned that “it’s good to be cautious” in collaborating with institutions as they reckon with their own guilt and complicity. “I think that the language in the work that I do was never understood,” she said, “because it was always, always surrounded by whiteness.” She described starting out as a performance artist fifteen years ago, only to be met with “huge disappointment” when she did not “perform African.” “They expected the drums. They expected a rhythm. They expected me to wear a banana skirt. They expected Josephine Baker!” She put forward the reflection that “a safe space is not a place. A safe space for me is the people that I am engaged with, it’s the love that I have, and the commitments. . . I make and I have from those people.”

Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro, Elsa M’Bala, and Magnus Elias Rosengarten.

The second day, these networks were on full display as the conversations shifted toward education. Things kicked off with a discussion tackling the absence of Black studies in German academia. Moderated by Kupka, the conversation featured sociologists Natasha A. Kelly and Vanessa Eileen Thompson and cultural scientist Peggy Piesche. Kelly touched on how recent discourse has allowed for an emphasis on racism as an individual experience rather than a systemic phenomenon. Thompson contended that academia alone could not resolve deep cultural inequalities, pointing out that while the United States might have Black studies in their universities, they also have the prison industrial complex. “Who led Black Lives Matter?” Thompson asked. “…It was above all the working class, the poor; they’re the ones who put their life on the line. What does it mean to think about the institutionalization of Black studies from that perspective?”

Later in the day, there was a panel on art education in museums with Nora Landkammer and Carmen Mörsch (who confessed that she was “through with museums,” having had enough of well-meaning diversity workshops full of middle-class white women), as well as a conversation on the structural omissions of art history with El Hadji Malick Ndiaye, Ibou Coulibaly Diop, and Bénédicte Savoy. Once more, the highlights beamed in from Nairobi, where a second garden party had convened: same sunshine, same grassy lawn, but this time the guests included writers, artists, and academics Carey Baraka, Aleya Kassam, Keguro Macharia, Neo Musangi, and bethuel muthee. In the first session, the quintet tackled the complicated history of naming streets and buildings in Kenya—a country whose very name was forced upon it in a colonial-era bungling of the local dialect. “Almost nothing in Nairobi is named for something in Nairobi,” explained Macharia. “Nairobi is sort of the place where names are just gathered.”

Neo Musangi and Keguro Macharia.

In the second session, the crew revisited the restitution debates of the previous afternoon. It, too, offered a mix of levity (group speculation as to how many of Africa’s “royal dildos” are mislabeled in museum collections around the world) and mourning. Things took an unexpected turn when muthee raised the specter of animism, giving a nod to Jane Bennett’s “thing power.” He prefaced his appeal to the agency of objects themselves by quoting the famous opening lines of Alain Resnais and Chris Marker’s 1953 film, Statues Also Die: “When men die, they enter history. When statues die, they enter art. This botany of death is what we call culture.”

But what if the statues aren’t dead? I thought back to Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s 2019 short film Un-Documented—Unlearning Imperial Plunder, which had been screened as part of the symposium’s film program. In the first chapter, the narrator assumes the perspective of the objects—now “congealed forms of imperial violence”—robbed of those who made them. They lie in wait, expecting the return of their people. Picking up on this idea, Musangi ruminated on the dark energies—“some sort of intergalactic anger”—potentially amassed by the objects during their time in exile. But here Macharia countered, arguing that, for some objects, their value was forever depleted when their original relationships were broken off. “Does this,” he wondered, “take us back to where we were in the other conversation about what it means to think about repatriation without reparation, or repatriation without repair?”