While Europe and its politics continue to discuss the restitution of art stolen during the colonial era, contemporary debates or artistic stances that constructively engage with this area are often overlooked. More space for discussion and dialogue is necessary, as is Europe’s will to listen. This includes the readiness to set aside the knowledge it has formed and enter into discussion on an equal footing with the global south.
Functioning as a think tank, Talking Objects Lab, provides this necessary space for an about-turn and, in this way, creates a platform in which knowledge can be reassessed and encounters made possible. Magnus Elias Rosengarten spoke with the two curators Isabel Raabe and Mahret Ifeoma Kupka about the origin, aims and ideas of the project TALKING OBJECTS.
Magnus: The debate concerning restitution and the processing of accounts relating to stolen artworks from the European colonial era has dominated cultural policy debates in this country and internationally for some time now. Germany recently promised to return the Benin Bronzes in 2022. Talking Objects takes a different approach to this debate, contesting the Western understanding of art objects and their social relevance. The aim of the project is to question the Eurocentric epistemologies that are still active today and to create a situation that allows a new knowledge to develop. How exactly do you anticipate this as curators?
Isabel: Europe’s colonial past and the colonialism associated with it, that is, current structures that have arisen from colonialism, shape not only the realities of life, politics, cultural practices, but also the canon of knowledge. The Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls the systematic erasure of knowledge that does not match the European knowledge system ‘epistemicide’. Our project seeks to find out what knowledge can be found beyond these European knowledge systems today. The literary scholar Walter Mignolo speaks of ‘Epistemic disobedience’. The title TALKING OBJECTS says it all: we want to bring objects into the narrative, to use them as a means for accessing new narratives. The Senegalese writer Birago Ismael Diop once said, ‘Écouter plus souvent les choses que les être’, which means, ‘Listen more to objects than to people’. We devote ourselves to ethnographic objects in European collections. We listen to them and try to place them in an expanded context of meaning. This demands a radical change of perspective. In the next years, we would like to bring about a series of exhibitions, think tanks, and artistic interventions in Germany and on the continent, together with partners on the African continent under the title TALKING OBJECTS LAB (we currently still find ourselves in the planning and applications phase), which will examine forms of knowledge and practices of the African continent. The TALKING OBJECTS ARCHIVE will go online in 2024. This will be a digital archive for the production of decolonial knowledge, which will be hosted and curated on the African continent. Using a digital collection of selected objects, a narrative of multiple perspectives is opened up that includes African philosophy and history, spirituality, but also contemporary artistic positions and the consequences when these objects are absent.
Mahret: We are also keen to in bring perspectives into dominant discourse that have until now been somewhat concealed. Objects are the starting point. We examine what occurs in the immediate vicinity of their physical form though. In European museums, it is primarily the items that tell their colonial history, in terms of violent accounts, theft, and being snatched from complex contexts. The original contexts and significance involved are barely represented in the museum, while in some instances it is not even possible to find them there because they were not known, were never known and are frequently even lost, not to mention erased. Furthermore, there is the issue of whether the contextual meanings could ever have been portrayed in a museum, whether their processual quality would even have contradicted the idea of turning objects into museum exhibits. What prospects do we have nowadays to rediscover such contextual meaning? Colonial history has become a part of the objects, yet it is not the entire history. We wish to contribute in order that the histories become more complete. One way to do so is through artistic interventions and process-oriented approaches. After all, we only have a colonised set of instruments available to us. We are all colonial subjects and cannot simply step out of that context and do something different. We are continually in the process of discovering what being decolonialised will and can look like. An exchange, an organic interlinking of different movements with a continuous consideration of the speaker’s own position is crucial. We depend on the diverse narratives that exist among ourselves, for each other, about one another, so as to be able to create a more comprehensive understanding of the world and of coexistence. How does #BlackLivesMatter become #AllBlackLivesMatter in a pan-African sense?
Magnus: It is definitely worth mentioning here that the concept for Talking Objects was born in Germany, a country that, despite all else, persistently hesitates in properly confronting its colonial past. Isabel, how can Talking Objects, as a project that has a planned phase of several years, help to balance this field of tension?
Isabel: The intention of our project is to contribute to a new historiography, a decolonial production of knowledge, in other words, a new approach to perceiving the world. In this way, we are trying to expand the framework of thought within which provenance research, returns and restitution are negotiated. Nonetheless, Eurocentric perspectives are what generate this framework, whether in terms of legal frameworks, historical narratives, or even the valuation of the actual objects. Here are a few examples: The keynotes at the performative discussion event UNEXPECTED LESSONS in June 2021 will be given by Nana Oforiatta Ayim and Felwine Sarr. Both support an epistemic turn that includes the consideration of objects. While Sarr views ontology as a Western idea, Ayim stresses that objects have multiple identities and are in a state of continuous transformation, which means they are, in fact, subjects.
Magnus: I can clearly discern the demand from both of you for a holistic approach to coming to terms with colonial history. The Senegalese economist and musician Felwine Sarr considers psychology as the fourth pillar that forms an intact social structure alongside the economy, politics, and culture. In his assessment, it directly relates to the issues of healing and the decolonisation of the mind. Art, culture, and storytelling play a critical role in this. Mahret, how does Talking Objects approach the frequently overused term ‘healing’?
Mahret: I often have the impression that what is meant by ‘healing’ is not really understood. The term is frequently used in the context of self-care, which even becomes a self-optimisation maxim in a neoliberal outlook. According to the expression, whoever is healed and is healthy can function better too. This is true to some extent, though the question is rather for whom and what... Healing, as we understand it, is about a holistic approach. Healing is what is whole, what is all-embracing. The term de-colonisation may at first come across as though something were being removed, deconstructed, and dismantled. However, the process is really about making complete, which means integrating the missing, hidden, forcibly excluded parts into the whole. This wholeness is not so that it can be for something, it is simply for itself.
Magnus: In Kenya you work with the artist collective The Nest Collective, in Senegal with the Musée Théodore Monod d'art africain, and the Institut Fondamental d'Afrique Noire (IFAN) at Cheickh Anta Diop University. This manifold approach to perspective is intended to create spaces for new, different narratives. What role does the relationship between the digital and analogue play?
Mahret: We are planning regular digital meetings, the outcomes of which will then be documented and contextualised on our blog. A continuous exchange is really important to us. Because physical encounters are also central, we hope to be able to create think tanks on site. To what extent this will be possible also depends on the development of the Corona pandemic—in addition to the national hurdles.
Magnus: Yes, indeed, besides the global political obstacles, or perhaps because of them, the events are to take place simultaneously in various places around the world. Naturally, the question of the interested audience plays a central role. Isabel, which target groups are you addressing in the international context?
Isabel: The project is envisaged as an interdisciplinary series and is aimed on an even basis at both an academic and a non-academic audience in Europe and on the African continent. According to plural forms of knowledge, we also address a plural audience. For example, in the UNEXPECTED LESSONS event, the curatorial team from Nairobi heads to the people on the street and carries out interviews, with an interest in focusing on their opinions and pain concerning the loss of objects. After all, these objects were not stolen from institutions, but from people. For the global North, there will be UNEXPECTED LESSONS, for the global South, knowledge ignored by the North will be brought into focus. Artistic perspectives and interdisciplinary work are very important to Mahret and me, in relation to a multidimensional perspective of narrative. Decolonising knowledge also demands that one break out of the academic ivory tower.
Magnus: And lastly, I have a question for both of you. If you dare to look into the future, what forms can Talking Objects take in the coming years?
Isabel: We hope to realise the TALKING OBJECTS LAB as a series running for several years, in order that we are able to really ‘research’ on a sustainable and intensive basis in this research lab. We would like to see exhibitions, workshops, artistic interventions as well as a lively plural reflection and documentation in word, image and sound on the accompanying blog. Besides that, there is the TALKING OBJECTS ARCHIVE for decolonial knowledge production, which, hosted on the African continent, can constantly grow into a counter-archive. Because ‘The Western Archive is exhausted’, as Felwine Sarr states so well.
Mahret: Beyond that, it is not so easy to formulate clearly right now what precisely Talking Objects will look like in the future. We are creating something that has never existed before in a way that hopefully makes a break with traditional practices and mechanisms. In this regard, the old saying—the journey is the destination—is particularly apt here. I'm really curious about what we will bring into being. It should in turn be adaptable for others who will then develop it further. Talking Objects is more a process than a form.
Magnus: Thank you very much.