Detlev Quintern 


The Objects’ Wounds –


Dismembering Colonial Violence


The Musealization of Africa



In museum’s spheres the objects` wounds are invisible. If the former so called fetish had been able to survive its intended burning by European missionaries, he often became first a trophy then an ethnographical object and later, beginning with the 90ties of the last century, an objet d’art – often presented as a cryptic and, with the exception of one or another masterpiece, trashy jewel. While isolated in the showcase, the punctual lightening of the assumed sculpture, which often is muffled with a dimly atmosphere, immerses the visitor’s gaze into the heart of darkness. The presentations in Tervuren, Musée du quai Branly or Berlin are examples for such museal approaches.

Even the objects’ aesthetics inspiring European and therefore modern artists like Matisse, Picasso and many others since the dawn of the 20th centuries are forgotten. But, why should the throwing knives from Congo or Cameroun, even if they had been more adornment than weaponry, only be related to the paintings of Paul Klee in which they entered as a kind of asymmetric ornament? Why not tell the stories of the brutal colonialistic disarming of Africa – a process which is to be reconstructed historically? Not least, why not following Franz Fanon who expressly underlined the liberating role of violence, in this way fully unfolding the colonised object to human being? Violence is not violence. Another question is whether violence directly or therewith closely linked historic figures should be exhibited in order to attract youngsters. Even if not planed deliberately – but the current special exhibition “The Genesis of a Myth – Lawrence from Arabia“, displayed in Colognes Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, seems to be an accompanying programme of ongoing and neo-colonial dessert wars in North Africa. In this case museums serve as a public space for reviving colonial myth.

A statistical survey of the amount of weapons, not only out of Africa, would probably come to the result that it is the largest part of most of the collections’ fund. Not only the collections of weapons testimony the European masteries of violence which, after centuries of slaves’ hunting along the coasts, begun to penetrate the inner of Africa from the mid of the 19th centuries onwards. Hand in hand with a preceding epistemological violence, tracing back to the early beginnings of what is called European enlightenment, the early musealization of Africa is its most obvious expression. Against the background of Africa’s new conceptualization, be it in Brussels’ Musée Royale, which now will be closed for two years, or in Bremen’s Oversea-Museum, the later should serve as an example for the dismembering of colonial violence. Finally, horizons towards a decolonization of European museums will be outlined.

The 2010 Tunisian-French drama film “Vénus noire” (Black Venus), directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, tells not only the story of a young South African woman, working for a Dutch settler, before leaving with him to London in the beginning of the 19th Century but records in the mean time the systematization of epistemological violence. While exposing wild Saartjes Baartman’s body and orchestrated personality on stage, first at carnivals later in aristocratic salons, the show awakens the interest of the germinating discipline of evolutionary anthropology. Even if she succeeded to resist the pathological and pseudo-scientific desire to verify the missing link from ape to man while illustrating her body for this purpose – after her forced death in 1815, aged only 27, than anatomised parts of her body became anatomic objects. From London, to Lisbon, Paris, Berlin and Bremen – the European museal magazines have to be criminological researched in order to find the bodily traces of epistemological violence which once targeted for the invention of human races. The head of Mkwawa, the East African anti-colonial resistance fighter, who had been beheaded by the German occupation forces in 1898, was probably given back by the Oversea-Museum to Tanzania in 1954. But is this human skull the only stored one? From where had come the research materials which Karl Virchow (1821-1902) obtained? Virchow inaugurated together with Adolf Bastian the Berlin Anthropological Society in 1869 and is often mentioned as the founder of modern pathology. What about all the mummies whether or not from Egypt or Peru? Do we find in European museums and medical historic collections not only traces of colonial violence but illegal graveyards which are not in conformity with ICOM’s and other ethical codes? But, bodily museal objects are only the tip of the iceberg. The entire system of musealization – here Africa as the most haunted continent – is based on above all epistemological violence. The dualistic splitting of human beingness into races, separating in the meantime man from nature and the cosmos, gave rise to urging theories and methods of verification. The invention of the European on the sociological top of a civilising ladder resulted since Linné’s Systema Naturae and later Kant’s race construction in splitting the oneness in the temporal and spatial dimension, the common temporality of beingness, having the globe to its inseparable to home. From now on Africa had become the field of experimentation where the people were damned to vanish. If sciences, like anthropology, had been safe to assume that the black cultures as remnants of a gone time will disappear, then it was the challenge to collect the material artefacts. “All-around us they diminish into the nothingness …” as Adolf Bastian, the father of Völkerkunde (ethnology) stated in 1889. “Therefore they die out, as well in their physical existence”, he wrote in “Die Vorgeschichte der Ethnologie” (1881). In a certain way the pseudo-scientific presumption run ahead the then following extinctions and colonialistic genocides. The colonial massacres in the first decade of the 20th Century be it in Southern Western (Namibia) or East Africa (Tanzania) had not only been dismembered in the predecessor of today’s Oversea-Museum in Bremen, which had been so closely linked with Adolf Lüderitz to the colonial conquering of Namibia, but overshadowed by a mise-en-scène of idyllic pseudo-realistic reconstructions. From 1910 onwards Herero women, following hereby the racist tradition of “Völkerschauen” were displayed as half naked plaster figures decorated with there typical clothing and adornments. Even if nowadays the plaster figures disappeared from being museal displayed – the adornments of the Herero women are shown in the visible storage. Silencing traces of colonialistic crimes against humanity which stories are to be told in a future decolonial museum. At present still mystified stories on colonial heroes are told in European museums, e.g. Henry Morton Stanley in Tervuren. Or, in a smaller Heimatmuseum near Bremen, Gerhard Rohlfs (1831-1896) who was as the result of a British so called expedition against Ethiopia in 1869 – here, the young Stanley gained his first experience on African soil as a correspondent of the New York Tribune – the first who entered the dining hall after charging the palace and the probable execution of the Ethiopian emperor Theodoros II. One of the earliest ethnographical exhibitions in Bremen in 1872 showed the looted art robbed by the famous “traveller” Rohlfs: the catalogue lists beside other objects sterling cutlery (Silberzierrath) from the Ethiopian emperor’s table. The emperor’s crown, the most precious loot, as stated by Rohlfs, later had been given as a present to British Queen Victoria. These are more or less famous or known raiders of African cultural heritage. Often the museums’ inventories list names from officers and other military personnel who plundered e.g. the Bamun palace in Southern Cameroon, before taking the objects to a central storage in Berlin. There had been clearly formulated instructions for the soldiers to collect artefacts before burning down villages or towns. The notorious Hermann von Wissmann tells in “Im Inneren Afrikas” (Kongo-Kassai from 1883-1885) about the kidnapping of a chief’s daughter, then “exchanging” her only for a certain mask which had been treasured for collection. Kwame Anthony Appiah gives an example of British soldiers who, while looting jewelleries and other valuables in Ashanti at the end of the 19th Century, in the meantime affirming that they are not looting but collecting treasuries. The epistemological violence went hand in hand with certitude of innocence. The looted treasuries needed more and more space – a need which winged the planning of new museums. The hidden traces of the objects’ wounds can not be told in this context, but sometimes they are to be found in the so called African travel literature from the colonial times. Here, e.g. in the early reports from Adolf Bastian when being carried by slaves in a hammock along the Congo river during the fifties of the 19th Century, we encounter a smaller spiritual wooden figure, which, before violently decontextualised, finds itself nowadays in the emptiness of a museal showcase in the Oversea-Museum. The wounds of colonial violence are to be traced back to the “biography” of the object. A story which is to be told in a decolonial museum. The ethnological museum originates in the imperial scientific desire to bring under control and dominate peoples and nature by violence while splitting the universal integrated living beingness into isolated and fragmented units which are systematised in an encyclopaedic showcase: the museum. Therefore the ethnological museum is an anachronistic institution of imperial and manic obsession for collecting material cultures, botanic and zoological objects. Against this background a self-critical reflection which is displayed in a decolonial museum will bear the potentialities for a future museum which can be part of a new enlightenment, overcoming the old dualistic concepts of race, man vs. nature, object vs. subject etc. From the museums decolonisation towards an anti-colonial space of memorising the short century, as the period of liberation struggles in Africa had been called by Okwui Enwezor – the colonial violence will be of the past if the museum’s visitor will get knowledge not only about the objects’ biography in the colonialistic context but as well on personalities of the anti-colonial liberation struggle, beginning from slavery till the independence of Namibia, Africa’s last colony and beyond to the revolutions in North Africa.

© Detlev Quintern, Bayreuth, the 16th July of 2011





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