Africa | 26.4.2020
On December the 16th Humboldt Forum has virtually opened its doors, but criticisms never stop. The complex issue of colonialism and its impact on today societies is alive more than ever.
* * *
The 2020 will be remembered not only for the terrifying COVID-19 global pandemic but also for Black Lives Matter protests. The debate surrounding the assassination of George Floyd has led to a wave of popularity in Europe for issues relating to the return of artworks to their countries of origin, both in terms of practical and symbolic actions.
From the other side of the Ocean, the leap year finished with criticisms about the opening of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. This has been one of the largest cultural projects in Europe, with a total investment of Euro 680 m. Access to people is scheduled for spring 2021 due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Although the Museum has called experts from around the world to set up the project, including the former general director of the Kenyan National Museum, the question of African artworks restitutions has risen in spotlights again.
A few days before the Forum opening Yusuf Tuggar, the Nigerian ambassador to Germany published his 2019 demand for the return of the so-called Benin bronzes. The artworks were looted in 1897 during a British punitive expedition in Benin City. After the spoliation, they found their way into the art market. Chancellor Angela Merkel and Minister of State for Culture and the Media Monika Grütters has never replied to him.
In addition, many Berliners have protested against the new building itself. The previous Berliner Schloss, built in the 15th century, was demolished in 1950 by the East German government, which erected its Parliament in its place. After German reunification, the government made the decision to tear down East German Parliament rebuilding a facsimile of the original Schloss.
However, the question of restitution is not only a “German affair”. It affects many other European nations: France, look at the famous declaration of the President Emmanuel Macron at the University of Ouagadougou, Portugal, Spain, Italy, just to give some examples.
As European we need to rethink our colonial heritage, putting the current situation in the spotlight with courage.
Looking to Italy, this theme doesn’t appeal so much the media and the public opinion. Basically, there is no awareness of the relevance of the question for sociopolitical current issues such as immigration.
A good opportunity for discussion was the “Festival on (post) colonial heritage”, that took digitally place from September the 17th to October the 18th 2020. In my opinion, it didn’t get the proper media attention.
The program, organized by the Belgian Goethe-Institut in collaboration with the Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Foundation of Turin, consisted of five digital talks and an art exhibition, from which I took the title of this article: “Everything Passes Except the Past”.
The meetings involved fundamental issues such as the status of artworks restitutions by European nations, possible museum practices and curatorial perspectives to be implemented for the exhibition of highly symbolic works, representations of the colonial past and iconoclasm.
Speakers were historians and experts on the subject such as Bénédicte Savoy and Didier Houénoudé, representatives of museums such as Christian Greco (director of the Egyptian Museum of Turin) and Carolina Orsini (curator of the Archaeological and Ethnographic Collections of Mudec, Museum of Cultures in Milan), anthropologists and artists.
The discussion table brought together many professionals from different origins.
“Nobody is good people”, changing the saying that erroneously circulated and still circulates on Italian colonialism. The Italian campaigns in Africa were disastrous experiences that still pose countless questions to museum directors on how to exhibit certain artworks.
The debate on restitution has been going on for more than 40 years. Take for example the 1973 speech about this theme made by the president and future dictator of Zaire Mobutu Sese Seko at the United Nations in New York. After an initial favourable report from France in 1981, everything stopped and, on the contrary, there was a turnaround. Unfortunately, some board members of public cultural institutions disagreed on proceeding, giving a hand to those who considered the moral implications of the operations too dangerous.
In short, an attempt was made to avoid the emotional issue.
Now times are changed and the important thing is sharing the knowledge that belongs to mankind.
To do this one of the best methods could be bringing the contemporary art into play, involving artists first and foremost.
We need to use the contemporary artistic practics to reflect about our past as Grace Ndiritu, an Anglo-Kenyan artist, has done with different expressive media such as photography, painting and performance. She has created many projects of social practice involving refugees, migrants and indigenous groups. The issues She investigates are mainly related to the transformation of the contemporary world and to the impact of globalization. Artworks such as the “Healing The Museum” shamanic performance art series have been exhibited in many institutions worldwide.
Another interesting example is the works of the Troubled Archives artistic collective. The group is composed by Rokia Bamba, Brenda Bikoko, Loes Jacobs, Michael Murtaugh, Peggy Pierrot and Antje Van Wichelen.
Rokia Bamba and Antje van Wichelen brought into consideration a collection of colonial photographs from which they drew two particularly violent representations, elaborating them and creating a sound and film installation exhibited during “Everything Passes Except the Past” at Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Foundation.
Artistic strategies are a fundamental tool that can help the reflection process on postcolonial issues.
However, one question remains open: will socially and deeply committed, contemporary artists, work with realities characterized by such heavy past as the Humboldt Forum?