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Just being there, to take care that the same pain is not inflicted again

A conversation between Nanette Snoep, Carla de Andrade Hurst and Aurora Rodonò, respectively Director and Diversity Managers at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne, facilitated by Marian Nur Goni

This discussion was carried out on January 19, 2021. Since then much has happened in the international museum landscape in general and at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum (RJM) in particular (RJM), especially regarding the restitution debate and the transfer of property over the Benin bronzes held in German collections to Nigeria, which also involves the RJM. Just to name but a few projects, the museum has recently inaugurated a space within its permanent exhibition entitled ‘I miss you’ conceived as a space to mourn and to heal, and launched the project ‘Leaky Archives’ around its collection database, questioning its voids, its racial classifications, the specific of ethnological knowledge that it encapsulates, and how it could embrace other kinds of knowledge, without the purpose of accumulating, in order “to build an intersectional community”. Both projects, their gestures and the vocabulary employed to express what they mean to do, clearly state a stance which is by no means neutral and significantly contribute to transforming how we think about a (ethnographic) museum and, most importantly, what it can do today.

While much is undergoing and is being experimented at this museum since we talked, the points made and the questions asked during this conversation held at distance (while the museum was closed because of Covid19) remain more than relevant. They are mainly directed at addressing how to transform the “monoculture” (as Clémentine Deliss calls it1) and the “monologue” (as Nanette Snoep calls it2) of the ethnographic museum reconnecting it to today’s urgent need of social justice, while also frontally addressing how to combat present-day racism whose colonial roots also sustained the creation and the development of the museum.

Nanette Snoep: ‘Resist! The Art of Resistance’ is an experimental exhibition, a platform about five hundred years of anti-colonial resistance in the Global South. ‘Resist!’ is a process, a growing story, a never ending process. It is an exhibition about unheard narratives of colonial violence and systematic oppression, about various strategies of resistance as well as about resilience. ‘Resist!’ is therefore against the “single story” and tries to turn the narrative and offer a platform for multiple stories and histories. It has resulted into a labyrinth of voices, contemporary artworks, historical objects from our collection, all fragments of resistance. ‘Resist!’ has the aim to reveal, reverse, rewrite and to reinterpret the colonial narrative. Step by step. Beyond this, it also reveals somehow the resistance within the museum landscape. Because the way such museums function until now looks more like a monologue than a dialogue.

Since I became director of this museum in 2019, I have been trying to implement a decolonising programme. So, instead of making an exhibition about colonial history from a European perspective, I found it important to speak about the resistance against colonialism in order to make it more understandable for a broad audience what colonization means and what colonial violence does to people. We speak perhaps a lot about decolonisation but we have not understood at all what colonialism really means. I think it is very important for European white visitors to make aware of the daily and ongoing violence of colonization and to reveal that from the very first day of colonization, there has been resistance. So this platform is at the same time also a way to empower discriminated people.

We have many objects in our collection that also tell anti-colonial struggles. Many objects have been looted by colonial armies when there was resistance. Take the ‘Benin bronzes’ for example. We just speak about the objects but we seldom speak about the people who have been killed by British soldiers and why and how this resistance against Great Britain took place. That’s why ‘Resist!’ is also an opportunity to show the collection through a different lens.

For me, this exhibition is just the beginning of an ongoing process. It is a new method, a new tool, it is a « playground » and a « battleground » at the same time. It enables to rethink history and place the Global South in the centre.

So, here, I am just the director, a facilitator and my role will just be the one who has to wide open the museum doors and in a sustainable manner. It is an attempt to rethink and to transform the museum from a hegemonic and white institution deeply rooted in the colonial past into a multifocal democratic and decolonised platform. Unfortunately, the difficulty now is that decolonisation has become a kind of buzz word: We are all speaking about restitution, we are all transparent. We are all anti-racists. We are all for Black Lives Matter. We all « rethink », we all « unlearn », we all « decolonise ». I feel myself sometimes an outsider as a director in this museum landscape, yet we all use the same words and terms, but we think very differently. So let’s stay very humble. ‘Resist!’ is just trying to create a space for decolonial thought. This method has to be understood as not being decolonisation itself but generating the potential for decolonisation.

For example, in the exhibition, we show the whole collection of the Benin bronzes in an autonomous space curated by Peju Layiwola, a Nigerian art historian, artist and grand-daughter of the King Akenzua II of the Benin kingdom. She tells the story and the decades of struggles for restitution and what Benin Bronzes mean to Nigerians. We have ninety-six Benin bronzes in our collection, only three were shown in the permanent exhibition, all the others were, until 2020, in our storages. Now we are showing all of them for the first time and in the same manner as when they were stored. The intention of this autonomous space which is called Benin 1897 is also to make African communities in Cologne aware of the presence of this cultural heritage in order to invite them to debate with us. As we are talking [January 2021], there haven’t been real demonstrations until now. At the moment, this is my problem as white director. I want to wake up people because I do not have enough protests! [laugh]. At the same time, I am trying to sensibilize local politics. I have a seven-year contract. My hope is that during my tenure at the museum I will have enabled something, opening doors, and that someone who is directly concerned by questions of coloniality and racism, takes my place. My aim is that we will have in the museum plenty of autonomous spaces and events curated by people from the Global South or by diasporic communities here in Germany, that our role is just to give money and equipment. That is my goal as director, but it is a very difficult one. That’s the idea behind the ‘It’s Yours’ rooms in ‘Resist!’ or the method of the « carte blanche » in the context of the exhibition ‘Megalopolis. Voices from Kinshasa’ that I organized in 2018 when I was director of the Grassi Museum in Leipzig.

But it is not only about programmes, it is also about structures which have to be changed. That is why I try to diversify and to internationalize the team and hire people of different backgrounds. Aurora and Carla are one of those I have hired since 2019 and who are the so-called ‘Diversity Managers’ at the RJM. This is a programme which is funded by the Kulturstiftung des Bundes.

Aurora Rodonò: I think that one of our jobs could be to organize the struggle like street work, which is much more than academic or discursive work within a museum or all that is connected to ‘diversity’ in terms of marketing, ‘audience’, ‘development’. While listening to you Nanette, I was thinking: “Who knows, maybe the communities are already organizing themselves undercover. You don’t know” [laugh]. And maybe our job could be to help organize these struggles, to help to open the doors of museums in a different sense, in the sense of concrete activist and political work, but also in that sense of dismantling the tools, the structures, helping to promote other narratives.

This is how I understand my job as a diversity manager, much more than in that sense of ‘multiculturalism’ who says “We need different audiences today. We have a salsa party today. We invite the Vietnamese community tomorrow”. No! It is really about changing the structures and dismantling the tools and the narratives. In this sense we can be helpful but, for sure, we cannot do this work alone. So, diversity in the sense of decolonizing, of doing anti-racist work and fighting for social justice, it is not a department. It is not a job for itself. It is a perspective which you only can implement if everybody is in. Nanette, you brought so many other people who also have this perspective. I think only if many people work on the struggle, we can change something. It’s not like a tool, a ‘diversity tool’ to put it in the museum and then it works: it is a practice. It is a practice that comes through workshops, sensitisation workshops, changing the programme and asking this little question: “Who speaks?” So what we are trying with the ‘Resist!’ exhibition is to turn the gaze upside down and to open a space for marginalized people—I don’t want to say ‘to give a space’—but really to open the doors so that other people can raise their voices, and speak for themselves.

Actually, opening the doors, bringing another spirit, talking about racism—which has not been like this forever, neither in museums nor in academia—is already something. As you said, this is the beginning, many people don’t like to speak about racism, they consider diversity as something different, more in this term of marketing, “I want all the audiences here”, so everybody is happy. So it’s not only about inviting everybody to the party, but to plan the party together and to create a space where people feel safe and welcomed. It’s about having real collaborations where people can really be engaged and work together on the contents.

Carla de Andrade Hurst:Yes, just being there. Marian, you asked us why we applied for this position and what prepared us to be there. Actually, I think it is already a little revolution in this museum to have us there. I am talking of the three of us, because they did not have anybody other than white Germans before as directors or on the academic level. If this is a fight against racism and for decolonisation, we have to do it from the top and from the bottom. That is why it is so good to have you here, Nanette, because we are talking about power gates and power plays, and this lobby is really important, to have power, to have a say and a word. But I really think of this bottom too: sometimes it is important just to be there. In this sense, I am ‘diverse’ and also I applied because I knew that [that I am seen as such]; it is the same like with racism: we have no races anymore, but we have racism, we have not overcome that yet. The same with diversity. I am German, I live and I pay my taxes here but I am considered in this context as a ‘diverse’ person, because I represent this diversity, and I have to in a way but, on the long term, I would like to come to a more self conscious level, so that we don’t have to call it ‘diverse’ and ‘diversity management’ anymore, but we are just there.

This changes already, power positions change. The Rautenstrauch-Joest museum had applied for this position before Nanette came as a director. The museum was very happy to have this little, colorful diversity flag in front of the museum. This is a programme by the Federal Arts Council: they installed ‘diversity managers’, or ‘agents’ as they say, in thirty-nine institutions all over Germany, in libraries, theaters, music schools and museums. It is a society-wide topic. So we are just one example. They say these places have to be diversified but the time has come that we go deeper into these topics because we have discussed them for decades now. Not a lot has changed, the same as for restitution: there was a high-level discussion in the ‘70s in the whole society, but officials have all denied, they have rejected all the requests, and now we are starting again, with little change. With racism and decolonisation, it is the same. So, I am really thinking about how we can break this ‘transformism’: on the surface, they have this little diversity flag but nothing changes.

I myself have to cope with this schizophrenic situation in the museum, and it is really hurtful. It is painful. Every day. Nanette recently said that “things have changed already.” If I am positive—and I am not positive every day [laugh]—I can see in the whole society that perhaps we are now more at the point that we go into the pain. Not only for us, as people of color or as black people, but also for the whole society. What is this pain? There are perhaps more people coming on stage that are really helping and giving tools on how we can talk with more depth, but we have to talk about it now, we cannot just go over it again.

Aurora Rodonò: Everything is said, everything is written. We have the knowledge, how to do it, now we really need to go into action. Carla, you spoke about the hurt. This for me means to organize settings which have a lot to do with hospitality, to really be empathetic with this hurt and to try to understand what it maybe could mean to feel this hurt. I think this has different layers, it involves emotional and political work. If we do this work together but the City of Cologne for example or other players around don’t go through this process, we won’t do anything. Let me give you a little example. We write press releases and we use a certain terminology critical of discrimination. ​​But it has happened that precisely this vocabulary has been taken out again because it is new or does not appear to be receptive.

This means that unless everyone within the system commits, there will be no radical, structural change. As Carla is saying, it is from the bottom, it is a practice through the relationships, through the programme. But that is also something you really have to talk about and work a lot on a political level.

Nanette Snoep: I just want to add something to what you said. Just being here in the museum as Person of Color is something very crucial, particularly in German institutions that are mostly white. Let’s take the example of the quai Branly Museum in Paris. Last year Emmanuel Kasarhérou was appointed president at the quai Branly museum. It is very symbolic to have a director of a French national museum coming from a father from New Caledonia, to be a POC person and to lead one of the biggest institutions in Europe in the ethnographic museum field. Wayne Modest, from Jamaica, will become Director of Content of the four Dutch museums of World cultures. This has happened in one single year. Everyday we hear about new appointments of important Black curators and directors of cultural institutions in the United States. This is a real shift in the museum world.

I completely understand you, Carla, when you speak about restitution issues, anti-racist and ‘diversity’ actions in the Seventies. But this is a highly symbolic thing which is happening in the museum landscape. This was just unimaginable ten years ago. I think there is hope. I just wanted to say that, to give us a little bit of strength!

Aurora Rodonò: I think this is for sure one of the tools. It is not the solution—it is not only because the people are there that everything changes—but it makes a difference. I know it from the film industry in Britain for example where they have ‘Diversity Standards’. For sure, if the world was a safe place for everybody, we would not need to impose it, but it is not like this: the world is structured in a racist way, so we still need it. But if there are curators, directors, people who have an embodied knowledge coming from former colonized countries or because they have engaged with this heritage and then have this knowledge, the programme will also change and this makes a huge difference.

Carla de Andrade Hurst: Indeed. The thing is that the three of us bring a lot of connections, we are also not working anymore in this old-fashioned idea of ‘community work’, but we are connected to artists or activists of color in the field that are already on their way. Because we cannot do everything. We are in a city council institution, don’t forget about that, so we bring people in and our community work is actually more of that kind. So, sensibilization works alongside opening the door as Nanette says.

Aurora Rodonò: What is also true is that structures are made by people. It’s not the structure itself, but it is always people who change the world. My background is from migration studies, from academic and activist practices, because I have always thought they need to go together. I applied for this position because I have this interest in thinking about this continuity of colonialism. It is not that we have overcome colonialism, it is still persistent. We can see it in the migration regime, in everyday racism. So the job could be, in terms of decolonization and diversification, to undo this logic of colonialism, which is racism until today. For me, it would be really interesting to work on a self-reflexive perspective of Europe. For example, there had been a European collection in this museum, but in the Nazi period, this collection was brought to Berlin because “we are not the others”. So we do not have to think about the history of Europe. I think one task for the ethnographic museum could really be to think about colonialism and imperialism in a self-reflexive critical sense, what was the history of the ones who did this violence. We need to speak about it, and not only to speak about “the others”, not only to “open the doors” for the others, but also to look at ourselves as Europeans who produced violence; actually people do not like to speak a lot about that. One mantra is: “We don’t produce otherness. We went there because we are so curious. That’s our discipline. It’s called research, ethnographic research.”

Marian Nur Goni: In France too, from the late ‘30s, there were ethnographic museums and popular art museums as separate epistemological spaces. So perhaps part of the work is also to reconnect things that have been, in the process, hierarchically categorized and put in distinct boxes. But I wanted to go back to what you were saying, Carla, about the pain that this work brings along. I was thinking about the International Inventories Programme project3, which was embedded in power relations, but we didn’t speak so much about those working inwards, because I guess it would bring conflicts that would in turn jeopardize the collective effort, because it’s… [looking for her words]

Carla de Andrade Hurst: Risky! Talking about our backgrounds, thirty years ago, I started to work at the Initiative of Black Germans.4 Honestly, this was also a disillusion for me, not because of itself, but because we lost a lot of people in this community we had in the whole Germany, we had a lot of people suiciding themselves. So many people died much too early because of sicknesses, most probably because of traumatization. This is one effect of racism—what it does to people— and sometimes it is too painful to talk about it, yet we have to talk about it because if we do not think about methods of awareness and healing, we will get lost in this thing. Then a museum will put a second diversity flag in front of their door, but we will be left behind, again. We experienced that too much. I am really serious because I do not want to be left behind again. You know, people make their PhDs and whatnot with post-colonial studies, but we are left behind very often.

So, perhaps, I am only there to take care of that, because I am into my people, into healing, to take care that the same pain is not inflicted again. I do not know whether this is the best position in the museum to be, to take care of that, but I try. This is much too hurtful and sometimes we also have to protect ourselves. We work on these academic levels and such, and we can discuss about it, but that is not all about it. It is also about physical, mental and psychological healing.

I love the ‘Resist!’ exhibition, I stayed a lot of time in the last room where Ayrson Heráclito, the Brazilian artist and his team cleaned two spots of slave trade history in the video installation ‘Sacudimentos/The Shakings’. In ‘O Sacudimento da Maison des Esclaves em Gorée’, an island in Senegal where to be enslaved people stayed before going on the ships and in ‘O Sacudimento da Casa da Torre’, a place in Bahia, Brazil, where the arriving enslaved people were administered, Heráclito and team cleaned the places with sacred herbs in a ritual. It was good for me, I stayed there for ages. I needed that dark room. And then cleaning, just this cleaning, this movement.

In the ‘RESIST!’ exhibition, we have an ‘awareness mediation’ concept and we have some trainers for that. This concept consists of mediation as a curatorial project in its own right, awareness as a genuine component of the exhibition. It means brainstorming and conceptualizing with local, national and international experts on awareness and participatory mediation formats. Hence, a call for and selection of livespeakers BiPoC, allies, activists of diverse intersectional biographies with expertise in postcolonial theories, diversity sensitivity, critique of racism, art and mediation methods. This involves a training of the livespeakers and the in-house mediation team of the museum service on awareness, methods of art mediation, introduction to colonialism and history of resistance. This brings to racism- and discrimination-sensitive guided exhibition tours by livespeakers and mediation team.

So, we went through the exhibition together looking for trigger points. We were all in one of the ‘It’s Yours’ rooms, the one about Namibia and all of us, whites and blacks, were so touched, and horrified. It is hard to see, again and again, dead black bodies, hanged black parties and beheaded black bodies. I do not want to see it anymore. I do not want to see it every day. I said recently that I’ll be so glad when this exhibition is over and we can talk about global love! [laughs] because sometimes it is too much for me. I am a friend of trigger warnings because I know there are other people like me. Would I talk about the things differently? I do not know. It is up to the artists, and that is fine. This is their right to do so, but for all of us standing in it, we were a bit out of order.

Nanette Snoep: We spoke about opening the doors. In this context, we invited two Namibian activists, Esther Utjiua Muinjangue and Ida Hoffmann from Namibia, to speak about their battle for recognition and reparation of the genocide of the Nama and Herero people. In this room, they show very violent pictures. In ‘Resist!’ we do not actually show really violent pictures, in order to avoid retraumatizing specific visitors, but in this autonomous room curated by Esther and Ida, they decided to show such pictures. Here really lies the difficulty, the core of the problem: how to speak about violence and trauma without retraumatizing?

Carla de Andrade Hurst: When I spoke about those reactions, it was not about them not showing those images, but we have to be aware of that. With the trainers, we were talking about the preparation before and after the visit, to prepare people to go in but also when they come out to somehow calm them down, healing is a too big word, something along this line, because I want to know how people come out of this experience.

I said before that we go into more depth now. We have to be aware of those reactions, and dare to speak about it. And then if possible, also offer methods and tools to comfort.

Marian Nur Goni: Perhaps one of the major complexities is how you, on one side, raise awareness among people who do not have this knowledge at all and learn the thing more or less for the first time while, on the other side, within the same space, take care of the people who live or have themselves a lived or an embodied experience of those traumatic experiences or of their legacies. How do you do that?

Aurora Rodonò: I was thinking of a sort of ambivalence. Why would people who have been, and still often are, oppressed and racialized go into a violent space? This is absurd. At the same time, I totally understand the point to say: “If we leave it to the others, to the white Europeans, we are left behind and they have the power to speak about our history”. As a consequence that would mean for me to say: “Okay, we all need to leave, Nanette, I and others. But this somehow is a bit in opposition to a sort of relational ethics which says: “Let’s work together on this healing process” which I believe a lot. I think it is really ambivalent because people whose families have experienced colonialism and still face oppression have the knowledge, they do not need these pictures. So, I am asking myself: “Is the ethnographical museum really the right place for this healing, why don’t you do it outside and empower yourself, your community, somewhere else?” But then others will make their careers writing about the post-colonial and you are not part of it. So, this is really schizophrenic, isn’t it?

Carla de Andrade Hurst: It is. But actually I do not think it is not our task to lift up all these paradoxes because it is too big, it involves the whole society. I mean, we can open doors, we can open spaces to get into dialogue, safe spaces for empowerment, but we cannot lift that schizophrenia. I am not asking myself to do so. But I am very aware that I live in this ambiguity or paradox. Sometimes, it overwhelms me and sometimes I try to find ways to somehow come to terms with it.

Aurora Rodonò: I can totally feel you and I understand when you say that theory reproduces, again, violence, and it is very distant. This is my field. And I am trying in academia to read all these books, Frantz Fanon, bell hooks and many others. In the academia where I work, they just started to think outside the so-called canon. I think of myself as an ally. This is where I would like to start to work. So, even if we have very different experiences in terms of racism, I would love to work on what is common and what solidarity could mean, even if there are all these differences, because I very much believe in solidarity, otherwise we need to close!

Nanette Snoep: Actually I think here we are right at the core, we just needed those two hours and now it becomes interesting! What can we do? How to deal with the pain and those colonial wounds and the responsibilities which go with those?

NOTES

1The Metabolic Museum (Berlin, Hatje Cantz, 2020) See the review of her book in this issue by Alexandre Girard-Muscagorry.

2See Nanette Snoep, “De la conServation à la conVersation. Le pari de la carte blanche”, Multitudes, n. 78, 2020, pp. 198-202.

3This is a project that I helped to design as part of the SHIFT collective, with colleagues from The Nest Collective and the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi. The core of the project sought to set up a database of Kenyan objects held in museums outside Kenya. The Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum was a close partner of the project.

4In German: Initiative Schwarzer Menschen in Deutschland (ISD). The Initiative started in 1986, see: https://isdonline.de/.

Carla de Andrade Hurst has been employed as a Diversity Manager in the 360° Programme of the Federal Cultural Foundation (KSB) at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne since 2019. She previously worked at medica mondiale e.V., for women’s rights worldwide in the field of trauma and as a field officer for West Africa; at the Academy of the Arts of the World, Cologne she was engaged as production manager. As a contemporary dancer and dramaturge, she was on the road for dance companies in Germany and Venezuela for several years. Carla de Andrade Hurst holds a Master of Arts in Theatre, Film and Television Studies / Portuguese Romanistic Studies / Pedagogy and is a trained stage dancer for ballet, modern and contemporary dance.

Aurora Rodonò, Diversity Manager (RJM Cologne) and freelance cultural and educational worker, Lecturer; previously research assistant at the Universities of Düsseldorf and Cologne; project manager at the Academy of the Arts of the World (Cologne); research assistant in the research and exhibition project “Projekt Migration” (Cologne 2005). In May 2017 she was active in the tribunal “Unraveling the NSU-Complex” in Cologne, where struggles against racism from the guest worker period until today were brought together. In her academic and curatorial practice she combines art, science and activism. Various publications on Italian migration history and German and Italian Migrant Cinema.

Nanette Snoep