Looking history in the eye

by Hamady Bocoum

Guilt (Issue II/2019)

Meanwhile, its impacts on contemporary life continue to such an extent that it would be naïve not to face them head on. In the context of subordination, the continent, after having been stripped of its population and put to forced labour following colonization, experienced an unprecedented level of cultural aggression. From wars to desecrations to acquisitions and dubious donations, all means have been used to consecrate memories.  

And within this context, important, and currently contentious collections, were amassed, especially in the public institutions of the former colonial powers. These so-called ethnographic objects have subsequently been reinterpreted from the Western point of view. Often seen as manifestations of African art, which is something they have never been. Many exhibitions were created, with pieces, taken out of their original context, being displayed in cabinets or rearranged in installations, highlighting their supposed exotic nature. These exhibitions are continuations of the invention of the savage that was at the heart of the numerous colonial exhibitions in the Western world. In colonial exhibitions, the colonized peoples were presented like zoo animals to satisfy the curiosity of the inhabitants of the metropolises. Paris in 1931 was the site of one of the largest colonial exhibitions in history.       

But, in the light of recent developments, we must welcome the wind of change that is blowing through European museums, despite the resistance of some gallery owners and certain major museums. African objects in exile are declared part of the cultural heritage of Africa, restitution is being considered, and the reinterpretation of objects in situ takes place while waiting for inevitable restitutions. French President Emmanuel Macron’s voicing of his commitment to the restitution of African cultural artifacts has triggered numerous debates. There can no longer be any doubt that we have entered a new chapter which, I hope, will put an end to the notion of an exotic Africa.            

To give meaning to this renewal we must revisit our museological paradigms, including the ones on which there is a general consensus. In article 3 (Definition of Terms) of the statutes of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), the museum is defined as “a permanent, non-profit institution serving society and its development, open to the public, acquiring, conserving, studying, exposing and transmitting the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of humanity and of its environment for the purposes of study, education and enjoyment “. This wide-reaching ambition unfortunately does not always correspond to reality. Museums also convey messages of otherness and those dedicated to non-Western cultures have great difficulty in getting out of the ethnographic mold.
From the African point of view, the reframing of the discourse requires some breaks with museological tradition. In the initial stages of considering the concept of the Museum of Black Civilizations (MCN) in Dakar, we defined what it should not be: neither ethnographic, nor anthropological, nor subordinate nor chromatic. The MCN has a clear purpose in supporting the theme of Africa as the cradle of humanity, the great stages of the anthropogenesis and of the conquest of the world by the Homo species from Africa.

This museum, which is firmly located in our present world, will also be a space of study and production of knowledge on the black world in a global reality. At the same time, we have given up on the idea of a permanent exhibition because it would be reductive to want to present a path representative of the civilizations of the black world in a single exhibition.  

To finish, let me air a feeling which is frequently considered to be tantamount to an accusation: we must first accept that there are several discourses in the Western world, even including claims that Africa has yet to enter into history. There are also those who condescendingly assume that the vast majority of African institutions do not have the means to properly conserve the objects that would be returned, at best a flimsy excuse not to make any restitutions. Finally, there is a growing chorus of voices, more anguished than guilty, who explore the meandering paths of reinterpretation and restitution. Or, to put it more prosaically: We have to face the past and draw our conclusions.           

In fact, if we all accept that the wars of conquest and colonization were veritable crimes against humanity with mass killings, forced labor and degradation, then we will be able to study the African collections in Europe with a greater sense of calm. Perhaps this will no longer be a question of accusation but of introspection, homing in on a painful story and perhaps finding a new humanism. Africa has lost cultural property. It has been looted in every domain and colossal fortunes have been amassed in the Western world. The new humanism must not overlook this.

translated by Caroline Härdter

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