I grew up with historians – great believers in keeping things, because you never know when they could become key to telling a story. But these historians also spent most of their professional lives talking to people. Oral histories, unwritten narratives, and lived experience weave stories along with – and contradictory to – records kept in shelves, boxes and hard-drives.
I've been talking about archives and collections to many people over these past months – including artist, curator and forensic practitioner Kathryn Smith. Kathryn worked on Poisoned Pasts with Chandré Gould and Brian Rappert – a research project and exhibition that delved into the dark and elusive history of 'Project Coast', an apartheid-era chemical and biological warfare programme in South Africa. The evidence that remains from this secretive operation is partial and painful, and the stories so outrageous they feel like fiction. Unbelievable. Believable. Kathryn talked about the process of research and piecing together the exhibition: 'in Poisoned Pasts, deciding which parts of the story are salient and why is a bit like trying to colour in a shape, the outlines of which keep shifting.'(1) The truth is slippery. A story needs telling, but it is never a singular story.
We talked about gaining access to institutional archives, who has this access, and the time to search and make sense of what you find. Interrogating our own position as artists / researchers, Kathryn used the term 'privileged disclosure'. What do you find, what do you reveal and who is it for? Considering my own subjectivity in relation to my research is essential. As Donna Haraway powerfully puts it: 'Vision is always a question of the power to see—and perhaps of the violence implicit in our visualizing practices. With whose blood were my eyes crafted?'(2)
Any archive is incomplete, a fiction rather than a truth. And archives are not stable, they are in-the-making; 'always already being refigured'(3). But the historical collections of many European museums and academic institutions are inevitably built on objects, images and recordings obtained through the violence of colonialism; constructing, normalising and affirming world views rooted in racism and exploitation. Important work is being done on the impossible but necessary task of decolonising these spaces – alongside projects that reclaim appropriated cultures and create alternative archives – by groups including Museum Detox, Decolonising the Archive, the curatorial team behind The Past is Now exhibition at Birmingham Museum, the long-established Black Cultural Archive, and an inspiring range of activists, educators, artists and collectives.
In Berlin I was lucky to meet artist Anguezomo Nathalie Mba Bikoro, and see her exhibition On the Ruins of Paradise (2017). This installation takes the form of an film set in-progress: props, texts, audio and images bring a complex set of narratives into conversation. Drawing on German cinema from the 1930s–40s, and its representation of 'exotic' colonies and bodies, the installation brings together six female ghosts: women whose voices and stories entangle against the backdrop of German colonialism, cinema, fantasy, fictionalised locations and the incredible horror of real African actors murdered live on set (4). The audience are invited to intervene in the exhibition – moving objects and adding text to an unfinished story. Bikoro writes of the project:
'The investigation conducts a different story of history, where the voices of women who were edited out of Germany’s world cultures reclaim their space through tools of resistance and anti-colonial positions... This archive is that story told by the women of histories silenced or erased, meeting each other in different parts of the world (Namibia; Berlin; Cameroon; Tanzania; Paris). They describe landscapes, invent names of exotic plants and places, edit scripts together to rewrite the history of world culture invented and legitimised by an oppressive and racist system over their own truths. Through their writing and conversations to each other they reveal clear narratives on the experiences of coloniality in different places; the politics of race, class & gender; the intersections of migration and womanhood; the limit of universal sisterhood in a patriarchal system. Ironically their voices narrate episodes of everyday racism spanning over a century together.'
Later, talking to Nathalie about the way she uses archives, I am struck by a point she makes about the importance of carrying your own fictions into archives. You bring your own stories and embodied knowledge to meet the material , seeing, hearing and making connections that might be invisible to others.
The space that an artwork, exhibition, or workshop (at best) opens up can offer these fragments from archives, contradictory stories, uncertain images, overheard and unheard snippets, to a fresh set of eyes and ears to make connections and weave together another version of history, another version of now.
References & links:
(1) The Poisoned Pasts exhibition catalogue is available at: http://www.poisonedpasts.co.za/
(2) Refiguring the Archive (2002), New Africa Books. Editors: Hamilton, C., Harris, V., Pickover, M., Reid, G., Saleh, R., Taylor, J.
(3) Donna Haraway, Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective (Feminist Studies 14). Quoted in Joseph Dumit: Writing the Implosion: Teaching the World One Thing at a Time: https://culanth.org/articles/741-writing-the-implosion-teaching-the-world-one
(4) For more on this extraordinary, horrific story, and a full description of Anguezomo Nathalie Mba Bikoro's installation On the Ruins of Paradise: http://www.anguezomo-bikoro.com/on-the-ruins-of-paradise.html
Museum Detox: https://museumdetox.wordpress.com
Black Cultural Archives: https://blackculturalarchives.org
Decolonising the Archive: http://www.decolonisingthearchive.com
The Museum Will Not Be Decolonised - Sumaya Kassim's insighful reflections on co-curating The Past is Now at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery:
My recent research for the 'Urban Antibodies' project in the Wellcome Library and Boots Archive has been supported through a Wellcome Research Bursary.