Art as Colonial Contact Zone
Troubled Encounters in Kirchner and Nolde: Expressionism, Colonialism
by Paul Basu
Troubled Encounters in Kirchner and Nolde: Expressionism, Colonialism
by Paul Basu
Kirchner and Nolde: Expressionism, Colonialism (Stedelijk Museum, September 4 to December 5, 2021) is a troubling exhibition. Perhaps all good exhibitions are. Trouble, as Donna J. Haraway has noted, is an interesting word: to trouble is “to stir up”, “to make cloudy”, “to disturb”. We are likely to agree with Haraway when she writes that we live in “disturbing times, mixed-up times”, times “overflowing with both pain and joy”. Kirchner and Nolde reminds us that this is not a new condition. The world has often been troubled. The exhibition and the art with which it engages speak of a mixed-up time of colonial contact: a time of joy (for some), when the movement of people and things between the “colonial periphery” and “metropolitan core” inspired Europe’s avant-garde to create exuberant new artworks and experiment with carefree lifestyles that challenged bourgeois norms. That freedom from care also enabled individuals such as Kirchner and Nolde to extract from others what they desired. Like many others of their time, they were seemingly untroubled by the pain inflicted on those whose worlds they appropriated.
An argument of the exhibition is that German Expressionism, as exemplified in Kirchner’s and Nolde’s work, was an art movement of the colonial “contact zone”. The concept of the contact zone has often been used, especially in museum contexts, to question the stark separation of the world of the “colonizer” from that of the “colonized” and focus instead on cross-cultural interchange, dialog, and mutual borrowings. As Mary Louise Pratt, who coined the term, wrote in Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation: the contact zone is “the space of imperial encounters, the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations”. Such a “‘contact’ perspective emphasizes how subjects get constituted in and by their relations to each other. It treats the relations among colonizers and colonized … not in terms of separateness, but in terms of co-presence, interaction, interlocking understandings and practices.”
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the ethnographic museum, the colonial exposition and the Völkerschau (Human Zoo), as well as the possibilities afforded by travel between colonial centers and peripheries, provided spaces for imperial encounters. These were the contact zones sought out, consumed, and inhabited by the likes of Kirchner and Nolde. Through their art they took possession of the bodies and material cultures of others, and, in the case of Kirchner, also coopted them into the fantastical domain of the studio, where the artist was free to behave without responsibility.
One could argue that Kirchner and Nolde is an art historical exhibition in the tradition of William Rubin’s 1984 Museum of Modern Art show in New York “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art, which juxtaposed works of modern art “with specific tribal objects that the artists owned or knew from local museums”, and which claimed to explore the supposed “affinities [between] the tribal and the modern”. “Primitivism” was robustly critiqued by James Clifford in his book The Predicament of Culture, a collection of essays that sought to trouble ethnographic authority and expose the continuing coloniality of anthropological and art historical representational practices. In particular, Clifford drew attention to the Eurocentrism of the exhibition and problematized its “allegory of affinity”: “The affinities shown at MOMA are all on modernist terms”, he wrote. “The great modernist ‘pioneers’ (and their museum) are shown promoting formerly despised tribal ‘fetishes’ or mere ethnographic ‘specimens’ to the status of high art and in the process discovering new dimensions of their (‘our’) creative potential”. Clifford posed the question: “Could the story of this intercultural encounter be told differently?”
Dorthe Aagesen and Beatrice von Bormann, the curators of Kirchner and Nolde, are, of course, mindful of this critique. Their exhibition is staged in an era of decolonial activism, in which younger audiences especially are skeptical of claims of “intercultural encounter” and sensitized to the racialized power inequalities that such framings disguise. As Wayne Modest, director of content for the Dutch Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen remarks in a short video that prefaces the exhibition, visitors enter Kirchner and Nolde with a “criticality”. They enter it knowing they are going to critique the hierarchical distinctions between “art” and “ethnography”, between “the civilized” and “the primitive”, between “the West” and “the Rest” that are unavoidably reproduced in the juxtapositions between Kirchner’s and Nolde’s works and the exotic sources that they took possession of and incorporated into their Expressionist aesthetic.
So how do Aagesen and Von Bormann tell this story of “intercultural encounter” differently? Partly, by not telling, but rather presencing the troubling context of Kirchner’s and Nolde’s art, thereby inviting a knowing audience to interrogate the nature of the “co-presence, interaction and interlocking understandings and practices” of this contact zone. What is laid bare in the judicious curation of paintings, sculptures, photographs, documents, texts, as well as the voices of filmed commentators, is what Robin Boast has described as “the dark underbelly of the contact zone”. Placed into its colonial context, Kirchner and Nolde’s artworks speak not of reciprocity and exchange, not even of cultures meeting, clashing, and grappling with each other. Rather, here, art itself constitutes a manifestation of the radical power inequalities of an intercultural encounter in which different forms of violence and appropriation were commonplace.
Museum encounters. Clockwise from top left: unrecorded artist, Kingdom of Benin, Nigeria, Relief of Royal Horn Player, 16th-17th century, brass, 30 x 18 cm, Museum für Völkerkunde Dresden, Inv.-Nr. 16090, photo by Eva Winkler, ©Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden; Ernest Ludwig Kirchner, Letter from Dresden to Erich Heckel and Max Pechstein in Berlin, March 31, 1910, ink on paper, 28.5 x 22.4 cm, SHMH-Altonaer Museum, Inv.-Nr. 1964-289,1; unrecorded artist, Figure with Child, Buma People, Democratic Republic of Congo, before 1892, wood, 33 x 9 x 8 cm, Museum für Völkerkunde Dresden, Inv.-Nr. 19779, photo by Eva Winkler, ©Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden; Ernest Ludwig Kirchner, Letter from Dresden to Erich Heckel and Max Pechstein in Berlin, March 31, 1910, ink on paper, 28.5 x 22.4 cm, SHMH-Altonaer Museum, Inv.-Nr. 1964-289,3.
One should guard against assuming victimhood or lack of agency on the part of the colonized. Pratt’s concept of the contact zone was intended precisely to complicate a simplistic binary between the oppressor and the oppressed. In his important book Entangled Objects, Nicholas Thomas, for example, recognizes the agency of the colonized in the “indigenous appropriation of European things”, as well as that of the colonizer in the “European appropriation of indigenous things”. The exact conditions under which the objects that Kirchner and Nolde encountered in the ethnographic museums of Dresden and Berlin were acquired is in most cases unknown. It is likely that they were subject to various “historical forms of dispossession”, indexing a spectrum of power-inflected colonial relations: some, like the bronze relief panel of a horn player from Benin City, were looted amidst the violence of military conquest, others were probably procured during “exploratory missions and scientific raids”, others still were likely traded on the open market. In their influential report on the Restitution of African Cultural Heritage, Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy argue that these various “gestures of appropriation” together constitute “an annexation of cultural heritage” that was not peripheral to the colonial enterprise, but at its very heart. The Expressionists’ taking aesthetic possession of these masks, sculpted figures, and other artworks, divorced from their cultural contexts, represents a kind of secondary appropriation: a second dispossession.
Left: Emile Nolde, Figur und Maske, 1911, oil on canvas, 78 x 48 cm, Depositum der Freunde des Kunstmuseums Basel 1947, Kunstmuseum Basel, Inv.- Nr. 1958, ©Nolde Stiftung Seebüll. Right: Emil Nolde, Exotische Figuren, 1912, oil on canvas, 70 x 57 cm, Brücke-Museum, Berlin, ©Nolde Stiftung Seebüll.
While, in other work, I have emphasized “the inbetweenness of things” in the colonial contact zone, including the multidirectional paths of influence and appropriation, judging from the evidence presented in Aagesen and Von Bormann’s exhibition, it is hard not to conclude that Kirchner and Nolde were indeed “essentially colonizers in the domain of art”. What we learn most about in this encounter is a particular incarnation of the culture of colonialism. The exhibition unveils the extractive and exploitative coloniality of the early twentieth-century metropolitan milieu that shaped Kirchner’s and Nolde’s art, including the institutions and “entertainments” that gave them access to sources of inspiration for their aesthetic experiments.
Left: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, The artists Milly and Sam in Kirchner’s Atelier, Berliner Strasse 80, Dresden, 1910-11, original glass-plate negative, donation of the Estate of Ernest Ludwig Kirchner 2001, ©Kirchner Museum Davos. Right: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Portrait of Fränzi Fehrmann, 1909-1910, original glass-plate negative, donation of the Estate of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner 1992, ©Kirchner Museum Davos.
The predatory power inequalities in this domain of art operated across race, class, gender, and age. They are perhaps exposed most nakedly in two photographs taken in Kirchner’s studio not included in the exhibition but reproduced in the catalog. The first depicts the Black “circus artistes” Sam and Milli making their unclothed bodies available to Kirchner’s “artistic” gaze; the second conveys the startling vulnerability of nine-year-old Fränzi Fehrmann, subject of several of the Brücke group’s erotically charged paintings including Kirchner’s Nacktes Mädchen hinter Vorhang and Marcella und Fränzi im Studio. The fact that we know so little of the likes of Fränzi and, especially, Milli and Sam, compared with the celebrated artists who groomed them, only adds to the poignancy. Fragmentary though their stories are, their troubling presence, together with those of the many dislocated objects on display, displace from center stage the European artists and artworks that would conventionally dominate an exhibition on German Expressionism.
Exhibition view of Kirchner and Nolde: Expressionism. Colonialism, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 2021, photo by Gert-Jan van Rooij.
Exhibition view of Kirchner and Nolde: Expressionism. Colonialism, 2021, photo by Gert-Jan van Rooij, ©Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Left to right: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Fränzi mit Bogen und Akt, 1910, watercolor on paper, 45 x 35 cm. Brücke-Museum, Berlin; Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Hockender Mädchenakt, 1909-1910, ink on paper, 34 x 44 cm, Brücke-Museum, Berlin; Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s photograph of Fränzi Fehrmann and Peter, Dresden, 1910, photograph, 13 x 18 cm, donation of the Estate of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 2001, Kirchner Museum Davos; Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Nacktes Mädchen hinter Vorhang (Fränzi), 1910-1926, oil on canvas, 120 x 90 cm, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.
If many of the works displayed in Kirchner and Nolde evidence a familiar colonial hierarchization of “art” and “anthropology”, relegating non-Western art to the category of the “ethnographic”, there is a series of Nolde’s paintings in the exhibition that “mixes up” the categories of art and anthropology differently. This is the series of watercolor portraits the artist completed during his participation in the Medical-Demographic Expedition to German New Guinea in 1913–14. A larger selection of these were displayed—and displayed very differently—in the 2017 exhibition Nolde in der Südsee at Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig.
Left: Exhibition view of Nolde in der Südsee at Museumsinsel Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig. The grid display of Nolde’s watercolour portraits evokes the arrangement of anthropologists’ physical type portraits mounted in photograph albums, ©Museumsinsel Schloss Gottorf. Right: A page from one of the official photograph albums from Northcote Thomas’s anthropological survey of Igbo-speaking people of Southern Nigeria, 1910-13, ©National Archives, London, Inv.-Nr. CO1069/60.
The purpose of the expedition, which was organized by the German Colonial Office and led by medics Alfred Leber and Ludwig Külz, was to investigate the high mortality rate among colonized populations in Germany’s Pacific territories. This was a major concern for German economic interests in the region, which were dependent on sustaining a large indigenous labor force to work on its plantations and guano mines. It appears that Nolde and his wife, Ada, accompanied the expedition as guests and had to cover their own expenses. Their participation was only possible because of their friendship with Alfred Leber, who justified Nolde’s presence with the argument that he would lead the demographic aspects of the inquiry, including visually documenting the “racial characteristics” of the indigenous populations. Ada was engaged as the expedition photographer.
In her catalog essay, Rebekka Habermas contrasts the objective, scientific style of reporting of Leber and Külz, its “distant and neutral approach to the human objects of research”, with the “emotional” and “deeply involved” approach of Nolde. Habermas notes Nolde’s disappointment that the indigenous populations he encountered were no longer living as Urmenschen, in the original, natural state he had imagined. He found them instead adorned with such European appurtenances as hats, umbrellas, and trousers. It also became clear that the decline in the indigenous population was associated with contact with European culture in the form of its labor regimes, transmission of diseases, and consumption of imported alcohol. Such signs of European contact were, however, excluded from the paintings Nolde made during the expedition, creating what Habermas describes as a “strictly segregated, ‘exotic’ space—set apart from the colonial”. This exclusion of the colonial from the colonial contact zone in Nolde’s New Guinea artworks echoes that of his and Kirchner’s responses to the objects they encountered in the ethnographic museums of Germany. Again, Aagesen and Von Bormann’s strategy in the exhibition is to make this absent context present, and, in this section of Kirchner and Nolde, the chief way they achieve this is through the inclusion of Ada Nolde’s and other contemporaneous photographs in which the colonial infrastructure is visible. The objective lens of photography is in this way set up as a counterpoint to the subjective eye of the artist.
Juxtapositions of Nolde’s New Guinea artworks with contemporaneous photographs. Exhibition view of Kirchner and Nolde: Expressionism. Colonialism, 2021, photo by Gert-Jan van Rooij, ©Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Left to right: Emil Nolde, Jupualo, 1913-14, watercolour and India ink on paper, 47.4 x 34.9 cm, ©Nolde Stiftung Seebüll; Heinz von Sigriz, Plantation Cultivator of the New Guinea Company, 1912-1913, reproduction Photography Collection Museum Fünf Kontinente München; Emil Nolde, Familie, 1914, oil on canvas, 71 x 105 cm, ©Nolde Stiftung Seebüll.
Here, however, I want to trouble the distinction made between the scientific objectivism of photography as an instrument for documenting “anthropological truth” in the field and the artist’s freedom to express “emotional truths” through his painterly medium. In particular, I am interested in thinking of Nolde’s New Guinea watercolor portraits as a different kind of colonial contact zone, in which the early twentieth-century visual ecologies of anthropology and art are stirred up and made cloudy. This aesthetic “co-presence” also speaks to a broader paradox of the contact zone, in which indigenous people are regarded by Europeans both as inferior, exploitable bodies to be sacrificed, for instance, to Germany’s genocidal capitalist ventures, and simultaneously as ennobled Naturvölker, living more authentically as part of nature in contrast to the moral corruption of European industrial modernity. In his artwork, but not in his diary notes, Nolde suppressed the acknowledgment that European “civilization” had also corrupted the worlds of others. Invoking Allan Sekula’s classic essay, “The Body and the Archive”, I suggest that Nolde’s watercolor portraits, along with the anthropological photographs they relate to, manifest a “system of representation capable of functioning both honorifically and repressively”, and that this “double system” is also characteristic of the colonial contact zone.
Juxtaposing Emil Nolde’s New Guinea watercolour portraits with Northcote Thomas’s physical type photographs. Top left: Emil Nolde, Kopf eines Südsee-Insulaner, im Profil nach rechts, 1915, watercolour and ink on paper, 46.5 x 35 cm, ©Nolde Stiftung Seebüll. Top right: Emil Nolde, Südsee-Insulaner II, 1915, colour lithograph on wove paper, 43 x 33.3 cm, Brooklyn Museum, A. Augustus Healy Fund, Inv.-Nr. 53.254.3, ©Nolde Stiftung Seebüll. Bottom: Northcote Thomas’ full-face and profile physical type portrait, Kosobo, Aja-Eyube, present-day Delta State, Nigeria, 1909-10, ©Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge, Inv.-Nr. P.29218.NWT and P.29220.NWT.
To develop this argument, I’d like to juxtapose Nolde’s watercolor portraits with photographic portraits made by the British anthropologist Northcote Thomas in West Africa in the same period. Between 1909 and 1915, Thomas led a series of anthropological surveys in what were then the British Protectorates of Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Thomas’s approach to fieldwork in these surveys broadly followed the recommendations of the authoritative research handbook of the era, Notes and Queries on Anthropology. Notes and Queries included guidance on collecting ethnographic specimens, making phonograph recordings, and using photography to document both anatomical and ethnological data. Anthropological research at that time embraced what was termed “anthropography”, being “observations of an anatomical, physiological and pathological character”, and “ethnography”, addressing the “history, manners, customs and religious beliefs” of the group being studied. Concerning the former, Notes and Queries included guidance on the instruments and methods for gathering “observations on external characters”: for example, “shape of face”, “profile of nose”, “color of skin”, and “color of hair”. Colored plates were included for determining eye, hair, and skin color, while precise instructions were provided for the use of photographic apparatus in making full-face and profile “type” portraits of “natives”.
Pages from the 1892 edition of Notes and Queries on Anthropology, including plates for identifying profile of nose and colour of eyes, hair and skin, Royal Anthropological Institute, London.
In the 1899 edition of Notes and Queries, which Thomas would have consulted, it was Alfred Cort Haddon, veteran of the 1898 Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Strait, who penned the most up-to-date advice on the use of photography. “With regard to portraits”, he wrote, “a certain number of types should always be taken as large as possible, full face and square side view; the lens should be on a level with the face, and the eyes of the subject looking straight from the head should be fixed on a point at their own height from the ground”. In order to separate the sitters from their context, Haddon advised: “It is desirable to have a soft, fine-grained, neutral-tinted screen to be used as a background”. Nolde would have been familiar with these photographic conventions, which were also employed by German anthropologists, and it is interesting to observe how his New Guinea watercolor portraits conform to them, both in terms of composition and exclusion of background.
Juxtaposing Emil Nolde’s New Guinea watercolour portraits with Northcote Thomas’ physical type photographs. Clockwise from top left: Emil Nolde, Bildnis eines Südsee-Insulaner im Profil nach Rechts, 1914, watercolor and ink on paper, 48.8 x 36 cm, ©Nolde Stiftung Seebüll; Northcote Thomas, unnamed woman, Okpella, present-day Edo State, Nigeria, 1910, ©Royal Anthropological Institute, London, Inv.-Nr. 400_037804; Emil Nolde, Kopf eines Eingeborenen von vorn, 1913–14, ©Nolde Stiftung Seebüll; Northcote Thomas, unnamed chief, Oboluku, present-day Delta State, Nigeria, 1912, ©Royal Anthropological Institute, London, Inv.-Nr. 400_019428.
Another source of advice that Thomas would have been familiar with prior to undertaking fieldwork was an article written by Maurice Vidal Portman titled “Photography for Anthropologists”, published in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute in 1896. Portman had produced several albums documenting the indigenous population of the Andaman Islanders, exemplifying different genres of anthropological photography. It is clear from Haddon’s and Portman’s instructions that the camera was understood as a scientific instrument to be used with precision. “Accuracy is what is required”, writes Portman. “Delicate lighting and picturesque photography are not wanted. … ‘Fuzzygraphs’ are quite out of place in anthropological work”.
Portman’s reference to “fuzzygraphs” is telling here. He is not discussing blurred photographs resulting from incorrect focus, camera shake, or slow shutter speed, but is rather distancing the anthropological use of photographic apparatus from the pictorialist tradition, in which photography was regarded as a crafted artform and medium of creative expression. (Soft focus and “delicate lighting” being just two techniques favored by pictorialist photographers.) While, in principle, the distinction between “scientific” and “picturesque” photography seems clear, when examining the over 3,500 physical type portraits made by Thomas, it is apparent that, in practice, the line that distinguishes them is itself often fuzzy. In these photographs, one is struck not by their capacity to record accurate anthropographical data, but by their expressive power, which defies their objectifying purpose. The camera cannot suppress the humanity of the individuals photographed.
Anthropological pictorialism. Left: Emil Nolde, Bildnis einer Südseeinsulanerin (en face), 1914, watercolour and ink on paper, 51.5.5 x 37 cm, ©Nolde Stiftung Seebüll. Right: Northcote Thomas’ physical type photograph, unnamed woman, Agbede, present-day Edo State, Nigeria, 1909, ©Royal Anthropological Institute, London, Inv.-Nr. 400_037799.
Whereas, in his essay “Primitive Art, Primitive Accumulation”, Andrew Zimmerman argues that Nolde’s portraits “broke with an earlier anthropological aesthetics”, I suggest there is considerable continuity. And here, it is important to note that the depiction of racial or tribal “types” predates the invention of photography. Natural history artists such as John Lewin (1770–1819) were producing watercolor studies of indigenous people during Pacific voyages in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century, including full-face and profile compositions that also excluded contextual backgrounds. The use of drawing and painting in anthropological fieldwork continued into the twentieth century, albeit increasingly displaced by photography. Nolde’s watercolor portraits share much in common with these earlier anthropological paintings, again in relation to composition and background, but also in the use of watercolors to render skin, hair, and eye pigments. With the introduction of monochrome photography, the visual documentation of head and face morphology became divorced from the recording of skin, hair, and eye color, necessitating the uses of color indexes such as those published in Notes and Queries.
While anthropological photography was able to capture the anatomical morphology of subjects’ heads and faces accurately, its rendering of skin, hair, and eye color into shades of grey was, of course, deeply unrealistic. Conversely, while Nolde’s watercolors may have sacrificed precision of “line, form and measurement”, his nuanced representation of skin, hair, and eye tones far exceeded the crude possibilities of anthropometric color indexes. Indeed, at a time when “shape of face” and “color of skin” were both regarded as indices of race and evolutionary development, artistic and anthropological representation here fulfilled similar functions. The more pronounced break, it might be argued, was not with anthropological representational conventions, but with Nolde’s own earlier Expressionist aesthetic, with its bold, profoundly unrealistic use of color.
If we examine physical type photographs of the period alongside Nolde’s watercolor portraits, we find not a rigid separation of anthropological/scientific/objective and artistic/expressive/subjective, but a continuum from the pseudoscientism of Portman to the Expressionism of Nolde. We find a similar co-presence of what one might describe, after Sekula, as the honorific and the repressive in both photographic and watercolor portraits. Indeed, considering Nolde’s and Thomas’s portraits together, the anthropologist’s physical type photographs and the artist’s physical type watercolors may both be regarded as simultaneously scientific, expressive, honorific, and repressive. Manifestations of the racialized, unequal power relationships between the gazer/photographer/painter and the gazed upon/photographed/painted, these portraits share in an aesthetics of contradiction and confusion, of “interlocking understandings and practices”: an aesthetics of, in and as the colonial contact zone.
Returning to Pratt’s often quoted definition of the contact zone, much has been written about the imperial encounters between people who are, or were, geographically separated. Johannes Fabian, for example, has discussed how geographical separation has been fused with temporal separation in the anthropological imagination, such that indigenous people inhabiting distant colonial territories were perceived also to be living in distant times (the Urmenschen Nolde hoped to find in New Guinea). Additionally, however, Pratt’s definition refers to contact relations between people who are historically separated. This has received less attention. One might interpret this in relation to Fabian’s notion of temporal distanciation. Here, however, I should like to consider the contact zone as a space of encounter between different times: between the historical, colonial times of Kirchner and Nolde and our present “decolonial times”. Rather than regarding our own times as being separate from colonial times (for example, as post-colonial), how might we think about this rather in terms of temporal co-presence, interaction, and relations? This raises questions about the ongoingness of colonial power inequalities and how we continue to be implicated in colonial histories and legacies. Might troubling ourselves with the temporal, and not only the spatial, co-presences, and interactions of the contact zone provide us with an alternative response to Clifford’s question as to whether there is not another way of telling this story of colonization in the domain of art? And how might we tell this story through the work of art itself?
Another concept that Pratt discusses in Imperial Eyes is that of “autoethnography”. By this she means not the ethnographic study of one’s own culture, as some anthropologists use the term, but rather the appropriation of the colonizer’s representational tools and idioms by the colonized, merging them with “indigenous modes” in order to represent themselves back to the colonizer. As Pratt writes: “If ethnographic texts are a means by which Europeans represent to themselves their (usually subjugated) others, autoethnographic texts are texts the others construct in response to or in dialogue with those metropolitan representations.” This entanglement of representational media, motifs, but also power relations comes closer to Nicholas Thomas’s analysis of multidirectional appropriations in Entangled Objects and his later study of “cross-cultural traffic” in modern and contemporary indigenous art.
Interestingly, whereas the work of contemporary artists is now often deployed as a disruptive intervention in “ethnographic” museum displays and exhibitions, only one contemporary work features in the Kirchner and Nolde exhibition. This is a four-foot-high brass mask titled Global Heritage made by the Benin City-based artist Enotie Ogbebor. The mask, cast using the traditional cire perdue method, is inspired by the famous sixteenth-century ivory hip-pendants depicting Idia, the Iyoba (“Queen Mother”) of Oba Esigie (ca.1504–50), looted from the Oba’s Palace during the British sacking of Benin City in 1897. The Idia pendants have become global icons of African art, not least since their design was adopted as the emblem of Festac, the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture held in Lagos in 1977. On the ivory originals, Idia’s headdress is adorned with representations of the heads of Portuguese traders. That Europeans are depicted as mere ornaments on the Iyoba’s crown communicates the power of the Benin Kingdom and the subservience of its trading partners. It reminds us that contact zones, and their arts, have existed in other contexts, including those where the balance of power was not tipped toward Europe.
Left: One of five stylistically similar ivory hip-pendants thought to represent Queen Mother Idia, the mother of Oba Esigie, 1504-1550, looted from Benin City during the British Punitive Expedition of 1897, 24.5 cm high, British Museum, Inv.-Nr. Af1910,0513.1, ©The Trustees of the British Museum. Right: Enotie Ogbebor, Global Heritage, 2019, brass, 137.2 x 64 cm, (image courtesy of the artist).
On his gigantic brass reproduction, Ogbebor has transformed Idia’s headdress adornments into representations of World Heritage Sites such as the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Sphinx, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The mask is displayed in a section of the exhibition concerned with colonial collecting and ethnographic museums alongside Benin treasures, including bronzes, looted during the 1897 Punitive Expedition. In a contribution to the exhibition catalog titled “We Call for Restitution”, Ogbebor describes his massive brasswork as a tribute to the historical figure of Iyoba Idia herself, and as “a testimony to the global importance of the mask”, “intended to spread the renown of the ancient kingdom of Benin all over the globe”. But, just as the original pendant expressed Benin’s power over its European visitors in the sixteenth century, might we not see the miniaturized representations of iconic global heritage sites on Ogbebor’s version—mere decorations in the headdress of resurgent Nigeria—as an autoethnographic protest against the continuing (neo)colonial geopolitical order, which, in the sphere of heritage as with so many other spheres, continues to place sub-Saharan Africa in a position of subordinacy and dependency?
In the [Re:]Entanglements project we have been exploring the “decolonial affordances” of the archival legacies of Northcote Thomas’s early twentieth-century anthropological surveys in West Africa. As part of this, we have been retracing Thomas’s itineraries in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, returning copies of photographs—including those physical type portraits—and sound recordings to the communities whose histories they document. We have also been collaborating with West African artists, musicians, and storytellers, experimenting with creative practice as a decolonial methodology. Among these creative collaborations was a partnership with Nosona Studios, an art space run by Ogbebor in Benin City. An exhibition juxtaposing Thomas’s photographs with contemporary works produced by participating artists was held at Nosona Studios in July 2019. This was the first of three co-curated project exhibitions staged in Nigeria.
Ogbebor himself participated as an artist in the project, creating a painting titled Chronicles of an Era. This work is especially compelling as an autoethnographic response (again, using Pratt’s definition) in relation to the Kirchner and Nolde exhibition. Stylistically, the painting speaks directly to the Expressionists’ aesthetic, notably in its use of vivid, non-naturalistic color, its distorted forms, and flattened perspective. Ogbebor collages together various elements in the painting, juxtaposing historical aspects of Edo culture as represented in Northcote Thomas’s photographs with contemporary scenes from the region. The latter include lively urban scenes of markets and yellow “keke” taxis, but also evocations of the tragic migrant crossings of the Mediterranean, which claim the lives of so many young Nigerians. At one level, the painting chronicles continuities and changes in the region over the last century. In relation to Kirchner and Nolde, however, one is struck by a parallel between the German Expressionists’ visual appropriation of the “ethnographic arts” they encountered in the museum and Ogbebor’s visual appropriation of the European anthropologist’s photographs encountered in the colonial archive; only, of course, the photographs are themselves visual appropriations of Ogbebor’s cultural heritage.
Top left: Enotie Ogbebor, Chronicles of an Era, 2019, oil and acrylic on canvas, 153 x 123 cm (image courtesy of the artist). Top right: Northcote Thomas, Flute playing, 1909, Uzebba, present-day Edo State, Nigeria, ©Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge, Inv.-Nr. P.28564.NWT. Bottom: Northcote Thomas, Decorated wall in king’s house, 1909, Uzebba, present-day Edo State, Nigeria, ©Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge, Inv.- Nr. P.28793.NWT.
The modified form of a traditional horn blower occupies the center of the canvas, referencing not only a photograph taken by Thomas in 1909, but also calling to mind the royal horn player on the bronze plaque from Benin sketched by Kirchner in the Museum für Völkerkunde Dresden around the same time. Set against the dark reds and greens of the horn blower’s garments is the ghostly white silhouette of another figure wearing what appears to be a pith helmet. This figure is taken from another of Thomas’s photographs, also taken in 1909, this time of a remarkable wall painting that he encountered in the northern Edo town of Okpe. The work of an unknown indigenous artist, to European eyes this mural appears astonishingly modernist in style. We know from Thomas’s fieldnotes that the white figure represents a District Commissioner—the local representative of colonial authority. Following behind the District Commissioner, holding a rifle and a pipe, is a second—black—silhouetted figure, which Thomas identifies as a native court messenger. With its various abstract motifs, and its representation of a racialized colonial administrative hierarchy, the mural already constitutes a powerful indigenous response to colonial contact. Ogbebor’s representation of the colonial anthropologist’s representation of the indigenous representation of the “colonizing other” in Chronicles of an Era, however, invokes the endless recursivity of the mise en abyme. The distorting mirrors of colonized and colonizer are engaged in a seemingly interminable representational tournament—a struggle, reflected in the medium of art, that will not be settled without a more fundamental reconfiguration of power relations.
The story of the encounter between modern art and worlds (and people and things) constructed in the European imagination as “primitive” has been told in many exhibitions. In the telling of Kirchner and Nolde, that encounter is placed unequivocally within its colonial context, reminding us that this was not merely an arena of benign cultural exchange, but also a space of violence and exploitation. The exhibition forces us to recognize that art, too, is implicated in the appropriations and inequalities of colonialism; that art may itself be understood as a “contact zone” in which “radically asymmetrical relations of power” are played out in and through artists’ works and lives. In this way Kirchner and Nolde invites us to reread Expressionism, against the grain of intentionality and canonical interpretation, as an expression of coloniality. It is a telling very much of our time.
Yet, in our time of decolonial activism, is this enough? The museum has, of course, also been described as a contact zone. While this has often been deployed in a celebratory manner with reference to museums’ consultations and collaborations with indigenous stakeholders, as Robin Boast has argued, the “fundamental asymmetries” persist. The museum has not relinquished its control (including its control of who it collaborates with and on what terms), and it thus remains “a gatekeeper of authority and expert accounts”, even when those accounts are themselves critical of colonialism and its legacies. What form, we might wonder, would a truly decolonial telling of this story take? A telling that escapes both the museum’s authorizing expertise and the echo chamber of autoethnography, with its reliance on the tools and idioms of the colonizing culture.
If such a telling is not yet imaginable—at least not within the galleries of a major European museum—exhibitions such as Kirchner and Nolde can at least continue to trouble us. One of the ways the exhibition succeeds in this is by situating us, with our various positionalities, within that colonial contact zone too. In the concluding statements of the video at the exhibition’s entrance, Wayne Modest calls to mind arguments made in Michael Rothberg’s recent book The Implicated Subject: beyond the language of victims and perpetrators, this exhibition helps us to understand that we are also implicated in this story, that we also have a responsibility to change the story and, collectively, to fashion more equitable futures.
 Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 1.
 Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, 2nd ed (New York: Routledge, 1992), 6–7.
 Press release, Museum of Modern Art, New York, August 1984, www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/1907.
 See James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature and Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).
 Ibid., 195.
 Ibid., 196.
 Pratt, Imperial Eyes, 6–7.
 Robin Boast, “Neocolonial Collaboration: Museum as Contact Zone Revisited”, Museum Anthropology 34, no. 1 (2011): 57.
 Pratt, Imperial Eyes, 34
 See Nicholas Thomas, Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture and Colonialism in the Pacific (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).
 Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Towards a New Relational Ethics”, 2018, http://restitutionreport2018.com/sarr_savoy_en.pdf.
 Sarr and Savoy, “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage”, 49; 10–11.
 See, for example, Paul Basu, The Inbetweenness of Things: Materializing Mediation and Movement between Worlds (London: Bloomsbury, 2017).
 Nicholas Thomas, Possessions: Indigenous Art / Colonial Culture (London: Thames & Hudson, 1999), 7.
 Rebekka Habermas, “The Artist as Colonizer? Emil Nolde and the Medical-Demographic Expedition to the German South Sea Colonies (1913–1914)”, in Kirchner and Nolde: Expressionism, Colonialism, ed. S. Tates, exh. cat. (Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 2021), 87.
 Allan Sekula, “The Body and the Archive”, October 39 (1986): 6.
 See P. Basu, “N. W. Thomas and Colonial Anthropology in British West Africa: Reappraising a Cautionary Tale”, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 22, no. 1 (2016): 84–107.
 John George Garson and Charles Hercules Read, eds., Notes and Queries on Anthropology, 3rd ed. (London: British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1899), 5.
 Ibid., 88.
 Ibid., 239–46.
 Ibid., 239.
 Maurice Vidal Portman, “Photography for Anthropologists”, Journal of the Anthropological Institute 25 (1896): 77, 81.
 Andrew Zimmerman, “Primitive Art, Primitive Accumulation and the Origin of the Work of Art in German New Guinea”, History of the Present 1, no. 1 (2011): 18.
 Ibid., 17.
 See Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).
 Pratt, Imperial Eyes, 9.
 See Thomas, Entangled Objects and Possessions: Indigenous Art / Colonial Culture (London: Thames & Hudson, 1999).
 Enotie Ogbebor, “We Call for Restitution”, in Kirchner and Nolde, 72.
 Funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council, “[Re:]Entanglements” (2018–21) was a research collaboration led by Paul Basu at SOAS University of London, critically re-engaging with the archival legacies of Northcote Thomas’s early twentieth-century anthropological surveys in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. See https://re-entanglements.net.
 See P. Basu, “Re-Mobilising Colonial Collections in Decolonial Times: Exploring the Latent Possibilities of N. W. Thomas’s West African Collections”, in ed. Felix Driver, Mark Nesbitt, and Caroline Cornish, Mobile Museums: Collections in Circulation (London: UCL Press, 2021), 44–70.
 See https://re-entanglements.net/benin-creative-collaborations/.
 See J. Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 188–219.
 Boast, “Neocolonial Collaboration”, 67.
 See Michael Rothberg, The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019).