Statues also die, even…

Time and Agency of Museum Display

María Íñigo Clavo

In this text, I hope to reveal some parallels between the issues that arise when displaying so-called “African” or “indigenous” art or artifacts in so-called “museums of world cultures” and the display of contemporary art.[1] I would like to show how both are subject to similar difficulties within the white walls of the museum.[2] To do so, I will focus on two common strategies that involve the political neutralization of these objects: the first negates the object’s contemporary nature when presented, either out of time/history or out of context within the white cube or the vitrine; the second reduces these “works of art” to an object of study instead of presenting them as thought-provoking items.

The position I would like to defend here is that contemporary art, rather than a means of expression, is a producer of thought. Art, much like those “other world cultures,” has long been considered a minor form of knowledge in comparison with more scholarly, erudite disciplines. Nevertheless, both spheres of knowledge have proven pioneering in raising issues that have been appropriated and developed later by other disciplines, or have inspired political paradigms on a global scale.[3]

Following this, I will discuss two tactics of resistance that, setting out from contemporary art, attempt to counter the strategies of neutralization implemented by the museum. In the first case, art rescues and proposes agency against political neutralization in the exhibition space (this will be exemplified in the first part of the text). In the second, two artists widen the restrictive narratives of modernity as told by museum display practices, thereby showing the dark side of modernity: colonialism. Throughout this essay, I will defend the view that Time is a fundamental component towards political activation. In order to cancel out the political potential of these objects, their temporality needed to be neutralized. They could then be isolated from history and properly decontextualized. Therefore, in order to reactivate these objects and return their agency, it will be crucial to bring time into their display in museums, especially the present time, and in both institutions of contemporary art and of “world cultures.” Reflecting upon the progression of time in the museographical display will help us to understand how temporality presently operates on power relations, also outside of museum walls, and the complicity of our sciences in the production of Otherness.

In the 2009 issue dedicated to “Exhibition Grammar” of the Manifesta Journal, Peter Osborne expressed this concern in his list of nine points on curating: “Time has always been as much a factor in curation as space, but its uses have been more stable and conventional, and much less explored.”[4] I hope to contribute further to this debate by examining the work of some contemporary artists who, setting out from a “Southern perspective,” call into question the strategies of political neutralization in museum representation, using time as a fundamental tool: sometimes by simply “perverting” the standard anthropological display, and sometimes by using circulation strategies that allow them to introduce the present time to recover a lost agency.

Since I am to compare here two very different spaces of Western representation (anthropology and contemporary art), and with disparate purposes, I should first clarify that in no way am I suggesting that contemporary artists and so-called “ethnic groups” are in the same situation. We could easily establish a difference between those who have access and control to self-representation and those who do not. The former are the so-called citizens, part of a civil society with full access to civil rights and legal protection. The latter are part of what Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos has called uncivil civil society,[5] or are considered to be in a “natural state” and therefore do not have access to the same rights, which implies that they also lack access to proper representation. By questioning the term “citizenship” from the point of view of those who are not included in it, we are allowed to highlight the discriminatory nature of this notion, the legal and social exclusions it generates, and the exploitation schemes it helps perpetuate. These “sub-citizens,” in Darcy Ribeiro’s terms,[6] comprising indigenous groups, immigrants, homeless people, slum dwellers, and so forth, have no option but to be represented and studied by others.

According to De Sousa Santos, we need to “learn from the South.” This is not to be understood as a geographical place, but rather as an utterance—one which involves acting from the places of the oppressed. The first step towards this would be to discard an “imperial South” that was created by the North. “Hence, one can only learn from the South as long as it is conceived as a resistance to the domination of the North while we search in it everything that hasn’t been completely disfigured or destroyed by such domination.” [7] It is not about searching for essences, but rather about attempting to see how those places of utterance are able to interrogate the hegemonic ones and propose new strategies for them. The artists we are dealing with in this paper speak from those utterance spaces: Cildo Meireles works on Afro-Brazilianity, and Daniela Ortiz on African immigration in Spain, while Fred Wilson sets out from his condition as an Afro-American to convey activation tactics for a political agency that had been neutralized by science and its museographical forms through the very process of displaying those objects. In all three study cases, that activation is brought in through the introduction of time. In Wilson’s case, this is achieved by introducing the colonial history (past time), while for Meireles and Ortiz it is achieved by introducing present time in the display of the objects. In all three cases, Time necessarily interconnects several contexts, thus promoting South-South dialogues.

Statues also die: Time

Fig. 1. “Film poster Les Statues meurent aussi” Film by Chris Marker & Alian Resnais. Copyright unknown.

The paradigmatic film Statues Also Die, by Resnais and Marker (1953), openly dealt with the decontextualization of African art, which has recently become crucial in the debate on “anthropological museums” and the way so-called “other cultures” are displayed. The film’s point of departure is how the accumulation of sculpted masks and faces remains sterile within the cabinets of the museum. No interlocutor is possible: their expressions are vacant, their gazes lost, bereft of the subjectivity that would allow the spectator to gain some kind of identification. We expect masks to either behave as figurative representations displayed for our enjoyment or to function as scientific objects to study of African art and society.[8] The message of the film is clear: “We do not know how to look at African art.”[9]

The African masks of the museum have been both deterritorialized from their places and functions and detemporalized of their history, as well as of our own. This would reflect the way anthropology used to approach those cultures and their objects, which, as Johannes Fabian showed in 1983, would have a “persistent and systematic tendency to identify the referent/s of anthropology to a Time other than that of the producer of the anthropological discourse,” thus generating a “denial of coevalness”[10] and identifying them as representatives of a backward, withering culture deprived of any possible interlocution with our forms of knowledge. Fabian’s book, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object, started an important debate about the use of time in the anthropological field, thus showing the way the cherished distance between the scholar and his/her object of study would generate a persistent confusion between the “there” (distant in space) and the “then” (distant in time). That temporalization (linguistics and semiotics of the anthropological writing) was synonymous of a temporal (or ideological) distancing. Positivism would transcend historical time, thanks to its alleged “scientific objectivity.” For the evolutionary theories, those objects would be representatives of a past time, historical precedents of the present of our “developed” society. Nonetheless, Fabian also delves into functionalism and structuralism in order to show how the primitivist vision was kept intact by these as well.[11] The immediate aftermath is that the cultures under scrutiny would have no chance of being understood as part of our history, much less of becoming our interlocutors. This went, by extension on to legitimize the creation of global hierarchies between “developed” and “backward” countries.

“Could it be then that temporal distancing and the denial of coevalness were not to be errors, but rather the conditions of possibility of the anthropological discourse?” Fabian asks.[12] The importance of his proposal lies in the fact of showing how that very “denial of coevalness” was inherent to the field itself, thus revealing the intrinsically political character of anthropology. As an heir to Foucault, he made visible the knowledge/power relationship in a discipline that was already in crisis since the decolonization processes in Africa after World War II. Once the nationalist political processes were activated, along with the emergence of indigenous historians who associated themselves with those projects,[13] it was no longer possible to go on considering those peoples as representatives of a past and withering natural state.[14] The issues surrounding the political responsibilities of the field in both the colonial past and the present time were discussed during the conferences of the American Association of Anthropology in the 1960s.[15] But Fabian wanted to speak not only about the political complicity, but also of the cognitive one.[16]

Along with the publication of Time and the Other, an intense debate took place, triggered by the book Writing Cultures, by James Clifford and George Marcus.[17] In addition to its continuation of the reflection upon the role of anthropology in the colonization process, the debate focused on the way techniques of ethnographic writing themselves would condition and compromise the truthfulness of the research field, since those techniques often relied on specific literary forms, what means in fiction. Undoubtedly, this had much to do with Fabian’s proposal about the denial of coevalness, since he places the germ of that denial in the gap between the ethnographic fieldwork and the anthropological writing of literature. In the former, there is a temporal relation based on the “intersubjective communication” between the researcher and his interlocutors. In the latter space of writing, interpretation, and analysis, that interlocutor vanishes; the autobiographical past time of the anthropologist becomes mixed up with a remote past that those cultures would allegedly represent as a sort of predecessor to our civilization.

Resnais and Marker wanted to think about the way masks are displayed in ethnographical exhibitions, in the visual writing of the Museum. How might we apply those very reflections on writing to the anthropological temporality of visual representation? This text is an attempt to apply such questions to the curatorial representation of the museographical display. If “time is a key category by means of which we conceptualize the relations between us (our theoretical constructions) and our objects (The Other),”[18] which is the verb tense of that writing of the exhibition?

Fig. 2. African Gallery of British Museum. Photographer unknown.

Artifacts and Contemporary Art in the Basement of History

In an interview with Le Monde in 1995, Resnais pointed out one of the questions initially formulated in the making of Statues Also Die: “Why is ‘Black art’ shown at the Musée de l’Homme, while Greek and Egyptian art is shown at the Louvre?”[19]

History is full of irony. When African art entered the British Museum in 2001, it did so by means of deploying contemporary art in Room 25 of one of its basement levels. Sponsored by the Sainsbury family, the British Museum brought the African collection from the Museum of Mankind as part of a curatorial project led by Christopher Spring, Nigel Barley, and Julie Hudson. The curators made two fundamental decisions: they distributed the objects according to their materials and fabrication techniques, and they used contemporary art to create a dialogue with the artifacts. What we should ask ourselves, therefore, is in what capacity and with what sort of privileges such contemporary art is displayed.[20]

As a legacy of several exhibitions that took place in the late 1980s, such as Magiciens de la terre (1989) or Art/artifacts (1989), those years also witnessed an intense debate about the best ways to exhibit the artistic and cultural production of “other cultures.” As sketched above, with regards to Statues Also Die, one of the major dilemmas had to do with overcoming the old conflicts regarding the incompatibility between the ethnographical format and the purely aesthetic one. The pedagogical character of the former allegedly would help us to contextualize those cultures, at the price of turning them into mere documents. The latter would bet on the ability of those objects to speak by themselves and to be admired autonomously on the basis of their esthetical qualities. At the same time, however, it would betray our limitations when we look at those objects within the parameters of Western (and, of course, colonial) art. For the curators of the Sainsbury African Galleries, contemporary art would be the perfect antidote in order to overcome those aporia and to invigorate the relation between both places without having to renounce either of them.[21] The dialogue between contemporary art and artifacts tended to question the old hierarchy between “higher” places of production and more popular and ancestral forms of knowledge. So, contemporary art functions as a link between object as documents of culture and as object of contemplation. A notion of an Africa that isn’t limited, neither by a specific historical period nor by continental borders, but one that, on the contrary, is also made by Afro-British people in the present moment, would thus be reinforced. In this way, it has created a sense of intercontinental circulation in order to overcome the notion of an Africa stalled by traditions, while a notion of “immediacy” [22] not permitted by the historiographical discourse could be achieved.[23]

Contrary to the anthropological debates about Time and the Other, a possibility to transcend time and space was celebrated in the catalogue of British Museum about African Galleries; namely, the possibility for contemporary art to escape from the historical approach and enter into a more poetical one. However, we may here employ Fabian’s words, addressed to a certain anthropology: “Some considered as a poetical expression something that represented, on the contrary, an essentially epistemological act.”[24]

Since in this paper I intend to follow the logic of the aforementioned question posed by Resnais and Marker, I would like to put forward the following question: Should we include, for instance, Greek, Italian, or Egyptian contemporary artworks in the corresponding galleries? What would be the impact of interrupting that careful timeline with contemporary works of art?

The British Museum would rather establish itself as a museum of civilizations than a national one. However, as Norbert Elias[25] suggested, for the English , the word “civilization” represented “the sum of the national self-image.” It expressed the “self-assurance” possessed by nations “which have long expanded outside their borders and colonized beyond them.”[26] In other words, the British Museum tells the very story of its Western and British hegemony. This is why, in its catalogues, one can find a clear explanation of the reason behind the fact that its main halls are dedicated to the great civilizations of Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, ancient Greece and Rome, which, in the words of the British Museum, “were very important in the ancient world, and in many ways we still feel their influence today.”[27] The introduction of contemporary art wouldn’t have made any sense in those rooms, because it would divert the main function of the galleries, that of telling a story of the origins of our (colonial) civilization.

If the British Museum believed that the exhibition of contemporary artworks was permissible in Room 25, it is surely because what would be shown there would remain outside of the Western time frame; hence, outside of the history of our civilization, proximate to something in our basements. This is why it is not by chance that, in the opening it was hanging on the main entrance to the exhibition, a banner with a statement by Sir Roberts Sainsbury written on it: “What I am is someone who likes artists who likes primitive and were influence by primitive… I like Henry Moore’s carving, Henry Moore liked primitive.”[28] As Ruth Phillips has pointed out, the very introduction “reveals the continuity of the modernist display paradigms of art and artifacts, which seem to have only gained a rhetorical strength.”[29] In this introduction, contemporary art helped to reproduce old relations of art towards artifacts, inspired by their primitivism, which is intended to represent the prehistoric or pre-oedipal background of these cultures.[30]

Fabian would explain the way the structuralist-functionalist current “encapsulated time” in order to focus on the dynamics typical/within the own culture and its compression of time. When cultures compare among themselves they do it “to establish the contrast between, say, Western linear time and cyclical primitive time, or between a modern temporal centrality and archaic intertemporality.”[31] This comes close to the effect intended in Room 25, but despite that it was about the creation of a dialogue with the present in this case, it did not succeed, because that present remained as a proper/autonomous time outside of the history of Western civilization. Hence, the certain thing here is that there is no joint time with West that may allow us to have an interlocution and face the “requirements of coevalness.”[32]

Contemporary Art also Dies: The Utterance

However, as we all know, contemporary art also dies—there is extensive debate on how museums of contemporary art neutralize the political aspect of art. The challenge is the following: How can politically engaged art be exhibited in a museum without turning it into the acquisition of a collector or institution at best, or into an object for market speculation at worst? Since the 1960s, institutional critique has reflected upon the role of museums and their complicity with the capitalist market system through the work of artists as diverse as Marcel Broodthaers, Hans Haacke, Daniel Buren, and Michael Asher. In the eighties, a second wave of artists, such as Renée Green, Christian Phillipp Müller, Andrea Fraser, Fred Wilson,[33] and Lothar Baumgarten, constituted the “institutionalization of critique,”[34] drawing attention to silenced museological narratives.

At this point, I would like to put forward a specific example of how display endangers the political potential of art and its capacity for the enunciation of utterance. Cruzeiro do Sul (1969) is a piece by Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles. The title alludes to an imaginary, mythical place, though it also refers to the extermination of the indigenous population during the Portuguese and Spanish colonization, as wells as to the current time. It consists of a minute cube of 9 x 9 x 9 mm made out of oak and pine wood, which are the two types of wood that contain the sacred genesis of fire, according to the Tupi cosmology, because they produce fire when rubbed together. The cube should be shown in a large area of the museum in order to remain generally unnoticed. The smallness of the cube is amplified by the immense space in which it is placed, representing “the idea of the dimension of energy contained in a tiny body,”[35] as Meireles puts it.

With this piece, the artist underlines the potential of another form of knowledge in order to call ours into question, since this object represents the origin of fire and holds the potential to cause the building that contains it to burn to the ground. From its virtual invisibility, this precarious cube represents a threat to one of our most efficient epistemological machines—one which seeks to tell our story and, therefore, one that decides what the present is about. National museums fulfill the dual function of showing and hiding, representing and historically legitimizing our power/knowledge discourses. All in all, what the Tupi cosmology calls into question is the very structure of our disciplines, not merely their contents.

In fact, this object from 1969 could be seen as a powerful metaphor of the recent re-emergence of the idea of animism within the Western curatorial and intellectual[36] scene, which, after decades of postcolonial theoretical practice, is critically revising the old colonial primitivist visions.[37] Fundamental to this late interest about animism in the arts has been the work on indigenous cosmologies of the Brazilian anthropologist Viveiros de Castro.[38] As his works have shown, in some indigenous cosmologies animals and objects have souls of their own, which brings about a complete change to the subject/object relationship, since the relevant issue is the kind of body that contains the soul, and which keeps going through a constant process of transformation. Consequently, both animals and objects are also considered as persons, while their bodies are deemed mere appearances that conceal them. From this point of view, it comes as no surprise that we set out to think about the agency of object in art objects as well.[39]

Contrary to our sciences, to know is not to objectivize from the standpoint of Amazonian perspectivism, but rather the opposite: it consists of embodying, because it implies taking on the point of view of that thing which is necessary to get to know. For this reason, animism and indigenous perspectivism have been used to break down the frontiers between the sciences and lower spheres of knowledge, as well as those existing between the natural and human sciences. As De Sousa Santos has shown, this separation between social and natural sciences is at the heart of the colonial project, as well as in the persistence of colonialism today. It is this same separation that establishes the division between those who are entitled to rights and those others—frozen in their natural state—without them. These not only include people who do not partake in our economic system, such as indigenous groups, but also rivers, mountains, or memory. Western knowledge was established over nature for its exploitation. This is the main reason for proposing a non-dualistic body of knowledge that does not confront man and nature, and questions the dichotomy between object and subject, representing a basic threat to our structures of knowledge and exploitation, in the same way as Cruzeiro do Sul was a threat to the museum.[40]

Cruzeiro do Sul was selected for the exhibition America, Bride of the Sun, held at the Royal Museum in Antwerp in 1992, the year of the quincentenary of the so-called “discovery” of the Americas, and curated by Catherine De Zegher. Cruzeiro do Sul was shown in a display case, losing all of that critical potential that, as we have discussed, might have threatened the museum. It was reduced to an object to be observed and photographed, just like the African masks presented by Resnais and Marker at the beginning of their documentary. This is a clear example of the importance of museographic display. Once again, the colonial subject becomes dissociated from its position of utterance, showing a problematic relationship with its own apparatus of museographic representation and producing a powerful metaphor about the power/knowledge relationship within the museum (whether this is a museum of anthropology or a contemporary art museum). Cruzeiro do Sul, which could initially have been seen as a possible threat to our way of conceiving museological structures, was reduced to an object of study, thus cancelling out the possibility of a dialogue through which otherness can reshape our knowledge constructs. The main consequence is that it remains almost impossible to assess how these other narratives have contributed to the shaping of our identity. In order to reactivate these objects, it is crucial that we return the present time to them—the here and now.

Fig. 3. Cildo Meireles, Cruzeiro do Sul, 1970. © Cildo Meireles.

Agency and the Present

Foucault has insisted that his main interest was not in power relations, but in how these shaped subjects.[41] Taking Foucault as reference, Judith Butler has been a key theorist in understanding power relations from a feminist point of view. Butler has developed Foucault’s idea about the way power precedes the subject. Firstly, the power that is exerted on him/her (subjection), and secondly, the power that the subject makes use of, thus producing agency. Power is a condition of the subject, therefore, but also an effect of the subject.[42] Agency is the moment at which power rotates upon itself, producing other powers of contestation and resistance; the very nature of power lies in its capacity to be reconfigured and resignified. Agency is thus an exceeding element that power has not been able to control.

I am particularly interested in this temporary character of agency. In a passage of her text, The Psychic Life of Power, Butler illustrates how it is necessarily linked to present time: “As the agency of the subject, power assumes its present temporal dimension,”[43] which could happen in a present time and be linked to actions. So, Butler points out, there is a temporal dimension to power: before and after the subject, when it subdues the subject, and then, later, when it turns into agency… But at this last stage, power no longer precedes the subject; it becomes part of the present. It is important to emphasize this because, as we will see with the following work by Cildo Meireles, it precisely brings about the present time and action in order to turn the ethnographic object into a political sign of agency. The present time dimension is what enables and establishes empowerment. This is the exact opposite of what we saw with the objects in the glass cabinets, which are frozen in a very remote, yet forever undefined past. Given the importance of performativity in her theories, it is no coincidence that, for Butler, the present is pivotal. Fabian’s proposal for the recovery of a decolonized anthropology consists of pointing at the very moment of communication, namely, the moment of the present action of dialogue, which “implies the coevalness of both producer and product, speaker and listener, the Self and the Other.”[44]

Agency also appears in Resnais and Marker’s film. At some point in Statues Also Die, the lost gazes of the masks presented at the beginning of the film “forcefully stare at the viewer.”[45] As stated by Frantz Fanon in Les damnés de la terre, when speaking about the first awakening of the colonized, “The good ‘natives’ become scarce, silence falls when the oppressor approaches. Sometimes looks harden and attitudes and remarks are downright hostile.”[46] Later on, Marker and Resnais include scenes in which black musicians, boxers, and activists protest against the society that has denied them their historical, political, and social agency. This is the moment of creation/action when power is being resignified, as explained by Butler. We see here an example on how Cildo Meireles use the performativity of speech.

Fig. 4. Cildo Meireles, Inserçoes em circuitos antropológicos, Black pente 1971/1973. © Cildo Meireles.

In 1975, Meireles published the image of an afro comb in the magazine Malasartes in Brazil, giving his piece the title Inserções em Circuitos Antropológicos: Black Pente (1971/1973).[47] It is hardly more than an image of a comb with a neutral background, published in a magazine. Part of its initial appeal relied upon the fact that the idea was intended to be published in the magazine itself with the aim of having it widely distributed. Meireles’s original intention was for the combs to be given out, so that the object could also perform. If we juxtapose these two ideas with the actual African comb of the ethnographic museum, we call into question the immobility, the decontextualization, and the neutrality of an object destined for study. In 2002, Black Pente was republished in issue no. 5 of Item magazine, accompanied by the following text:

Project for the wholesale production and distribution of combs at cost prices for blacks […] the creation of objects, as analogues to those in the institutional circuit, has the aim of inducing a habit, and from there, the possibility of characterizing a new behavior. In the specific case of Black Pente, the object works towards the affirmation of an ethnicity.[48]

What Meireles is stating here, with the primacy of use, is the cancelling out of the “denial of coevalness” that Fabian denounced. With use comes the act and, therefore, the present tense. The second step has to do with the political activation of this sign as a generator of agency. The very title displays a chain of meanings that alternate between the history of art, anthropological space, and political dissidence. Pente is the Portuguese word for “comb,” but what is meant by “black pente”? ”Black comb,” “comb for black people,” or even, stretching the play of words that the pronunciation of this word could engender in a sentence that combines both languages, “black paintings”? Or perhaps “black painter,” thinking that the comb does indeed bear a resemblance to a paint brush. Or, since we are at it, and drawing closer and closer to action, could it not also bring to mind the “Black Panthers”?[49]

With this word and language game between Portuguese and English, Meireles is connecting to the South in a dialogue between contexts that allows him to establish tactics of contagion between diverse contexts, tools in order to visualize an Afro-Brazilian political emergence at that moment. In those years, the afro comb was viewed by the British police as a weapon, and people could be arrested for carrying one. In this way, we can share the view that Meireles may very well have been activating the comb as a political symbol of Black Power in the Brazilian context. Meireles turns the former ethnographic object in a political sign that circulates in the present time of the magazine issue: Black Pente was produced at a time when Afro-Brazilian groups were showing greater concern for politics, an endeavor which is still called into question today by those who defend the idea of mestiçagem and “racial democracy” as part of Brazilian heritage. This concept was created in the 1930s by Gilberto Freyre in his masterpiece, Casa-Grande & Senzala, a book in which, for the first time in Brazil, the presence of mixed-race or mestizo, indigenous peoples and blacks, was not disparaged. However, this was not intended to propose an egalitarian society, but rather to naturalize inequalities from a scientific and cultural point of view. Until the early twentieth century, the common stance was to blame the blacks and indigenous peoples for the economic backwardness of the country. Following the publication of Casa-Grande & Senzala, both groups would come to be included in a national discourse as some sort of ornamental mark of identity, and always hand in hand with a eugenic philosophy. Very often, the homogenization of categories hides inequality beneath a layer of nostalgic narratives that make reference to tradition, which in fact is a perfect alibi for immobilism.

Nationalistic discourses were so efficient at the time that it was impossible to defend a political identity that might challenge the unity of Brazilian identity. Being black meant, in the first place, to be Brazilian and, in such a context, to make demands from a racial point of view seemed to make no sense. For this reason, to introduce the sign of Black Power to Brazil was quite an appropriate action[50]. It was about politicizing and putting into circulation that symbol.

The fact that the British police found the afro comb to be a dangerous symbol is deeply symptomatic. The Subaltern Studies Group of India authored different texts with regards to how anti-colonial revolts were generally preceded by rumors and symbols that circulated amongst the colonized. This generated an atmosphere of contagious panic, which spread amongst both the oppressors and the oppressed, triggering that permanent state of enunciation about which Homi Bhabha has been so insistent:

[The] intersubjective, communal adhesiveness [of rumour] lies in its enunciative aspect. Its performative power of circulation results in a contagious spreading, “an almost uncontrollable impulse to pass it on to another person.” The iterative action of rumour, its circulation and contagion, links it with panic—as one of the affects of insurgency. Rumour and panic are, in moments of social crises, double sites of enunciation that weave their stories around the disjunctive “present” or the “not-there” of discourse.[51]

Malasartes magazine circulated in Brazil, as did the symbols of Black Power in those years, which in turn became rumors. As it passed from one hand to another, it was capable of transmitting an attitude, as well as the power of the present time in the Brazil of 1973. In this way, the comb moved from being an anthropological object of study to becoming a political sign.

Broadening the Incomplete Narrative of Modernity

Yet, my task here is not to contextualize these works within their original cultures in order to better understand their meaning and bring us closer to that dangerous dialogue on essence and origin. Instead, my analysis leads in the opposite direction, via two works that try to resignify the displayed objects in “world culture museums” in order to reveal the role of these cultures in our society. The key issue is to see these stories in relation to Western history in order to understand, first of all, the mechanisms of exclusion of the latter, and subsequently, to consider how the former have contributed to the creation of new narrations that can help us redesignate our history. In this pursuit, art has turned out to be an especially useful tool.

This was the meaning of Fred Wilson’s Colonial Collection installation in 1990. In his words:

I wrapped French and British flags around African masks. (…) I had this vitrine made which looks something like a turn-of-the-century vitrine in which I placed Harper’s lithographs from the turn-of-the-century punitive expeditions between the Zulus and the British and the Ashanti and the British. I wrapped the masks because they are sort of hostages to the museum. (…) There are a lot of questions surrounding this—should they go back, shouldn’t they go back—but I like to bring history to the museum, because I feel that the aesthetic anesthetizes the historic and keeps this imperial view within the museum and continues the dislocation of what these objects are about.[52]

Bringing the history to the Anthropology museum, we widen the incomplete narration of modernity. Contrary to Room 25 at the British Museum, Wilson is proposing here an anthropology that is necessarily linked to the writing of the history of the Western world. This has been one of the great endeavors of ethnography after the crisis of anthropology in which Fabian participated. Thus it is important to show modernity as a shared process in which each party has played a role: the Modern World-system, as Immanuel Wallerstein would have argued, or Transmodernism, as used by Enrique Dussel.[53]

Transmodernism is defined as the revision of a history of modernity, seen as a shared project rather than a unidirectional (from North towards South). There could be no modernity without the colony. It is impossible to ascertain that the colony was a parallel phenomenon: without it, the project of modernity would have never been possible. For this reason, when one hears the current talk about “other modernities,” I judge it as no more than an extension of the same position as that by which African art can be placed adjacently in the basement, as if it were separate and unrelated to Western history. There can be no “civilized” without “primitive,” in the same way there would be no liberalism without the market that the colonies provided. An example of an exhibition that took account of this is Afro Modern,[54] on show at the Tate Liverpool in 2010, which created a parallel space separated of the hegemonic narratives of contemporary art. Although this was an interestingly great first step, I wonder how we could create exhibitive strategies that could narrate those “parallel modernities,” showing how they have shaped the hegemonic/known versions of Western history, and especially, how the latter have been built on/with the former. A clear example of this influence was provided by Robert J. Young,[55] who explained that the anti-colonial struggles (Vietnam, Cuba, Algeria) and the African-American struggles in the United States played a crucial role in the forming of a new consciousness, which where an fundamental inspiration of May 1968 in France.

Fig. 5. Fred Wilson, Colonial Collection, 1990. © Fred Wilson, courtesy Pace Gallery. © Frank Gimpaya.

As Susanne Leeb has argued, “What the ethnologist James Clifford[56] criticized about the Musée de l’Homme, Paris, which was set up in 1937, is still true for most museums today: There is not a single piece of European culture on display in them, while the West’s techniques of presentation and classificatory terms are omnipresent.”[57] Every act of representation is a form of self-definition, and this leads to the way museums have turned themselves into historical documents, not only of the way the Western world produces alterity, but also of how far the latter was (and still is) crucial for the West’s self-definition. As Ivan Karp argued in his 1991 classic, Exhibiting Cultures, “When cultural ‘others’ are implicated, exhibitions tell us who we are and, perhaps most significant, who we are not. Exhibitions are privileged arenas for presenting images of self and ‘other.’”[58] Looking at this history of representation means talking about the strategies of forgetting and discrimination in our society.

This is precisely what Daniela Ortiz, the Peruvian artist based in Spain, did when she staged an artistic intervention on the African mask collection at the Museo de Abelló in Barcelona, introducing the present time in the display of the museum in her installation Viaje al África Blanca (Trip to White Africa) in 2011. Joan Abelló was a prominent painter in Barcelona who collected countless African masks during his trips through Africa. As Ortiz states, “Knowing that Abelló was a fervent fan of the artistic avant-gardes of the period and someone who wanted to be on a par with Picasso or Dalí, both his sympathy for primitivism and his persistent collecting endeavour were something patent.”[59] The initial idea was to contrast that modernist vision based on the idealization of the primitivist purity with the situation of racism and xenophobia that the African communities in Europe have been undergoing.[60]

Over each mask she placed a speech bubble like those used in comic strips, each containing racist jokes she found on the Internet, making it look as though it was the masks themselves that were speaking. The jokes that circulate on the Internet—that ephemeral and ever-transient medium—were the representation of dehumanized Africa that interrupted the passivity of the mask collection. The resulting image is loaded with irony, yet the African masks, once sterile, take on a macabre life of their own, turning them into even more deformed caricatures of a de-subjectivized face, but one that is, above all, disempowered, humiliated, and sterile. Ortiz takes the initial proposals sketched in Statues Also Die about the masks’ lost gazes to their limits when they speak about those faraway cultures that will always remain unknown. As stated in the film, “those statues are mute, they have a mouth but they don’t speak, they have eyes but they can’t see us.”[61]

Fig. 6. Page 16: Daniela Ortiz. WHITE AFRICA: Intervention in the African masks collection of the Abello Museum. © Daniela Ortiz.

Ortiz rid herself of the original sense of the pieces, exacerbating and taking the decontextualization of these objects to the limit in order to highlight the current state of things. It is by introducing the dimension of the present time using those jokes that Ortiz is able to rescue the masks from the passivity in which they were immersed and tear them from their anachronistic state, to resignify them within our own xenophobic context and understand the role they play within it. The jokes placed on the masks strip them of an inhospitable connection to an unknown past and place them violently in our present. Only then can we begin to understand their participation in artistic and social spheres.

This work is a manifestation of Ortiz’s interest in xenophobia, which has inspired works intended to denounce the illegality of the Centros de Internamiento para Extranjeros (internment camps for immigrants) in Spain, and which make clearer than ever the reality of the legal cancellation of the rights of non-citizens. With the aim of retrieving new forms of understanding citizenship, Étienne Balibar[62] has shown how the idea of national citizenship was unsustainable in the age of migrations, since a myriad of legal statuses coexisted within the same society (temporary residents, permanent residents, illegals, expats, refugees, etc.): “So what I suggest is to think of citizenship within new territories not in terms of sovereignty, or not only […] but rather in terms of droit de cité, a right of residing with rights (a possible interpretation of Arendt’s (1973) notion of the right to have rights).” Rather than speak about the right to acquire a nationality, Balibar defends the right to change one’s nationality. To do so, he contrasts the classic idea of the foreigner as enemy, with the idea of the “citizen as the stranger.” But in his proposal, Balibar forgot about time.

This category is not satisfactory, since there is a clear difference between the notion of being a foreigner and an immigrant: the former has a current, temporal status, while the latter is not included in our temporality and, hence, remains easily outside of our social universe.[63] Postmodernism has accepted a non-linear history with a diversity of timelines, but allowing the presence of different temporalities in our society is not enough to perpetuate inequality while hiding it. This becomes evident the moment we assume and justify that immigrants from an “underdeveloped” nation should come to perform undervalued, poorly paid manual jobs corresponding to old times. Undoubtedly, this amounts to an enlargement of the global hierarchies produced by the denial of coevalness which, as Fabian has pointed out, “is a representative of a myth of a terrifying magnitude and persistence.”[64] The migration processes, these global temporal hierarchies described by Fabian, have developed themselves also inside national borders,[65] revealing themselves in our everyday lives. We can see how time is still a tool that helps create alibis for dehumanizing discourses.

The museum decided to place this installation inside to avoid hurting the sensibilities of the African community. Ortiz had several meetings with members of the African communities in the neighborhood, and they all agreed upon the appropriateness of the installation. This did not, however, succeed in persuading the museum, which chose to place the installation within an inner hall of the painter’s house that could be visited only two hours a day. As a consequence, the installation received almost no visits.[66] In the public display, the wall was painted black and a sign was hung on it announcing the museum’s decision not to place the exhibition in the display window because it might “hurt the sensibility of the visitor.” But the only thing that might provoke a sense of shame was the fact that Ortiz’s installation was not a portrait of the African community in Spain, but rather a portrait of the Spanish-speaking society crafting those jokes. What might have appeared to be a hurtful commentary on African culture was in fact a portrait of a part of Hispanic society and its epistemological racism. “The Self is entirely constructed by means of both a speaking self and a listener,” as Fabian points out. Therefore, the point is not so much the fact that communication is necessary, but rather that we are communication and society. “Language produces human beings the same as human beings produce language.”[67] Daniela Ortiz describes how, without communication, there will be dehumanization, and only a language can construct Otherness.

Assaulting the Object with the Time of Speech Acts

“What could coevalness mean other than the acknowledgement that all human societies and all relevant aspects of a human society have the same age?” Fabian asks.[68] As we have seen, as far as time goes, there are three fundamental issues to take into account. The first is to use that temporal diversity to retell Western history and colonization; the second is to understand how time is used to produce hierarchies; and the third is to activate the present tense in order to create agency and dialogue.

It is not a coincidence that Fabian considers vision as one of the great accomplices of the denial of coevalness. For instance, anthropology was greatly influenced by the contemplative character of Western knowledge: “The hegemony of the visual-spatial had its price which was, first, to detemporalize the process of knowledge and, second, to promote an ideological temporalization of relations between the Knower and the Known.”[69] We had the chance to see an example of this in the way Cruzeiro do Sul was installed in the America, Bride of the Sun exhibition. The display cabinet showing the little wooden cube would cancel out the time of the utterance of the display originally devised by Meireles in order to turn it into an object to behold.

When Ruth Phillips asked herself, “Where is Africa?” while analyzing the Sainsbury Collection of the British Museum, she concluded that it is precisely ocularcentrism that prevents those cultures being explained in a different way. Currently, the relationship between signifier and signified has changed. While, in the early twentieth century, an artifact meant primitivism, nowadays that meaning has expanded and has become more complex in the light of the postcolonial approaches, but it keeps working according to the same logic, if only more sophisticated.

Hence, Phillips calling into question and demanding the overcoming of the “object-centered and objectifying modes of installation.”[70] Same as Fred Wilson, when he interrupts the sacralized display of “ethnographic objects” by precisely blinding the abducted masks, “leaving them without vision,” disoriented, kidnapped. Ortiz interrupts our indulgent vision of the masks from the Abelló collection and places them in the context of racist discourses. Meireles transforms the “ethnographic object” into an active political sign, putting it into circulation in the present time of the agency, as described by Butler, turning it into the buzz of a revolt to come. They all transgress and assault the object with time: as Resnais and Marker showed in Statues Also Die, the fact of possessing them doesn’t guarantee any real knowledge of those cultures, we still might have the chance of learning from what they can explain about our own cultures. Fabian’s final proposal concerns recovering the auditive as opposed to the visual, precisely in order to restore the temporality of dialogue. “We must go beyond the contemplative stances (in Marx’s sense) and dismantle the buildings of space-time distancing that are typical of the contemplative vision.”[71] To that end, the noblest human sense is hearing.[72] The temporality of speech and real communication both imply a contemporaneity, a coevalness that must be created.[73] It is not there beforehand; rather, it must be intentionally instituted. In Fabian’s view, a praxis could be set up through that intersubjective time of the communication of the ethnographic fieldwork. Therefore, by dismantling that distance, it would be possible to reconstruct the public sphere, both inside and outside museums.