Museum Practices and Migrating Modernity

A Perspective from the South

Celeste Ianniciello and Michaela Quadraro

The research presented in this paper has been developed within the European project MeLa* (“European Museums in an age of migrations”), which focuses on how contemporary migratory movements come to reshape the role of museums and archives as the privileged places of national identity and cultural memory.[1] The fundamental consideration on which the research is built is that today, under the impact of globalization and an increasing awareness of the positive role played by cultural diversity, museums can no longer pretend to represent culture in exclusively national or local terms, because they are facing the challenge of an increasingly diverse, transcultural and multilingual European society.

Since their formation, museum collections have represented the symbolic power to order and classify knowledge, to interpret and impose, to compare and evaluate. Even if a rising cultural relativism and a growing decentering of Western-oriented grand narratives have recently marked conceptual shifts in the cultural agenda, there is still much to be done “to challenge institutions, shift resources, change priorities, move practices strategically in the right direction.”[2] Creative expressions in all the arts arising from so-called ethnic minority communities—whose presence has changed the landscapes of contemporary cities and has dwelled in the multiple frames of colonialism prior to contemporary migrations—have exploded in recent decades. However, those artworks are only occasionally exhibited in mainstream venues, and when this happens, as Stuart Hall reminds us, they are often consigned to ethnic, minority, and marginalized categorizations. “Whose Heritage?” is the question addressed by him in relation to the ongoing transformation of meanings coming from the perspective of cultural diversities and migrant communities. Heritage, as a discursive practice, is always constructed with the authority of those whose versions of the past matter; those who belong to a supposedly homogenous and specific “imagined community,” to recall Benedict Anderson’s idea.[3]

Within this critical frame, our investigation suggests a series of directions through which to consider some emerging issues: firstly, the question of how museums can continue to represent memory and identity in an intercultural perspective; secondly, the challenges and opportunities that migration offers to museums in their mission as cultural mediators; and finally, the contribution of contemporary art to the transformation of collecting and memorializing strategies towards innovative forms of archiving—affective, sensorial, digital—even in conventional museum spaces. With these intentions in mind, this paper will focus on contemporary art practices and alternative museum projects that deal with and derive from different locations around the Mediterranean Sea. Nonetheless, as we will see, these distinct case studies are all interconnected, because they propose a critical reflection on the interwoven cultural, geographical, historical, and economic contexts of contemporary Europe. Art and curatorial practices that emerge from experiences of migration and hybridity are generally not to be interpreted as the objects of a political and social analysis; rather, the languages of those projects are discussed to question forms and canons, and to explore the relation between identity and difference, geographical locations, and dislocations. Moreover, the case studies that will be investigated in this paper articulate a critical relationship between cultural representations and heritage, and provide an opportunity to look critically at the idea of the preservation of the arts, traditions, and history of Europe.

We have articulated our research through three main issues—postcolonial migrations, museum practices, and critical archives—that adopt what we would refer to as a perspective from the South. The South of Italy is the place from which we speak, a traditional site of emigration from here to the northern part of the country, or towards northern Europe, the Americas, Australia, and so forth. Recently, this part of Italy has come to the fore as a site of immigration from the southern shores of the Mediterranean: the small island of Lampedusa has become the main representation in the media of the landing of the underprivileged in search of a better life and, too often, the sepulcher of those who never step on its shores, of those who never reach the southern margins of Europe. Therefore, as Lidia Curti suggests, we could look at this part of the modern world, the Mediterranean, as part of a series of mobile landscapes that globally interweave with other Southern parts of the world, and with other countries, in new political and epistemological terms.[4]

In this regard, we recall Antonio Gramsci’s work, The Southern Question (1926), in particular his consideration of subalternity as a condition that depends on mobile geographies of domination and hegemony, and his emphasis on the counter-hegemonic strategies of resistance that emerge from minoritarian voices. This also entails coming to terms with the decline of Eurocentrism—which has been going on for decades—and its universalistic narrations of such notions as civilization, culture, nation, history, and identity, and facing the possibility of “provincializing Europe” in postcolonial terms, as well as welcoming the positive implications of a European “minoritarian-becoming,” as Rosi Braidotti suggests.[5] The latter, in the wake of the Deleuzo-Guattarian philosophy of becoming, advocates an alternative vision of Europe, to be based on multiple belonging, on a rupture from the fixed capture of identity, and a process of immanent and constant transformation towards unknown routes.

Postcolonial Migrations

Our theoretical perspective is based on an interdisciplinary approach that unites sociology, history, and philosophy, alongside artistic and critical analysis. The understanding here is that migration is not only a recent social phenomenon; rather, it could be traced back in the age of the colonial conquests of overseas territories by European countries and the subsequent formation of the global trade—from the forced transportation of enslaved Africans to the Americas, to the present movement from the South of the world. How we understand migration clearly impacts the understanding of Occidental modernity, its institutional organization, and national(ist) narration of memory, confined in fixed historiographical sequences of past and present.[6]

Our world, therefore, could be understood in terms of an interlacing of histories and a concatenation of distinct worlds, as Achille Mbembe would put it, where colonialism is an open-ended process that has a crucial role for the circulation of goods, human beings, and collective imaginaries: “From every point of view, the ‘plantation’, the ‘factory’ and the ‘colony’ were the principal laboratories in which experiments were conducted into the authoritarian destiny of the world that we see today.”[7] In this sense, the postcolonial critique is about the First World interrogating its past and present, and trying to recompose its history and society in the light of what can be considered as a central phenomenon of its modernity: migration.

Today, the underprivileged can only travel illegally, outside the confines imposed by First World laws and dictates. The social injustices of the world are directly inscribed in the law, in the legal networks established by a colonial inheritance, and its contemporary disciplining of the modern world. The contemporary migrant’s story is also the exposure of this political economy into the museum, and renders the procedures of display and associated practices of knowledge very problematic.

In the summer of 2013, a temporary exhibition entitled With the Objects of the Migrants was held on the island of Lampedusa. It included objects found in the boats used by “clandestine” migrants to cross the Mediterranean and then abandoned at the island’s public dump, now known as the “cemetery of the boats.” Each object was the remains of a shipwreck; each of them was a material and, at the same time, a narrative reminder of transit, migration, and survival. Each object was a ruin. There were objects of repair and refreshment, such as a packet of couscous, a rusting teapot, a life jacket, blankets and medicines, the Koran and the Bible, along with personal objects like plastic sandals, toothbrushes, and ruined photos, all disposed neatly on a wooden platform in the middle of the room. On the opposite wall, worn pages of handwritten diaries or letters were exposed in glass cases, thus generating a direct dialogue with the objects below, along with a dilated sense of the island, both geographically and historically. In fact, the languages of those writings, from Arabic to Bengali, testify to the varied belonging of the migrants and the global routes of contemporary Mediterranean crossings.

Fig. 1. Installation view With the Objects of the Migrants, Lampedusa. Photo: Celeste Ianniciello.

Fig. 2. Installation view With the Objects of the Migrants, Lampedusa. Photo: Celeste Ianniciello.

Fig. 3. Installation view With the Objects of the Migrants, Lampedusa. Photo: Celeste Ianniciello.

Fig 4. The “cemetery of boats” in Lampedusa. Photo: Celeste Ianniciello.

Fig. 5. Porto M, a museum of migrations in Lampedusa founded by the associasion Askavusa. See

In the exhibition, mundane objects, washed ashore or abandoned, acquired a new meaning once they had been displaced from anonymous lives to the exhibitionary logic of the display case. What persists in these salvaged objects is the violent interval or suspension that marks their passage from everyday life (and death) to this quayside building in the port of Lampedusa.[8] On the edges, and beyond the boundaries of institutional legitimacy and its representation, the temporary exhibition housed on this dusty island in the seas of Tunisia refuses to lend itself easily to the fetishization of art. On the contrary, it is a sample of an artistic orientation towards participation and collaboration that has grown exponentially since the early 1990s, and has been addressed by Claire Bishop as “participatory art” in which people constitute the central artistic medium.[9] Indeed, this exhibition propels us into a global phenomenon, where the work of art as a finite item is reconsidered as a long-term and open-ended project, and the spectators are not conceived as viewers, but rather as participants who actively produce and share meanings.

Similarly, as James Clifford crudely pointed out in his recent talk at the “Collecting Geographies. Global Programming and Museums of Modern Art” conference at the Stedelijk Museum in March 2014, museums could stop being fixed on distanced objects and instead focus more consistently on the stories, the bodies, and the cultural crossings associated with those objects. In other words, this would implicate a crucial and critical passage from objects to processes. The key point is to emphasize the collective political horizon inscribed in artistic activities, such as the aforementioned exhibition in Lampedusa, where an interdisciplinary research, an affective and aware engagement of the audience, and an experimental curatorial practice are mutually related.

Migration is not simply a social problem, an economic phenomenon, and an individual tragedy. Rather, it could be regarded as an integral part of an extensive transnational history driven by a planetary political economy that constantly reiterates a logic of accumulation and exploitation. The liberal fiction of “intercultural dialogue” often negates the injustice of asymmetrical relationships of power, together with the unequal distribution of economic and cultural capital that has shaped the planetary formation of the modern world. This is a well-known and highly debated story, yet how much of this complex issue comes to be registered and acknowledged seems to be an irresolvable question. Who, in the present political economy of the world, has the power to speak? This immediately recalls the famous and still open question posed by Gayatri Spivak in her influential essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, about three decades ago, where she highlights not so much the silence of subalterns (Hindu women, in that case) or their impossibility to speak, but rather an incapability, or even an unwillingness, to listen to their voices.[10]

Thinking of and practicing new paradigms of narrating history seems to be a cultural challenge for archiving and museum institutions. Perhaps an example is represented by the objects of the migrants mentioned above and the new project built on them in Lampedusa by the Askavusa collective, the anti-institutional museum, Porto M: practices of memory, politics and community. Exhibitions with the objects of the migrants. Here, the space and time of narration are left only to the interrogative presence of the objects, and hence, to the possibility to “find the way that has brought us in that dump.”[11]

Museum Practices

The radical questioning of the historical formation and cultural “tradition” of the West, observed through a postcolonial lens, unveils a diversified Europe and impacts directly on such institutions of memory as the museum. As mentioned above, archival and exhibition practices, in particular, are reconfigured by the centrality of transcultural global transits, movements, and border crossings. Such questions are opening the museum up to a new set of challenges, transforming it into a significant critical space of intervention where European histories and identities are being negotiated.

Museums could, therefore, be considered not only as exhibitionary dispositifs or, in the words of Ursula Biemann, as “boundary-drawing devices,” but also as unstable entities that exceed their white walls.[12] In the light of these questions, museums become migrant themselves, and are expected to open on to the possibility of a “postcolonial museum.”[13] By this, we do not mean a destruction of the existing institutions or the pacific integration of the missing and subaltern voices into an ideal multicultural version, but rather a critical rewriting of European heritage. We refer to a deconstruction of the dominant historiography through the irrepressible presence of multiple histories that are the tangible traces of a colonial past that is rarely recognized or, to put it differently, the concrete consequences of enduring imperialist plans.

The museum can uncouple itself from a predictable institutionalization of the past to present itself as an activator of dynamics in a wider territory and among diverse communities of “citizens.” It is also a potential activator of memory processes, which embody conflicting viewpoints on the past and on how to narrate it; above all, on how this past constitutes an uncomfortable memory for the present. This is to propose practices of identification in and through a public space that transforms the museum into a venue able to promote affective strategies of memorialization. Here, the sensorial bodies of spectators are activated and take us beyond the compulsion to exhibit into an altogether more porous political space where the First World no longer interrogates the other, but also, and above all, itself.

How can the museum space be reopened, in order to transform it from a place of national identity, along with the one-dimensional logic of multiculturalism to a site of contaminations? As Hooper-Greenhill suggests, museums are deeply related to questions of representation and power, especially “the power to name, to represent common sense, to create official versions, to represent the social world, and to represent the past.”[14] The real challenge of re-proposing the modern European museum in a transnational framework that houses diverse histories and memories has rarely been fully considered. To this we can add the problem of how to work towards new forms of archiving—“affective,” sensorial, sonic, and fluid archives—even within the constraints of conventional museum spaces. These questions lead to rethinking the constitution of institutionalized memory, transforming it from dead matters into living issues through creation, participation, production, and innovation. This also means to consider alternative modalities of remembering and archiving that include the digital and the sensorial, which impact understandings of a multiple past and present.

In this sense, the visual arts suggest ways to experiment and reconfigure theories because they register the differentiation of space and the coexistence of multiple belongings. For example, Isaac Julien’s The Attendant (1993) is a provocative short film that is set in a museum. In this artwork, after the ambiguous and sensual encounter between the middle-aged black attendant of the museum and a younger white man, a nineteenth-century painting that depicts a slave’s capture comes to life. The attendant expresses a homosexual desire, materialized in his fantasies about the young visitor and his imagination of real bodies that replace the paintings exhibited in a cold and institutionalized museum. The logic of the viewing subject and the viewed object is subverted as the characters in the paintings look at the attendant and populate the space with hidden histories of race and gay male sexuality. This short film stages not only the return of the repressed, but also interrupts the monumental sacrality of the museum. In The Attendant, as in Julien’s subsequent installations Vagabondia (2000) and Baltimore (2003), the museum is the key theme and location of an artistic strategy that contributes to a theoretical reflection on the transformation of this institution. Contemporary exhibitionary complexes are set in motion by the circulation of hidden and border-crossing realities. At the same time, the museum becomes a space of intervention that engenders productive and experimental encounters.

A Post-Territorial Museum

The project of the Palestinian Museum is a concrete and recent example of this reconfiguration. The museum is being constructed in Birzeit, near the university, and is planned to open in 2015. Its most innovative and functional aspect is its interactive virtual platform, specifically designed for—and to be activated by—the Palestinian people themselves. It will be directed by the Palestinian scholar Beshara Doumani who, in an interview with Ursula Biemann, explains how this new institution looks at the deterritorialized models of belonging that have emerged through the networked matrix of the widely dispersed Palestinian community, thus turning what is usually perceived only as a deficit, a source of despair and powerlessness, into a powerful resource.[15] In fact, the project assumes the Palestinian population—half of whom live outside of their home territory as refugees, while those in Palestine live under different jurisdiction and are forcibly separated from each other—as its producing agents. According to Doumani, “I conceptualized [the museum] as a mobilizing and interactive cultural project that can stitch together the fragmented Palestinian body politic by presenting a wide variety of narratives about the relationships of Palestinians to the land, to each other and to the wider world.”[16]

The museum is based on different modalities of interconnection. One is a virtual platform through which users should be able to find resources that can help interrogate their past, ask critical questions about their present, and participate in the making of their future. Users will also be able to upload their own archives and experiences, and share them with other users. Another mode of connection is enabled by satellite museums in dispersed Palestinian communities—in Lebanon, the United States, and Jordan—with site-specific programs, including portals for accessing museum content and for connecting with other communities: a network of transnational centers that mirrors the Palestinian condition.

The desire to narrate and recollect one’s own story shapes the process of collective knowledge production and representation without, as Doumani affirms, “pre-determining the content or homogenizing the image…. I understand the temptation of victimhood and the urge to occupy the high moral ground, but going too far in these directions robs Palestinians both of agency and of the responsibility that comes with agency. The idea, therefore, is that the museum will view narratives that are more open-ended and contingent, so as to empower users. That is, the museum raises specific themes, presents information, asks questions, and provides the resources for users to explore these and other questions they may have. Palestinians and other users can both benefit from and shape the museum as a cultural project.”[17]

The public sphere of social action, historical narration, and remembrance emerges with the constitution of a living archive of fragmented memories, reconnected in a post-territorial space, in the face of the brutal, ongoing material and discursive colonization. Moreover, precisely at the heart of a necropolitical system of negation and dispossession, in absence of a national state and a national archive, the narrative museum conceived by Doumani opens up a space where not only “multi-vocal and contingent narratives,” but also, and simultaneously, another model of citizenship becomes possible. Therein emerges a post-institutional and sustainable citizenship, which propels beyond the institutional dimension of rights. “Sustainable citizenship” highlights how participatory practices, such as this contemporary form of collective archive of cultural memory, may enhance active processes of social recognition and empowerment. They produce a wider and more flexible, though concrete, sense of one’s own “belonging here,” concerning both de jure and denied, yet de facto, citizens. Here, the vulnerability of “out-of-place” existences like that of the Palestinians turns into a deviating force of affirmation and constitution, which confronts the colonial community with the limits of its power and legitimacy.

We are recalled here also to the relationship between the question of cultural representation and the political possibility of a radical reconsideration of such notions as heritage, cultural memory, and belonging. This ultimately implies a decolonization of ideas of “property” and “citizenship” from the Western neoliberal juridical paradigms, and considers them in a new, critical light.

If we consider such unrecognized subjectivities as the exiles (both external and internal, like the Palestinians)—the diasporic subjects, the migrants—the question goes beyond problems of multicultural coexistence or the inclusive accommodation of minorities, to concern the possibility of disengaging citizenship from the exclusivist logic of both nationality and neoliberal capitalism, and to extend it to temporary residence and multiple forms of cultural belonging, as suggested by Éhe que Balibar’s trenchant analysis of a “transnational citizenship” from the perspective of contemporary Europe.[18] The focus here is on how the museum, meant in Doumani’s terms as a “cultural platform,” can give hospitality and promote this emerging aesthetic and practice of memorializing, narrating, and dwelling, while participating in the production of a mobile, migrating, post-territorial, and more democratic sense of community and its political potential.

Critical Archives

Central to these themes is the concept of the archive, considered not as the custodian of continuity, but instead as the site of a critical cut in the hegemonic criteria of cataloguing: “the site of histories, lives and sentiments yet to be registered and narrated.”[19] Globalization and movement create disconnections between identity and location. There emerge alternative worlds of imaginative selves, and the recombination of lives under the condition of migration. The work of imagination and aspiration, therefore, is not a privilege, but becomes the essential condition for sharing new debates and narratives of loss.

In this sense, interactive media play a special role, because they allow new forms of agency in the construction of imagined communities and contribute to building up living diasporic memories. According to Arjun Appadurai, for modern migrants the archive is a “map,” an ongoing research tool (and not a preordained place); a space where collective memory offers an ethical basis for the construction of cultural identities in the often unfavorable conditions of a new society.[20] In the spirit of Foucault, Appadurai’s proposal offers us the opportunity to view the archive less as a container and more as a socially produced project that brings forth forms of everyday intervention: conscious sites of debate and desire.

The experience of reappropriation exemplified by the Palestinian Museum is what some examples of contemporary art seem to propose, highlighting the intricate interconnection between aesthetics, ethics and politics. At Documenta 13, for example, Palestinian artist Emily Jacir created a kind of personal museum from some Palestinian literary remains, where history, memory, and belonging are intimately interconnected and interrogated. In her photographic installation ex libris (2012), the artist showed images drawn from more than thirty thousand books coming from Palestinian homes, institutions, and libraries, looted by Israel in 1948 and then kept and catalogued as A.P. (Abandoned Property) in the Jewish National Library, West Jerusalem. Jacir took pictures with her cell phone over the course of many visits. She showed the internal pages of those books, where the Arabic writing is both in handwriting and typescript, sometimes clear in bold characters, and elsewhere almost disappeared or superimposed with other writing, and therefore hardly legible. Sometimes English words mingle with Arabic ones. In Kassel, where Documenta was hosted, the artist created a register of the traces and fragments she found, and translated some handwritten inscriptions of the former owners into German and English, exhibiting them on billboards in public spaces, weaving a dialogue with history and place. Ex libris, in fact, takes place in the Zwehrenturm, the area of the Fridericiarum museum where manuscripts were stored and that survived the 1941 American bombing that destroyed other volumes kept in the museum’s library. Jacir also concentrated on the postwar period, when the region of Hessel-Kassel was occupied by American forces. Here, the Offenbach Archival Depot, which hosted the books and manuscripts looted by the Nazis, instituted a process of restitution, the largest in an American-occupied zone up until then. Interlacing past and present experiences of siege and destruction (perpetuated by the United States and Israel), and superseding the borders of different histories and geographies (North America, Central Europe, the Middle East), the artist appears to re-actualize the process of restitution, giving it a disruptive meaning that questions the very idea of ownership. The Palestinian books that were once brutally appropriated are now registered in a public vision and space, through a creative gesture that renders them uncontainable. What the artwork produces is not simply a recuperation of what was lost, but the transformation of the loss into a possibility of a power that goes beyond colonial power towards a different recollection that activates memory as difference.

A further example of such a historical and spatial reappropriation activated by art comes from another installation shown in Documenta 13, entitled Repair: From Occidental to Extra-Occidental Cultures (2012), by the Algerian artist Kader Attia. This artwork brings us directly into a decomposed archive, presenting itself as a sort of fragmented and random collection of objects coming from the past and elsewhere in Africa and Europe, and gathered to form a subterranean and silent dialogue amongst themselves. Here, the temporal and spatial coordinates of the objects’ belonging and provenance interlace and multiply. Attia’s work shows a series of different objects and images from formerly colonized African countries. Collected by the artist over fifteen years, they are now exposed on iron shelves, similar to those used for storage, and in wooden showcases. The aesthetic material exhibited is highly variegated: from traditional wooden sculptures from Dakar and Senegal, to marble ones from Carrara, Italy. Alongside these are old newspapers, books, magazines, original photographs, and repaired African artifacts, photocopies, metallic objects; from vitrines and mestizo objects (objects of extra-Occidental cultures integrating an element of those cultures), to Trench art (objects made during World War I in the trenches by soldiers using cartridges and artillery shells) and a slide show. The latter displays images of the so-called “gueules cassées,” the Great War veterans thus named because of their irreparable physical damage, in particular to their faces.

Recalling the monstrosity of war and the absurd violence exercised by men upon other men, these mutilated combatants, identified as “broken faces” and thus reduced to their corporeal wound, were allowed little social visibility or historical recognition. In France, for example, they were assigned by the French government a house some forty kilometers from Paris, and often excluded from public commemorations of the war dead. Their status as damaged survivors, of disfigured individuals, of being damaged but not yet dead, and thus reminders of an open wound on/from the past, prevented them being hailed as “heroes” of the homeland.

So, what do the images of those broken faces tell us? Is the broken faces slideshow in Attia’s Repair a “resurrection,” activating a form of historical restitution? Is this an attempt to recompose a lacking historical mosaic with the inclusion of the missing parts? Perhaps all of this is at play in the installation, but also, even beyond that, especially if one considers that the work evokes not so much a sense of historical pacification and reconciliation as a sense of disturbance and a problematization of any attempt to produce a simple, historical account. This is evident in the juxtaposition of objects of beauty, such as the African and Italian sculptures with war objects like pieces of artillery, cartridges, and trenches. Moreover, in between the repaired artifacts there are other recovered objects, such as old magazines, pictures, books, and images of dismembered and irreparable bodies.

Actually, what is at first glance perceived as being casually juxtaposed displays a dynamic of cultural interplay. This is an archive of the ruins produced by colonialism and war, but it is also a museum of cultural exchange between Africa and the former colonial powers of Europe—from the well-known references to traditional African sculpture in Modernist art, to the jewelry that African artisans made from cartridge cases—suggestive of a critical dialogue between them. If a possibility of repair is in play here, it relies precisely on a work of fragmentation and recollection that functions as a “healing” method of historical “reconstitution,” yet without any guarantee of rehabilitation. The interplay of these objects results in a very complex picture, not only of reciprocal influence between colonial and postcolonial cultures, but also of radical questioning. Attia’s installation activates a disruptive encounter with a repressed historical narration and materiality, confronting the spectator with the possibility of repair as an exercise in cultural reappropriation and, above all, with the problematic existence of the “incurable images” of history.[21]

A reappropriation of history implies the opportunity of an ecologic consideration of history. That is, to reconsider history in the light of its material archives, retracing their transits, circulation, and redistribution, registering other histories and the human migrations connected to them. It also underscores how the apparently distant, ancient, new, or foreign is instead already part of “our” present home. Once again, a suggestion on the urgency of a different look at history and modernity, starting from the narration of its migrant materiality, comes from art. Indicative is the exhibition Sugar Journeys (2013), dedicated to the latest artistic research by the French-Algerian artist Zineb Sedira, which explores the port of Marseille and the shipping movements of the Saint Louis Sucre factory (the only sugar trade left in France). Shown in Galerie La Jetée, an abandoned space in the port of Marseille converted into a multifunctional art gallery, the exhibition is composed of photos taken in the sugar silos in Marseille, sugar sculptures reproducing a ship’s anchor and propeller, an installation made with little samples of sugar coming from different countries in the world and stored in Marseille, and a video. All of the works are based on sugar as a material for artistic creation that is simultaneously a subject of historical analysis and cultural reflection. The visit to this exhibition was at the basis of one of our case studies, wherein we witnessed, following the sugar routes indicated by Sedira, the linkage between European identity, history, and modernity to other, often violent and hidden, histories and a multiple modernity sustained in the capitalist geopolitics of movements and diasporas across the oceans. Sedira’s artworks bring to mind the fact that the Mediterranean is still at the center of what the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott would, more knowingly, call the “bitter history of sugar.”[22]


The artworks and alternative museum projects from the South presented here are not to be simply considered as case studies that sustain or “represent” a theory, as they are themselves a theory: they produce new thought, rather than simply reproducing what has already been proposed. An invitation to question one’s own cultural assumptions is implicit in such artworks, and is part of art production and the artistic experience. In particular, the invitation coming from the artworks mentioned above is to rethink established nationalist ideas of cultural memory, history, and geography, in addition to belonging in the light of modern processes of migration; to reconsider the role of museum and archives, and the strict interrelation and reciprocal interrogation between cultural, historical, or ethnographic museums and art museums, and to challenge the hegemonic European and Western universal narrations of past and present through the instrumentally subjected and repressed voices and histories coming mostly from the South—the part of the world on which the construction of the North-Occidental modernity has burdened.

The history of silenced memories and subordinated lives is also the narrative of the institutional apparatuses that sustain and perpetuate common mechanisms of knowledge: from anthropology, sociology, and the museum exhibitionary complex, to the response of governmental policies to contemporary migrations from non-European countries. As a potential site of critical intervention, the museum, in its different variables as both historical, cultural, and ethnographic institution and art space, “has to become a potential research institute of modernity.”[23] This implies moving from the assumption of an objective, universal narrative of the world towards the lateral specificities of a “universality,” considered not as identification and transparency, but rather as translation.[24] This is to propose a necessary process of incessant testing that could register the co-presence of multiple points of view, irreducible to a single framing.

With these questions in mind, the artistic practices and curating projects explored in this paper take a heterogeneous modernity into account and adopt a postcolonial cartography that reconsiders the Mediterranean as a site of stratification and complexity, and the South of Europe (and of the world) as the places where unregistered minor histories are able to draw upon maps of the uncharted routes of diasporic, hybrid, and subaltern subjectivities, alternative and yet coexistent with the official “white male” Occidental subject.

Thinking from the South(s) is considered here as an innovative theoretical practice, able to dismantle the persisting stereotypical representation of the South as endemically backward, picturesque, poor, addicted to a civil inertia, and in a state of “perpetual emergence,” in contrast with an economically dynamic, technologically advanced, and financially austere North.[25] This representation, which can be traced back to early nineteenth-century travellers’ accounts, and is still dominant in today’s neoliberal Europe, is functional to forms of cultural, political, and economic subjection, which responds to a colonial logic of hierarchization, racialization, and control of people and territories. Dismantling this opportunistic representation, then, corresponds to a postcolonial political and cultural practice, as it means to radically subvert an epistemological map of the world that is essentially colonial. In this sense, the aesthetics of the artistic examples examined here proposes an ethics of cultural displacement and repositioning.

Therefore, Europe is unmade as a definite location of inclusion/exclusion and remade as a fluid space of multiple contaminations and transcultural differences. A political perspective from the South permits us to look at European territories as a privileged terrain for the discussion of global flows and forces, and an exemplary site for investigating the question of migration, as well as its transformative flow in its material, historical, and creative unfolding.

“Introduction,” “Postcolonial Migrations,” and “Museum Practices” by Michaela Quadraro. “The Possibility of a Post-territorial Museum,” “Critical Archives,” and “Conclusion” by Celeste Ianniciello.