Exodus Stations #4

Around The Objects
An outcome of Catarina Simão's residency
at the Quai Branly Museum

Catarina Simão March 2018

The title of this text – positioned in-between a research piece, essay and artistic proposal – intends to point to the fact that there is always a violence connected to how objects are being disseminated and perceived. In my view, this violence is not so much connected to the content these objects transmit, but originates rather in the way the object’s custody has been conceived and practiced: the spatial organization of the archive where the objects (or images of them) have been stored, the classificatory system and systems of representation that have been used.

1. A single image for multiple visions

This photo was taken in 1997 by the Italian architect Gianfranco Gandolfo in Nandimba, Northern Mozambique, in the Cabo Delgado region. It portrays the Makonde sculptor and woodcarver Matias Ntundo in his home village. He sits on a low bench and looks thoughtfully at his black wooden art work – a crucified Christ, lying on the ground.

This photo has always seemed to me a good key-image to think about the paradoxes surrounding the work of both artist and art historian. The originality of the image resides in the lack of engagement of the author towards his own work. This scenario could be variated to infinity involving elements from the long and violent past of evangelization operated by Western culture.

Under Christ’s feet, one can see a very small pedestal, which makes it possible to imagine that this cross was suspended vertically against the white wall of a Catholic Church – from where it could have been previously removed; or perhaps the church has been closed or desecrated with the withdrawal of the Christ. If the photographer’s choice had been to portray the artist with another of his sculptures at his feet – like an Ujaama sculpture1 or a mask from the Mapiko2 dance – the discourse surrounding this image could be formulated differently and we would not think about the ‘assimilation’ threatening the authenticity of native cultures. On the contrary, in that case, we could think that the image captures the transition from ‘fetish/ritual object’ to ‘work of art’. This transition happened through the intermediation of another concept called African Art – that allowed us to now call what was previously called ‘fetish’ a ‘work of art’. My hypothesis reading this image is nevertheless that the artist himself does not allow a predictable control to be exercised upon him by any type of discourse – whether conceptual or political.

Exhibiting Makonde

Since colonial times the exhibition of the material culture of the Makonde has focused mainly on ebony wood sculptures (black wood) and on masks3. Some of these exhibitions focus on what is called ‘traditional art’, while others focus on the Makonde art known as ‘modern’. Other exhibitions included traditional and modern art side by side, incorporating artefacts made for tourists. The diversity of artistic languages and artists’ personalities was usually left in the background.

In 1989 L’art Makondé, tradition et modernité was exhibited at the Musée des Arts Africains et Océaniens in Paris. In the same year, the exhibition Les Magiciens de la Terre also exhibited two Makonde pieces by the Mozambican Makonde sculptor John Fundi4. Magiciens de la Terre brought a new approach in relation to previous shows, by crediting exceptional talent and sophistication to the artist from Africa.

In 1999, a new exhibition in Maputo, Arte Makonde, Caminhos Recentes (Makonde Art, Recent Paths) produced a catalogue where the photo discussed above was included. It is interesting to reflect on the term ‘Recent Paths’ and the precaution the temporal attribute reveals. In the introductory text, the organizers Alda Costa and Gianfranco Gandolfo, write: ‘In Mozambique the individualization of artistic work only started to be initiated for some artists in the 80s’5. The choice to show a picture of a Makonde artist next to his work – a crucifix that challenges the Western concepts of African art and authenticity – is responding to this statement. My hypothesis is that he sits down to contemplate his work, but the photo does not show how he produced it with his hands, but rather with his gaze.

Visual questions around Frelimo’s struggle

Christianity has used the image as a symbol of power and an instrument of its conquests. Whoever controls the image, controls the gaze and has power over the world. In Mozambique, Frelimo, the liberating front movement that led the guerrilla war (1964-1974) against the Portuguese colonial troops, developed a precise visual strategy. The production and diffusion of images played a central role in politics so that photography and cinema became synonymous with instruments of struggle. The collection of photography created by Frelimo was produced and organized during their time of exile in Tanzania6. We can find such images nowadays at the Historical National Archive (Arquivo de História Nacional) of Maputo.

Even if the original organization of this collection has not been re-established, the labelling methodology of these photos is revealing. It shows the functions attributed to the subjects of the photographs: Production, Education, Health, and People. The department that was responsible for it (Departamento de Informação e Propaganda) did not classify the photographs according to their authors because of the prevalent political ideology that intended to stimulate a sense of community7. A former Frelimo photographer and protagonist of the film I co-directed in 2016 (Djambo)8, explained that it was not in the interest of the struggle to celebrate his individual work, since all photographers worked at the service of a superior cause.

It is interesting to observe that this principle was not only applied to strategies of war, but also to strategies of science. Regarding the context of European Museology from the end of the 19th century, Christine Barthe, the director of the photographic collection of the Musée du Quai Branly, explains that a way to reinforce the scientific value of photographs at the Musée de l ‘Homme (f.1937) was to erase the information on the photographer: ‘It is very interesting how a system of producing scientific images needed to present the image as neutral, erasing the information on its author.’

Images also continued to play an important role after Independence and were used for the maintenance of the Frelimo’s power. These images were diffusing pedagogical ideas and official narratives to support the nationalist project. This is the case of the film Mueda, Memória e Massacre, shot in 1978 in the Mueda village in Cabo Delgado.

I studied this film for a long time at the archive of the National Institute of Cinema (Instituto Nacional do Audiovisual e Cinema), until I could reconstitute the original version as its director Ruy Guerra9 first cut it. Indeed, the film was subjected to several cuts after its first national release in 1979. The film is the record of a theatrical play by Makonde actors re-enacting an historical episode of 1960 known as ‘the massacre of Mueda’.

The film shows the first attempts at negotiation between the Portuguese Administration and proto-nationalist Makonde associations, founded in the neighbouring country, Tanganyika, which was transiting from British rule to Independence with no use of weapons. The local Portuguese colonial administration, caught totally unprepared by the demands of Makonde political groups, responded with violence against the Makonde population gathered in support of their Makonde proto-nationalist representatives.

At the time of these events in 1960, these political claims were understood as defending the interests of the people and lands of the Makonde region. During the Liberation Struggle (1964 -1975) this episode was introduced into the official historic narrative formulated by the Frelimo, in support of a nationalistic claim. This nationalist version continued after Independence in 1975, supported also by a new narrative constructed with cuts introduced in the film.

Three main elements were removed from the film on the massacre of Mueda: the testimony of the former colonial administrator; the figure of the narrator, who tells the political importance of the events of 1960; and a sequence showing the image of Jesus Christ crucified in black wood, hanging on the wall of the church of the Catholic Mission of Nangololo10, located not far from Mueda. Surely the erasure of the image of Christ by the Frelimo information security department corresponds to the level of power emanated by this image. The political context is clearly one in which Frelimo asserts itself as a dominant political group, holding for the Mozambican people the only source of objective historical knowledge. In this configuration there is no place for tribal identities nor religion. My initial hypothesis about the photography portraying the sculptor Matias Ntundu finds its justification again in this context.

2. Missing objects vs. their persistence

The history of collection of Makonde objects connects to the expedition of the German Karl Weule11 in the extreme south of East Africa. This expedition took place in 1906, just before the First World War, when British troops took over this territory under German rule, which covered the region of countries known today as Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda. The study of the Makonde population was of particular interest to the imperial administration, with the purpose of better controlling this group known for its resistance to colonization12. The outcome of the expedition of Weule was integrated into the collection of African pieces of the Grassimuseum at Leipzig (Museum fur Volkerkunde), which Weule directed.

The Portuguese ethnologist Jorge Dias13, who was an admirer of Weule’s work, also undertook a series of expeditions in the late 1950s analysing the Makonde region of Mozambique14. In Mozambique, the Makonde region extends to the northern part of the Indian Ocean coast and along the border with Tanzania. In several respects, Dias’ career mirrors Weule’s: apart from sharing of the same subject of study, the scientific work of both served the aims of control of colonial policy.

The richness of findings from their expeditions generated large exhibitions in their countries of origin, and they became responsible for the institutional management of these collections. Jorge Dias was the founder of the National Museum of Ethnology in Lisbon, Portugal, which still stores the objects collected during his expedition today. Even if the two scientists were interested in the cultural and political relations generated by the Makonde beyond the border of their territory, the paradox of having to travel into two European countries to find out about the history of Makonde and its colonial encounters increases the violence of the situation.

3. The time-object and the museum

The Makonde have suffered Germanic, British and Portuguese colonization, but not colonization from the French. This may explain why Makonde art has such a light presence in the exhibition space at the Quai Branly Museum, with the exception of a room in the area dedicated to Southern Africa and East Africa, where one can find some wooden figures, spears and canes, among other objects, coming mainly from Tanzania. Mrs. Gaëlle Beaujean15, responsible for the African collections at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, explained that most Makonde objects entered the collection via endowments from private collectors in the years following the exhibition Art Makonde, Tradition and Modernity in 1989.

Up until the end of the Marxist-Leninist era in Mozambique, the Makonde sculptures were used as currency for the import of goods that could not be directly traded with capitalist countries. This conjuncture fuelled a market that had begun to be established during the Liberation War, when the Makonde guerrillas were producing art specifically for the Western collectors’ market to support the acquisition of weapons for the war16.

At the Quai Branly Museum collections of objects, documents and photographs from successive French museums founded in the colonial era (Trocadéro Museum, Musée de l’Homme and Museum of Arts of Africa and Oceania) come together. This becomes a unique ground for delving into the object’s relation to time and consequently history that is made perceptible through the object’s visual representations in the past.

When revisiting the permanent exhibition space, where the display has been maintained since the Museum opened in 2006, it occurred to me that the permanent exhibition of the museum is organized geographically by continent and subcontinent, and therefore the exhibition path is made towards Africa, towards Asia, across Oceania… Although this structure was not designed according to the a-historical photographic archive of the Musée de l’Homme (about which Christine Barthe talks in the interview included in this booklet), it is following a model that considerably resembles the organisation of material in the archive. This exhibition space conceived geographically (rather than semantically, or chronologically) aims to reconstitute the ‘place’, rather than the meaning or the history of these places.

This model reminds us that in Western museums, what is at stake is not only what is preserved, but rather what has been collected and where. The authority of the museological space stems from its ability to establish the meaning of objects both in relation to their attributed position in the exhibition space, and in relation to the place in which they emerged. The fact that the evaluation of the object must be done in light of the present time of the exhibition, and at the same time in light of a geographical past from which the object originated, makes it possible to reconstruct the object’s identity only by taking the present time as a reference point. During guided tours, visitors often question this impasse: ‘but are they wearing these masks even nowadays?’ Often the guide responds, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ without further explanation.

The room dedicated to the Dogon is one of the most sought after in the museum Quai Branly. It is a small space but spectacularly illuminated. The ritual masks exhibited are quasi-floating and not on showcases. I decided to install my camera and to film for a while in order to examine elements present in space without planning to film anything specific. In the resulting video the sound coming from the audio-visual support material, is very present. In one of them, we recognize the narrative sombre timbre of the documentary films of the 1930s. In a second film the narration is more fluid and poetic, which recalls for the visitor the voiceovers of the documentaries of the 1970s. The guide explains: ‘The first film extract in black and white is from the expedition to the Dogon region of 1934. The one made 40 years later is in colour and allows a better appreciation of the liveliness of the colours of the masks.’17

There is a disturbing contrast between these two filmed pieces and the Dogon objects themselves. The documentary videos can be dated by the colour of the Super 8, or the black and white film, or by the narrator’s diction, while the Dogon objects on display apparently do not show any trace of the passage of time that allows us to date them and to imagine how many years they have been existing here.

In the video interview with Enrico Fulchignoni18, the French ethnologist Jean Rouch speaks critically about the immobility that characterized the display of the Dogon objects in the Musée de l’Homme in 1974, the year when the video was made. The video was shot inside the museum, with precisely the same masks that are now on view in the Musée de l’Homme.
In view of these historic routes, we can ask ourselves if the Western ‘museological magic’ is not imprinting into the objects its own simulation of eternity?

The head of preventive conservation at the Museum, Eléonore Kissel, assures me that it is a matter of expertise to be able to see the damage and fragmentation of materials beyond the magic of the museological display strategy, with its spectacularity and the over-evaluation of the object’s visual effect.

Christine Barthe talks in the interview above about the transition that she witnessed from an archival model dominated by geographical and a-historical criteria to a linear database with indexation to the image’s author and donor. The former archival model had long been the dream of a global administration based on order and rationality, nevertheless this model has not yet left museum spaces and the challenge is to look for alternatives that denounce its irrational underside.