»Everything can die, the objects may be lost or destroyed, but what matters for me is people – their memory and identity.«
Colonial conquests and other military expeditions in Southern Europe and elsewhere in developing countries have resulted in systematic plundering of works of art which today make certain museums in the West very happy. As voices rise to claim these objects they meet resistance because the countries currently in possession are in a position of strength, and do not want to transfer these ill-gotten goods.
Ana Mendes, artistic performer working in London does not hold this view. Her practice is to assess the consciousness of European citizens in order to urge opinion to act on governments. Cultural journalist Tony Feda, based in Lomé, met her for an interview during her residency at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart.
Tony Feda: You are known as one of the artists struggling for the return of many ethnographic objects belonging to Third World countries detained by main European museums. Could you tell us in what these objects consist of and why we find them somewhere else than in their places of origin?
Ana Mendes: Ethnographic objects were brought to Europe and other museums worldwide mostly during the colonial times. The act of stealing artworks or other cultural items did not happen only during the European colonialism; it’s part of history. In Europe, many objects were taken from different countries – for instance, during the Napoleonic wars many countries were massively raided for their treasures. In my view, what distinguishes ethnographic objects is that, on the one hand, they are not conventional artworks intentionally made to be displayed in museums or galleries; they are everyday objects, used in rituals and similar events. Although ethnographic studies predate European colonialism, it was after this movement, that people became fascinated by other cultures, which were perceived as being exotic, and developed several activities around them, like zoos, botanical gardens, or ethnographic museums.
»I am interested in generating as many subjective views as possible on this matter.«Ana Mendes
On the other hand, these objects were taken in special conditions, in the sense that colonialism was a massive aggression towards some countries; in its final phase it was an organized movement that took control of several parts of the world by using force. It was like a machine, because it was used as a justification to promote the industrial revolution. Not only did they need more materials, they also needed to instruct these people. It was an industrial evangelization. Of course, one also needs to understand that, during colonial times, people had a different perception of events. I think that history blinds you, because there is a lot of ambition involved. People lose sight of what is happening. Thus, it’s not possible to look back and to judge them according to our own criteria, today. No matter how critical you are, you need to be real. Above all, I think that this subject needs to be discussed. I am interested in generating as many subjective views as possible on this matter.
TF: Did you also find these objects here in Stuttgart?
AM: Similarly to other museums in Europe, Stuttgart also has an ethnographic museum – the Linden Museum – that holds these objects. The complexity of this situation is that in many cases you cannot point to the objects and say that they were stolen or looted, because there are no records or the ones existing are false, in the sense that many stolen objects where taken initially in their original country, traded there by several agents until they finally reached Europe and were bought here. One of the few and well documented exceptions is, perhaps, the case of Benin, as there are many records from the Punitive Expedition, commanded by the English people in 1897. This expedition happened because the King of Benin offered resistance to the English colonization, thus, they sent a special mission to dominate them. They went there and basically killed most people and took all the artifacts they could find. Most Benin artworks in museums worldwide – from the British Museum to Weltmuseum in Vienna, the Frankfurt Museum, and The Met in New York – came from this lot of stolen works.
»The complexity of this situation is that in many cases you cannot point to the objects and say that they were stolen or looted, because there are no records or the ones existing are false, […]«Ana Mendes
In Germany, you also have the case of the Hereros, the massacre in Namibia, where most of the people were killed, tortured, and subject to practices similar to the Jewish Holocaust, and then the works, as well as the skulls of the slaughtered people, were brought to Europe.
TF: These objects disappeared at least a century ago, what are the consequences of their absence in the cultural heritage of those countries?
AM: To me, as a European person, it’s difficult to know. I can only imagine or project myself on this matter. I believe that ethnographic objects have an emotional value, as they are related with rituals in the country of origin, such as birth, relation with nature, death, medicine, black magic, etc. Thus, it seems logical to me that, after losing their resources, language, and culture, these people should have their symbols back, because it is the only way of having a conciliation with the past. Without your memories, you cannot reorder your past, and therefore cannot imagine a future.
»Besides, some people also say that returning the objects is a romanticized European idea of sorting out the past, which cannot be done.«Ana Mendes
But, I am a European person, thus, I project my own outside opinion. Besides, some people also say that returning the objects is a romanticized European idea of sorting out the past, which cannot be done. So, I am aware of my limits, and I don’t think that I should come up with certainties. It’s the act of questioning that moves things forward, in my view . Besides, I think that this is a very complex subject that cannot be decided in universal terms – every culture has different expectations, and they need to be analyzed individually.
TF: What are your missions?
AM: I am an artist, not an activist or art historian. I am developing a project that addresses this issue and plays in between photography and performance. My goal is to analyze the content of ethnographic museums around the world under the perspective of post-colonialism, ethnography and identity. I started this project in London, last year, because there you have many colonial symbols, but they are perceived as multiculturalism. Thus, I wanted to create a project in which people from a country that has been invaded or colonized in the past could rethink their identity. I was interested in learning with them and also challenging them. I am interested in opening up the discussion, on the subjective views of different people and on creating a sort of invisible performance, in the sense that I created a mechanism/set up in which the different agents (i.e. participants, guards, museums) play different roles, spontaneously and out of my control. I just created the situation, an ideal frame, and afterwards it unfolds by itself. Since then, I have been actively working with many people in different museums in Europe.
»I also think independent European institutions should facilitate the process [of returning the objects], as, in many cases, peoples in some countries don’t have the resources to do that.« Ana Mendes
Almost 100% of the participants think that the objects should be returned, for many reasons, some are rather personal, others social or political. In my view, and although I am aware that not all the objects can be returned straight away, I think that the objects should be sent back. Therefore, people who have the right to them should claim them. I also think independent European institutions should facilitate the process, as, in many cases, peoples in some countries don’t have the resources to do that. Perhaps, some of them don’t even know that they have the right to do so as a consequence of centuries of domination. Colonial oppression diminishes ones self-esteem and identity, both as an individual and as part of a certain collective marked in time and space.
My mission, nevertheless, is to work with people. I think that, in the end, this sort of process is always discussed amongst institutions, and people are never called to speak about it. Thus, I wanted to make a project from people to people. Everything can die, the objects might be lost or destroyed, but what matters most for me are people – their memory and identity.
TF: What are the responses of European museums regarding this situation?
AM: So far, I’ve only contacted the British Museum, who responded as expected. They sent a very formal, but yet friendly, letter in which they ignore the request. thus, they also played their own role out of my control. It’s nice to observe how the different elements in society play their roles regardless of what you do or wish. All together, it becomes a kind of performance – each actor playing their role spontaneously. I expect much more discussion and outcome from other European museums that are quite critical in this matter. But, voila, I also recently sent a letter to Her Majesty the Queen! Let’s see what she says to her humble servant, as they say.
TF: At the end of July, the Minister of Arts, Culture and Tourism of Benin negotiated with French authorities and Unesco for the return of cultural property to Benin. Do you think it is possible that one day the government of France will authorize the return of the objects ?
AM: I don’t have enough knowledge to comment on French policies on this matter, but overall I think that the museums worldwide will have to face this issue in the near future. At the very least, they will have to recognize the problem – some of them already have, and have returned some of the objects or are discussing forms discussing forms of cooperating with people from those countries. Although, I have fear that some forms of cooperating might mean a denial of the colonial past.
Nevertheless, the same problem happens within some of the countries that were once colonies, like Australia, who deny their aboriginal cultures, just to mention one example.
To return to your question, I know that in the past Unesco has made explicit recommendations on this subject, recommending the repatriation of these objects. Then, it’s up to the countries to take their recommendations or not. But, to be fair, I must say that some of the institutions returned some of the objects, including the University of Cambridge, individual citizens, and some other museums.
»If someone slaps you, you look back for an apology, right? I think that is about the symbolism of the gesture.«Ana Mendes
TF: In his novel, El libro de arena (The Book of Sand), Jorge Luis Borges wrote: »Oblivion and memory are also inventive.« In fact, after decades in which those nations have symbolically lost many parts of their memories, did not they built anything to re-constitute them? What are the possibilities to go beyond these postcolonial effects?
AM: In fact, I am very interested in memory in regard to narration. The fact that you don’t have the object anymore, but its memory makes you imagine it, and find something else to take that place. To build an identity means to constantly re-imagine yourself and that is an intellectual act, not a material one. But, the question here is the symbolism of the action, because the objects did not vanish by natural causes, but by the force of human action – and it was a massive/industrial act – so, this needs to be repaired in one way or another. People lost their resources, language, and culture; all of a sudden everything was erased. It’s difficult to move on, if what was made wrong isn’t recognized. If someone slaps you, you look back for an apology, right? I think that is about the symbolism of the gesture.
TF: Could you tell us what is the effect of colonization on colonized peoples mind’s?
AM: Again, it’s difficult to say because I never experienced it – I am of Portuguese origins.
But, I guess that colonization can be compared to a form of rape. Invasions are part of the history of humanity – most countries were at some point invaded during their history. Some of them were simultaneously invaders and invaded. The difference between the invasions that covered Europe in the middle ages, for instance, and European colonialism is that the last one was massive, a very violent and mechanical act, as I said previously.
Personally, I suppose that countries that were at some point invaded or colonized have some problems on affirming themselves or building their identity. I guess that it is the same as it happens to people: victims of violence have usually more self-esteem problems, and struggle to find their way. I suppose that it is not a coincidence that most countries colonized by Europeans have political, economical and social problems. But, that is a very complex problem, which I could not analyze here, in just a few lines.