Knight Moves / Positions
The Three Knight Moves
In June 2013, we had the pleasure of being taken on a tour of the Suriname Maroon collections in the reserves of the Ethnological Museum Dahlem – hundreds of objects, most of them familiar from our examination of other museum collections throughout the world, but also some objects that we’d never encountered before. During our visit, we were introduced to the museum’s “Knight Moves” presentations within the Humboldt Lab Dahlem – three installations specially designed to pique curiosity, and inspire reflection.
Hyper-Modernity Meets Tradition
As anthropologists, we found Theo Eshetu’s “Mirror Ball Constellation” particularly evocative in a visual sense. Of the three “Knight Moves” installations, this one struck us as coming closest to a work of “contemporary art” and in that sense it’s the least explicitly intellectual. For us, the visual reflections evoked the firmament, the multitudinous stars that Pacific Islanders used (and still use) to navigate between far-off specks of earth. We immediately thought of the marvelous opening chapter of Greg Dening’s “Beach Crossings”1, which recounts “the most remarkable voyage of discovery and settlement in all human history”, 2000 years ago, when a double-hulled canoe (much like those in the exhibition) left a cluster of islands in the Western Pacific (today’s Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji) and more than 6000 kilometers later landed in what we now call the Marquesas, all the while following the stars – the Matariki (the Pleiades), Na Kao (Orion’s brightest star), and Ana-Muri (The Follower of the Pleaides). At the same time, the Mirror Ball evoked the present, reminding us of the development of parts of Polynesia, such as Tahiti, where state-of-the-art discothèques (apparently a particularly common reading of Eshetu’s installation) and the traditional world of double-hulled canoes, navigated by the stars, rub shoulders in a hyper-modernity still marked by memories of the pre-development past.
Reintegration into the Original Context
Martina Stoye’s “Purnakumbha” effectively realizes an exhibitionary strategy that has been deployed with excellent effect in various museums since the 1980s – taking artworks normally displayed as individual objects, completely outside of their initial context, and reintegrating them to form the kind of altar on which they were originally used. Such altar installations have become common in U.S. museums featuring Mexican art; indeed some Mexican(-American) contemporary artists, such as Amalia Mesa-Bains, have made altars a personal specialty2. And displays of African and diasporic African arts have also presented ritual ensembles in the form of richly embellished altars; see, for example, the “Face of the Gods” exhibition in New York3 or the “Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou” exhibition in Los Angeles4. This type of exhibit, which plays a double (aesthetic/religious) role, encourages a view of the ingredients as religious objects rather than isolated art objects to a degree that might be frowned upon in France (on the grounds of violating the principle of laïcité) but, from our own perspective, it represents a bold step forward. For us — non-specialists on India —knowing that the “Purnakumbha” has been installed here with the assistance of representatives of the Hindu temple in Berlin adds greatly to our appreciation of these objects. For anyone who believes that culture matters, and that the participation of people from the cultures on display is often essential to the respectful presentation of objects, this innovative exhibition greatly enriches the experience of viewing the individual objects themselves.
Questions on Dealing With Collecting History
Andrea Scholz’s “Surinam/Benin” is the most cerebral of the three “Knight Moves” installations. It also falls most decisively within our own orbit as specialists on the Maroon societies of Suriname, and thus merits more detailed commentary. In a necessarily small compass, the object and its text, taken together, engage two crucial issues in contemporary museology that are sometimes intentionally avoided as being “too negative” – how to deal with collection history and how to deal with colonialism. As readers of Sally Price’s “Paris Primitive”5 (2008) will know, these two issues caused deep divisions during the planning stages of the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, with anthropologist Maurice Godelier arguing for the inclusion of information about both collection history and the realities of the colonial relations in which much of the collecting was embedded and the other members of the planning committees arguing that such contextualization interfered with the aesthetic experience and should therefore be avoided. After Godelier was forced out of his role in the museum, decisions were made that, in effect, banished all such information from the finished project.
In “Surinam/Benin”, the curator Andrea Scholz begins by interrogating, insofar as possible, the museum’s acquisition record itself and uncovers a (quite typical but normally unacknowledged) tale of colonial violence as part of the act of collecting. It recalls starkly the very different case in which Michel Leiris’s description (in “L’Afrique fantôme”, 1934) of how he stole a ritual object from a shrine during France’s Dakar-Djibouti expedition of the 1930s6 was expressly avoided by the Quai Branly museum, which quoted his text about collecting the object, but left out his vivid description of his criminal act. By placing the theft of the Ndyuka ritual object by the German Herrnhuter missionary within its time and place, by giving voice to its historicity, Scholz performs an exemplary act of enlightened museology, with its attention to the complexities and ethical dilemmas of the colonial past.
The village of Wanhatti (today called by Ndyukas “Agiti-ondoo”), where the object was collected, is now the largest of the Ndyuka villages along the Cottica River of Suriname. Along with nearby villages, it was founded soon after the emancipation of slaves in coastal Suriname in 1863 - Ndyukas had been free since their 1760 peace treaty with the Dutch crown but never really felt free to settle on the coast until after general emancipation. Franco-Brazilian photographer Pierre Verger took strikingly evocative photos of nighttime ‘kumanti’ rituals in Wanhatti in 1948 that would nicely complement this small exhibit7. And it might be useful for museum visitors to know that the Cottica Ndyuka villages were devastated by government military incursions during the Suriname Civil War (1986-92). Nevertheless, Wanhatti/Agiti-ondoo remains the largest of the Ndyuka villages that still exist in the Cottica region, with close to 600 descendants of the people whom the German Herrnhuter missionaries tried so hard to convert during the 1890s.
1 Greg Dening: Beach Crossings: Voyaging across Times, Cultures, and Self. Philadelphia 2004.
2 Kristin G. Congdon und Kara Kelley Hallmark: Amalia Mesa-Bains, in: Artists from Latin American Cultures: A Biographical Dictionary. Greenwich CT 2002, S. 181–183.
3 Robert F. Thompson: Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas. New York 1993.
4 Donald J. Cosentino (Hg.): Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodu. Los Angeles 1995
5 Sally Price: Paris Primitive: Jacques Chirac’s Museum on the Quai Branly. Chicago 2007.
6 Michel Leiris: L’Afrique fantôme. Paris 1934.
7 Richard Price et. al.: Verger, un pont au dessus de l’Atlantique. Cayenne 2009.
Writers, researchers, teachers, and lecturers, anthropologists Sally and Richard Price often work collaboratively (on a wide range of ethnographic topics). Sally Price writes more on aesthetics and museums, while Richard Price focuses more on ethnographic history and human rights. Since the mid-1960s, they have been learning and writing about Maroons, descendants of rebel slaves throughout the Americas (but particularly in Suriname and French Guiana). Their geographical interests cover Afro-America, from Brazil to Toronto. For many years, they have served as book review editors for the world's oldest scholary journal on the Caribbean, the “New West Indian Guide”. They divide their time between Martinique and Paris.