Enchantment / Beauty Parlour / Positions
A Museum for the Future
Sensory Saturation, Multiple Media and Personal Narrations Asserting the Vitality of Muslim Cosmopolitanism
The installation “Enchantment / Beauty Parlour” presents a very ordinary place, a beauty parlor, which you think you know. But then you don’t. At once theatre set and Cabinet of Wonders it provokes your curiosity. As you circle its unfinished exterior, you hear sea waves, traffic and gentle singing. Something different is in the air – a smell, a sound, a stage set, an exotic culture? The pink door tells you it’s a ‘Beauty Parlour’ and a lilting female voice welcomes you with karibu.
Scaffolded on the sweet scent of perfume and poetry, the narrative space of “Enchantment / Beauty Parlour” conveys the key aesthetic principles of Swahili culture, beauty (uzuri) and purity (usafi), through sensory saturation and personal narrations of Swahili women. It tells stories through multiple media but allows personal exploration and discovery. Five portraits of Arab movie stars decorate the entry hall. Then your eyes move over overflowing shelves. These include iconic museum objects of the Muslim world such as perfume jars, vases and boxes, pages from the Koran. There are also modern fashion accoutrements such as false hair, lace dresses and veils, henna and nail polish. Distinctly Swahili floral sachets adorn the room. Bright color accents of pink paint, green dresses and blue chairs enliven the visual display. The exaggerated, hyper-real quality of the space ironizes museum authority and the ‘real’ display cases of authentic, catalogued artifacts are literally ‘holes in the wall’ outside.
The installation strives for cultural translation of a key dimension of a Swahili life world that forms the backbone of art, religion and the self. Its content, form and pedagogy largely succeed and significantly innovate dominant museum representations of African and Islamic societies. The substantive content is both appealing and strategic as it asserts the vitality of Muslim cosmopolitanism and the central role of women as social and ritual actors. Swahili culture is forged from centuries of trade, cultural hybridity, and intermarriage along the Indian Ocean coasts of Africa, South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. It provides a rich counterpoint to stereotypes of repressive African and Islamic societies.
The critique of imperialist museum histories and innovative curation are underway. In the Humboldt Lab Dahlem exhibitions at the Ethnologisches Museum, “Object Biographies” and “Provincializing Europe” (part of the project “EuropeTest”) projects exemplify this work. It is less clear how museums can shape public culture and intercultural pedagogy given heightened contemporary struggles over representation. In European media, classrooms and public debates Muslim persons and societies are often stereotyped as violent others. European Muslim communities need their own cultural memory and founding narratives within national social fabrics. Signs of attention to this matter include the recent show at the Pergamon’s Museum of Islamic Art of an Afghan refugee painter’s work in relation to calligraphy. The “ONE GOD - Abraham's Legacy on the Nile” exhibit at the Bode-Museum celebrated the co-existence of Christian Coptic, Muslim and Jewish crafts, art and societies in medieval Alexandria. Inspired by “Enchantment / Beauty Parlour,” I also offer some strategies.
A Model of Hospitality
Hospitality, as an ideal for collaborative curation, strives towards the dialogic and generous sharing of cultural knowledge. In terms of content, it highlights the place of the domestic sphere in intercultural encounter.
Through the words of Swahili women, visitors learn that the bride’s metamorphosis epitomizes the cultivation of purity through practices and conduct of beauty. Most importantly in the busy installation, as you sit in the styling chair, a ‘talking mirror’ reflects back not your image but a video of Maimuna Difini who recounts her choice to become a hairdresser, the details of bridal preparations, and Swahili values. A Mombasa beautician and project collaborator, in the video she is styling a European tourist. A television screen shows a wedding ceremony in which a bride is presented to her husband, then family. She wears many lace dresses and veils, rich make-up and perfume, and sculpted hair. Her skin is brightened by sandalwood and her hands intricately painted with henna. These videos are supplemented by a soundtrack of Taarab wedding music, ocean waves, traffic and a traditional poem. In this sung poem a mother advises her daughter to pursue the beautiful conduct of piety, self-sacrifice, respect for others, as well as adornment and marriage. Once invited into this elaborate female world, unknown to most museum visitors, you choose – enchantment, dismissal or insistent prejudice.
But is this only a beauty shack, a playground of exotic aestheticized difference? Islamicate sensoria are connected to both social and spiritual strivings. The project as it stands does not sufficiently convey the interdependence of personal beautification, moral conduct, piety and purity. For instance, Oud perfume is used for luxury dress, conjugal seduction, cleansing homes as well as for prayer. God is beautiful and loves beauty, the scriptures say. Background information could explain the strategic use of beauty in social mobility through women’s economic activity in fashion, in marriage alliances, in divorce, women headed households or by those of slave origin status aspiring to noble worlds. That is, beauty and its contexts cover the range of connective and disruptive processes of community life, both affirming and challenging social order.
A Model of Performance
With regard to curatorial practice, the theatrical narrative space of “Enchantment / Beauty Parlour” disrupts and ironizes indexical, didactic museum authority with diverse strategies of representation which ‘upstage’ the few display cases. This plurality allows exploration of how objects and images are used in context; perhaps visitors should be allowed to use objects with limits.
The dispersed quality of spatial arrangement is a counterpoint to the static hierarchy of value in museum displays, which visitors often do not understand anyway. Furthermore, here ‘native informants’ do not simply perform their rituals or tell life histories as visual adjuncts to object display. They greet, sing poetry, tell their lives to, teach and advise the visitor. The plurality of objects and media, some of which speak, smell and move, displace catalogue cards and encourage a participatory audience.
A future version could include space for visitors to socialize, many more styling seats, use cameras, albums or magazines, try on dresses or hairstyles. It could also include even more ‘talking mirrors’ or windows with videos that display different aspects of beauty in social life from women’s marriage engagement parties to Eid celebrations (major religious celebrations) to street scenes.
A Model of the Archive
Providing a space to make history – and so imagine a future – is perhaps the most critical contribution of a museum to public life. While it does not exhibit papers, it documents cosmopolitan histories on various scales: regional, urban, family and personal. For instance, luxury perfumes such as Oud or sandalwood are imported from Arabia and India. Lace cloth comes from China or Saudi Arabia. Cameras were once colonial machines of objectification but are now fully localized for the purposes of individual and family histories.
The collaborative process itself between disciplinary experts and Maimuna, a practitioner, opens up questions about the purpose of commemorating a still evolving popular culture.
For refugees, for instance, personal objects and photographs are precious currency of remembrance. Building a community narrative through objects and commemorative spaces offer a path to belonging and a future. These actions require skill and time, not just emotion. Basic facilities such as touch screen information desks can provide visitors with background information and paths of engagement through the African and Asian museums. Potential themes include gender and family, work and status, empires and nations, or luxury trade. Object-based themes could follow, for instance, sandalwood through exhibits on Swahili beauty, Asian art and oceanic history. There should be the option of recording and emailing one’s pathway.
In sum, in addition to its richly elaborate, enjoyable presentation of Swahili culture, the “Beauty Parlour” offers numerous strategies to resituate African and Islamic cultures, and their women’s worlds, as living traditions in museum spaces.
Dr. Hudita Nura Mustafa is an anthropologist and independent researcher with interests in globalization, gender and urbanism. She has taught at Emory University, Sarah Lawrence College and at the Hutchins Center for African and Afro-American Research (Harvard University). She has worked across the world, conducting local research on refugees in London, contemporary art and exhibition, Senegalese fashion and urban villages.
The Aesthetic of Atmospheres
The Installation “Enchantment / Beauty Parlour” as a Designed Space of Perception
In “The Predicament of Culture” the historian James Clifford sketches a history of ethnographic modes of representation, using the example of two Paris museums – the Palais du Trocadéro and the Musée de l’Homme – and the very different exhibition practices of each of them. The (older) Trocadéro represented something akin to a richly stocked curiosity cabinet, evoking alien worlds through dioramas and costumed mannequins, presenting its collection of items as objéts d’art, free of context, and thereby serving the interests of the Parisian bohème and their proclivity for exoticism. (Picasso for example completed studies for his “art nègre” here, which was to lead, in the end, to Cubism.) In contrast, the Musée de l’Homme, which replaced the Trocadéro after 1937, was dedicated to the idea of a universalist ethnographic humanism. Committed to public education and scientific rigor, the museum offered not only research laboratories but also study collections in which mankind and its culture could be contemplated “holistically,” in order to make the foreign comprehensible.
The Musée de l’Homme soon set the benchmark for ethnological museums worldwide, in which the artifact collections were now largely structured taxonomically according to geographic region and cultural difference (and within the represented cultures, classified and presented according to clearly delineated central themes like religion, economics etc.). Nevertheless, in a programmatic essay for its opening, the writer and ethnologist Michel Leiris could not resist indulging in a nostalgic reminiscence of the recently demolished “Troca.” In his essay, Leiris warns of the two great abstractions, science and art, which, in the new museum concept, are invariably construed as opposites.
“Enchantment / Beauty Parlour” transgresses this rigorously guarded separation light-footedly, and dares to create an immersive, scenographic experiential space. While a scholarly exhibition paradigm does not envisage collection artifacts evoking concrete images or moods, the installation created by Dominic Huber counters this. His installation dramatizes its theme – the aesthetic aspect of Swahili culture – as a multisensory aesthetic experience in which objects from the ethnographic collection, contemporary everyday objects, the use of video, sound, a dramatic lighting concept and even the introduction of odors, evokes an almost synaesthetic relationship. Very unlike the dimly lit corridors of the Trocadéro with its chaotically arranged exotica and the musty smell of sweet decay, repeatedly described by Picasso, here the observer moves through an exhibition arrangement, which has internalized the lessons of the “Crisis of Representation” and the “New Museology.”
Huber and curator Paola Ivanov enlist a clearly crafted hyperrealism as a counterpoint to an “ethnographic realism” with its dilemmas and blind spots (the constructed scholarly authority, the unchallenged epistemological status of its analytical categories and its knowledge systems, rooted in colonial history). Not for a moment does the installation give the impression of trying to simply replicate a genuine East African beauty parlor. Instead, each carefully chosen element in the interior of the installation (the neon lamps, plastic chairs and make-up utensils) contributes towards an atmospheric condensation of the evoked lifeworld while the external shell confidently demonstrates its scenery-like character.
This hyperrealist mode of representation can be perhaps best described by Gernot Böhme’s concept of an “aesthetic of atmospheres.” For Böhme atmosphere is neither the state of a subject nor the characteristic of an object, but rather something that results in the relationship between the two: the mutuality of the given reality of the person perceiving and of what is perceived. Atmosphere cannot thus be traced back to a single object, but must be understood as an environment, that is characterized by the assembly of individual objects. The role of the object is therefore not simply one of a mere bearer of semiotic meaning (as is the case in ethnographic realism) but is constituted by its own aura and material presence. Böhme differentiates here between two highly influential concepts in German philosophy “Realität” (the ‘factual fact,’ the catalogable characteristics of an object) which we appropriate through recognition, and “Wirklichkeit” (the ‘actual fact,’ its appearance as such) which is appropriated by us through our perception.
In this sense, “Enchantment / Beauty Parlour” is not an attempt to replicate a cultural reality, but an orchestration of atmospheres, a staged, modulated space, which gives the visitor an immersive synaesthetic experience of an aesthetically foreign world. For the contemporary ethnological museum the creation of such spaces of perception offer unlimited opportunities in terms of the presentation of their own collection artifacts, which, according to Böhme, are inexhaustible: there are no boundaries to the potential ’Wirklichkeiten,’ of which they could become part.
Dr. Steffen Köhn is a research associate at the research area Visual and Media Anthropology, Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology at Freie Universität Berlin.