From Restitution to Repair
Akademie der Künste, Hanseatenweg
Hanseatenweg 10, 10557 Berlin
English, with simultaneous translation into French
Attendance is possible without advance registration, admission is free. The conference will be livestreamed.
With: Albert Gouaffo, Bénédicte Savoy, Ciraj Rassool, Dan Hicks, Deneth Piumakshi Veda Arachchige, El Hadji Malick Ndiaye, Jihan El-Tahri, Paz Guevara, Rolando Vázquez, Sophie Schasiepen, The School of Mutants (Hamedine Kane, Lou Mo, Stéphane Verlet-Bottéro, Valérie Osouf), Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn, Uta Kornmeier
A vast majority of precolonial African artistic and cultural heritage is held and stored in European museums—completely out of reach of the societies of origin, who have a right to their heritage. Since Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr published their Report on The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage in 2018, the debate on restitution has returned to the forefront of the political agenda. While it is gaining attention internationally, this discourse is also in danger of becoming institutionalized and de-complexified. The forces in power seem to be slowly shifting as Western museums and states can no longer ignore the necessity to question and return their collections. But under what conditions do these returns take place? And what are the related repercussions at large? The absence of the objects has left traces of trauma in their places of origin that remain even after their return. The psychological dimensions of the loss of cultural objects become visible, for instance when the reinstallation of the objects in Africa mimics Western museums. How can restitution go beyond the material gesture of giving back cultural artifacts? How can the custodians infuse dreams and life into objects long exiled? And, thinking of restitution beyond objects, what, for instance, are the stakes of restituting human remains?
This conference considers the debate around restitution a starting point for dialogues aiming at decolonizing arts and culture, as well as an anti-colonial memory culture. It seeks to frame restitution within the broader concept of repair (as developed by Kader Attia) of individual and societal traumas and as a mode of cultural resistance. Participants investigate the psychological dimensions of the loss of cultural heritage in Africa and the paradox presented in mimical museography. The contributions explore the possibility of an ontology of restitution as a cosmogonic, political, and philosophical reinvention.
Curated by: Kader Attia and Marie Helene Pereira
Day 1: The Paradox of Restitution
Welcome and Introduction by Kader Attia and Marie Helene Pereira
Keynote: Restitution ad nauseam?
In a handful of European and African countries, since 2017, everything or almost everything seems to have been said about returning artworks looted by European colonial powers—in the regions of the world they occupied in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—to the respective country of origin. In 2021, the physical and legal return to Benin of the royal treasures of Abomey seized by the French army in 1892 and since exhibited in Paris, representing 2.5 tons of history and memory, marked the entry into a new era in the global geopolitics of African heritage. To date, more than 200,000 people have visited the exhibition Benin Art from Yesterday to Today, from Restitution to Revelation in Cotonou, Benin. Clearly, the tangible physical return of a historically and symbolically determining part of the history of certain countries is capable of triggering these “tectonic movements” described in 2018 in the Sarr-Savoy report, which go far beyond the sole field of culture and museums, affecting the economic, political, and societal spheres more generally. Now, some people are asking themselves: If everything has been said about restitutions, and if certain African countries have already won their case, then why bring the subject up again and again? Is it not patronizing, the sole concern of a small political elite, both in Africa and in Europe? What should we think of the obvious political instrumentalization of the subject, particularly in Europe? And how can we think about repair in spite of this?
Panel: Rethinking Exhibitions. The Challenges of Mimicry through Restitution
El Hadji Malick Ndiaye
Further questions arise when restitution is set into practice. The challenges of homecoming—the psychological and epistemological dimension of the dispossessed cultural works—becomes evident, for example, when the exhibition of restituted objects mimics the model of Western museums. How can restitution go beyond ownership and material display to recuperate modalities of the living culture and its knowledges? How might one confront and repair the epistemic violence of colonial modern categories in which the works have been arranged in European museums—objectified, ahistoricized, and appropriated? How can custodians resocialize long-exiled cultural works, infusing life and dreams within the present African societies? The panel will reflect on the exhibition practices related to the restitution of cultural works in Africa, problematizing the mimicry of colonial museology and discussing the importance of imagining reappropriation processes in and beyond the museum ecology.
Panel: More than Remains. Addressing the Legacies of Racial Science
Deneth Piumakshi Veda Arachchige
What is at stake when we talk about the return of people whose bodies are held in museum, academic, and private collections and were appropriated by explorers, doctors, military, settlers, and the like, in order to construct, uphold, and extend a racist order? The panelists will discuss the aims of such negotiations from different academic, artistic, and activist perspectives.
Day 2: Restitution as Reinvention
Keynote: Recalling Earth, Overcoming the Contemporary, Knowing Otherwise
The notion of the contemporary has been complicit with cultural practices that consume Earth and deny the relational worlds of others across the colonial divide. How can it be decolonized? Can contemporary art become a place of decolonial healing and foster concrete practices of repair? Rolando Vázquez calls for the need to overcome the contemporary with its embrace of novelty and separation from Earth. In this keynote speech, he addresses access to ways of transmission and understanding rather than access to objects, by engaging with forms of aesthetic and epistemic restitution and reemergence. How can restitution become a movement for the emergence of relational and aesthetic practices? How can epistemologies and aesthetics shift from forms of individual personhood to practices grounded in relations, practices of communalhood and earthhood?
Artist Talk: Deinstitutionalizing the Archive. On History vs Memory
The School of Mutants (Hamedine Kane and Stéphane Verlet-Bottéro)
Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn
Marie Helene Pereira
From their propositions in the exhibition of the 12th Berlin Biennale titled Still Present!, the artists Jihan El-Tahri, Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn, and The School of Mutants have been working on an effective disruption of the material archive—putting forward the need to investigate and engage in unearthing the “archives of the people,” which, in this instance, could be translated as collective memory. El-Tahri challenges the access to archives and the way in which it constitutes a currency in postcolonial contexts, while Nguyễn focuses his work and research on the creation of forms of narration that open up spaces for conversation and self-narration of untold, or rather erased, stories. The idea of mutations put forward by The School of Mutants invites us to rethink different forms of imperialism, including the one embedded in the set understanding of what constitutes archives and archiving. This talk will detail how restitution debates today should move toward reflection on access to archives and their material sustainability, and how there is a need to reinvent the language of the archive, through different ecologies of memory. The ultimate question in this context is: To what extent do we engage with imminent and effective acts of repair?
Lecture Performance: The School of Mutants
The School of Mutants (Hamedine Kane, Lou Mo and Valérie Osouf)
The School of Mutants borrows its name from the University of Mutants, founded in Gorée, Senegal, in 1977 with an emphasis on nonhierarchical teaching and decolonizing academic epistemes. It connects this short-lived experience with the archives of other pedagogical utopias of that decade, as well as with literary and theoretical reflections on the figure of the mutants. This lecture performance invites one to transcend disciplinary fields from history to poetry, and to reinvent narratives, philosophical and spiritual gestures of reparation.
This conference is part of the discursive program of the 12th Berlin Biennale. Taking the restitution debate as a starting point, it explores how colonialism and imperialism continue to operate in the present.