The Unfortunate Persistence of Being

As the discussion over the meaning and significance of statues wears on, Gaynor Tutani, who is currently completing a PG Diploma in Museum Cultures discusses the current Black Lives Matter Movement and how cultural institutions can engage with history and encourage more inclusion within the industry. 

Perpetual Histories

I have been here before,
You have been here before,
We have been here before.
How long will we have this same conversation?

I am tired. I used to feel the pain.
Now, almost, I do not feel!
I saw the knee heavy on his neck, everyone saw it,
but the knee is always on our necks.
We carry it daily.
It’s on my SKIN,
Engraved on my Bones,
And flows through my Blood.

I am Black. I am African,
You are African too,
Evolution says so.
But somehow my Black is an outcast,
To be feared, hated and killed.
Not only a physical death.
No, the deeper death,
One that TAKES my spirit, hopes and dreams.

Regardless, I fight. I push.
I continue to BE. For there is pride in my being.
There is pride in knowing my history and who I am.
I am more than Black!
My life matters, I am human,
Just like you.

Jean Joseph, A Good Outlook, 2010, Mixed Media on Canvas

Jean Joseph, A Good Outlook, 2010, Mixed Media on Canvas

How do I feel about the Black Lives Matter movement? What does it mean to me as a Black woman and a British citizen with African origins? These are a few questions that have been playing in my mind following the passing of George Floyd. It has not been easy to digest his horrific death, and so, I have not really found any answers to my questions. Today we all call for change, but how is this change going to come about or is it even possible? I ask this because Floyd was one of many Black men that have died at the hands of White police. There have been women too, yet their stories do not receive the same attention. This is not to say that their deaths and lives were less important, but it highlights the fact that it is prevalent within the United States of America. I believe that this is why it bothers me, knowing that his story is yet another devastating headliner of perpetuated terror.

Historically Africans and those of African descent have suffered extreme injustices due to an adopted persistent backwardness based on geography and melanin. While the racists’ systems of slavery, segregation and apartheid have ended, we cannot deny their lasting imprints and legacies within our current political, socio-economic and cultural societies. Deep psychological traumas continue to affect Black people – inherited from their ancestors, termed by Dr Joy DeGruy as Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. Although she coins it “Slave Syndrome”, I believe that the crippling impact of trauma should be considered with regards to all western encounters with Africa and its diaspora. This includes colonisation and its destruction of Africa as a whole. Therefore, when I think about these histories and the Black resistance movements that occurred – such as the Civil Rights Movement in America and the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, both in the 1960s –  it is disheartening  that in 2020 a movement called Black Lives Matter is even necessary to counteract current racist systems.

Nonetheless, despite this dim reality, I am encouraged by the movement’s momentum and the level of scrutiny currently on equality and social justice. But I am also concerned that this focus on racism is an unsustainable banner.

How long will the discourses continue without positive, tangible change? How do we end this perpetual cycle of action and reaction? As a keen student of history and a cultural facilitator, I believe that museums and other cultural institutions can make lasting contributions and be an example of the change we need, via a true engagement with our society. One that does more than tick the boxes of inclusion and diversity, but actually acknowledges our society’s unique cultural fabric and how it came about. We have to honestly discuss controversial topics such as racism and its intricate connection to our lives. I believe that art can inspire and change people’s perspectives and understanding of their world. Consequently, museums and curators should do more to address difficult issues within their curation and programming.

This has been my mission as a curator and co-founder of EARTHworks a curatorial duo that organically formed with my partner, Jean Joseph (a visual artist and cultural facilitator; @artmaroon). Together we have hosted and organised exhibitions, talks and events that delve into similar topics such as race, culture and history. Currently, we are working in partnership with arc Gallery to realise an exhibition that investigates the complexities of colonisation. Reading from scholars such as Frantz Fanon, Cheikh Anta Diop and Mandivamba Rukini, just to mention a few, the project draws upon theories of existentialism, as a means to discuss notions of identity. It aims to highlight how cultural institutions and those working within the arts can address uncomfortable narratives. In short, the exhibition comprises an academic interrogation of how history has shaped the lives of Black and Brown people, which sometimes is not included within museum exhibitions dedicated to people of colour.

The above comment is not an attack on museums. There has been an improvement within their structures, but I believe more can be done, especially within the operational field. There is a significant shortage of Black and Brown curators and general programming staff within museums. Although there has been a rise in exhibitions for/dedicated to people of colour, the fact that these showcases are not directed or led by those they claim to represent is problematic. Therefore, even though many museums have been working on decolonisation agendas within their operations, the extent to which these methods are effective are minimal if the decolonisation does not involve those that have been colonised by the very imperialist structures of museums.

Further, discussing issues of decolonisation within museums, Tristram Hunt, (Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum ) in his newspaper article on restitution and repatriation of previously looted collections within museums, argued that it was not possible to decolonise or return some artefacts due to the fact that losing them would be to disregard museums’ historical ties with empire. As a result, he contends that to “decolonise is to decontextualise” since the rise of empires was closely linked to collections.

Consequently, Hunt urges museums to find the right balance when dealing with their collections and the historical narratives behind them. In a way Hunt’s argument shows the reluctance of the West to relinquish its colonial hold. He proposes better museum practices and claims that the V&A has made procedural progress. However, his current idea of loaning artefacts to their countries of origin is condescending. Why should they borrow what rightfully belongs to them? Hunt’s solution does not solve the problems or issues pertaining to restitution, which I believe can be resolved if there was a commensurate staffing of people of colour within museums and galleries. Their voice, experiences and knowledge are paramount when deciding how these collections can be returned or respectful partnerships be formed with their countries of origin.

As a Black cultural curator, and being aware of the historical race debate within the arts and cultural scene, I am in support of the Black Lives Matter movement as a vehicle to address social injustice. If change can be achieved at all, I believe that it can, and should, start with productive conversations within museums and heritage institutions.

Gaynor Tutani is a student on the Postgraduate Diploma in Museum Cultures in the Department of History of Art, and an independent curator. You can read more about her work and encounters with art and museums here: https://fambaneni.tumblr.com/

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(Art) History Matters

Dr Sarah Thomas, from the Department of History of Art, shares her experience of museum curation in Australia and discusses how we should interrogate the ‘hidden histories’ that underpin current debates. 

In 1993 when working as a curatorial assistant in a public gallery in Sydney I was involved in a project which I’ll never forget. Yamangu Ngaanya. Our Land Our Body was an exhibition of paintings by a group of Aboriginal artists from a remote desert community in Warbuton, Western Australia. The dazzling canvases, derived from ancestral ‘Dreaming’ stories that were traditionally painted onto the body, were accompanied by forty-five Ngaanyatjarra men and women, most of whom had never visited a city in their lives and who had travelled to Sydney by coach over several days and nights. Besides the paintings they also brought with them sixteen tonnes of red sand from their land, which over the course of several days was dispersed over the gallery floor. What had been a standard ‘white cube’ interior was radically transformed into a space for ceremony: over several days and nights separate groups of women and men prepared and performed Dreaming ceremonies, filling the space with traditional song, language, dance, swirling dust, bodies painted in ochre, the smell of smoke and sweat. This was not what an art historical training had prepared me for: ‘performance art’, ‘installation’, and ‘body art’, even ‘painting’, were all wildly inadequate terms for what I observed over the course of that week.

I am reminded of this moment by the global repercussions recently of the Black Lives Matter anti-racism protests. The Australia I grew up in was deeply racist, and it remains so. Sadly, despite years of protest, public and scholarly debate, and a government apology in 2008 for the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families by national and state agencies, Indigenous Australians remain the most incarcerated people on earth. Leading Aboriginal artists have long been highly critical of Australia’s colonial past, and the pervasive hold it has on the present. Daniel Boyd, for example, critiques the nation’s foundational myths by reworking white Australian imagery, from heroic depictions of Captain Cook (statues of whom are currently the subject of heated debate) to encounters between Aboriginal and European settlers. I included Boyd’s painting We Call Them Pirates Out Here (2007) in an exhibition I curated in 2015 called Colonial Afterlives, which brought together the work of contemporary artists from former British colonies including Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, Canada, New Zealand, as well as Australia.

: Colonial Afterlives exhibition catalogue cover. Image by Christian Thompson, Trinity III, from the Polari series, 2014. Christian Thompson is represented by Sarah Scout Presents (Melbourne) and Michael Reid Gallery (Sydney and Berlin).

Colonial Afterlives exhibition catalogue cover. Image by Christian Thompson, Trinity III, from the Polari series, 2014. Christian Thompson is represented by Sarah Scout Presents (Melbourne) and Michael Reid Gallery (Sydney and Berlin).

Over the past decade, I’ve been researching the European representation of enslaved people in the 18th and 19th centuries across the Caribbean, Brazil and antebellum America (the subject of my book, Witnessing Slavery: Art and Travel in an Age of Abolition). More recently, I’ve been talking to museum professionals and scholars across the UK about how their institutions might publicly acknowledge the cultural legacies of slavery. The work of UCL’s Legacies of British Slave-ownership project has uncovered a wealth of data about slave-owners at the moment of British emancipation in 1833, when a grant of £20 million (40% of Britain’s national budget) was paid in compensation, by British taxpayers to slave owners. My research draws on this work, focussing on the impact of slave-owners as art connoisseurs, collectors and patrons on the early history of British art museums.

There’s no doubt that such ‘hidden histories’ are troubling. The toppling of the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston on 7 June was not simply a spontaneous action born out of collective rage, but one with a long and more complex history of thwarted community attempts to acknowledge publicly Colston’s role in the slave trade. Madge Dresser points out that when the statue was erected in 1895 (over 170 years after the subject’s death), it coincided with the building of monuments which glorified the Confederacy in the United States, and others in Britain and across its Empire, which: ‘similarly extolled the virtues of British imperial figures whose relationship with colonised people of colour ranged from the paternalistic to the genocidal’. Historian Nick Draper is right when he says: ‘Historians need to be realistic about their reach and influence. But for more than 30 years scholars have worked towards an adequate post-colonial account of Britain’s history as a colonising and imperial power.’ He cautions: ‘We have tried to establish an evidence base that can be drawn on by all parties. The hegemonic view of British exceptionalism, its unique commitment to liberty and its glorious imperial past, has been challenged, but it has survived. Had we collectively succeeded, then some of the paths not taken would have been pursued. The binary of leave it alone/tear it down might have been avoided’. There is a sense of disappointment in this statement, as if historians themselves have in some sense failed in their attempts to challenge the status quo. But it is this ‘evidence base’ that is so vital to what we do as art historians as well, and why in our teaching we often speak about ‘authoritative sources’ and the importance of primary archival research.

Australia has a longer history of grappling with its colonial (British) past. As a curator in a big state art museum in the late 1990s, I was part of a generation that began to question the traditional separation in collection displays of ‘Aboriginal art’ and ‘Australian art’, interrupting Euro-centric chronological displays by introducing works of contemporary Indigenous artists, such as Boyd. (European visitors had no doubts about what constituted ‘Australian art’: they headed straight for the Aboriginal art collections.) My first sustained encounter with Aboriginal art and its makers in 1993 was profound, and its complexities and contradictions have stayed with me over the course of my career and feed now into my teaching. In Britain, museums are starting to engage more directly with the deeper implications of empire (see, for example, The Past is Now: Birmingham at the British Empire, 2017), but there is still much work to be done.

Art historians today are attentive to the complexities of social context, and careful to avoid the simplistic dualisms that newspapers, politicians and much social media commentary thrives on. Public statues have garnered attention across the world as lightning rods for heated and often bitter debates about national identities, yet the very fabric of our cities and countryside  – street names, public buildings, museum collections, archives, country houses, to name just a few examples – is steeped in the residue of history. This reminds us that colonial business is unfinished, its legacies are raw; history is now, and it matters.

 

Sarah Thomas is Lecturer in Museum Studies and History of Art in the Department of History of Art, and Director of the Centre for Museum Cultures. In Autumn term 2020, she will be teaching the seminar ‘Slavery and Its Cultural Legacies’ as part of the MA Museum Cultures and MA History of Art.

 

 

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