In the run-up to the one-year programme Untie to tie: Colonial Legacies and Contemporary Societies (2017–18), Alya Sebti and I began a conversation about the challenges that decolonial thought and art practices level against cultural institutions in today. We spoke about how colonial legacies continue to articulate themselves in epistemic, curatorial, and institutional forms, and how contemporary artistic practices can reflect and trouble these. We shared a concern for the role of curators in rethinking institutional spaces such as galleries and museums, but also for the responsibility of anthropologists to reckon with their discipline’s historical entanglements with problematic epistemic practices. With the intention to consolidate and expand our dialogues, we thought about ways of developing discursive curatorial platforms for exchange with and also beyond artistic practices that would not shy away from asking awkward questions about institutional histories, unsustainable privileges, and situated knowledge. Such a platform, we felt, should situate its discussions in relation to existing institutional developments in the museum and art landscape, which include those of the ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) and the Humboldt-Forum, as well as other institutions from which we are speaking.
Anthropologists working within the European academy cannot ignore that they should be part of such a process of recognising colonial and otherwise violent entanglements, where the colonial is both meant as a metaphor for ways of thinking and an actual practical one about institutional and disciplinary histories. What decolonial perspectives propose to think about is how colonial structures and modes of thinking pose a challenge of responsibility that involves everyone. It asks therefore, for instance, that I, too, reflect on the implicit privileges of speaking as a white male with an institutional affiliation – but it asks us not to end there, but to take this recognition as a starting point for developing a different ethics of listening and empathetic collaboration. This implies, among many other things, to think of anthropology not as a hierarchical discipline concerned with the othering production of difference, but to engage creatively with contemporary institutions and professionals who are themselves critically positioning what anthropologists do. To think about new ways of listening and self-questioning that do not take eurocentrist, western epistemologies, canons, and ways of being for granted or as unmarked starting points.
The anthropology I seek to conduct collaboratively is one that does not merely ‘document’, but actively engages in questioning its own thinking, its own legacies, and seeks to find productive, collaborative, and critical ways of engaging with itself and with interlocutors in different disciplinary futures. This is a necessary challenge that anthropologists must ask themselves today, given the problematic ways in which supposed scholarly objectivity and their detached speaking positions are still mobilized, and risk perpetuating and continuing the kinds of privileges and colonial mindsets that the annual programme of this gallery, and its collaborators are working to undo. And it also involves recognizing very subjective privileges such as one’s speaking position, which I do not consider an unmarked absence from these discussions, but wish to interrogate in their responsibility and possibilities or impossibilities.
When we came up with the idea of creating a discursive platform for critical and decolonial perspectives from the arts and related fields of inquiry, we also in turn had in mind rethinking the relation between curatorial and anthropological practice. Inspired by an exchange with Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung and Arjun Appadurai, we picked up the idea of a “sparring partner”, where the idea is that each person, including the anthropologist, is involved in and deliberately made vulnerable in the exchange, but also keeps one another on their feet – in an exchange where anthropology is no longer the unmarked white backdrop, but where it is part of the picture, gets questioned, and ‘takes punches’, metaphorically. It is a form of ‘speaking nearby’ (Trinh T. Minh-Ha), not speaking about one another.
The idea behind this series then is to make space for subjective and reflexive perspectives that do not strictly relate to each of the four chapters of the one-year program, but which criss-cross the overall themes, and decentre its focal points. These conversations are therefore not decontextualized, but refract the vision on their themes. The idea of a reflection, then, is not meant in the sense of ‘reflex’, like an instinctive physical reaction to something, but rather in the sense of a light ray that breaks with the usual way of thinking and seeing, one that, like a prism, pries open the spectrum and makes visible that which is otherwise unseen. And it is meant to encourage, perhaps, unexpected encounters and perspectives on the themes of Untie to Tie – ones which we hope you feel invited to join.
The series opened with our first encounter – Gallery Reflection #1 – on the theme Urban Decolonisation and Diasporic Formations. It took place on Thursday, 4 May 2017, and I had the pleasure of being in conversation with Noa Ha from the Center for Metropolitan Studies at the Technical University of Berlin, who has been working on postcolonial urbanism and Asian diasporas in European cities and is a board member of the “Migrationsrat Berlin-Brandenburg”, Trang Tran Thu, an anthropologist working on Vietnamese diasporas in Berlin and also a member of the Migrationsrat as well as the Berlin Asian Film Network, and Hyunsin Kim, choreographer and performer. Our conversation touched on many issues related to decolonial perspectives on urban space and the representation of place, but the discussion with the public led to an important and broader problematisation of intergenerational forms of activism and the differential discrimination of minorities in Germany today. You can watch a video of Gallery Reflection #1 here.
The series at the ifa-Galerie Berlin continues on 7 September 2017 with Gallery Reflection #2, entitled Traces, Legacies, Futures: A Conversation on Art and Temporality. This time, I am joined in conversation by Berlin-based artist Nora Al-Badri, anthropologist Silvy Chakkalakal from the Institute of European Ethnology of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and London-based interdisciplinary artist Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll, Professor of Global Art History at the University of Birmingham, UK. This second event in the series deals with the vocabulary of time and temporality. We wish to discuss, for instance, what it means to speak of colonial ‘legacies’ today, and how this is different from talking about ‘traces’, or ‘remnants’? In what sense do concerns, for instance, over repatriation, decolonization, and institutional critique concern a future-oriented temporal thinking? How do practices of copying and authenticating colonial objects challenge ideas of linear temporalities, and what role does art play in negotiating these entanglements?
We hope that you will join us in person in the gallery for these and future gallery reflections, but we also encourage you to reach out otherwise to further this conversation.
Jonas Tinius, Berlin, August 2017
Gallery Reflections is a series of public discussions on art, institutions, and curatorial practices convened by anthropologist Jonas Tinius. The encounters take place in the ifa-gallery Berlin once per chapter, crisscrossing the overall themes and decentring the focal points of the one-year programme Untie to Tie: Colonial Legacies and Contemporary Societies (2017-2018) curated by the gallery’s director Alya Sebti. In this first column and introduction to the series, Jonas Tinius writes about the role of discourse and conversation, reflection and listening, in rethinking a possible dialogue between anthropology, curatorial practice, and contemporary artistic work with decolonial perspectives.