The platform “Devuelve, pe!” seeks to add a Latin American perspective into the various criticisms against the new ethnological museum in the Humboldt Forum in Berlin.
Mamo Pedro Juan in front of a Kágaba mask in the warehouse of the Berlin Ethnological Museum in May 2013. Courtesy of Ethnologisches Museum Berlin.
Natalia Rodriguez, Museum Nulluis, performance in front of the Humboldt Forum, July 2019 Courtesy of the artist.
Mask of the Kábaga, Sierra Nevada, Colombia. Acquired under dubious conditions by the ethnologist Konrad Theodor Preuss in 1915 for the Ethnological Museum of Berlin. In: Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek, collection of the Ethnological Museum of Berlin: https://ausstellungen.deutsche-digitale-bibliothek.de/preuss/exhibits/show/kolumbien-preuss/fokus-masken-mythen-kagaba.
The documentary Die Indianer kommen (“The Indians are coming”), broadcasted by the German television channel ZDF on December 2015, recounts the controversy that arose when a delegation from the indigenous Kogui or Kábaga community in the Sierra Nevada in northern Colombia travelled to Berlin to recover two sacred masks belonging to the community, that had been kept in the Dahlem Ethnological Museum in Berlin for 100 years.
The request for restitution was prompted by the planned transfer of the ethnographic collection to a new space that will soon open in the city centre: the Humboldt Forum. With a construction budget of around 650 million euros, the Humboldt Forum is one of the most ambitious and expensive cultural projects in Germany in recent years. The headquarters are modeled after a reproduction of the former Berlin Royal Palace, which belonged to the Hohenzollern dynasty. This dynasty, who until 1918 was among the most important ruling families in Germany, was linked to the European division of Africa and is thus a symbol of German colonialism. The Humboldt Forum will house the collections of the Museum of Asian Art and the Ethnological Museum in Dahlem. The Dahlem collection, like that of so many other Western museums, consists of private collections from the 19th century obtained from the plundering and pillaging of territories under colonial influence.
Since the visit of the Koguis to Dahlem, many voices have joined the criticism against the plans to open the Humboldt Forum and have demanded a decolonization of the museum, including the restitution of many of its pieces. In 2017, French art historian Bénédicte Savoy left the museum’s advisory board. She denounced a lack of critical review by the Humboldt Forum under the leadership of director Neil MacGregor, former director of the equally controversial British Museum in London.
Although about one-third of the Dahlem museum’s collection originates from Latin America, demands for restitution from this region of the world –like those of the Kogui– have not been as numerous as those from African communities, where the German colonial heritage, and European heritage in general, produced more evident traces.
In 2018, a task force emerged at the Institute for Art in Context at the Berlin University of the Arts Berlin (UdK) seeking to organize and amplify critical Latin American voices in the face of the Humboldt Forum. The initiative emerged in response to an invitation from Manuela Fischer, curator of the South American collection at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin and also part of the Humboldt Forum curating team, to make artistic interventions in the museum’s permanent collection.
Under the coordination of artist and teacher Kristina Leko, seven artists, mostly of Latin American origin, are currently developing different initiatives and critical projects in front of the museum. In July 2019, artist Natalia Rodríguez organized a week-long performance in front of the Humboldt Forum, cutting out photographs of the more than 30,000 objects belonging to the museum. The performance was a symbolic act of restitution with a clear questioning of the institution and its public: should the collections return to their places of origin?
Natalia Rodríguez, Museum Nulluis, performance in front of the Humboldt Forum, July 2019 Courtesy of the artist.
In November that year, in the same space in front of the museum, different Latin American immigrant collectives in Berlin came together in a ritual protest on the occasion of the “Dia de los muertos” (Night of the Dead). The happening was the culmination of “Humboldthuaca”, a project coordinated by Daniela Rodriguez and Pablo Santacana, in which living culture and its voice are vindicated within the museum. The ritual protest focused on demanding the restitution of the pre-Hispanic Mallqui mummy from Chuquitanta, a sacred ancestor from what is now Peru, whose presence at the Humboldt Forum raises several questions: What does it mean to exhibit indigenous human remains in European museums? Are we respectful of other cultures? Do Europeans –as well as Latin Americans themselves– understand the colonial heritage?
Daniela Zambrano and Pablo Santacana, “Humboldthuaca”, performance at theHumboldt Forum, October 31, 2019. Courtesy of the artists.
In order to further examine these questions, the DecolonizeM21 working group has created Devuelve, pe!, a platform offering more information about the struggle for the return of the Mallqui, along with other initiatives and experiences of decolonization of the Humboldt Forum.
On July 11, 2020, through different social networks and on the DecolonizeM21 website, various experts will share their experiences of decolonization of the museum in a debate with the co-curator Manuela Fischer. Participants at this meeting include Tahir Della (Nohumboldt21, Berlin), Arlette-Louise Ndakoze (Savvy Contemporary, Berlin), Juana Londoño (Colombia), Rossana Poblet (Peru), Elizabeth Salguero ( Bolivia) and Xokonoschtletl Gómora (Mexico).
More information: www.decolonizem21.info
Pablo Santacana (Madrid, 1991) is a designer and visual artist, as well as a member of DecolonizeM21.
Translation from Spanish by Zarifa Mohamad Petersen