Everything Passes, Except the Past Right There in the Corpus Delicti

Grace Ndiritu, A Quest For Meaning - AQFM VOL. 9
Grace Ndiritu, A Quest For Meaning - AQFM VOL. 9 (2019), Tatjana Pieters Gallery, Ghent, Belgium | © Courtesy of the artist

An exhibition and online festival in the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut round off a cycle of events on the handling of colonial artefacts in European museums and archives.

By Christine Pawlata

Artists Rokia Bamba and Antje van Wichelen from the Troubled Archives collective came across a dubious collection of colonial photographs in the archive at the Consolata Missionary in Turin. The pictures concerned are portraits of people in mission territories who were at the mercy of the dehumanising perspective of the colonial rulers, and were sent around the world in the twenties and thirties as postcards.

The artists focused on two particularly violent images in a sound and film installation, which will be on show from 17th September until 18th October 2020 at the exhibition Everything passes, except the past at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin.
“The artists asked themselves: ‘For a start, how can we evoke the memory of these abused bodies without exposing them once again to the voyeurism they suffered in the first place?’” says art historian Jana J. Haeckel.

Haeckel is co-ordinator of the two-year Goethe-Institut project Everything asses, except he ast, which is due to close on 17th October with an exhibition bearing that name, as well as an online festival. For this project, artists, academics and activists are using workshops and performances in Barcelona, Bordeaux, Brussels and Lisbon as a platform to address the difficult question of what should happen with the colonial heritage in museums, archives and the public domain throughout Europe.
“The theme of the exhibition follows on from earlier events, with the visual perspective as a starting point,” explains Haeckel. “All the works we’ll see in Turin look at the question of: The body in the archive, the colonial image, how do you handle that as an artist?”
Exhibits will include works by Grace Ndiritu, Bianca Baldi, Alessandra Ferrini and the Troubled Archives collective. A link with Italy has also been created through the contributions of artist Alessandra Ferrini, who is exploring the Italian colonial past in Libya, as well as the installation by Troubled Archives based on the Consolata Missionary postcards.

Contemporary art as an instrument of reappraisal

The choice of a museum of contemporary art as an exhibition venue was no coincidence. “The museums in which the workshops were held all had something to do with the ethnography theme, for instance the Africa Museum in Tervuren or the Musée d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux. So the workshops were being held right there in the corpus delicti,” explains Irene Calderoni, curator at the exhibition at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo.

“We were working on what was probably the most delicate problem for these museums, which was the way in which these ethnography museums are displaying the artefacts,”

Irene Calderoni, curator at the exhibition at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo

“Accommodating the final part of the project in a museum of contemporary art was an attempt to demonstrate that art can be a fundamental instrument for reflection on these subjects,” so Irene Calderoni.

Increasing visibility

Since Everything passes, except the past started at the beginning of 2019, awareness of the debate has increased, says Haeckel. “I believe that the debate following the murder of George Floyd, and all other black Afro-Americans who need to be included, brought a different visibility of the problems to Europe as well,” says Haeckel. “You can really see that the subject is becoming increasingly present throughout society. Also that the concept of restitution and objects isn’t just about objects, it’s about people and the symbolic act.”

A lack of public debate

Although there’s no shortage of competent scholars and artists addressing the colonial past in Italy, the subject does not resonate with public opinion there, says Irene Calderoni. “Whereas in France all the papers were full of debate when Macron announced that he intended to give artefacts back to the African museums, and the opening of the Humboldt Forum is likewise being discussed a lot in the public domain in Germany at the moment – yet there is no discussion about this in Italy,” according to the curator. “There’s a lack of awareness as to how this debate might affect the subject of immigration and living together with people from other countries.”

Calderoli hopes that the exhibition in Turin and the closing online festival, with the involvement of high-profile international figures such as art historian Bénédicte Savoy, who collaborated with economics scholar Felwine Sarr to compile the report on the restitution of African cultural heritage in France that Macron commissioned, will help to make this more of a discussion topic in Italy too.