The Wheels of History: Museums, Restitution and the Caribbean – Part 2

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Jamaican Taino – Figure with canopy (facing left) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This is the second of a two-part post on the restitution debate and its significance to the Caribbean. The first part explores the general context and this second part explores the implications for the Caribbean.

The Caribbean was one of the first world areas to be colonized by Europe, and was completely transformed in the process, with momentous changes in the population and culture. Inevitably, the Caribbean was also one of the early sources for European museums as these emerged, in tandem  with the colonial project. The objects and natural specimens that were acquired and documented in Jamaica by Hans Sloane, who served as the physician of the colonial governor from 1687 to 1689, for instance, became part of the foundational collections of  the British Museum. As I have discussed in another post, certain illustrations in Sloane’s book A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica (2 vols., 1707-1725) are among the earliest sources on the material culture and arts of the enslaved Africans in the island.

Having been present at the birth of the modern museum, so to speak, we could expect the Caribbean to be strongly invested in the debates that surround the subject, including the question of postcolonial restitution. If what I have personally observed is anything to go by, however, most persons in the Caribbean who are aware of these debates are in agreement that restitution is necessary, but there does not seem to be a lot of passion or discussion about the subject. I assume that there is a prevailing sense that this is about “elsewhere,” mainly about Europe and Africa, and that this does not directly apply to the Caribbean. While there are indeed no high-profile restitution requests from or pertaining to the Caribbean at the present time, there are however significant Caribbean holdings in European and North American museums that were problematically acquired during the colonial era, and some of these could certainly be the subject of restitution requests on the part of Caribbean countries. And conversely, there are public and private collections in the Caribbean that could be the target of such requests, while regional practices with regards to acquisitions often fall short of international standards with regards to provenance. The subject is certainly worthy of a dissertation but I will discuss a few specific instances that have been the subject of some contention.

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Jamaican Taino – The Bird Man (800-1500) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum holds three Taino wood sculptures of Zemis (deities) from Jamaica, which are among the best known examples of Taino art. They were found in 1792 by a surveyor in a cave in Carpenter’s Mountain in what was then the Parish of Vere, now southern Manchester. They were in 1799 shown and reviewed at the Society of Antiquaries in London and subsequently entered the British Museum collection. None of them are on view at the present time, although they have been exhibited regularly, at the British Museum and elsewhere, and they have also been studied, written about and reproduced with regular frequency. The canopy figure, which is the smallest of the three sculptures, is the most recently exhibited: it was shown in 2015-2016 at the National Museum of Singapore in the exhibition Treasures of the World’s Cultures, a touring exhibition of works from the British Museum collection.

None of the Carpenter’s Mountain carvings have however been exhibited in Jamaica or, for that matter, elsewhere in the Caribbean. Plaster casts were sent to the Institute of Jamaica in 1939 and there has been some speculation that this may have been in response to an early restitution request, although there is no such record (Ostapkowicz 2015, Part I). These plaster casts were part of the permanent exhibits at the Taino Museum (formerly known Arawak Museum), that opened in 1965 at White Marl, a major Taino settlement and midden site in St Catherine. That museum has been closed for several years (with some plans for it to be relocated to Twin Sisters Cave in Hellshire) and the casts are at the National Museum Jamaica. This situation, too, requires some attention.

The National Gallery of Jamaica requested the loan of these carvings on two occasions.  The first was when David Boxer was preparing his inaugural exhibition for the recently established National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ), which was to be a first survey of Jamaican art history. According to what he repeatedly told me, the loan was declined or not even responded to, and he therefore decided to survey the art from the start of the colonial period onward. The resulting exhibition was Five Centuries of Art in Jamaica (1975) and was a seminal effort in how Jamaica’s art history was articulated. The second attempt was for the Arawak Vibrations exhibition in 1994, which was presented on the occasion of Jamaica’s quincentennial, but apparently the NGJ was, ironically, unable to meet the British Museum’s stringent loan requirements.

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Jamaican Taino – Male figure (Boinayel?), 15th century © The Trustees of the British Museum

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The Wheels of History: Museums, Restitution and the Caribbean – Part 1

 

This is the first of a two-part post on the restitution debate and its significance to the Caribbean. This first part explores the general context and the second part  specifically looks at the Caribbean.

It is a time of reckoning for museums: museums are increasingly pressured to come to terms with their historical origins, their past and present ideological foundations, the manner in which they have acquired their collections, and the cultural and social politics in which they are embedded. There has been intensified debate recently about the association between museums and colonialism, and about the manner in which they are governed and funded. Such challenges have come at the state-political level, such as the high-profile, country-to-country restitution negotiations that have captured the attention of the international media recently, and from activist groups such as Decolonize This Place. My earlier post about the renovation of the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren, Belgium, also speaks to some of these issues.

Over the last few months, I have posted a significant number of recent articles and essays on the restitution, decolonization, and museums debate to a Facebook site I manage, the Critical.Caribbean.Art page, using the #restitution hashtag. I will not seek to retrace the entire argument here – you can read more about that via the Facebook site, if you have not already done so — but I do want to focus on a few issues that have, at least in my view, received insufficient attention with regards to the restitution requests between the former colonizing states and their former colonies. Passionate debates, and the manner in which these are reported in the media, along with the instant “call-out” culture that prevails on social media, do not always leave much room for nuance or for the careful consideration of contrary positions, even though this is a necessary part of the conversation on issues such as restitution.

The current media frenzy may create the impression that the restitution debate is new and that it is being fiercely and universally resisted by North American and European museums (although this latter perception has not been helped by the ill-conceived public pronouncements of certain high profile museum professionals such as the British Museum Director who recently defended Lord Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon sculptures from Greece, which took place in the early 19th century, as a creative act).

The restitution debate in actuality emerged in the period after World War II and there were two major triggers.  One was the end of European colonialism and the emergence of postcolonial cultural nationalism, which resulted in postcolonial nation-states seeking greater control of their cultural heritage. The other was the Nazi looting of European museums (and Jewish-owned private collections) during the war. Curtailing the illicit trade in cultural property, which was and still is a problem, became a major preoccupation of UNESCO, which was established in 1945, and its various treaties and conventions on the subject have provided a regulatory framework and offer legal and ethical guidance in such matters (although these are not universally signed and adopted by member states).

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In the Trenches: On Being the Subject of Hostile Art Works

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Michelangelo – King Minos in The Last Judgement (1535-1541) , Sistine Chapel, Vatican

There is a long and not always auspicious history of artists using their work to retaliate against critics and other personal enemies. One famous example is the King Minos figure in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement (1535-1541) fresco in the Sistine Chapel, which was very controversial at the time of its creation (and on several occasions after), because of the frontal (male and female) nudity and the orgiastic quality of the composition. (There is a fascinating TEDx talk art historian Elizabeth Lev on the scandal caused by the Last Judgment – I highly recommend viewing it.) King Minos, who is in the bottom of the hell section of the painting, donkey-eared and besieged by demons and serpents, is actually a portrait of Biagio da Cesena, the master of ceremonies at the Vatican, who had questioned the fresco’s suitability for the Sistine Chapel and notoriously exclaimed it would be more suitable for a tavern or a public bath. De Cesena had objected to Michelangelo’s artistic retaliation to Pope Paul III but the Pope refused to intervene, quipping that he had no jurisdiction in hell, and the Last Judgement remained as it had been completed.

There was at least one more such reference to a critic in the fresco – to the satirist, critic (and pornographer) Pietro Aretino, who is depicted as the elderly St Bartholomew. And more oddly, the flayed skin held by St Bartholomew (who was flayed as part of his martyrdom) is believed to feature an anguished (or angry) self-portrait of Michelangelo himself. It is much harder to decipher what Michelangelo is saying in this particular instance, but it may well be that he is depicting himself as the target of an unfair attack. Aretino had written Michelangelo a letter about the Last Judgment in which he expressed similar concerns as de Cesena subsequently expressed and had, after being dismissed by the artist, lambasted Michelangelo for being gay and “godless,” which were potentially dangerous allegations even in Renaissance Italy. Ironically, Aretino was himself known to have had sexual relationships with men.

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Michelangelo – St Bartholomew in The Last Judgement (1535-1541) , Sistine Chapel, Vatican

Such art works make for good anecdotes and some are in fact quite entertaining – having our enemies dragged by demons into the burning pits of hell is something we all fantasize about at times. But while they were meant to “throw shade” at the person depicted, they also shed light on the personality and intentions of the artist, as the creation of such works sometimes reflects oversized and fragile egos, an unwillingness or inability to contend with criticism, petty vindictiveness, and even clear personal malice. Tellingly, very few are good works of art (OK, OK, I’ll make an exception for the Last Judgement).

This post is not focused on the satire to which public figures should expect to be subjected in the modern world, although even there the question arises about where where the line should be drawn between “acceptable satire,” subject to the principles of freedom of speech, and malicious, personally demeaning representations that may  shade into hate speech. Locally, the cartoons of the Jamaican politician and prime minister Portia Simpson-Miller by the Jamaica Observer cartoonist Clovis are a controversial example and I do believe that lines were often crossed there, with depictions of Mrs Simpson-Miller as an ignorant “ghetto” virago that were arguably sexist, classist and even racist.

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One of the many Trump Cartoons that appear on the daily basis

But what to say about Trump? He is such a problematic public figure, and such a threat to important social, cultural and political values, that it is hard to feel sorry for how he is depicted in the many cartoons, memes, comedy routines and late night TV roasts that pop up constantly in the USA and elsewhere in the world (as well as the occasional work of art). Most are funny and, while politically pointed, not personally offensive, as the one above illustrates, although it is obviously hard to resist the lure of his crazy, self-inflicted hairdo. Normally, I get uncomfortable when public figures are depicted in a sexually demeaning fashion, as these may amount to unwarranted personal violations, and there have been a few such of Trump that focused on alleged penis size etcetera. But then again, his openly sexist attitudes towards women, his own appearance, which does not exactly qualify as the “perfect 10” standard to which he holds women, and the allegations of unwanted sexual approaches to various women, make it harder to object when he is so depicted.

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Ines Doujak – Not Dressed for Conquering/Haute Couture 04 Transport (2011)

But to return to art, a well-known instance of an art work that raised questions about the representation of public figures is Not Dressed for Conquering/Haute Couture 04 Transport (2011), a mixed media installation by the radical feminist Austrian artist Ines Doujak.  In this work the former Spanish King Juan Carlos I is sodomized by the late Bolivian labour leader and feminist Domitila Barrios de Chungara, who is in turn sodomized by a dog. It was included in 2015 in an exhibition at Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, which was temporarily closed by the museum director Bartomeu Marí, who also fired two of the exhibition curators — an act of censorship triggered by this particular work that outraged many in the international art world. Marí subsequently resigned and the work has since then been shown elsewhere in Europe and South America.

Most of the discussion was focused on the depiction of the Spanish monarch, but it appears to me that Domitila Barrios, who is in fact the central figure in the work, fared no better, and it is not clear to what end exactly, as there has been very little discussion of the actual content and intent of the work. To me, that is where Not Dressed for Conquering is problematic and a lot of Doujak’s work can in fact be construed as sensationalist and sexually exploitative, of the very women and feminist interests she claims to represent. So perhaps lines were crossed in Not Dressed for Conquering, and arguably not those that attracted the most public attention, but I do not think that censorship was the answer, as pointed critiques and careful analysis of the work would have been far more useful. Doujak has, ironically, been sheltered from any such critiques by being “martyred” as a victim of censorship.Read More »