28 May 2014

What is the use of knowledge about Africa and Ife? Reflections on a masterpiece exhibition

Ife and Beyond - sculpture of a rider © National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria. Photo courtesy Museum for African Art/Fundación Botín. Photo: Rose-Marie Westling, Världskulturmuseerna.

The exhibition Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria has now, under the name African Masterpieces: theHistory of the Kingdom of Ife – arrived in the Museum of World Culture inGothenburg. It is a rich and fascinating exhibition with extraordinary historical works of art – over 100 sculptures in metal, stone and terracotta from the 12th to the 16th century that tells about the civilization of Ife, ancestors to Yoruba, one of the largest groups in today’s Nigeria.  The exhibition was produced by the Museum forAfrican Art, New York and Fundación Botín, Santander, Spain in cooperation with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria and has previously been shown at the British Museum as well as in Houston, Virginia and Indianapolis. 

In Gothenburg we showed it together with a photo exhibition by Swedish photographer Jens Assur with the ironic title “Africa is a great country” that show photos of contemporary everyday Africa in large uneventful exposures. 

One of Jens Assur's photo's that featured in the exhibition "Africa is a great country"

Through these exhibitions the museum wants to challenge the audience's image of Africa. But what does it mean to give a truer picture of Africa? Can ethnographic objects be used to achieve this?

In the conversations taking place in the exhibition hall it is often reiterated how little we know about the kingdom of Ife. There are few certain answers given in the text panels, there are a lot of 'perhaps' and 'it might be'... One reviewer thought that this was one aspect that makes the encounter with the exhibited sculptures so strong. There is room for an open sense of wonder.

This has made me think. What roles do and should knowledge play in ethnography exhibitions?

It has been pointed out how African art and crafts are often caught under concepts like ‘tribal art’ or ‘world art’, both terms pointing to something that is essentially different from ‘our’ art.

Knowledge on the other hand is always unanimously portrayed as something beneficial. I would contest this. I think this exhibition puts the finger on why I should be contested. The humble presentation of possible interpretations of the past opens a space for the beholders own reactions and interpretations. The problem with people like Leo Frobenius who couldn't imagine that these sculptures were made by Africans was that he was too sure about what he knew – that the white race was the only people who could create art and civilisation. This rigid knowledge meant that Africa was for a very long time only understandable as a past and undeveloped place.

A person that is openly and consciously ignorant does not have to explain away what he actually sees. It seems as if knowledge is not such a straight path to understanding the world as all the appraisal for knowledge would suggest. (One can of course counter by saying that Frobenius was simply wrong, that he didn't know anything about Ife). My point is that what is cast in stone is closed for interpretation and therefore it cannot move us in the same manner. It might be that the distance to Ife makes us aware of how little we can actually know for sure about how other people live or have lived.

When we speak about what we know it seems as if 'we' denotes the collected expertise on the subject. Most exhibitions of ethnographic objects connect to an array of research fields. What we think we know or don’t know thus depends on what perspective one uses. There seems to be comparably little art history or archeological knowledge about the particular Ife objects and the particular location where they were found, compared to for example Egyptian or Classical Greek objects. Yes. But there is considerable knowledge available on Yoruba culture and the West African trade circuits of the time. From a materialist historical perspective one can say many things about how Ife could rise in its specific location at that specific time, and also about how riches that can foster a court culture came about through the incorporation of West Africa in the large Muslim world system, where ideas, products and riches moved over vast distances in Africa and Asia.

Knowledge about ethnographic objects is often formulated in terms of myths and symbols. Like the above mentioned 'tribe' myth is a charged word, with connections to the same Eurocentric epistemological frames. Other cultures believe in myths. But maybe we risk making the distance between them and us much wide by understanding myths to literal. As Bruno Latour has put it: A modern is someone who believes that others believe”. Yoruba culture is much more complex and articulate than it might seem when myths are taken as literal stories about animals and spirits. The 'myths' of the Yoruba religion can be said to express conceptions of the foundational principals of existence that share traits with Taoist philosophy. Yoruba traditions are still a valid and rewarding perspective on life for millions of people around the world.

According to the philosopher Emanuelis Levinas one of the most common mistakes in the Modern scientific paradigm is to assume that respect for others is connected to knowing the other. Maybe this is stronger in my native Sweden than in most places: racism is best countered through information campaigns, if people only knew better they would behave better. It is a very Socratic point of view. Levinas argues that this is a fallacy. The problem is that we encounter the world from an epistemological point of view. When meeting something foreign we have been schooled to view it as an object that we must understand and explain with the help of knowledge. But other people aren't objects, Levinas states, they are subjects. When we stand face to face with an other the most relevant question is not what we know or might know about her. The encounter creates a direct relation, and a relation includes a responsibility for the other. The question is not 'who are you?', but 'how can we take care of each other?'. Knowledge often functions more like a shield than a connector, hindering an open and encounter and relation. The security of knowing how others are, why they are different, protects us from being truly moved.

The old sculptures from Ife are open for encounters. We seldom get the chance to encounter history as powerful as this. Whatever prior knowledge one have this encounter makes it obvious that other people enjoy, suffer and live in similar ways, and that we have a responsibility for their room to do this. This insight can be deepened by further knowledge about the conditions and conceptions of the others. But first of all it can make us doubt those who say we are more developed than others, and handle our knowledge in ways that does not make others into objects for or knowledge or ignorance.

Klas Grinell, Curator, Museum of World Culture.

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