Africa 1931 in 2016

Tina Palaić

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During his travel František Foit was making sculptures of different ethnic groups.

Sculptor František Vladimir Foit and his friend, zoologist Dr. Jiři Baum started their scientific journey through Africa in 1931. These two travelers from former Czechoslovakia set off for a journey by a Tatra car and succeeded to travel from north to south of the continent, crossing the countries of Egypt, Sudan, Congo, Uganda, Kenya, today’s Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, in just eight months. They were neither looking for the adventure nor did the well-organized tourist trip. Foit was sent on a scientific travels by the Charles University in Prague to make »anthropological masks of African tribes«, says the exhibition text. During the journey Baum studied insects and sent the outcomes of his investigations to the National Museum of Prague. They were working on their commissions all the time. In addition, they took plenty of photographs as well as made a film.

530 Foit’s images, taken on his journey in 1931, are being kept in Velenje Museum. In 2012 curator Blaž Verbič prepared an exhibition entitled Africa 1931 – Foit’s photographs on glass to present the most outstanding 200 images. It is interesting that the most of Foit’s collection is in Velenje Museum in Slovenia and not in the Czech Republic – his destiny is very much connected with former Yugoslavia. In 1968 Foit wanted to return to Europe with his wife Irena. At that time they lived in Nairobi in Kenya, where he worked as a sculptor and taught on the Kennyata University. It was not possible for them to return to Czechoslovakia, their homeland, due to the Prague Spring and the Soviet occupation. Instead Yugoslav ambassador in Kenya, Ivo Pelicon, introduced Foits to Dr. Boris Kuhar, who was the director of the Slovene Ethnographic Museum in Ljubljana. Kuhar found suitable solution for his friends in Slovenia. František and Irena Foit came to Yugoslavia in 1971 and were offered an apartment and a place for the exhibition of their objects in Velenje. Foit gave his ethnographic collection to the city of Velenje where it is still permanently exhibited in the Velenje Museum.

Design is very attractive - photographs are exhibited as slides, illuminated from behind. / Razstava je atraktivno oblikovana - fotografije so predstavljene kot diapozitivi, osvetljeni z zadnje strani.

Design is very attractive – photographs are exhibited as slides, illuminated from behind.

You can see the exhibition Africa 1931 – Foit’s photographs on glass for free in the Museum of Recent History Celje until the end of August 2016. When entering the exhibition, visitor is confronted by the low light room where photographs are exhibited as slides, illuminated from behind. Photographs are accompanied by the short commentary, written on the basis of Foit’s travel diary. The design is very attractive and leads you from one country to another following the travelers’ route. Few objects are also exhibited. There is Tiriki mask from Kenya, which was used during the initiation of boys into society, as well as Foit’s personal objects. In the last room there is an interactive computer, where visitor can read more about the travelers’ story and making of the exhibition as well as watch some additional short videos. One of them shows preservation and restoration of photographs on glass; curator was taught the procedure in Prague. It is great that he decided to present also this kind of information and thus explained some background of the exhibition.

Foit's map of Africa. / Foitov zemljevid Afrike.

Foit’s map of Africa.

There is also Foit’s map of Africa where visitor can follow travelers’ route, as well as blank map of the world where s/he can mark his/her travel destinations. The exhibition narrative is thus concluded in a nice atmosphere, which encourage a visitor to contemplate her or his travel experiences. Therefore, the smallest possibility for critical reflection about “scientific expeditions” in colonized countries is lost.

 

 

An exhibition offers several facts about the journey, and investigation of two white man, who traveled through the African continent in the first half of the 20th century. Information is presented through the main texts, Foit’s photographs and accompanying comments. However, how do we perceive this kind of expedition today? They were possible because targeted countries were colonized. European governments encouraged and financed “scientific investigations” – civilizational discourse of imagined primitive non-western communities justified European colonial project as well as defined European identity and culture. Colonial history shaped western perspective on the world and defined western identity. As Edward Said has already said in 1978: European knowledge is colonialism. If we do not critically reflect on the colonial narratives, we enable this obsolete and especially disputable discourse to survive. It is interesting how colonial discourse has expanded everywhere; it can be found also in the countries without (direct) colonial context.

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It is important what and how is told.

We can recognize it also in the exhibition Africa 1931 – through the use of language and images as well as presented topics. Several words, used in the exhibition, demand thorough consideration, for instance tribe (slo. pleme), native (slo. domorodec), and Pygmy people (slo. Pigmejci). This terminology is outdated and offensive. In addition, many photographs show semi-naked or naked women of colour – some of them with the expression of uneasiness on their faces. They create an image of primitive, sexualized women of black colour, which is defined by the perspective of a white man, the view, being shaped by the power, domination and eroticism. Hierarchical structure is emphasized also with presenting Foit and Baum as two important scientists, who carried out very important tasks during their travels, as well as the fact that the exhibition presents just their story. I also missed the current issues, connected with the story of the exhibition.

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Photographs of semi-naked women.

How can museums deal with such issues? Which are contemporary trends in exhibiting this kind of content? For this text I stumbled across some interesting cases of dealing with colonial terminology in museums and galleries as well as responses to such endeavors. Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam leads the program “Adjustment of Colonial Terminology” (starts in 2015), which seeks to remove outdated racist terminology from its artwork titles. Words that Europeans once routinely used to describe other cultures or peoples, like “negro”, “Mohammedan” (an archaic word for a Muslim) or “dwarf”, will be replaced. The same process goes on in the National Gallery of Denmark (starts in 2016), which has replaced the words “negro” and “Hottentot” (an offensive Dutch term for the Khoi people of Africa) in titles and descriptions of its artworks. Change of the terminology was met with approval, for instance the International Council of Museums – ICOM has claimed that this was a step in the right direction. With the use of colonial terminology, museums help to maintain and even strengthen colonial discourse as well as established hierarchical structures – museums have to deal with it differently to fulfill their educational role. In addition, they have to approach these contents carefully and have to avoid offensive words because there are also source communities among museum visitors, who visit such exhibitions. However, there was many criticism, too. Some people think this is an example of censorship as well as ‘whitewashing’ history, and our ancestors’ acts. Some accuse museums of revising history. Both arguments are reasonable.

What to do? In my opinion, museums should explain the colonial discourse and its use when exhibiting such contents – both in museums in colonial countries, as well as in countries with non-colonial context. When curator presents certain issue from today’s perspective, use of colonial terminology is no longer suitable. When he/ she has to use colonial narrative to maintain historical credibility, then he/ she has to offer an explanation. The point is neither in maintaining colonial terminology, nor in deleting it – we have to clarify it. With doing so, an exhibition does not only present the content, but also explains and values it – this is the interpretation. In my way of thinking, critical reflection on colonial discourse is in accordance with the contemporary trends in museology, as well as defining museums as socially responsible institutions.

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