LAGOS PHOTO 2020: INTRODUCTION
From Rapid Response Restitution to Home Museum
“The transitional nature of art is perhaps its most defining trait.”
(Wole Soyinka, Beyond Aesthetics, Use, Abuse and Dissonance in African Art Traditions, 2020)
Since October 2010, LagosPhoto has been guided by a thematic curatorial approach that deliberately searches for a visual language through which to narrate the urgent socio-political and cultural issues of the moment. Each iteration of the festival has been unique and memorable in its own way. Together these editions constitute a powerful pan-African position on contemporary photography and art. Engaging with the platform over a decade has been rewarding, but today the medium has to meet the moment and actively address the burning question of restitution. The ethics of collecting, as well as the redefinition of existing museum practices, both require careful consideration. In what manner do today’s protocols of acquisition differ from the modalities that led to Africa’s historical art becoming sequestered in the museums of the Global North? Has there simply been a shift in institutional location from the ethnographic to the global or universal museum? What self-reflexive, decolonial procedure can be implemented in order to suspend engrained, and often racialist, art analytical systems and their taxonomies? Efforts have made by national institutions in Europe to address their past. As two of the curators of “Hello World. Revising a Collection” (Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, 2018), it was encouraging to see the willingness of a conglomerate of five German state museums to rethink their holdings and revise art historical canons. But two years on, where has this initial activity led to? The predominant economy of extraction remains embedded in the politics and collecting practices of major museums. In contrast, what might the nature of future museology mean to peoples who have suffered from the soul-destroying mass appropriation of their cultural artefacts by imperialist nations?
A polite indifference accompanies the indefinite postponement of returning iconic artworks back to Africa. This chronic delay is tied to difficult conversations on reparations for slavery, and the ongoing societal injustices meted out daily to citizens of the African diaspora. With this cultural and historical fracture in mind, we felt it appropriate to take a modest side road in order to approach the issue of restitution from a curative position. Yet how not to fall in line with normalised institutional violence, or become an agent of a worthy reformulation that speaks volumes on relic diplomacy but alters little on the ground? How to build a museum from the inside out, a museum with collections that consist of the cultural artefacts of our day, brought together with an ethic of access, empowerment and inclusivity?
The term restitution is not free of complication. It presupposes that something has been removed and should be returned, a situation made good, an absence restored. It requires a form of remediation to heal the wound of the past. The process of remediation does not freeze time or replicate tradition. On the contrary, it sets out to rethink and translate the agency of the original artefact, re-designing it within a contemporary idiom, while remaining respectful to its origins, context and temporality. In short, the concept of restitution benefits from being opened out and given space for the flourishing of alternative understandings of cultural value, perennity, and conservation to emerge. Here, the term is made operational rather than rhetorical and political. When rapid response is coupled with restitution it not only references the need to speed up procedures, it also perverts the notion of the collection. For with this stance, there is no collection to be bought and hoarded, no capital to speculate on. The collection is already at home and only requires an act of reintegration into the imagination, as a contemporary figure of thought and self-empowerment. However, if this interpretation offers a moment of respite, it does not resolve the severe disenfranchisement inherent in the plundering and subsequent incarceration of the African continent’s vast and significant cultural heritage.
For its eleventh edition, LagosPhoto has therefore turned its attention to the crucial political and civic ramifications of restitution. Re-routing the optic and debates from Paris, London, Amsterdam and Berlin back to Nigeria and the continent, it steps aside from the opinions of academics and museum directors. The focus instead is on citizens, friends and families and their response to the museum of the future. Restitution and photography become perfect partners in the process. For while soul and identity lean on memory and longing, photography flickers in the imagination, helping to recall and remediate latent knowledge.
In February 2020, we embarked on grassroots research into museum collections in Nigeria. The National Commission of Museums and Monuments (NCMM) that directs over sixty museums in Nigeria, gave us their full backing and permission to enter the stores of each museum, allowing us to get a sense of the scale of existing historical collections in the country. At the Nigerian National Museum in Lagos we were given a warm welcome and taken to the stores, where we witnessed the quality of these remarkable holdings of art and design from Africa. Together with the General Manager of African Artists’ Foundation, Olayinka Sangotoye, and photographer Ugochuckwu Emebiriodo, we visited municipal and royal museums in Ibadan, Ile-Ife, Abeokuta, Owo, and Benin City, and spoke to their respective curators. We also entered private museums such as the Kuti Family Museum in Abeokuta, and we marvelled at the arts and cultural complex conceived and built by artist and architect, Demas Nwoko.
This research enabled us to witness the dedication with which curators in Nigerian museums approach their collections, the curatorial language of exhibitions, and the immense popularity they enjoy among schoolchildren. Studying these museums and their collections, we tried to identify objects with a live wire of ingenuity, artefacts that could be redesigned for a 21st century way of living. We called them objects of virtue and they included a variety of items such as brilliantly engineered fishing traps, historical bullet proof shirts, and an array of children’s toys, domestic appliances, and tools. We recognised the potential of LagosPhoto Festival to reverse power relations and mobilise civic interest in the question of restitution. With the theme of Rapid Response Restitution, photography would help to forge a democratic understanding of cultural heritage and what it might mean for future generations. Furthermore, operating as a digital platform, this edition would respond to the necessities of the lockdown situation. The first wave of COVID-19 had forced us all to remain inside and reflect on our immediate environment, our belongings, and our personal libraries made of artefacts, paper, and memories.
Our challenge was to develop a concept that might bring the museum of the 21st century quite literally closer to home, into private spheres of historical and cultural knowledge. The danger of reifying the concept of home into a normative discourse was evident to us. Yet we were more interested in breaking the museum down to its smallest, most humble common denominator, far away from the colonial emporium and toward a community-centred crucible of experience. To complete the curatorial team of LagosPhoto20, we invited two experts to join us, each with complimentary horizons. Dr Oluwatoyin Sogbesan, cultural and architectural historian conducting research into inclusive participation in museums in Nigeria, and Armenian curator Asya Yaghmurian, based in Berlin, who worked extensively on community archives and vernacular design in Armenia.
It was while the Corona pandemic was spreading fast that we launched Home Museum with an open call, which was sent out in May 2020. Over the course of two months, two hundred and forty individuals from around the world responded to the brief transmitted through social media in Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Swahili, Wolof, Pidgin, English, French, Russian and Chinese. It was drafted as a letter to a friend, an invitation to take part in co-creating a new digital museum. “As we go about our busy lives,” it read, “we often forget the small things worth preserving – objects that are important to each person, family and home. Some treasures we use every day, some we keep, some we hold close, some we lose, and some are simply forgotten and not preserved at all. All these things bring back memories and tell stories about our culture and history in ways we don’t always recognise.”
The brief was straightforward: to take part, all you needed to do was to use a camera or phone to capture your personal home museum collection of objects of virtue and email a maximum of twelve photographs to LagosPhoto. Accompanying these images would be a short text describing their selection and significance. While objects of virtue can be interpreted from a myriad of individual perspectives, common to all is their defiance of anachronism, of being “out of time”. They may not always evoke contemporary meanings, sometimes falling in and out of relevance, but they do conjure up active recollections. Some of these mnemonic artefacts can be as straightforward as cooking stoves, crockery, vases, clocks, watches, clothing, and old coins. Others are more complex instruments of devotion such as bundles of human hair, family heirlooms, personal souvenirs and memorabilia. 20th century image-making technology, cameras, televisions, compact disc players, VHS players, sound systems, and phones also feature widely in several contributions, generating a double-take on the artefact as well as the history and equipment of time-based media. In some shots, an apartment or room is staged as if it were a museum display with particular groups of exhibits or an idiosyncratic style of hang. Various documents such as passports, paperwork and vintage photographs constitute an additional counterpoint to the objects depicted. At times, the notion of home transgresses the built environment and is situated on the streets or in parks. Together, these astonishing and diverse assemblages of images and texts form the new digital Home Museum. All taken during the high point of COVID-19 by individuals living in home exile all over the world, the result is an unexpected synchronous collection of visual testimonials of the pandemic.
Home Museum grew daily as entries were sent in from a geographic span that no one could have predicted, and which extended to South America, Saudi Arabia, Russia and China. As the geographic area increased, the inquiry on restitution expanded beyond the African continent. Calls sent out in Russian and Chinese, were intended not only for generations of expatriates and employees from these countries based in Africa, but equally for participants living in cities such as Beijing or Moscow. This development proved an enrichening and important factor for Home Museum. Subjective interpretations of family, ancestry, identity, gender, migration, time, healing, and survival would be reflected in the way different elements were photographed by each person be they in Abuja, Bamako, Bogotá, or Beijing.
In June 2020, we began conceptualizing the scaffolding of this new online museum. Birds of Knowledge, a young artists’ research cooperative, was invited to design its infrastructure. With immediate origins in Nigeria, Tunisia, Cameroon, China, New Zealand, Turkey, Finland, Norway and Germany, this self-elected group of emergent artists and socially aware designers, studying at the Hamburg University of Fine Arts, would mirror the cultural and geographic diversity of the co-creators of Home Museum. Interested in building an autonomous digital venue for the exchange of artistic research during a pandemic, Birds of Knowledge were ready to experiment with a model driven by visual conversations and poetic narratives that might help to suspend the deep-seated colonial systems of classification that predetermine the discourse of the museum. In regular digital meetings with the team of LagosPhoto based in Nigeria, we debated how best to give the virtual visitor the role of curator of their own personal collection. This would be achieved through a self-generated process of assembling images and texts in line with personal interests and research. Presented without reference to age, gender or nationality, Home Museum would offer alternative routes into the conversation on restitution. It would highlight authorship and inclusivity. Infused with humility, love, and generosity, each photograph says: “Come into my home, here is my history. This is my museum.”
Birds of Knowledge have tried not to intervene more than necessary in the categorization of the numerous entries sent to Home Museum. Through random navigation one can wander through visuals, sense the photographs, and discover the candid poetry of each person’s text. Alternatively, one can find friends and artists in a more systematic manner by using the A-Z. By combining different entries into a personal assemblage, one can build one’s own online collection and even initiate conversations with other participants via their contributions. With Home Museum, photographs and texts become parallel expressions. Neither is reduced to an illustration of the other. The visitor can enjoy surfing both channels, drawing them together when desired through their own self-styled organising principles.
What began as an exercise of rapid response to the absence of cultural heritage has now become the foundation for future citizens’ institution, one in which each member of society can contribute to the collective perception and contemporary restitution of significant historical values. For this edition of LagosPhoto there is no end date. Home Museum will grow in scope and scale, transforming into a digital museum of the commons, a space for sharing and dialoguing, a visual library for the arts of the 21st century.