Sustaining the Otherwise
ON RESTITUTION, REPARATION AND TRANSFORMATION
For the past two centuries African scholars, communities, artists, activists and governments have demanded from Western museums and heritage institutions to ‘repatriate’ their cultural heritage objects. Although a growing number of artifacts are gradually being returned to their places of origin, the conditions set by Western institutions and their governments are complicated, bureaucratic, expensive and often impossible to achieve. The wider discourse seems to be frozen in time. There’s a tendency to reduce the work to a process of accounting wherein the return of all cultural heritage objects to their ‘authentic’ place of origin is the only goal. This echoes the painful colonial status quo without carving out space for the reparative practices of artists, activists and communities who refuse and sustain the otherwise.
It’s time to move the restitution conversation forward and transform language, policies and promises into meaningful actions. It should be a given to involve artists, activists, intellectuals and communities from the Global South and the diaspora. These voices are crucial to ensure a successful re-imagining and re-defining of how we think about the care, afterlife and placement of illegally obtained artifacts and cultural objects currently housed within European collections. Restitution is not only about returning cultural heritage objects, but also about reconfiguring, rehabilitating and complicating the discourse around decoloniality, restitution and reparations. Sustaining the Otherwise seeks to reckon with the colonial histories, technologies and power structures that have led to the current situation, and how we imagine our worlds. Subsequently, it also questions the demand that the future homes and practices of care replicate the Eurocentric museum model. While the return of cultural heritage objects requires an anti-imperial/decolonial temporality and emergence, past colonial injustices still shape present policies. As set forth by Felwine Sarr in his 2020 conference The Restitution of African Artifacts, the question remains, “Can we overstep the epistemic violence that shapes our times?”In response to this, Sustaining the Otherwise takes an active approach to engaging with the topic of restitution by dismantling the hierarchical institutional status quo, and focusing on artistic practices that activate decoloniality in different sites and multiple temporalities.
Highlighting ongoing conversations and initiatives centered around decoloniality, as well as emerging strategies of restitution, we aim to create a program that will foreground pluriversal narratives, histories, and perspectives. Collaborating with researchers, artists, and curators, as well as existing community initiatives and research projects, we seek to make a meaningful contribution to the ongoing discourse around restitution by creating a platform for critical engagement and a breathing space for artistic practices to unfold organically, with the intention of stretching the concept of restitution beyond a discussion about museum practice and policy.
Sustaining the Otherwise offers a space for artists, activists, researchers, scholars, writers and other cultural practitioners to be in dialogue and to explore the topic of restitution in relation to both material and immaterial culture. As the title suggests, this is a call to imagine the otherwise, to imagine alternatives to the long history of capture and containment by supporting and sustaining artistic practices that undo colonial amnesia by refusing or replacing it with alternatives. Drawing inspiration from Saidiya Hartman’s ongoing research about the afterlife of slavery, and what she describes as ‘troubling the line between history and imagination’, the title proposes a call for change through collective action. In Wayward Lives-Beautiful Experiments she writes: “The collective movement points toward what awaits us, what has yet come into view, what they anticipate-- the time and place better than here; a glimpse of the earth not owned by anyone.” Her observations are highly relevant within the context of a project that seeks to support and sustain artistic practices that complicate the notion of decoloniality.
The title itself is inspired by Hartman’s description of the collective chorus “as an incubator of possibility, an assembly sustaining dreams of the otherwise.” With this in mind, Sustaining the Otherwise is an invitation for artists to create work in relation to specific objects, collections and concepts. This approach is part of a critical unfolding of the histories and genealogies of these objects while paying careful attention to not get caught in the trap of repeating and re-enacting the colonial power structures that we seek to erase. Placing emphasis on artistic practices as a means of engaging with the topic of restitution opens for an imagining of something better, an imagining of what restitution is beyond the geographical return of cultural heritage objects.
The notion of sustaining the otherwise is also deeply connected to Kaiama L. Glover’s perspectives on practices of freedom and refusal, as conveyed in A Regarded Self. Her work offers a vantage point from which to engage with the work of other activists and thinkers who explore practices of freedom and refusal as forms of resistance, restitution and sustenance. As Glover frames it, engaging with practices of freedom requires giving space for critical reflection and, perhaps even more important “…to imagine refusal itself as a legitimate critique and to not burden the refuser with an obligation to fix things or to refashion the world for all of us.”
Emphasizing the importance of active processes, this project fully embraces the radical potential that lies in this line of thinking. As an extension of this reading, we seek to explore the possibilities connected to a reimagining of what freedom might mean by actively and collectively decentering, disordering, decolonializing, undoing, unrooting, un-erasing, reimagining (ownership and belonging), returning or relocating or restituting (cultural heritage objects), retelling (historical narratives), reversing (power structures), rethinking (the alternatives), re-envisioning or reconstructing (the future), redefining (ownership and belonging), resisting (hegemony), repositioning (the discourse), replacing (stolen goods), remembering (silenced histories), reconsidering (the past), reclaiming (ownership), and rebelling (against coloniality or the colonial matrix of power).
Ultimately, Sustaining the Otherwise is an opportunity to collectively rethink strategies and practicalities of restitution, to reclaim stories and histories, to reimagine what is possible, to resist and revolt against lingering colonial power structures in the present. We seek to collectively engage with the topic of restitution by focusing on artistic practices, everyday memory work and collaborative initiatives that are founded on the desire for radical transformation and a real commitment to creating change.
This research and artistic project is organized in several stages, and takes the shape of a multi-locational program that will be developed in collaboration with the following institutions, initiatives and spaces: The Research Center for Material Culture and Metro 54 (Amsterdam), 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning (London), Pitt Rivers (Oxford), Nordic Black Theatre (Oslo), Afrikadaa (Paris), Guest Artists Space Foundation (Lagos), CCA Lagos, and Lusaka Contemporary Arts Center, among others.
- Researching the Otherwise: During this first stage (Spring 2023-Fall 2024) emphasis will be placed on research, development, and the exchange of knowledge. Program content in 2024 will feature gatherings, residencies, and artistic activations, including a symposium at Nordic Black Theatre, Oslo and a conference at Lusaka Contemporary Arts Center, Zambia, among other events.
- Practicing the Otherwise: During this second stage (Fall 2024-Fall 2025), emphasis will be placed on facilitating artistic production for a multilocational exhibition project and publications that will tie the rhizomes of knowledge together into a comprehensive and meaningful whole.
- Maintaining the Otherwise: During the third stage (Fall 2025 and beyond), we will focus on developing a strategy beyond the duration of the project. We believe it is urgent to include maintenance work to ensure that the seeds of this project will grow beyond the project.
© Amal Alhaag and Selene Wendt