Culture&, in collaboration with the Black Cultural Archives, continues its monthly series Perspectives, which invites persons from the arts and culture sector to respond to ‘Re’ words from Culture&’s 2020 decolonisation mantra. With the aim of gaining a richer understanding of what these terms mean from different points of view, this month they consider Repatriation, Recover and Rethink.
Yosola Olorunshola, Freelance Writer
For me, the debate around repatriation should focus on belonging rather than ownership. While the word ‘object’ is misleadingly passive, ‘to belong’ is an active verb, fundamentally tied to the idea of community.
If we simply see repatriation as a question of ownership, the terms of the debate are set by those with a narrow definition of ownership – objects are seen as property to be protected and preserved, rather than part of the fabric of life. But if we ask where an object belongs, perhaps the answer is more clear – you can only truly belong somewhere that you can play an active role in a community.
I guess we’ll all learn to understand this word in a new way after 2020. But in the context of Black history, recovery has two dimensions. On one side, it’s finding ways to heal from the trauma of centuries of injustice – both physically and psychologically – even if the injustice isn’t over yet. On the other side, it’s about recovering stories that have been buried, ignored or forgotten. I’m interested in how we recover our histories before they were interrupted by colonialism. Not because I want to go back, or because the pre-colonial world was any kind of utopia. But sometimes I think it is hard to recover if your story is always defined by the oppressor.
A lot of thinking has been done on decolonisation. It’s time to start acting. But we do need to rethink the way we define culture, and where we think culture belongs. I believe culture is being made every day. Sometimes it’s spontaneous, sometimes it’s carefully crafted. But in Europe we have this idea that culture is something abstract, set apart from the way we live, as though you can be “cultured” or “uncultured” when in fact we’re all experiencing and shaping culture every day. I think we need to remove any hierarchy in the way we define what culture is.
Svetlana Leu, Trustee at Culture&
There are strong arguments to be made on both sides of the repatriation debate. Yet with so many objects and works sat in storage boxes in dark rooms in the depths of museums, it is undeniable that this is not what they were made for. Art is made to be enjoyed, appreciated and understood and works cannot fulfill this purpose if they are not even on public display. Therefore, repatriation for me is about ensuring that collections are displayed. In many cases, when we examine the multitude of works in the holdings of museums, we will find that the most appropriate solution for many works is for them to be displayed where they will be fully appreciated – and that is often in their countries of origin.
When I think of the word ‘recover’ I think of history. When I first moved to the UK several years ago, I was shocked at the version of history that is told about events such as the Transatlantic Trade of enslaved Africans. There are many historical events that need to be ‘recovered’ in this sense and retold so that future generations learn and appreciate the true histories of their past. This recovery should happen at the level of the education system.
Rethink is a powerful word as I feel that it encompasses the basis of the change that needs to happen in society. It is almost as if we should rethink everything as so much that we have learnt and been socialised to believe needs to be undone to create a better, fairer and more equal world. Rethinking for me is about changing age-old mindsets.