The colonisation of the spirit

Ruth HartleyColonialism, Creativity, Religion, Southern Africa, Visual Arts, ZambiaLeave a Comment

Forceful ideas

There are occasions when something is said or written that strikes you with real force. A discussion between Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy over African artefacts in European museums did just that for me. It’s a topical subject right now. Emmanuel Macron is talking of the repatriation of African artworks to their homes in Africa. Way back in 1991, I was invited to a seminar about the preservation of cultural property in Livingstone, Zambia, organised by Grazyna Zaucha. I personally argued for cultural exchange and interchange as essential for human creativity, which preserves human autonomy and freedom. I saw this as a sharing of ideas both visual and actual which benefit us all and I questioned the value of an art object over its maker which I saw might enrich institutions, not culture.

The spirits have fled our culture

The image shows a cardboard box divided into 3 floors. The bottom floor contains Egyptian mummies and human bones. The middle floor shows a crowd of staring visitors to the museum. The top floor illustrates by squiggles and paper spiral the departing spirits leaving the museum
Departed Spirits. Ruth Hartley’s concept box based on the idea that museums contain funerary objects and bones from which the spirits have fled while the visitors become objects themselves.

A few years later I was on a short course at St Martin’s School of Art. We visited the British Museum and were asked to make a 3D object in response to that experience. I am still very proud of what I conceived, crude as it was. I made a cardboard Neo-Classical Museum filled with dead bodies, tombs and valuable golden objects and I showed that all the spirits, all the ghosts, all the meaning had fled away from the building. I was thinking specifically of the Egyptian tombs and other funerary exhibits at the time. I’ve always enjoyed museums but that day I felt that Europeans valued objects more than ideas. We look at statues, stained glass, and painted walls and no longer experience the spirits they were made to evoke. While colonisation is what humans have always done and will continue to do whether they colonise place, space, race, ideas or the ether, colonisation is a blind, blunt, brutal power grab that simply cannot understand what it colonises. This is why this action by France is so important for Africa and for us all.

Learning from Zambian artists

The most important thing I learned in Zambia from Zambian and African artists, was that “art” is not the stone, the bronze, the canvas, the ink, or the physical object. Art is what happens when someone interacts with the art, the act, the music, the dance the word, and with the artist’s evocation of the spirit. Art is the spiritual experience that happens in the spaces in between the art and its audience. Performance is the evocation of the other rather than the physical which occupies a liminal space that exists in time. It’s one that can only be occupied by the spiritual, the metaphysical, the ephemeral and the ineffable. I worry that today some Zambian artists may lose this understanding and only make art for money. I do know money is needed – I too, make nothing from my art and books! I need you – I need readers. You are my reason for existing.

As Sarr says, – an artefact is not just a material expression of something. For Africans, these objects do not signify the material world. For them, the world is material and spiritual. Some of the artefacts were made to witness the invisible world. It’s very interesting to compare the vision and the conceptions of what are artefacts and what are not.

The Shades of the Ancestors

It’s gratifying to discover that one’s instincts about art, culture, and spirituality are understood and shared by other thinkers and creators. I am working on a children’s story about two Zambian kids who are sent on a quest to a museum in Europe by the Shades of their Ancestors. They have to find a mask that is needed for a rain festival because without it the spirits cannot come. They must bring it home to their village. The theft of important ritual objects from Africa continues as I write.

Museums are wonderful and important

Don’t get me wrong. Museums matter. Museums change and increasingly curators are committed to preserving not just the physical object but the spiritual subject too. I learned so much from my visit to the Quai Branly museum of African art in Paris. Many years ago I visited the Livingstone Museum. Two things struck me with force. One was the small amount of money paid to Zambia by the colonial company who acquired its copper mines. The other was the living spirits testified to by the curators, that danced around the ritual objects kept at that time in the museum basement.

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