The Township in the Humboldt Forum

by Duane Jethro

Contemporary African art can be employed to make important, generative interventions in ethnographic museum settings today. Yet, unfortunate curatorial choices can also provoke readings that are troublesome and unsettling, especially in contexts where sensitivities around restitution, race and return are heightened. Here I consider the implications of pairing Antonio Ole’s “township wall” in the Humboldt Forum’s African ethnological displays.

On the 23rd of September 2021 the Ethnological Museum opened inside the Humboldt Forum. The scale, historical importance of the collections and the anticipation as to how the Humboldt Forum would address years of criticism, heightened public expectations. The Ethnological Museum is, along with the Museum of Asian Art, the second major museum managed by the Prussian Cultural Heritage foundation to open inside the complex. The building is referred to as the Berlin City Palace, a reconstruction of a Prussian castle that was home to the Hohenzollern family, and the site of controversial, bloody religiously inspired suppression of the 1848 German revolutions. It also housed one important royal Kunstkammer (cabinet of curiosity), which spawned today’s ethnographic collections.

The Humboldt Forum is controversial because it encapsulates a number of irreconcilable problems of design, construction and curation. These include returning ethnographic museums to a reconstructed Prussian castle; collections and objects that are continuously exposed as being of dubious colonial provenance; religious decorations reinscribed on the building exterior; and then institution branded as a place of openness, tolerance and cultural dialogue. The Ethnological Museum and its collections, especially its Africa collections, sit centrally amidst this constellation of problems; their curation naturally would come under close public scrutiny.

Visiting the Ethnological Museum in November 2021 it was clear that the curators tried hard. As you entered the main exhibition hall of the ethnological museum you encounter a contemporary art installation in the form of a black, modular cube that boldly declared, “I have a white frame of reference and a white worldview”. Images and video installations about race and colonialism decorated the open plan cube. The Humboldt Forum was clearly now fully on board with curatorial discourses in vogue: decolonisation, anti-racism, post-colonial critique. Yet the underlying message I came away with was that not only had the institution finally ‘discovered its white guilt’, but now wanted to be rewarded for it too. This misguided sentiment, of not only wanting to embrace but actually lead critique, despite being the main object of critique, is evident in the Humboldt Forum’s call for submissions that help imagine “A world where coloniality no longer has a place”, starting with an issue themed, “the instrumentalization of critique”.

Just past this installation one encounters the monumental, colourful art installation titled Township Wall. Made by Angolan artist António Ole, the work is composed of objects, such as colourful door(s) and window frames, ladders and household items arranged like an oversized maché of bright, discarded building bricabrac. As a South African I recognised it instantly. Townships are a familiar city scene, but also as a distinct, yet troublesome category in twentieth-century South African art history, especially in reference to ‘struggle art’ by artists like Willie Bester. Street artists make a brisk road-side trade among tourists selling multimedia artworks of tin, canvas and acrylic; while the township codes contemporary fashion, home decor and feminine chic. The township is more than a place. It is an aesthetic.

Figures 1 to 3: Images of the Township Wall at the Ethnological Museum with accompanying text, 10 November 2021. © Duane Jethro

Ole explained in a documentary supplementing the work, that the piece was inspired by creativity and innovation observed in post-independence townships. But he also viewed it as a demarcating object, one that separates the forbidden zone, as in the Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker, or safe urban space, and wild, and dangerous rural space in post-colonial Angola. An early version of Township Wall was first shown at the Johannesburg Biennale in 1995, under the title Na Margem da Zona Limite (At the edge of the boundary zone). In 2001 Ole was commissioned to produce a site-specific wall for Okwui Enwezor’s exhibition, “A Short Century”, at the Gropius Bau in Berlin. Ole approached waste recyclers in the city, and, using other found objects, produced a site-specific version reflective of the urban material culture of Berlin. This version was later purchased and reworked for display in the Ethnological Museum in Dahlem, Berlin, where it stood for many years. This move “underscore[ed] the museum’s commitment to presenting non-European societies and cultures in their historical and contemporary forms and, in doing so, to thinking outside the narrow concept of the ‘ethnological”.i The work clearly has a fascinating historical trajectory, from major exhibitions to grand German ethnological spaces. This version, made from objects found in Berlin, makes a remarkable comment on the city’s history of boundary drawing, while also rather subversively suggests that Berlin is an African city of a kind. It is an arresting work worthy of its place in a museum like this.

Immediately after one passes the Township Wall one happens upon the first African ethnographic objects — fetish and ritual objects gathered during expeditions of German and European colonial spoliation, or which travelled here along colonial bureaucratic infrastructures. Ordered according to a display strategy labelled “Schaudepot” by the Humboldt Forum curators, the objects were crammed into dark glass cases, crowded in high displays that were arranged according to the expeditions and the collectors who had gathered them. Little mention is made of the craftspeople who made them, the traditions from which they spring, and the vital cultures they nourish in their original context.

The Schaudepot, has a long history in the Humboldt Forum planning and as a display strategy presents mixed possibilities. It places emphasis on objects as museum possessions, as a glimpse into the bounty held in the stores. It is a convenient way of making explicit some of the provenance of the objects by showing where and when they were collected. Yet what occurs in the Humboldt Forum’s attempt to use it to counter problematic colonial legacies is that, instead, the objects appear to be visually restored to the colonial museological logics that ensnared them in the first place. They are presented as the museum possessions — which they are not — collected by a few bad white men; and it frames colonialism as a few bad deeds enacted by a small group in the distant past rather than a structural issue with contemporary resonances that, ironically, the Humboldt Forum well exemplifies.

And the Township Wall? As an entry point to the ethnographic collections, one rather disturbing symbolic announcement it makes is “welcome to the township”. What I mean to say is that the displays of African objects that follow are recast through the symbolic lens as a township. By implication, the African ethnographic objects are subject to denigrating aesthetic judgements, but so too the people who made these objects. Placed at the entrance to these collections, without sufficient signage, the Township Wall functions as an ordering principle that symbolically shapes one’s reading of these collections in highly triggering and problematic ways. 

Antonio Ole and sympathetic curators could not have anticipated such a profound misplacement when the work was acquired. Yet it invites some unsettling questions about contemporary art in this ethnological museum setting. Has its display stripped the work of its original critical impulses when it was produced and shown in 2001? If so, how does it serve as cover for the kind of ‘post-colonial’ critique the Humboldt Forum wants claim? If the Humboldt Forum claims the township as a symbolic ordering principle for its African ethnological collections, what are the implications for townships, museums and ethnographic collections from the continent? Time will tell if better contextualisation helps reframe the wall and the displays of ethnological collections. In the shadow of the Township Wall, therefore is the question of whether contemporary art has the power to shift the ultimate historical and political import of an institution like this, or whether it is doomed to forever overwhelm works of such beauty and potency?

Many thanks to Mirjam Brusius, Alice Stevenson, Naima Hassan, and the anonymous reader for the helpful comments on an earlier draft of this text.


i Extract from the short guide to township wall. Many thanks to Prof Dr. Paola Ivanov, Curator East, North-East Central and Southern African Collections, Ethnological Museum, Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, for sharing this and for points of clarity on the history of the Township Wall prior to installation in the Humboldt Forum.

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