Unreal Nature

August 22, 2015

A Failure of Understanding Is a Correct Understanding

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:45 am

… This limbo, a space of indeterminacy, is vital. A space where you know understanding is limited, contested, and inadequate.

Continuing through Six Drawing Lessons: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 2012 by William Kentridge (2014):

… Until twenty years ago, in the Natural History Museum in Cape Town, among the dioramas showing extinct qwaggas and stuffed lions and rhinoceroses, was a diorama of a Bushman family — mother and father, children, around a fire, preparing the evening meal. There was a frisson, as to whether these were stuffed specimens, like the lions, or casts. They were body casts, but there were stuffed specimens as well, though not there.

A South African woman, Saartjie Baartman, exhibited as the Hottentot Venus, was taken to Europe and put on living display in Paris and London. Her genitals were studied in a not unfamiliar mixture of science and prurience. After she died, she was dissected, and parts of her body stayed pickled, on display. This was a nineteenth-century project, based on an eighteenth-century encyclopedist idea of cataloguing knowledge. It continued in the twentieth century, and only recently, in the last few years , was there a restitution of the remains of Saartjie Baartman.

1810 caricature of Baartman by William Heath

In the new dispensation of South Africa, it seemed inappropriate for the diorama of the Bushman family cooking around their fire to be seen as part of natural history. And there were plans to move the display to the museum of cultural history, where they would be seen in a comparative display of other ways of cooking and living. But then there was a spokesman, on behalf of the descendants cast in plaster, who claimed they would rather be kept with the animals, that the animals were closer to their beliefs, their concepts of themselves, far closer than the vitrines of blue and white tile, and the hierarchies of Dutch lace, in other vitrines in the museum.

At the moment they remain in the Natural History museum, in a storeroom, waiting for another reclassification. A limbo. This limbo, a space of indeterminacy, is vital. A space where you know understanding is limited, contested, and inadequate. Where a failure of understanding is a correct understanding.

The terrains that museums of Africa cover are still a contested and unclear space. Not just in Africa. Ambulances travel across Paris, conveying specimens from the Quai Branly to the Louvre, where there is still a small section devoted to African art, and to admitting objects made in Africa to the pantheon of artists and their leavings; and journeys from the Louvre to the Quai Branly, where another restitution is made, objects not seen as abstracted embodiments of beauty, but accorded proper respect, given full explanatory labels.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] The best work of the most knowledgeable curators, surrounding those objects that were brought back from the colonies. In which space are they given their right honor? In both, and between the two, I would suggest. It is only in the instability of the move, in the limbo of transportation and instability, that they are right — in the gap between the two certainties.

My most recent previous post from Kentridge’s book is here.




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