The obscene distance
The ethnological museum project may believe it has shorn itself of its racist past, but racism is still evident in museological display, reified in the enforced distance between object and beholder. This racism is also performed in museological discourse, and one might well ask which institutional strategies situate collections of objects most completely between a colonial past that resonates within the neocolonial present? For me, it is crucial to recount the history of this distance, as it was one of the human science’s main tools in inventing otherness. And one of the main torments of anthropological fieldwork methodology was to establish the notion of an adequate distance: what precisely was the “proper” relational distance between the researcher and their object of study? Today’s detached look is the most obscene part of Western epistemology, displacing the essential task of analysing, speaking about, and embodying the colonial experience. Distance from the nineteenth century until the present is in alliance with fear, but rather than this fear signifying an anxiety about difference, I would say it is the fear of our own emotions that betrays the self-imposed limitations of reason to accept Occidental atrocities. One of the direct consequences of the institutionalization of the West’s endemic fear is an oppressed body constructed in its fear of Western violence, systematic rejection, and deportation. This type of fear is continually on the ascendant.
In her conversation with the artist on the previous day of the workshop, the art historian Fatima-Zahra Lakrissa highlighted the fictitious character of both ethnography and art history. I would add that both disciplines are conceptually linked by a shared fault in their propensity for substituting the site of elocution for the object of study, exercised in the course of performing their theoretical mediations. This is directly linked to the way the western humanistic disciplines invented their objects. After all, ethnographic artefacts were invented by ethnography itself, thus placing the practitioner in an eternal (dramatic) aporia with their object of study. Attia´s film Signs of Reappropriation as Repair projected during the conference showed a sequence of interviews where the art historian Gilbert Kouassi from Ivory Coast explains how African objects—once they were placed in museum galleries and became part of European colonial collections—ceased being what they originally were: they are African no more.