Ikiwa kauli ya kwanza ni restitution, tutegue vipi kitendawili?
Majibu ni mengi.
Huu ni mojawapo wa ufumbuzi.
Museums are my second favourite place to cry. With the slightest provocation from a dusty glass casing, I will unloose the ever elegant single tear; if encouraged by a pithy exhibition text, more fortifying variants follow: a bit of light sniveling all through to the blabbering lament, complete with ash and sackcloth. Our bodies are the most insightful docent in every museum tour. While I feel ill-equipped to enter the resolutely academic volleys of the wider restitution debate, my body reminds me that I am moved, invested, implicated. Nausea when I read about the vigango of the Mijikenda1. Overheated over 3D replicas.2 I don’t quite know how to translate the lump in my throat. Scrolling through the International Inventories Programme (IIP) database of 32,000 Kenyan objects in foreign institutions3 dried my mouth out; but, I did not cry. The stories in this volume are homes for these tears for things I have never met. Tears of things that I can’t quite say belong to me. There are, surely, tears of things. Sunt lacrimae rerum. Laughing-grieving-mocking-raging-dancing tears. If you are on the lookout for an excuse to wail, welcome. You, like many of us, may feel adrift in confusion, anger, distrust, apathy, sorrow, fear, and any of the other emotions that attend to the conversation on restitution. You have a space here. Thank you for remaining open to this moment, and to one more contribution in a long line of thoughtful, inventive work on the repatriation of African art and cultural objects. We are grateful to our good friends: Carey Baraka, Clifton Gachagua, Felix Omondi, Greenman Muleh Mbillo, Michelle Angwenyi, and Ray Mwihaki. Their writing glitters. We hope you return to them often.
In lieu of an introduction, I offer here a few paths I hacked out for my tears— a tributary to that ocean of our shared salt.
When confronted with archives such as those curated by the Invisible Inventories exhibition project (IIP), I wonder: why haven’t I seen this before? How come I never knew about this? However effortful makers and thinkers’ parlay, the power of neo/colonial currency asserts itself, furtive and entitled. I could skip to some un/easy answers linked to colonial violence and nationalist amnesia, but perhaps it’s more productive to linger in that in-between feeling. Delay, latency, belatedness, deferral are the words that come to mind. Deferment feels most accurate, with its military connotations of ‘deferment’— suspended conscription, postponed service, a moratorium on debt repayment, arrest. My encounters with these objects are often mediated, separated by casing, through a screen— press-ganged, and held hostage continents away.
In a more optimistic mood, I believe that in the suspension before we re/connect, that reserve army of objects has quietly been going rabid, feral— or fermenting into some sweet-smelling toxin. What if that separation has been long enough for them to prefer their homes in hallowed viewing rooms, or temperature-controlled storage wings? Would I be exempt from their poison if I sought them out wherever they are held hostage? Carey Baraka’s story imagines that the penance demanded by museum objects kills. Could we even trust that cloying thing masquerading as a totem if it made its own way back? I am terrified of the rot and the fury calcified with them. In Dakar, Letaru Dralega talks about their research practice of seeking the ancestors’ permission when interacting with archival objects.4 Would the ancestors reconcile these objects as theirs after decades of indentured service?
Certainly, in exile these objects are too easily blunted into a simple statistic. 32,000 stories, households, moments are unwieldy; much easier to flatten, avoid. Of the thousands in the IIP database, only a small fraction are re-membered, or made whole, human: without context, without a story— Object #13 of Felix Omondi’s narrative— their biography is annihilated. What was ostensibly a bearer of story and humanity is anonymized, catalogued, boxed and ‘preserved.’ The animating world that bore it is syphoned out, and swapped for reification in an archive elsewhere. What tools available to us approximate the de-objectification technology of Greenman Mbillo’s character, Mbelenzi? We insist, as many others have before us,5 that fiction could be one. More narrativizing, more fictionalising, storytelling to widen empathy’s circumference— who and what is worth crying over, caring for.
A curator in the truest sense of the word, Bethuel Muthee (BM) taught a lot of us to love Fred Moten. In Moten’s collaboration with Stefano Harney, the University in their seminal text has severally been replaced with the Museum:
“…it cannot be denied that the university is a place of refuge, and it cannot be accepted that the university is a place of enlightenment. In the face of these conditions one can only sneak into the university and steal what one can. To abuse its hospitality, to spite its mission, to join its refugee colony, its gypsy encampment, to be in but not of—this is the path of the subversive intellectual in the modern university…
After all, the subversive intellectual came under false pretenses, with bad documents, out of love. Her labor is as necessary as it is unwelcome. The university needs what she bears but cannot bear what she brings. And on top of all that, she disappears. She disappears into the underground, the downlow lowdown maroon community of the university, into the Undercommons of Enlightenment, where the work gets done, where the work gets subverted, where the revolution is still black, still strong.”6
The only relationship to the museum today is a criminal one. Kathy-Ann Tan, marvellous curator, intervenes with a correlate: “the only relationship to academia today is [also] a criminal one.” If in most decolonial spheres, we are impelled into a war of attrition, then opacity is an under-utilised defence. Opacity is licence, weapon, virtue, principle and property. Édouard Glissant urges us to “clamor for the right to opacity for everyone.”7 Critically, in an ethics of resistance, opacity is distinct from invisibility. No, I will not be denied or invisibilized; but I do not owe anyone transparency, even translucence. Asserting my unknowability is a right. I not only reject your reduction of this object, my history, but I also reject your requirement to be visible. I refuse. All access is provisional, and can be revoked on a whim. While foreign institutions insist on positioning themselves as the sole authority, in the ring of restitution, we are all closer to children at play. When faced with a bully, anarchist tactics may be more effective resistance than statist, large-scale, performative movements—which often serve to bolster or generate newer, more entrenched regimes of power. Without the threat cherished by tattling children everywhere (“ntakushtaki!”), what else is available? Mchongoano, name-calling. Kunyimana, withholding attention. Blocking entry. Concealing. Deserting.8 Disappearing. Opacity, and darkness not as muting, terminating; but, as a generative, expansive: what universes become possible when it’s past bed-time, and you’re under the covers with your favourite people? The bully is forgotten, left to stew in his grasping jealousy.
For Glissant, literature, as a medium, lends itself to opacity. Another use of the same de-objectification technology, deployed against the objectifying power: telling tales, gossiping, back-biting, dissimulating. When we don’t like an exhibit, an artist, a boss— especially when we have no way of ‘serious’ dissent, little is as restorative as shit-talking, back-talking, side-chatting. This is a way of caring for our friends, those we cry with, and for ourselves. There is redemption in we backbenchers refusing to be called to order, to be co-opted. When frustrated and rendered speechless by the evergreen violences I learned about through IIP, nakunja mdomo tu. Suck your teeth, turn away, make moot the most inviolate of principles. Make fun of the informer’s hair piece, snub their institutions’ invites, redistribute their money, weaponize their terms: it’s giving metropole, curation ni wewe. Nyashinski (with Kleptomaniax) gave us a mantra: “Pole kukuambia— sikuchukii, nakudharau.” I may feign interest, but this is all contingent on limiting how much you benefit from me, or maximising my gains from your distorted view of me. Madharau is a revolutionary impulse. We punish through deprivation, through absence, through mis-/re-directed presence. We abdicate. We exercise prosaic recalcitrance: segue, leave the webinar, procrastinate, call in sick, blue tick, look the other way, submit negative reviews, ‘ghost’. Here is Anna Tsing’s “sticky materiality of practical encounters.”9
When the terms are blatantly rigged, when the rewards seem uncertain, perhaps the cost of engagement is too high. Luis Camnitzer reminds us “paradoxically, and thanks to a strange psychology, the process of revenge sometimes re-humanizes the victimiser.”10 What tomfoolery does our involvement legitimate? Are we being drafted into intellectual battles as a distraction technique? When asked by one more self-aggrandizing devil’s advocate whether African institutions can be trusted to protect their own cultural artefacts, the most appropriate response might be Michelle Angwenyi’s “What colour is the chameleon at night?” Or, perhaps you might prefer one of my favourite Rosie Olang’-isms: “Take me out of it.”11
As a poet, the knot I am most likely to unravel within the intensifying debates around the return of African cultural objects is this: how do you translate ‘restitution’ into Kiswahili? Directly: urejeshaji. More closely: ukombozi, which shares a root with freedom, release— even redemption. Words circling overhead: marekebisho (amends, repair); fidia (compensation); kuadhimisha (commemorate); kisasi (revenge), a child’s ‘deni’ and taunting teens’ chant of ‘aibuuuu’ terrorize this adult’s preferred translation of ‘kunasua uhuru’.
Instead of all of these options, I propose ‘zezesha.’ In several institutions’ possession is an instrument similar to a zeze, which is common in both mainland and island Eastern Africa. In English, you might call it a citer, or, delightfully, zither. Zeze seems to share etymological roots with another word: zezeta. Yaani “asiye akili timamu” or simply, “fala.” Loosely translated: an imbecile, savage, of unsound mind — contiguous in meaning, yes, but patently, capitals of three different republics. As we finalised this collaboration, I began wondering if we call someone zezeta since their head is as empty as the womb of that string instrument, or if their words are so bizarre, so foolish, so outlandish as to be mellifluous. The brilliant artist, Anguezomo Mba Bikoro, reminds me that there are different types of zeze, and there is density in their sounds; I welcome the texture and complexity. We will continue to debate. It will be discordant. Still, there could be music, even dancing.
You might notice that I tried to set this up as D.O.A.: dead on arrival. I find this liberating.
Here is what I know: down river road got to work with wonderful writers. We got to pay them nearly ten times what we can regularly afford. We played with our friends. We complained. We saw some beautiful things. We cried a little. There was music. This is right and just.
- ‘Kenya’s Lost Treasures: The vigango of the Mijikenda,’ K24 TV, Oct. 28, 2019. “A Curator’s Search for Justice,” Sapiens. 2020.
- “Kenya wants its treasures back. Replicas could spur their return.” National Geographic. June 21, 2022.
- International Inventories Programme
- Thanks to conversation curated by the Black Planetary Futures Institute around Greer Valley’s exhibition ‘Unsettled’ at the 14th Dak’Art Biennale, featuring work by Bronwyn Katz, Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja, Nolan Oswald Dennis and Zayaan Khan.
- Curator Kathy-Ann Tan reminded us of Saidiya V. Hartman’s “critical fabulation,” coined in Hartman, Saidiya. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe, vol. 12 no. 2, 2008, p. 1-14. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/241115.
- Social Text, 79 (Volume 22, Number 2), Summer 2004, pp. 101-102
- Poétique de la Relation. Paris: Gallimard. 1990.
- “To decolonise is to be present, to decolonise is to flee, marronage from toxic hospitality and alliances in the mangroves,” Olivier Marboeuf. Décolonisons les arts! – Editions de l’Arche. Paris, 2018.
- Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton University Press. 2005.
- “Art and Dishonour” in Q-Notes: Questions in Theory and Art Practices. Ed. Marissa J. Moorman, Mónica de Miranda. Hangar Books. 2020.
- A quote by Toni Morrison in 1993 televised interview with Charlie Rose.