James Barnor
29 November 2019

Beyond Representational Certainty: On the Future of the Afrika Museum

WORKSHOP | 29 November 2019 | 10:00 - 16:00 | Afrika Museum

On 29th of November 2019, the Afrika Museum will open a new semi-permanent exhibition. This exhibition is part of reframing the museums’ vision on how to represent Africa, its peoples, cultures and histories, in relation to the Netherlands, and Europe more broadly. The intention of this new exhibition is to move beyond the limited and limiting tradition of ethnographic displays in order to develop more complex ways for presenting the history and contemporary realities of the very diverse African continent.

As part of the development of the new exhibition, we are aware of the “impossibility” of such an ambition. Indeed, the museum has had a long, even failed history, of such representational practices, mired in a broader discursive and representational economy that presented Africa through an Eurocentric lens and positioned Africans, their religion and ritual practices as if in need of civilisation – the civilising mission. On this account, Africa and its people were at worst ‘primitive’, ‘backwards’, ‘a place of darkness’, and at its best ‘underdeveloped’ and in need of salvation.  Unfortunately, this remains a stubborn imaginary of Africa that still exists today.

As a former missionary museum, the Afrika Museum has been part of this representational economy. Embedded in a complex overlap between Christianity and colonialism, it can be seen as a tool for the civilising mission. For some, it was a forerunner in representing Africa beyond the ‘savage slot’, while for others it could not escape this representational structure.

This opening comes in the wake of decades long critique of the negative imaginary of Africa and Africans in the West. This critique has not limited itself to (ethnographic) museums, but emerged from diverse literary, artistic, academic and (political) activist circles. There has also been a profound growth in attention for art and other creative practices from Africa and the Diaspora, leading to new biennales, galleries, museums, and other platforms. This also coincides with similar growth in practices of “self-writing” from authors, curators, scholars and designers from the continent itself, that, following Felwine Sarr, might be interpreted as the repositioning of Africa ‘in the world on its own initiative and on the basis of a vision that reflects its own specific particularities.’

Acknowledging the museum’s history:

  • What role can an Africa museum have in rethinking representation of Africa today, its vast diversity in cultures, in languages, in historical and political formations?
  • What positionality does a museum such as this adopt, mindful of its location in Europe, and the earlier representational authority that we as curators claimed – "we know how it is over there?"
  • In what ways can we work with the diverse creativity emergent from the continent and its Diaspora, to fashion new, more equitable modes of representation?
  • How might we shift the voice and authority of our practice, to focus more on our own implicatedness in the misrepresentation and exploitation of Africa?
  • Mindful of the fact that we all inhabit stubbornly persistent negative global imaginaries of Africa, informed in many ways through colonialism, what role can self-writing play in fashioning representational renewal?
  • What is the museum if it is to become more than a place for representing Africa?
  • And, arguably most importantly, is all of this even possible – is an Africa Museum even viable in the present?

Together with artists, designers, writers, scholars and curators from Africa and the Diaspora, we will grapple with this long history of representing Africa, foregrounding the critical work currently being done globally to rethink how to represent Africa. We see this workshop as part of our ongoing attempt to reorganise our own museum away from representational certainty, and towards a new kind of institution and institutional practices, in relation to Africa.


Image: James Barnor, Untitled #2, 1972. TM-6510-10

Preliminary Program

  • 10:30 - 11:00 Welcome with coffee and tea
  • 11:00 – 12.15 Curating Beyond the Savage Slot
    • 11.00 presentation Aude Mgba
    • 11.15 presentation Azu Nwagbogu
    • 11.30 moderated conversation on curating beyond the savage slot and questions from the public
  • 12:15 - 13:15 Lunch break
  • 13:15 – 14:30 Photography Beyond the idea of Africa: In and against the idea of Africa
    • Kelvin Haizel
    • Bianca Baldi
    • George Mahashe
    • Moderated conversation on Afrotopia how to work with contemporary art as well as how to work in ethnographic museums beyond and against the idea of Africa
  • 14:30 – 14.45 Tea/Coffee break
  • 14:45 - 16:00 Representational Presents and Futures
    • Barthélémy Toguo 
    • Enam Gbewonyo
    • Thiémoko Diarra
    • Panel talk moderated by Estelle Onema
  • 16:00 – 17:00 Visit the exhibition
  • 17:00 Official opening