Mirjam Shatanawi: Curating for a Change: Contemporary Art at the Tropenmuseum Today

Guest Author of April 2008

Cover der Publikation »Contemporary Art and the Museum«

Our first Guest Author, Mirjam Shatanawi, describes the situation of ethnographic museums in the face of contemporary art and the eclipse of so-called ethnic art.


Deconstructing the Dichotomy

Last Spring I was invited by Bidoun – Magazine for the arts and culture from the Middle East – to write a short piece about my experiences as a curator at the Tropenmuseum, where I have been working since 2001. I was most happy to accept this opportunity to reflect on my position in an ethnographic museum, if only to share my experiences with the arts community.(1)

In my piece I wrote about the current crisis of the ethnographic museum and how across Europe ethnographic museums are being closed down, merge with art museums or sometimes are reinvented as centres for multicultural debate. I argued that although the crisis may be reinforced by the forces of globalization, its deeper roots lie in the inability of the ethnographic museum to overcome its colonial past. The dichotomous model on which the Tropenmuseum is based and its position in the museological landscape of the Netherlands quite literally divide the world in two – one half that observes and owns, and another half that is being observed and being owned. I concluded that today ethnographic museums should acknowledge that their ‘Other’ doesn’t exist outside the Western realm and that, consequently, ethnographic museums have never really represented ‘other cultures’ in the first place; they represent Western culture and its outlook on the world. The Tropenmuseum can only redeem itself if it dissolves this distinction between the West and the rest.

The Bidoun editors explicitly asked for examples from exhibition displays, PR and marketing strategies to illustrate this point. As outsiders to the museum world, they wanted to see the residues of a colonial mentality in the ways in which the Tropenmuseum presents other people to its audience. But the longer I thought about it, the more I realized that the heart of the problem lies in the ways in which the museum is organized. I believe that essentialism is woven into the present-day structure of the Tropenmuseum because the museum deals with its subject through a division into distinct geographical regions, each with its own curator, exhibition space, and collection. Essentialism is the Tropenmuseum’s core business because it only represents half the globe.

Confronting globalisation

Today, the Tropenmuseum is trying to avert crisis by transforming itself into a cultural history museum. This transformation is arguably part of a larger trend in which art museums are becoming more like ethnographic museums and vice versa. The Tropenmuseum now presents artwork from all times and places. Its exhibitions as a rule aim at a cross-cultural perspective in which contemporary discourses are juxtaposed and discussed. Personal stories and perspectives are increasingly included to facilitate multiple interpretations. And here contemporary art comes in.

Presenting and collecting contemporary art enables the Tropenmuseum to create a platform for a diversity in opinions, including those that take a critical stance toward the museum and the particular discourses in which it is rooted. Seen from that perspective, the inclusion of contemporary art can be one of the more constructive ways to effect change in ethnographic museums. Yet it can also result in the reaffirmation of fixed boundaries if the underpinning paradigms are not addressed.(2) On its most basic level, the universalist claims of contemporary art run counter to the conventional lines of reasoning of the ethnographic museum and the models of organisation on which it is built. The inclusion of contemporary art in a former ethnographic museum challenges its very existence.

The Search for the Contemporary

One of the main reasons for the struggle of ethnographic museums with globalisation lies in the link to the contemporary. In the Bidoun article I quoted anthropologist Talal Asad who typified anthropological studies of the 1950’s, as ‘a narrative about typical actors … from which an account of indigenous discourses is totally missing’(3). Likewise, in the dramatic staging of cultures in ethnographic museums of that time the ‘actors’ on display did not speak, they did not think, they behaved. Objects were used as evidence of societies that never changed. Yet even when the traditional ethnographic museum displayed cultures as static and timeless, at the same time it claimed to show the world as it was at present. The contemporary – not the historical – was its main attraction.(4)

The traditional ethnographic museum seems to have lost its curiosity-value a long time ago. New multicultural audiences, the homogenization of products and processes, increased possibilities for travel and communication – all these factors make that the allure of the exotic can no longer be found in displaying the contemporary. Simultaneously, museums that used to focus on Western art only, now have discovered the rest of the world as a place of interest. In the Netherlands, several modern art museums including the Van Abbemuseum and the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, have begun to collect and present contemporary art from all over the world. The Rijksmuseum, Holland’s National Museum, has firm plans to expand its collections of Asian Art to the Middle East and North Africa. As a result of these developments, Dutch ethnographic museums are no longer at the heart of the debate on non-Western cultures, but are pushed to the fringe. This new position prompts these museums to re-evaluate their basic premises and the underlying structures.

Let’s see how the Tropenmuseum has dealt with this issue in a recent exhibition, which I curated with Deniz Ünsal.

Urban Islam

Urban Islam was held in 2004 in Amsterdam and then moved to Basel, Switzerland in 2006. The exhibition set out to explore the modern aspects of Islam in different parts of the world. In order to do so, it presented the individual stories of young Muslims living in five cities around the globe.

In the centre of the exhibition a high tower was built. In the tower classical objects from the Tropenmuseum collections were grouped around themes that represented the basic principles of Islam; the Qur’an, the five pillars of Islam and so on. In the concept of the exhibition the tower also represented a static view of Islam. A view that is dominant in Dutch discourse on Islam and that homogenizes an entire faith by looking for a past that, superficially seen, seems to unite it rather than looking for the dynamics and differences in religious practice. It’s a view that often seen in museum displays as well. So, the tower contained objects that made it to the canon of Islamic material culture.

In stark contrast to the static and rigid approach to Islam in the tower, were the displays of the different cities that surrounded it. In each city a young Muslim presented his of her life. Each story narrated the highly personal search for an Islamic identity in a rapidly globalising world. Yet at the same time, it always represented a particular context specific for the society in which the young protagonist lived. In this way, the exhibition sketched an image of Islamic practices in the context of social and political relations; of personal choices, economic difficulties, and globalization in modern urban areas.

We, as curators of the exhibition, considered Urban Islam to be our curatorial statement against discussions on Islam and Muslims in the West, and the Netherlands in particular. Through the exhibition we argued to approach religion and society from a human perspective. By focusing on personal stories and experiences in everyday life, we distanced ourselves from a-historical and oversimplified representations of Islam.(5)

But now look at the objects that we acquired for the Urban Islam exhibition and made their way into the Tropenmuseum’s permanent collections. Most of them were acquired to take up their space in the tower of the exhibition. There were quite a lot of contemporary pieces by Middle Eastern artists whose works are a continuation of the classical Islamic arts. These pieces fitted neatly in the museum’s collections, because of their link to the traditional heritage of the Muslim world. The other things on display; the objects, multimedia clips and images that we collected in relation to the personal stories of the young Muslims, were discarded. We – now acting as curators for the collections – saw these items as too casual, too common, too personal to be kept for eternity. They lacked craftsmanship and originality. In other words: they were not special enough. The concept of the Tropenmuseum as a place where the daily lives of common people are shown obviously did not work for contemporary collecting. But what are the consequences for processes of change inside the museum?

I would like to discuss this issue with you by examining three recent acquisitions of the Tropenmuseum. Each of these objects represents a position in the debate on representation inside the ethnographical museum; re-affirmation, reconsideration or confrontation.

The Art of Reaffirmation

Let’s start by taking a closer look at one of the objects we acquired for the Urban Islam show. It’s a tile panel by contemporary ceramist Mehmet Gürsoy that we bought at a gallery in Istanbul [inv. nr. 6122-1]. The calligraphic text is a design from the 1950s but based on Ottoman calligraphy. The patterns and colours are also taken from Ottoman styles in ceramics. The classical Ottoman arts virtually stopped to be practiced in the late 19th century, when Turkish artists began to embrace European styles of painting and sculpture.(6) Only in the 1950’s, a small group of artists decided to revive the Ottoman arts. Today the number of artists that work in the traditional Ottoman style are very few, they can be counted on the fingers of a few hands. So, within the Turkish art world this tile panel is a rarity and as a reflection of Turkish society today it is certainly more rare than the artefacts and images drawn from the life of Ferhat, our protagonist from Istanbul.

Mehmet Gürsoy, Tile Panel

We – as curators of the Urban Islam show – tried to tackle the conventional ethnographic museum and its staging of cultures as fixed and static by presenting personal stories rather than fixed truths. Yet the objects that remained – long after the exhibition itself was dismantled- represented exactly such a fixed truth; the notion that the Islamic world is trapped by its heritage and engaged in a continuous struggle between tradition and modernity. But perhaps more than anything else, the acquisition of this tile panel reflects our struggle with modernity, or in the words of Rasheed Araeen, our failure to come to terms with the modern aspiration in societies other than our own.(7) It seems that precisely because we collect objects from a world that more and more resembles our own, we search for what is as far removed from us as possible. The forces of the existing collections tie us to a two-folded past; that of the ‘cultures’ we collect and that of our own histories of collecting.

What happens if one extends these notions to the field of contemporary art?

Museums that have done so seem to be caught in their own parameters, just like the Tropenmuseum struggles with its colonial past. For instance, the British Museum’s acquisition of contemporary Middle Eastern art was initiated in the mid 1980s. Since then, the British Museum has built up an impressive collection of art works, mostly on paper. Guiding principle in collecting is that the work must make use of the Arabic script and therefore tie in with the museum’s older collections of classical Islamic calligraphy. The resulting collection was the centerpiece of last year’s exhibition Word into Art. In Bidoun Magazine, the British Museum’s curatorial approach was quite harshly criticized for its “passive acceptance of a Victorian model of linear history, of cause and effect, and the apparent confusion between art as a self conscious conceptual and intellectual practice and art as an essentially decorative skill.”(8) Not without irony, the Bidoun reviewer observed that the museum’s perspective on Middle Eastern art most neatly fitted with the region’s nationalist, state-sanctioned decorative art. By focusing on a link to traditional methods of collecting, this approach tends to exclude much of the more dynamic and challenging art that is currently being produced.

Unlike the British Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art only recently started to collect contemporary works by artists from the Middle East. The statement on its website tells us that “these artists draw inspiration from their own cultural traditions, using techniques and incorporating imagery and ideas from earlier periods. They are not so much reinventing Islamic art as they are repurposing it so that it becomes more clearly a vehicle for personal expression, freed from the constraints of patronage and functionality.”(9) Here several assumptions come together to demonstrate a specific thesis about the Middle East. Again we meet the conception of a region that does not seem to be able to break free from its past. It also involves an Enlightenment-era model of history: Middle Eastern cultures have to discover modernity – and even freedom in this case – through an interaction with the Western concept of art. Finally, it recycles the notion that if artists work in traditions that are ‘their own’ they are more authentic than if they go beyond such boundaries. This idea is further elaborated in the museum’s description of the use of Arabic script as both an art form and a means of addressing an artist’s religious or cultural identity.

Both the collecting policies of the British Museum and the LACMA reveal the reliance on a classical ethnographic model, where the art work becomes an example of a cultural landscape. Art is being used as a substitute for the objects from daily life that the Tropenmuseum used to collect – reflecting political and social realities. In the words of Venetia Porter, curator of Word into Art, “This show is an example of how we can use our collections to look at today’s world — politics and history — through art.”(10) What is problematic here, concerns not only the use of art as a metaphor for a cultural landscape, but the combination with colonial models that inform the perception of that same cultural landscape. The rigidity of such models excludes other conceptions of art and artists. It denies them the possibility of functioning within different contexts and the opportunity to move between these contexts, thus creating new meanings and connections.

The Art of Reconsideration

The Tropenmuseum faced this issue last year, when we acquired a sculpture by artist Adam Henein – which is currently on display in the permanent Middle East gallery [inv. nr. 6263-1]. Thematically, Henein’s art is not connected to Egyptian culture or history. This sculpture depicting legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum is –again- an exception. As most of Henein’s sculptures, it transpires a search for the essence of his subject – in this case Umm Kulthum- while retaining a minimalism of form.(11)

Sculpture by Adam Henein. Photo by Barry Iverson, courtesy of Canvas magazine. Collection number 6263-1.

Forty years ago, during Umm Kulthum’s glory days, this piece would not have been added to the Tropenmuseum collections. As an autonomous art object, it would have been deemed too much an individual expression to be representative of an entire culture. Today, this is precisely what this piece has to offer; its individual take on the collective enables the Tropenmuseum to present a multilayered vision of the Arab world. The paradox here is that its location in an exhibition that leans heavily on a regional approach to culture, also weakens the individuality of its expression and its possibility to make new connections, be it in the field of art history or cultural heritage. Therefore, the presence of Henein’s sculpture urges the Tropenmuseum to reconsider its position in the triangle of individualism, collective identity and ethnographic representation – not only in temporary exhibitions, but also in collecting and permanent displays.

Let’s see what happens if this friction between individuality and collective identity comes to a confrontation.

The Art of Confrontation

In 2006 the Tropenmuseum organized an overview of the works of visual artist Khosrow Hassanzadeh, whose work also features in the British Museum collection. Hassanzadeh’s artworks are largely figurative and treat subjects as diverse as the Iran-Iraq war, murdered prostitutes and the Western image of Iran. Although most of his work comments on social realities set specifically in Iran, Hassanzadeh is wary of being framed as a representative of his homeland, a position he shares with many artists of Middle Eastern background. Considerable controversy arose when the PR department of the publishing house that published the exhibition catalogue announced its preference for the title Iranian Visions. Several authors threatened to withdraw their contributions to the catalogue and Hassanzadeh himself sent an angry message to the publishers stating that he did not agree with what he called “their ethnic marketing strategies.” In his email he wrote “Even though your sales will benefit if you insist on the “Iranian” and put, say, Khomeini on the cover, I do not want to be packaged as a national mascot”. His protest was in due course accepted and the title was changed into the compromise “Tehran Studio Works”. However, when the Tropenmuseum’s PR department argued along the same lines as the publishers and insisted on naming the exhibition Inside Iran, Hassanzadeh was tired of fighting and decided to give up.

Hassanzadeh’s irritation with the Tropenmuseum’s marketing strategies stems from his longstanding struggle against the idea that an artist’s national or religious background has an ineradicable effect on an artist’s practice. Like many artists from the region, he argues that terms like “Islamic,” “Middle East,” or even “Iran” are loaded with religious and political subtexts and that the use of such terms in exhibition concepts draws away attention from the artistic value of his work. But even apart from the marketing appeal of ethnic labelling to boost museum visitor counts, when the work of artists like Hassanzadeh is exhibited in former ethnographic museums there is a deeper going issue at stake.

After the exhibition the Tropenmuseum acquired a series of works by Hassanzadeh entitled Terrorist [inv. nr. 6269-1 till 4]. In the four-piece series the artist portrays himself, his mother and two of his sisters as “terrorists” to question contemporary Western perceptions in which Islam is directly associated with terrorism. The four individuals are displayed against a backdrop with images referring to their personal religious beliefs. Each piece is accompanied by a label describing the portrayed “terrorist” with characteristics such as nationality, religious denomination, and personal history. In the artist’s statement that accompanies the series, Hassanzadeh writes: “This series is a reflection of a world where the word ‘terrorist’ is thrown about thoughtlessly. What is a terrorist? What are the origins of a terrorist? And in an international context who defines ‘terrorism’? … In my mind, the work had to pose these questions by cautiously joining the borders of Western and Iranian propaganda … It was with this goal that the size of the images became critical. I wanted the pieces to be like the Iranian government propaganda portraits of revolution and war martyrs painted on buildings across the country. I also wanted the size to impose itself upon the viewer – like the constant messages of Western government propaganda streamed into the homes of millions through a reckless 24-hour media machine.”(12)

By referring to a particular period in Iranian art history – the revolutionary art produced in the early eighties – as well as Western visual culture, Hassanzadeh carefully connects two histories of representation. By doing so, Terrorist is a reclamation of identity, as Sohrab Mahdavi points out in his review of the series. He argues that, although Terrorist aims to reclaim the right to self-representation and independence, “it fails on both registers: “self-representation” here is an appropriation of Western values and the work can only become “independent” if the artist’s intended viewer is Western.”(13) Nevertheless, as Mahdavi sees it, this “radical failure” only reinforces the artist’s message.

The Terrorist series is part of an artistic oeuvre that addresses Western processes of image-making. As much of Hassanzadeh’s work, it deals with Islam as a common denominator in Western perceptions of Iran.(14) For the Tropenmuseum, including this piece in the collections means allowing a critique on standing museum practices of creating images of Iran. A recent survey showed that Islam is also paramount in the museum’s Iran collections; no less than 20% of the Iranian objects has a direct link to the Islamic religion compared to less than 2% of the Indonesian objects for instance.(15) What artworks such as Terrorist can offer the Tropenmuseum is a strategy that does not simply disregard identity-based politics, but –on the contrary- explores its manifestations and seeks out to challenge them. In this manner, Terrorist re-integrates the West into the Tropenmuseum displays.

Re-integrating the West

The backdrop of the acquisition of Hassanzadeh’s work is the position of the Tropenmuseum as an ethnographic museum in the Dutch museological landscape. The Tropenmuseum is no longer at the heart of the debate on non-Western cultures, as it once was, but is pushed to the fringe. Its marginal position opens up new perspectives. In the past, ethnographic museums have helped create the notion of otherness by tirelessly collecting, classifying, arranging and re-arranging the Other. Now processes of canonization are by and large taken over by other museums, the Tropenmuseum can play the role of critical outsider, a discursive space where the cultural canon is put to the test. If one sees the museum as a platform for debate, a place where old certainties are being questioned and new connections are being explored, there’s no more room for predetermined categorizations.

The most fundamental of these categorizations is the division between Western and non-Western cultures, which has its roots in a particular geopolitical context, i.e. colonialism, and was devised to facilitate the domination of a group of countries or cultures. Even today, in the era of a perceived “clash of civilisations” the division is – more than anything else – a political construction. Susan Legêne, head curator of the Tropenmuseum, suggested during this year’s ICOM General Conference, that museums should try and seduce their visitors “to experience imaginary connections” – and here she quoted Kwame Appiah – not through identity but despite difference.(16) If the Tropenmuseum wants to be such a place, then it must break through the dichotomy.

In the new collecting policy, which will be in effect from 2008 onwards, this notion is translated in the decision that the origin of an artist is no longer a selection criterion, as used to be the case. Art works from all over the world qualify for acquisition as long as they address the museum’s subject: the history and cultures of Asia, Africa and Latin America. At the same time, the museum staff are engaged in a debate on the future course of the museum; should it remain based on regional divisions or change to a thematic approach? These internal developments steadily work toward the renewed integration of the West into the former ethnographic museum. But is it enough?

I think that collecting contemporary art enables the Tropenmuseum to sustain its connection to the contemporary. However, in the long run this shift in policy will further undermine the museum’s functioning as a distinct entity where ‘other cultures’ are put on the stage – if only because it contradicts the theoretical assumptions of such a collecting policy. To quote artist Hassan Khan: “If contemporary art is an absolutist term, which it is, then there are no “other places” to begin with.”(17) In his view, to frame artists as representatives of other cultures is to push them out of the actual production of knowledge. If contemporary art sees itself as an absolute discursive field, the more interesting strategy might be to claim this field, so the notion of otherness dissolves. Extended to the ethnic arts and crafts, it would mean giving way to more open-minded, less restrictive, contexts for these artefacts to function in, be it under the title of history, art or material culture.

Khan argues for the deconstruction of discursive power by sidelining age-old notions that result in processes of inclusion and exclusion today. Appiah calls for the re-appropriation of difference to make new connections possible.(18) Either way, in the integrative movement that follows from these lines of thought – far removed from reality as they might seem to be today– there will be no role for the ethnographic museum, or in fact the art museum, as it operates at present. Dissolving the dichotomy between ‘us’ and ‘them’ will ultimately bring an end to the independent existence of any museum devoted to it—in effect curating itself out of business. As for the Tropenmuseum, the more constructive approach to future developments is to further explore the intersections and discrepancies between art, history and anthropology. Perhaps in this manner, the former ethnographic museum as an institution can find a meaningful role in the processes of integration that are currently taking place in the art world.

(1) Mirjam Shatanawi, Tropical Malaise, Bidoun, Issue 10, Spring 2007, pp. 42-44.
(2) James Clifford, The predicament of culture: twentieth-century ethnography, literature and art, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.
(3) Talal Asad, The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam, Occasional Papers (Washington D.C.: Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown, 1986), p. 8.
(4) Johannes Fabian, Time and the other: how anthropology makes its object, New York: Columbia University Press, 1983. (5) Mirjam Shatanawi & Deniz Ünsal, Urban Islam: Rethinking the familiar, ISIM Newsletter 14, June 2004, p. 44.
(6) Günsel Renda and C. Max Kortepeter (eds.), The Transformation of Turkish Culture. The Atatürk Legacy, Princeton (Kingston Press), 1986.
(7) Rasheed Araeen, Our Bauhaus, others’ mudhouse, Third text; Third World perspectives on contemporary art and culture (London) 6: 3-14, spring 1989.
(8) Hassan Khan, Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East / The British Museum, Bidoun, Issue 08, Fall 2006, pp. 114-15. (9) http://www.lacma.org/islamic_art/ian.htm. Retrieved on 7th October 2007.
(10) Quoted from: Alan Riding, The British Museum’s Mission: Cultural Ambassador to the World, The New York Times, July 1, 2006.
(11) Lilian Karnouk, Modern Egyptian Art. 1910-2003, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2005, pp. 127-130.
(12) Khosrow Hassanzadeh, “How did I become a painter?” in: Tehran Studio Works: The Art of Khosrow Hassanzadeh, ed. Mirjam Shatanawi (London: Saqi Books, 2007), p. 30.
(13) Sohrab Mahdavi, “Terrorist,” in: Tehran Studio Works: The Art of Khosrow Hassanzadeh, ed. Mirjam Shatanawi (London: Saqi Books, 2007), p. 124.
(14) Mirjam Shatanawi, The disquieting art of Khosrow Hassanzadeh, ISIM Review 18, Autumn 2006.
(15) Mirjam Shatanawi, Islam – kunst, cultuur en religie (werktitel), Amsterdam: SUN, 2008 (forthcoming).
(16) Susan Legêne, Heritage and the politics of nationalist discourse, Keynote speech ICOM General conference, Vienna, 19-8-2007.
(17) In: Tirdad Zolghadr (ed.), Ethnic Marketing, Zürich: JRP Ringier, 2006, p. 89-90.
(18) Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a world of strangers, New York: Norton, 2007.