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Unbeautiful museums, critical postcards
Interview with Onyeka Igwe on occasion of her work a so-called archive and Museum Gift Shop Postcards in Unschöne Museen, gta exhibitions, ETH Zurich

The Museum – capital t, capital m – is the site for contentious debate about the historicisation of objects. After a few decades marking The Museum’s heyday—a time of ongoing expansion and ever more sensational encounters with art as a mode of consumption—we now witness a tendency toward wide-reaching revision of The Museum as we know it. Beyond the efforts of institutional critique, The Museum today is no longer regarded as a site of beauty or spectacle, but rather as a problem context calling for repair. In this interview, curators Fredi Fischli, Niels Olsen, and Geraldine Tedder talk with Onyeka Igwe about neocolonialism and postcards, the meaning of ruins viewed from the perspective of the Black diaspora and the need for museums to go beyond buzzwords and actually decolonialise.

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FREDI FISHLI | NIELS OLSEN | GERALDINE TEDDER In order to somehow rein in the broad topic of the exhibition Unschöne Museen, it was quickly clear it would make sense to focus on specific museums, or rather, works that depart from investigations into specific museums. Tell us about the museums that appear in your work.

ONYEKA IGWEa so-called archive moves through the collections of an amalgam of two different archives. First, the former Nigerian Film Unit (NFU) building in Lagos. The NFU was an offshoot of the Colonial Film Unit (CFU), which was the visual propaganda arm of the British government, operating from roughly 1932 to 1955, making films for and about the British colonies. The NFU was one of the few self-directed branches of the CFU, with Nigerians working as technicians. At the formal end of the Empire, the NFU became the Federal Film Unit and then the Nigerian Film Corporation. At some point the building was abandoned, with films, processing equipment and projectors all left in the space.

The way those spaces were dealt with geographically and architecturally by British and Nigerian society seemed to me to act as a metonym for the legacies of colonialism in those respective countries.

The second location is the archives of the former British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, a private museum in Bristol that operated from 2002 to 2009. This museum was housed in the passenger shed of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Bristol Temple Meads train station and was started by a wealthy businessman who wanted to celebrate the legacy of the Empire. The film showcases the former building—now empty after the museum's closure amidst controversy—and the current location of the museum's collection further down the River Avon, in two former tobacco warehouses.

The way those spaces were dealt with geographically and architecturally by British and Nigerian society seemed to me to act as a metonym for the legacies of colonialism in those respective countries.

At the end of making the film, I felt like these museums should no longer exist and their archives should be left to rot.

FF | NO | GT The montage in the video and choice of lenticular print for the postcards underline the haunting effect of the now-empty museum spaces and the histories they housed. At the same time, the corporate voice-over and nod to museum gift shops take on a more ironic tone. There is also a euphoric moment during the credits of a so-called archive in which we see you dancing in the space, occupying it. Could you expand on this complex position towards the archive, the museum?

ONYEKA IGWE I made this film after four or five years working with the colonial archive, and so it’s me thinking through the complications—the ethical conundrums—of working with materials which I haven’t managed to resolve exactly what we should do with. I didn't show any of the archival footage in this film, which was a change from previous work, and instead tried to conjure the images through a sonic and disembodied tour of the architectural spaces. Sometimes I'm haunted by the gaze and presence of the people in these archival collections, other times I'm swept up in the time travelling that this kind of research entails, and on other occasions I'm left angry or disgusted. At the end of making the film, I felt like these museums should no longer exist and their archives should be left to rot. After being so overwhelmed, I needed a release, to get rid of some of those feelings through moving my body and dancing on top of the many floors of the former museum's collections.

The films made by filmmakers from former colonies are often tied up in museums and in the collections of the former colonial powers, allowing these states to continue to disenfranchise.

FF | NO | GT The show also approaches questions around the museum's function beyond their confined architectural spaces—through the production of supplementary materials that are conceived to distribute their programme. You draw on one emblematic type: the museum postcard. What is your interest in this specific format?

ONYEKA IGWE I'm interested in neocolonialism, the continued extractive economic models, this time through profiting from the visual wealth in the shape of the photographs, films and objects that came from the Colonial period, sometimes stolen or made without the explicit consent of those featured. The films made by filmmakers from former colonies are often tied up in museums and in the collections of the former colonial powers, allowing these states to continue to disenfranchise. I wanted to highlight this consumption to an audience through a small symbol of the contemporary economic condition of consumption in museums in the shape of their gift shops. I also like to work against and through conventions or archetypes, so the postcard is that kind of object.

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FF | NO | GT Your portrait of the Nigerian Film Unit reminds us of the colonial forts and castles along the West African coast. There were more than a hundred of these institutional cogs in the machinery of slavery and they often had a representational task too. Like the museum, they signalled superiority. What other institutions would you compare the museum with?

ONYEKA IGWE I think the museum can be synonymous with other institutions of the state. They remind me of castles, forts, historical buildings, or the pomp and circumstance of military drills and the Coronation. But also universities, archives, schools. Those are things that the state tells others what they mean—what they represent.

FF | NO | GTDid you talk to the people working at the Pitt Rivers Museum? Do you think any form of revision is possible, or should these places become ruins?

ONYEKA IGWE I know the Pitt Rivers is doing lots of work to interrogate the colonial ways of thinking and doing on which these kinds of institutions are founded. In many ways they are leading the British museum landscape on these issues. However, as they're governed by the University of Oxford, a conservative institution which still refuses to take down the Cecil Rhodes statue from its prominent place on Oxford High Street. I have some reservations about the depth of these changes. Ultimately, a more wholesale revisioning of the world is needed for these museums to actually decolonialise — a word which they seem to have enthusiastically adopted without recognising the true radical extent of Fanon's ideas. He calls for a new language, a new human, a new world, and these initiatives within the boundaries of our current political formations don't necessarily go far enough.

The absence of what is considered history, monuments, ruins, museums in these epistemologies confirms the positioning of Blackness outside of humanity.

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FF | NO | GT We were wondering about the term “ruin”, and the book Pleasure of Ruins by Rose Macaulay from the ’50s came to mind. Looking at your work, do you see a danger in the enigmatic beauty or pleasure of ruins?

ONYEKA IGWE I don't know the book. When I think of ruins, I think of the title of a book by Orlando Patterson, An Absence of Ruin—the exile and alienation in certain experiences of the Black diaspora. I’m thinking here of Sylvia Wynter's ideas around the history of humanity and the ways in which Black people have been understood as sub-human in configurations of Western modernity, and that the absence of what is considered history, monuments, ruins, museums in these epistemologies confirms the positioning of Blackness outside of humanity. Someone once asked me if I was fetishising the empty archives in the film: I do find pleasure in the past, in looking at the past, but I think a so-called archive depicts a haunting, a ghostly presence of those trapped by the colonial gaze trying to communicate through the very walls of the buildings of these spaces. I want the audience to question the ways in which they usually receive these kinds of images of tropes. There are multiple readings of these images; they are beautiful, discomforting, activating, disquieting, enigmatic, haunting.

Bio

Onyeka Igwe is a London born & based moving image artist and researcher. Her work is aimed at the question: how do we live together? Not to provide a rigid answer as such, but to pull apart the nuances of mutuality and co-existence in our deeply individualised world. Igwe’s practice figures sensorial, spatial and counter-hegemonic ways of knowing as central to that task. She is interested in the prosaic and everyday aspects of black livingness. For her, the body, archives and narratives both oral and textual act as a mode of inquiry that makes possible the exposition of overlooked histories. The work comprises untying strands and threads, anchored by a rhythmic editing style, as well as close attention to the dissonance, reflection and amplification that occurs between image and sound.

Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen are curators, art historians, currently design critics at Harvard GSD and since 2014 directors of exhibitions at the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta), ETH Zurich. There, they collaborate on projects at the intersection of architecture, art, research and teaching, resulting in such exhibitions as Unschöne Museen, Cloud’ 68. Collection of Radical Architecture,Home. A User’s Manual and Book for Architects. Solo exhibitions by Sidsel Meineche Hansen and Christelle D’Oyiri are upcoming this year. Together they have also curated numerous themed exhibitions in conjunction with international institutions, such as Retail Apocalypse at CCA Montreal and ETH Zurich, Sturm & Drang with Armature Globale at Fondazione Prada in Milan, Inside Outside. Petra Blaisse at La Triennale di Milano and MAXXI Rome, Theater Objects at Luma Foundation in Zurich and Trix & Robert Haussmann at KW Institute for Contemporary Art Berlin and Nottingham Contemporary. They have produced diverse publications in their capacity as editors. A comprehensive publication on the multifaceted oeuvre of Petra Blaisse and her studio Inside Outside is forthcoming next year. Currently they are working on a thematic exhibition on the occasion of the forthcoming opening of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.

Geraldine Tedder is a curator and writer based in Zurich. She is currently curator at gta exhibitions, ETH Zurich. Next year, she will take up the position of director at Kunsthalle Winterthur. She has worked with numerous artists on exhibitions and publications, including Marianne Wex, Sue Tompkins and The Alternative School of Economics. In 2021 she curated the exhibition Space as Matrix on the work of Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative, Ursula Mayer, muf, Morgan Quaintance, Susana Torre. Tedder writes for Brand New Life and other art journals, most recently publishing the essay Ulrike Meinhof’s Brain: On Motherhood.

Published
26 Jul 2023
Reading time
10 minutes
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