Palestinian artist Inas Halabi’s exhibition looks at the complicity of narratives concerning colonial history in western museums.
Showing at Al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art in Jerusalem, “Letters to Fritz and Paul” documents the artist’s ongoing explorations and encounters with colonialism.
Taking at its starting point a photograph that the artist saw in 2016, in the Museum of Ethnology in Basel, Switzerland, Inas Halabi’s exhibition “Letters to Fritz and Paul” at Al Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art explores the expeditions of two Swiss cousins, lovers and scientists, Fritz and Paul Sarasin.
The original photograph taken in 1907, shows the two men with a dead elephant, rifles poised, and surrounded by ‘colonial artefacts’: a lifesize sculpture of an indigenous Sri Lankan family and colourful wooden masks. The pair travelled across the British and Dutch colonies, parts of Africa and the Middle East in the early 20th century.
In response to this photograph, Inas Halabi has worked with material from the museum’s archives, exploring the relationship between colonialism, museum display, ethnographic objects and their collectors, and questioning the settings that these objects now occupy. She considers the origins of these spaces, and the roles of the many participants who created them – from ethnographers to anthropologists and zoologists – and brought these objects back into the Western world for display and their potential in becoming fetishised objects.
An Alternative to the Ethnographic Museum
As Halabi explains in her artist statement, the exhibition at the Al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art hopes to create an alternative narrative to the traditional ethnographic museum, asking questions about the contemporary role of the museum in line with colonialism. She asks:
If the practice of ethnography is the practice of giving accounts or narratives of other cultures and societies in the present tense, then who is the narrator of these accounts?
Through a combination of video, objects and altered photographs, Halabi explores Switzerland’s colonial history, questioning the relationship between ethnographic objects, their collectors and the setting in which they have been placed. Halabi alters original black and white, or sepia, photographs with masks over the faces of the protagonists.
There is also a film component, referred to in the project’s title itself. The film is composed of two imaginary letters – one addressed to the Sarasins, the other addressed to the artist. Composed of original archive material, including still images of colonial landscapes captured by the Sarasins, layered with audio and overlaying text. Much of her research has been presented in a book, where she is able to share her discoveries through visual material, notes and a collection of essays.
This work asks questions about the white man, the colonial gaze, and the ‘otherness’ of foreign bodies, often discussed in academic circles surrounding colonialism and visual culture, which Halabi considers in her artist statement. Here, we see these discourses take a visual form. In the case of the Sarasins, Halabi explains how as ethnographers, they described the cultures they were investigating as being past, and in the process of disappearing. This meant that when they were brought home and placed within a museological context, this methodology was applied through their framework of display. She writes:
Ethnographic objects represent a past, a dying culture. They become this way once they are removed from their origin and their present time. This action serves to construct a past time in which ‘the Other’ has to be situated in order that colonial scientific schemata can make sense, and, more importantly, be justified. This is justified, whether knowingly or not, by the museum or the institution which ‘preserves’ these ‘foreign’ objects and photographs of ‘foreign’ people today. In this context, it is important to note that the indigenous people to whom these objects belong and whose ancestors are in the photographs, as captured by the Sarasins, still exist.
Art through Historical Research
Born in 1988 in Palestine, Inas Halabi uses video, sculpture and archival material to examine historical and political narratives of national identity, collective memory, myth-making and hierarchies of power. Research is integral to her practice, often presented through installation. After studying at Goldsmiths College, University of London, Halabi was the recipient of the A.M. Qattan Foundation’s Young Artist of the Year Award in 2016.
The exhibition is staunchly research based, as Halabi has undergone significant work to uncover information about the lives of these two men. Extremely wealthy, the couple were able to use their wealth to fund their intrepid travels. Affiliated to numerous institutions, including religious groups and political parties, and later, museums themselves. The Sarasins donated thousands of objects and photographs to the Basel Ethnographic Museum, and from 1903 until his death in 1942, Fritz Sarasin was the director of the Ethnographic Museum.
Halabi’s response to this research takes the form of a remastered exhibition space, which critically replicates the original exhibition she had seen at the Basel Ethnographic Museum in 2016. Crucial to her explorations are ideas of binary opposition, of ‘here/there’, ’now/then’ and ‘us/them’:
The fact is, anthropological,ethnographic and archaeological museums exist throughout (postcolonial) Europe today. The relationship of an ethnographer and/or anthropologist to his or her subject takes place through the realms of a “Here-There’ and a ‘Now-Then.’ This distance created between the subject and the object is a superordinate distance produced by a colonial past that carries through into our present by the very presence of these objects and artefacts in the museum today.
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