Text | Conversation | Gropius Bau 2022

Making Sites of Reciprocity and Rematriation

A conversation between Eeva-Kristiina Nylander, Marian Pastor Roces and Natasha Ginwala

Outi Pieski, Rematriation of a Ládjogahpir / Ládjogahpir rematriašuvdna, 2021 and ládjogahpirs from Nordiska museet, installation view, Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm, 2022 © Jean-Baptiste Béranger

What is the museum today? And what does artmaking mean in the context of cultures that have been systematically oppressed or destroyed? While the debate around repatriation is vital, much of the discourse revolves around problematic notions of patrimony and the nation state. Tracing matrilineal knowledge and understanding, by contrast, opens up ways of thinking through gender justice and allowing space for knowledge systems that had been treated as forbidden. In this conversation, archaeologist and researcher Eeva-Kristiina Nylander, independent curator and institutional critic Marian Pastor Roces and Gropius Bau Associate Curator at Large Natasha Ginwala take the idea of rematriation (1) to focus on the role of museums to connect diverse ecologies and community perspectives as well as finding ways of healing and reconstituting.

Available from 27 October 2022

Reading time ca. 20 min

German and English

Word mark Gropius Bau

Natasha Ginwala: The Sāmoan/Persian/Cantonese writer, artist-researcher and curator Léuli Eshrāghi mentioned in one of our conversations during Ámà: 4 Days on Caring, Repairing and Healing that when they present certain forms of ceremony or ceremonial ritual codes as part of their performance practice, they keep room for grieving and working through traumatic memory. Léuli was suggesting how to maintain these sign systems as somewhat fugitive to also withhold certain information, so that there is a way in which this mode of reciprocity does not also become, over time, a kind of performance of transparent terror. With this in mind, I wanted to ask you both in regard to your respective fields of research: How does one build platforms of cross-cultural understanding today while at the same time making sure that there is also protection for the community and the stakeholders?

Marian Pastor Roces: The question of how, indeed, to build these platforms while protecting knowledge systems traditionally built on quietude shadows me daily. The Philippines, where I live, is among the nations where this question is furthermore complicated by violent events that include massacres from over the past fifty years, which force reckoning with different kinds of silence. Women made mute by sexual violence during wars may be the same women exercising a different silence, owing to old cultures keeping the most important matters veiled. Seeking out their recollections so that a national community can be obliged to listen, there is an onus to recognise the simple right to silence; to discern the survival of cultures constructed around an austerity of speech. Especially against the history of immense pain, art should keep a quiet, respectful distance and the art world ought to know where the limits of its technologies of representation are. It is through curation and institution building work that I am personally trying to find my answers on ethical ground.

Currently, I am curating the establishment of the Museum to Cross-Cultural Understanding, a project of the Mayor of Isabela City – Sitti Djalia Turabin Hataman – on the island of Basilan in the Philippine south. The persistence of the archaic Island Southeast Asian system of complex reciprocity comes to surface as we work our way through different kinds of silence. The more than 170 languages spoken in the Philippines, which all preserve this system, belong to a large region of Austronesian speakers that stretches from Madagascar to Easter Island. But in bringing up the archaic, it is best to desist from claiming to reconstitute it as an ethos. In this project, which theorises a trajectory away from nativisms, it seems to me possible to work towards a cosmopolitan view of silence as polyvalent and language as inclusive of quiet spaces.

However, it’s important to know more about the context of this specific location: from the 1970s until about five years ago, the Filipino majority regarded Basilan as badlands. Together with the rest of what is called Muslim Philippines, concentrated in Mindanao, Basilan people have long held a sense of collective self oriented towards the sea – which, to the Christian majority, signals the uncontained and threatening. Basilan was in fact associated with extreme violence, intensified in the early 2000s, inflected grimly by beheadings and kidnap-for-ransom events and was consigned to being an extreme other by the Philippine body politic.

Much of that violence has exhausted itself but we do not know for how long the more relaxed atmosphere of today will last. However, it enables an increased traffic of people, which, to be accurate, never actually stopped – it persisted through the years of violence, owing to kinship and long-term economic and cultural networks covering remarkable maritime distances. These networks pre-date, of course, the 21st century, and in most of the cases, these networks even pre-date the 19th and earlier centuries.

  • Sitti Djalia Turabin Hataman and Marian Pastor Roces with Ambalang Ausalin at her loom. © Marian Pastor Roces

In Basilan and its capital, the port city of Isabela, peace building rests on the civil society mantra of economic inclusion. Inclusivity turns on cross-cultural understanding, taking up religions, but also moving across languages, ethnicities, ideologies and family allegiances. The overlaps include different time scales. Peace is built, not only on inter-religious and intra-sectarian exchanges, but also upon the power of nuanced similarity and difference to potentially reveal lines of possible understanding.

Similarity and difference are historically, economically and linguistically driven. In Isabela City alone, ten languages are spoken: some are of powerful ethnicities, such as Tausūg, spoken by the group that constituted the Sultanate of Sulu, a maritime power about two centuries ago; other languages are of marginalised sea nomads. Still, aside from Chinese, English and Spanish, all the languages spoken on Basilan are Austronesian. The 4000-year existence of this language family sustained deep-rooted behaviour and cosmologies that do constitute a shared heritage, whatever religion a resident might hold today. In addition, maritime knowledge is commonly held and, although unevenly shared across the various language groups, it is all-pervasive culture.

The sea is enormous in the imaginaries of self and community; which, metaphorically, has made both Islam and Christianity fluid in Basilan (and in the rest of the Philippines), reshaped by an Indigenising undertow of a distinct Austronesian animism. And so, the premise of the Museum to Cross-Cultural Understanding, opening in 2023 to sustain a peace-building agenda, is faith in the possibility of healing by deep-diving similarities underlying the differences. A significant dimension of similarity is silence as a measure of dignity; a significant dimension of difference is silence from repression.

  • © Marian Pastor Roces

Eeva-Kristiina Nylander: I would in relation to the initial question separate the act of repatriation from rematriation. Repatriation is something that happens when a museum gives back the objects or belongings and does provenance research. However, when all this information comes to the source community and gets into connection with traditional knowledge and silent information, the process is called rematriation. It’s something that happens, for example, inside the Sámi (2) community; it’s an arena where people can speak their mother tongue, and they don’t have to excuse it or explain their cultural ways of behaving. You are set into the lineage of a family, and you share who you are within a warm atmosphere that has to be protected – what happens there, stays there.

In my ongoing work with Sámi repatriation, the first celebration of 100 years of Sámi gatherings, which took place in the Nordic countries in 2017, was a big inspiration. It happenend over one week in Trondheim or Tråante (as it is called in Southern Sámi language) and there were several exhibitions about ethnographic Sámi belongings, but also various contemporary presentations, as well as different kinds of political and cultural meetings. It was beautiful – the whole city was filled with Sámi people, Sámi flags and you heard Sámi speech everywhere. During that time the artist Outi Pieski and I saw one ládjogahpir – a crownlike, graceful headgear that was used by Sámi women until the end of the 19th century in the Sámi area in what is now northern Norway and Finland – in the repatriation exhibition called Bååstede (meaning “return” in the South Sami language) at Norsk Folkemuseum. The ládjogahpir had been interesting me since I started to work with Sámi repatriation in 2006, because it contained this certain narrative that the devil lives in its fierra (the protrusion in the hat), which is why priests arriving at Sápmi wanted to destroy these hats and burned them. Outi and I decided to do research on this topic as a collaboration between a researcher and an artist, which eventually resulted in the project The Ládjogahpir. Máttaráhkuid gábagahpir. The Foremothers’ Hat of Pride (2017-2020). As part of our research, we went to several museums and institutions in Europe and in the Nordic countries – including the Museum of European Cultures in Dahlem, Berlin – to study the hats in their collections.

However, it was important to us to share our results with the Sámi community before we published them, which is rather unusual in sciene. We also began to arrange workshops for Sámi women to whom the Ládjogahpir tradition belongs which happened in different places such as in Norwegian Sápmi in Kárášjohka and in Deanu šaldi, as well as on the Finnish side of Sápmi in Ohcejohka. In these workshops, we started the meetings by sharing everything: sharing knowledge, sharing narratives, sharing archival stories – all the kind of provenance we had found. I then had the possibility to conduct interviews with the participating women through which it became clear to me that I wanted to pass on their voice to the main population and the museums who own and govern the objects that belong to them. There are still over 50.000 Sámi objects stored in institutions and museums outside Sápmi and it’s so important to tell why it is essential to have these belongings back home. Which is why we decided to publish these conversations within a book (Ládjogahpir – Máttaráhkuid gábagahpir, 2020) that, to me, is an example of how to do Indigenous object or belongings research in the future; and it’s great to currently see how the Ládjogahpir is slowly becoming a part of Sámi society again.

  • Outi Pieski, Lossa máttaráhkku/ The Heavy Weight of the Foremother, 2021. Photo: Tor Simen Ulstein/ KUNSTDOK

Natasha Ginwala: I think that in both of your engagements it really comes across what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak refers to as “learning to learn from below” in Death of a Discipline (2003). It’s not even just learning from below, but actually, the “learning to learn” aspect in regards to epistemic ignorance that prevails when posing questions like: What are we ignorant about as art world folks, and who has the authority to create and mandate institutions? In regards to your research fields and projects, have you experienced changes in power relations through creating these sites of matriation and reciprocity? And how do you think can museums take part in this process?

Marian Pastor Roces: We have to look language again. The absorption of cultural materials into storages and into museum accession records transforms complex matter into objects. Once identified, processed, documented, and encoded into a database – amputated from complexes – these putative objects metamorphose into units sucked into the traffic of cultural material. The museums, as much as galleries, are the principal parties in this transformation of dynamic phenomenologies into mere (if aura-surrounded) objecthood – as has been pointed out in a substantial body of critical literature. I drew my own critical insights from my work on Philippine textiles that were not, in the past, referred to with nominal categories. The recording system itself is that which determines, not just exhibitionary practices, but guarantees consumption of these then-available floating things. One form of violence of the loss is located here: in the particular kind of silencing, that is radically different from the silent dignity maintained by some of the cultures that created these materials.

Eeva-Kristiina Nylander: In my field of research, it is also about shifting the conversation from between the Western museums and Finnish (museum) people – to the Sámi and in doing so shifting power relations. Through this change, the Sámi community can study and get to learn about their objects again; be with their spirits and those of their ancestors, which are contained in them; experience the love that is always put into duodji – to crafts – when you do them. It’s a very intimate situation that requires, of course, a certain way of being.

In a new exhibition project titled Enâmeh láá mii párnáh – These lands are our children at the Sámi Museum Siida in Inari – which involves a large group of Sámi researchers, museum professionals, artists and craftspersons – our approach, for instance, is to tell the story through their eyes rather than narrating about the collecting of the objects, which is what we did last year in Mäccmõš, maccâm, máhccan – The Homecoming (2021/22) at National Museum of Finland in Helsinki. The history of these objects and our shared history are both difficult and brutal in many ways, so these are attempts to look at them with the help of the collection and contemporary Sámi art that surrounds and holds its arms around these objects.

When listening to Marian talk about reciprocity, I was reminded that something which eventually belongs, I think, to all Indigenous peoples is that you never take more than you need, and you always give back. It’s a dialogue and a contemporary way of giving a gift back to the one who gave to you.

1 Rematriation is a term coined by Sámi political scientist Jovnna Jon Ánne Kirstte Rávdná/Rauna Kuokkanen. It indicates a revival of indigenous principles of equality between genders as is traditionally maintained among Sámi communities. Rematriation is an affirmative expression of Sámi women’s social and political agency. It also acts as a gesture of spiritual and cultural rehabilitation in the process of Sàpmi decolonisation.

2 Sámi are the Indigenous people who inhabit Sápmi, a region stretching over large northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Russian territory of the Kola Peninsula. Sámi have struggled with the recognition of their sovereign rights, languages, material culture and community life, including cultural autonomy, political representation, environmental conservation, the decolonisation of spiritual inheritance and traditional livelihoods.

Eeva-Kristiina Nylander is an archaeologist pursuing doctoral research at the University of Oulu, Giellagas Institute for Saami Studies in Finland. She works with Sámi cultural heritage and repatriation processes together with the Sámi society. She is currently co-developing an exhibition at the Sámi Museum Siida in Inari, Finland.

Marian Pastor Roces is an independent curator and critic focused on institutions. She works across subjects including contemporary art, museums, politics of identity, clothing and related sign systems, and the failures of the democratic project in many parts of the world.

Natasha Ginwala is a curator, writer and editor. She is the artistic director of COLOMBOSCOPE, Colombo, Sri Lanka and Associate Curator at Large at the Gropius Bau. She was the artistic director of the 13th Gwangju Biennale with Defne Ayas.