The Language of the Beast in Art History
As a child, I remember walking the halls of The British Museum, through the galleries of Ancient Greek and Roman art, the passageways of Asia, the single room of Africa. I felt amongst a wealth of knowledge, an entire world of art and culture contained within these walls. I knew, even then, that so many of these objects were stolen. I grew up both enamoured and hesitantly critical of these Encyclopedia galleries, which claimed to display global knowledge, but are so averse to discussing where these objects were acquired. I felt relief and elation when I began my art history major. One of my earliest weeks was discussing the repatriation of the Parthenon marbles, stolen from the Greeks under the control of the Ottoman Empire, a hot topic amongst the art history community. Yet, as I learnt, it was a safe topic. It is so easy to feel radical, and part of a progressive movement, to argue that we should return stolen artifacts. Easier still to argue stealing is wrong. But that is never the point of such discussions. Under the surface lies the ever-present beast of colonial racism, perpetuated through theories of European greatness and the vast and impressive galleries. So many would argue that ‘yes of course, stealing is wrong, but can we even trust the Africans to take care of these artifacts? Wouldn’t it be better if everything were nice and safe here, tucked away in some grand academic gallery?’
It is easy to stay quiet when these arguments rear their ugly head. Some will claim to play devil’s advocate when called out, others presenting their so-called ‘hard truth of the matter’. These are the same who will turn a blind eye to the mistreatment of artifacts in these institutions, to the ethical truth of cultural ownership, to the pain of cultures whose ancestors have been taxidermized and put on display as an object themselves, not viewed as a human in life and certainly not in death. There is no moral high ground here, no false pedestal to put oneself, out of the way of the mess left behind by past historians and the ruins of great objects. It is racism, plain and simple. This colonial voice has left its mark across out textbooks and galleries, in our words and in our institutions. How else could you argue an entire continent is incapable of caring for the object it created? How else could you say these European institutions are betters suited to the task, when the evidence plainly shows the damage, both to these objects and the cultures they belong to? We all watched Black Panther, we laughed and cheered for Kilmonger as he repatriated the objects from the curator, blissfully unaware that we are the curator. We are passively complicit with the beast, as long as we are repeating the words of historians before us, of our teachers and textbooks.
And yet as I write this, I consider my role in this conflict. I, a white student, in a white classroom, taught by white teachers, debating the ethics of returning African and Asian objects as if we are relevant to the debate, our voices somehow able to add something, while the irony is so often we are just talking over the people we really need to listen to. A room of pained smiles and awkward debates as we repeat the safe arguments we have read. ‘Stealing is wrong. Wouldn’t it be nice if we returned things? Only if they can be trusted, of course of course…’
Out of the silence a voice will comment, as if deliberately adding to the painful awareness that few of us possess, that ‘the blacks can’t be trusted to keep their own objects safe’, and ‘isn’t the Aboriginal other so clever to create an art style of their own?’ They will look around at us, as if we all agree with these same, safe phrases of eras long gone and yet not gone enough. We avert our gaze, horrified by any association to those who gave the racist beast a voice in our class, yet too scared, too unsure, too conflicted to speak out against them. Many of us, myself included, wanting so desperately to shout ‘No you’re wrong!’ but ashamedly knowing that our ancestors were the wrong-doers. Now is the time to speak these words. I have spent too long in these white classrooms, watching teachers who ignore or dismiss the comments, the pained expressions of classmates who don’t know what to say, not wanting to be the first to challenge that voice. I remember the first time I did. I was talked over, that voice repeating the line at me, the teacher watching on passively, never acting to stop it. But we cannot afford to be passively silent any longer. In an all-white class, we cannot let the racist voice win, we cannot stay silent for our own comfort. I implore the white art students, the white historians, white curators, white creators, to use the voice you have, the privilege we all have, and fight that racist beast in the classroom, in the gallery, and in the institution. Stealing is wrong they say, of course, but silence is deadly
~article first published by Pelican Magazine July 2020~