Reversal of the gaze

Epistemic violence, epistemic reconciliation, response-able knowledge production

The reversal of the gaze – whether in anthropology or in art history –, is neither a banal nor a simple undertaking. Both the ability to reverse the gaze and the practiced reversal of the gaze are necessary conditions for the critical inquiry of the interrelatedness of contemporary power relations and the production of knowledge. Reversing the gaze is not just a productive mode of knowledge production but goes hand in hand with taking on the ‘response-ability’[1] (Haraway and Kenney 2015: 256-257) for past-present-future knowledge production, circulation, mediation and accessibility of knowledge in its various forms.

„Der/Die Europäer/in wird selbst zum Objekt des Blickes und Gegenstand der Darstellung. […]. Die Verfremdung des Eigenen, die uns in diesen Skulpturen begegnet, ist manchmal komisch, manchmal verstörend.“
(Brus 2017: 123)

Unsicher blickte ich mich um, […] mehr Objekt der Beobachtung als Beobachter.“
(Zillinger 2013: 17)

These quotes, whether implicitly or explicitly, state that the production and mediation of knowledge give rise to similar emotions as those brought out by the debate on restitution that is currently fore fronted in the global arena. Taking into account the multiple vulnerabilities and including the manifold emotions that are explicitly sometimes implicitly articulated and negotiated in the debate, I would like to make a transgenerational and interdisciplinary contribution to the restitution debate. This might be an overambitious and possibly daring attempt, but let us see where it takes us…

The walls of the museum rise from their base. With the elegance and lightness of a buzzard, the rocky walls supported by the massive columns move towards my head. The buzzard’s claws move towards my head, they chop into my head. The last image I remember while waking up: my brain scattered over the walls of the museum. My heart is pounding, my hand palms are sweaty; I am not going to attend the one week class on knowledge production in Islam anymore.
(Personal notes: Bremen, June 2014)


On my voyage through the digital feuilleton world, where the report “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage – Toward a new Relational Ethics” of Savoy and Sarr received both positive and negative comments, Volker März’s  exhibition „Horizontalist – The Monkey Doesn’t Fall Far From The Trunk“ was my first point of reference. Excitedly, I jumped out of my bed, went to my bookshelf, pulled out the novel by the artist and leafed through it until I found the image that first came to mind during my voyage through the digital world: Finally Europe is burning Again.

„Europa und Amerika sollen sich auflösen – sich verteilen und verschwenden. Sie sollen sich an Afrika und Asien angliedern, um all das Geraubte und Zerstörte an diese riesigen Erdteile zurückzuführen, in die sie geografisch zigmal hineinpassen würden“
(Volker März 2018)

„Let Europe and America dissolve – be spread out and wasted. They should join Africa and Asia in order to return everything stolen and destroyed to these gigantic parts of the world, into which they would fit several times geographically”
(Volker März 2018, Translation: S.Z.)

Abbildung 1: Source:

Finally, Europe is burning again. Why is this acrylic painting by Volker März[2] my first association? Perhaps it represents a suitable metaphor for the debate on restitution and, beyond that, the social constitution of Europe? Since the publication of Sarr and Savoy’s report, the smouldering fire of emotions that provoked provenance research and the debates on restitution have laid, haves transformed into a widespread fire of emotions.

Insecurities. Disconcertment. Excitement. Euphoria. Frustration. Laughter. Anxiety – just to name a few emotional reactions that I think I have encountered during my journey through the different commentaries on the report. While some authors, were perplexed and angry after reading the report of Savoy and Sarr´s report (e.g. Schüttpelz 2018). I was excited and have been euphoric ever since its publication. At the same time, I felt disconcerted and anxious about the fact that the only governance document I know of on a national and not local level, that addresses the question of restitution in parliament from a political vantage point, is the large inquiry handed in by the right-wing party Alternative for Germany (AfD) (Kilb 2018)

„Aus den Parlamenten heraus greift die AfD die Gedenkstätten an. […] Man kann tatsächlich von einem erinnerungskulturellen Klimawechsel sprechen. Dinge sind jetzt sagbar, von denen wir eigentlich dachten, sie seien überwunden
(Jens-Christian Wagner, 15.2.2018 Zeit-Online)

As is evident from the quotation by Jens-Christian Wagner, AfD has not just raised their voice in the ‘memory competition’ (Erll 2017: 211) by submitting this large inquiry. Rather, the AfD is also trying to occupy spaces of memory other than parliamentary ones, such as monuments and museums with their right-wing revisionism. Fortunately, the AFD is not the central actor when it comes to the restitution debate. Moreover, the debate is not just one that has taken place only in Germany, France, Belgium or the UK. It is also current in Ghana (Merian Institute for Advanced Studies in Africa 2018, Opoku 2018) and Senegal (BBC News, Africa 2018; Thomas-Johnson 2018). Before I go further into the non-European and non-academic perspectives and to the question of what the potentials of such a change of perspective are, I would like to point out that response-able knowledge production takes place equally inside and outside of university structures.

It would be inappropriate to merely reduce the practices of groups such as Decolonize Bremen or No Humboldt 21 to their persistent criticism of existing memory politics with regard to colonial and postcolonial histories and to their demands and desires for decolonization. Through workshops, postcolonial city tours and the organisation of exhibitions, they are taking on an educational mission that should actually be part of a national strategy which would result in it being part of the educational program of museums such as the “Deutsches Historisches Museum” or the soon to be Humboldt Forum. A national strategy that, if carried out collaboratively with the activists groups, would not just continue the diversification of the historical narratives but also establish them on multiple scales. Groups such as Decolonize Bremen not make important contributions only to the diversification of the historical narratives circulating within the European memorylands (Macdonald 2013) and the global memoryscapes (Phillips/Reyes 2011). Rather, their practices of remembrance also lead to an intervention in the nation state’s prescribed politics of remembrance and culture. Addressing the white elephant of colonialism in public spaces does not just have political implications.

 „[…] a museum properly understood is not a dumping place. It is not a place where we recycle history´s waste. It is first and foremost an epistemic space.”
(Mbembe n.d.: 4)

The activists, most of whom are also academics in the broad sense, not only enrich the restitution debate and memory landscapes of Europe, but through interventions in public spaces, they translate Mbembe’s understanding of the museum as an epistemic space into practice. Postcolonial city tours, be it in Hamburg, Bremen, Liverpool or Durban, challenge the view of museums, objects and cities in equal measure. The city tours, transform the city from a space of everyday life into an open-air museum, thereby demonstrating that the city, oceans[3] and the museum are and can be epistemic spaces.

Video installation Deep down tidal by Tabita Rezaire, Source:

The objects of the open-air museum: oceans, street signs, cotton exchanges and buildings in general, monuments as well as advertisements just to name a few.

Bündnisse von Nichtregierungsorganisationen wie „No Humboldt 21!“, „Decolonize Bremen“ oder „Völkermord verjährt nicht!“ haben Museen, Behörden und die Öffentlichkeit hartnäckig mit Kritik, Forderungen und Wünschen nach einer Dekolonialisierung konfrontiert“
(Schwarzer 2018).

The above-mentioned groups and their efforts of decolonizing the public space have considerably enhanced the restitution debate in Germany (Opuko 2018). If one considers decolonizing work as epistemic work on concepts like heritage, memory, identity and politics, it is most likely that the report published by Sarr and Savoy, to a large extend also reflects the work of activists. It is clear that the publication and translation of the report into English triggered a broad international debate. Diverse positions, opinions and approaches within the restitution debate and discourse became visible (Von Oswald 2018). The reactions to the publication of the debate show that the debate goes beyond the questions of restitution, and that it is a debate that goes far beyond the problem of how to deal with looted art. It is a debate that exposes a transgenerational and transnational conflict by questioning the apparently central moments of the construction of identity in relation to citizenship and thus scrutinizing the singularity of national history at its core. In this sense, the debate is about multidirectional memory (Rothberg 2009). It is about memory as a ‘multidirectional subject to ongoing negotiations, cross-referencing, and borrowing’ (ibid. 15) that not only has the ‘potential to create new forms of solidarity and new visions of justice’ (ibid. 5). Moreover, it also holds the potential of decoupling the concepts of memory and identity, just as Astrid Erll proposes in her current reflections on the concept of collective memory (Erll 2017: 18).

Now the question at stake would be, at least to me, how to develop and reverse the notions of metaphysical concepts such as memory and identity? In addition, how to decouple them from each other when the ‘vulnerabilities’ (Bijker 2006, Verran 2001, Watson-Verran 1995) and ‘historical wounds’ (Chakrabarty 2007) of slavery, colonialism, Shoah and Holocaust are immanently embedded in the conceptualization of these metaphysical concepts? In immediate relation to the report my question would be: What would happen if the report was understood as opening up of an epistemic space? An epistemic space that bears the possibility of shifting the hegemonic perspective of concepts such as identity, history, heritage, and memory to a post_decolonial perspective of these concepts. Therefore, the report challenges not only academics to reverse their gaze, but also the broad public and politicians.

Overcoming the normativity of concepts and narratives

“But what about the non-erased memories and files in the museums? What about the 100 years of work on and against colonialism in anthropology?”
(Schüttpelz 2018)

Even though I can acknowledge Schüttpelz line of thought and –from and within an anthropological discourse- understand his disconcertment concerning the sometimes-undifferentiated accusations the discipline of anthropology is facing I would like to counter his questions with my rather young observation. I think that the ‘non-erased memories and files in the museum’ and therefore voices as well as the ‘work on and against colonialism in anthropology’ within the academic and political arena have been marginalised for some time. Hence, the knowledge production of critical historians and anthropologists on and against colonialism just as the voices and agencies of the looted art, colonial objects and subaltern bodies have been, with all of their difference and sameness, marginalized by the logics of the meta-narrative of history as well as by the colonial amnesia. Furthermore, I was puzzled by the statement that, “Memory in this report is historical amnesia. Memory, it seems will start from scratch” (ibid. 2018). Reading the paragraphs on memory and amnesia within the report gave me the impression that Sarr and Savoy differentiate between memory and amnesia:

“For other African communities, the amnesia has already done its work and the erasure of memory has been so successful that communities have begun to lose any remaining knowledge of this cultural heritage or recognize the depth of the loss that has been suffered.”
(Sarr and Savoy 2018: 31)

As I read these lines, it becomes clear to me that there are differences within different African communities and between ‘interrupted memory’ (ibid. 15) and amnesia as well as memory whereby amnesia is certainly an effect of colonial amnesia. Bringing these notions into dialog with a public discourse, just as the report does in regards to the French-African relationship, and situating it within the German discourse can be a helpful undertaking. In the case of Germany, I argue that there has been a very long period of historical amnesia in the public memory regarding German colonialism (Peggy Piesche and Nana Adusei-Poku)[4]. Arguing from a metahistorical perspective (Koselleck 2015: 130) Sarr´s and Savoy´s conceptualization of memory tries to encapsulate the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous. With regards to the particularities of the German, discourse this means to simultaneously acknowledge the singularity of the Shoah_Holocaust and the specificities of German colonialism while also pointing out the entanglements of colonialism and National Socialism (KZ Gedenkstätte Neuengamme 2018, Zimmerer 2009 & 2011)[5].

From my perspective, the report not only calls for the unconditional restitution of looted art but also challenges the mere concept and notion of the current culture of memory of nation-states within the European Union. It implicitly calls for a ‘social consensus’ (Chakrabarty 2007) that respects[6] the multiple ‘historical wounds’ (ibid.) and vulnerabilities which are imbricated in the ‘fragile constitution of modern societies’ (Bijker 2006: 17).

„With a focus on vulnerability of technological culture we do not only study the fragile constitution of modern societies, but can also capture the fragility that is constitutive of our technological culture. […] I propose to treat vulnerability with the intellectual respect it deserves“
(Ibid. 17-18).

Bijker’s proposal to understand and treat vulnerability as an epistemological category that deserves intellectual respect was inspired (ibid. 23, endnote 15) by Shklar´s plea “to treat injustice with the intellectual respect it deserves” (Shklar 1990: 17). What is the meaning of “Treating vulnerabilities with respect, what does that mean”? How does the proposal relate to the restitution debate? How is the concept of ‘historical wounds’ interrelated with the idea of vulnerabilities? In addition, what happens to the argumentation of the contribution if I take the notion of ‘reconciliation’ (Verran 2002: 754)? How is reconciliation interrelated with achieving and maintaining a social consensus? How can a social census that is embedded within the troubles of multiple same but different vulnerabilities be enacted rather than ‘be avoided, repaired, and fought’ (Bijker 2006: 18) in order to go on together respectfully (Verran 2002: 754)?

The salient futures of ‘historical wounds’ are

    1. ‘They [historical wounds] are not the same as historical truths[i] but the latter constitute a condition of possibility of the former’ (Chakrabarty 2007: 77).
    1. They are dialogically formed (ibid. 78).
    1. They are no everlasting discursive formation. They can always be un_done (ibid.)[ii].
    1. They are asymmetrically formed across different democracies (ibid.)[iii].
  1. The pose a political and pedagogical challenge to the discipline of history (ibid. 79).

Chakrabartys conceptualization of the ‘historical wound’ can be read as the postcolonial (subaltern studies) notion of ‘impact event’ (Fuchs 2011: 12) and therefore is situated within the discourses of memory studies (Assmann 2015: 87-88). The basis of this conceptualization is the broad consensus that some postcolonial bodies owed and owe their present disadvantages to the discrimination and oppression suffered in the past (ibid. 77). Even though I am sympathetic with Chakrabartys line of thought, I think that rethinking the concept of ‘historical wound’ through the notion of ‘epistemic violence’ (Spivak 1988, Dotson 2011, Mignolo 2002, Vázquez 2011) could be helpful to emphasise the vulnerabilities and response-abilities of knowledge production.

One can and must argue, especially from an activist perspective, that the abstraction hence translation, of a primary political, juridical and emotional debate that currently takes place once again could be read as an act of epistemic violence (Dotson 2011). Nevertheless, I think that opening up this epistemic space and trying to respect the ‘metaphysical differences’ (Verran 2002: 754) that are embedded within the restitution debate could be helpful in order to imagine epistemic spaces that are not a courthouse, parliament or strictly spoken academia – in which  ‘epistemic reconciliation’ (Verran 2002) can take place and be enacted. Salient to the idea of ‘epistemic reconciliation’ are the notions of difference and sameness. Helen Verran conceptualizes difference and sameness as particular modes of experience that are collectively performed within a three- dimensional time space (future-past-present) which is in turn permeated by various a-symmetrical power relations. Difference and sameness can be enacted, claimed, perpetuated or overcome but are never given a priori. Hence, difference and sameness are not reducible to shared experience but rather to the endeavour of simultaneously making separations (difference) and connecting (sameness) with the purpose of eschewing “universalizing claims, and instead look for local, particular and contingent symmetry” (Verran 2002: 731). Seeing the sameness in the difference and the difference in the sameness allows one to see how practices, strategies and technologies can ‘really be the same while being profoundly different’ (Verran 2002: 750) which is the core thought to Verran’s notion of reconciliation:

„Reconciliation here must allow for metaphysical difference to be respected, while shared embodied and embedded concerns of specific times and places can come to be taken for granted grounds for respectfully going on together.“
(Verran 2002: 754)

This has led me to ask myself questions about the debate and the report that I did not ask myself before. In addition, I have the feeling that Helen Verran’s concept of respectful epistemic reconciliation could take the sharpness of identity politics out of the debate to the extent that neither identity, memory nor remembrance is conceived a priori and thus as something unchangeable. Thinking looted art, the artefacts and the report through Susan-Leigh Stars notion of boundary objects (Leigh-Star & Griesemer 1989) opens up the possibility of seeing these objects not as property but rather as the core actors, within the process and practices of epistemic reconciliation. In the sense of Chakrabarty, Helen Verran’s reflections on epistemic reconciliation enable a dialogical negotiation that respectfully recognises the simultaneity of difference and sameness of ‚historical wounds‘.

Where can epistemic reconciliation be enacted? Must an epistemic reconciliation, which mainly asks the postcolonial body that is marked as white for a reversal of the gaze, necessarily be linked to the unrestricted access to objects exhibited in glass cabinets? Is it not time for anthropological museums to no longer present the present as the past, but to rather let the past speak through the present? Just as is done in galleries with their ‚afrofuturistic‘ exhibitions do or as evidenced in the work of black artists-activists, which are considered as afrofuturistic, artist? In addition, wouldn´t then their art be the future objects of the not-yet here anthropological museum?

The WWW as a decolonial Museum?

Since I started to engage with the debates on restitution and looted art on an academic level, it seems to me that not only conceptual and juridical questions are at the centre of the debates, but also the question of access or shall I say accessibility. While from (anthropological) museums are being epistemic spaces, they are public spaces, which are currently confronted with the demand for decolonization. In his speech, “Decolonizing knowledge and the question of the Archive” Mbembe argues, “the decolonization of buildings and of public spaces is inseparable from democratization of access” (Mbembe n.d.: 5). Democratization of access, democratization of access…Democrati… access.

“Nobody in his whole lifetime will be ever be able to visit 5000 islands to compare the artefacts materially and archeologically. […] Take 500 museums instead of 5.000 islands; or take the frustration that sets in once you try to keep track of where the artefacts are.”
(Schüttpelz 2018)

Schüttpelz states that the decolonization of museums, which is currently being mediated and translated through the various boundary objects, will lead to an inaccessibility of knowledge, which is not what one wants to achieve. On the one hand, nobody really wants to achieve the inaccessibility of knowledge; on the other hand, knowledge has never been accessible for all the subjects who wanted to access knowledge in the first place. Bringing it back to the issues of restitution and repatriation of looted African objects in European museums the a_symmetry of in_accessibility becomes clear when the non-European commentaries on the report are included into the European debate:

“Few Africans were in the position to see them if they visited European capitals and with the increasing racism and difficulties in obtaining visa for Europe, it has become clear that the argument that the so-called universal museums are open to all, is absolute nonsense.”
(Opoku 2018)

Taking into account the ‘visa argument’, the picture of looted art distributed over 500-5000 islands outside the European boundaries seems to be an act of democratizing access to knowledge. Returning the looted art will most definitely contribute to the nation-building process of states like the Senegal where just recently, “The Museum of Black Civilisation” was unveiled but the paradox of the in_accessibility is maintained even though their aim is to decolonise knowledge. Who can afford to visit the Museum? Will the nation of Senegal buy the flight tickets for those of the African Diaspora who would like to visit “The museum of Black Civilisation” to practice epistemic reconciliation in order to reconcile with their black identity but cannot afford the ticket?

That the unconditional return of looted art is no longer just a demand of activists critical of racism and colonial legacies in public spaces, but can now also be discussed in spaces of the nation state, was long overdue. Nonetheless, it does not solve the ‘pedagogical problem’ (Chakrabarty 2007: 79)[7] (anthropological) museums are facing now more than ever. The pedagogical problem or, to connote it more positively, pedagogical endeavour museums and galleries are currently confronted with, is the chance of transforming museums from spaces of epistemic violence to spaces for epistemic reconciliation. Savoy’s reason for her withdrawal from the Humboldt Forum’s team of experts (Savoy im Interview Süddeutsche Zeitung 2017) shows that transforming museums within the „modern/colonial capitalist/patriarchal world-system“ (Grosfoguel 2011) is no more an easy undertaking than reversing the gaze. So, if this pedagogical endeavour cannot yet be achieved on a permanent scale within the walls of (anthropological) museums- as the manifold sideshows like Volker März “Horizontalist”[8], Anna Brus “The Savage hits Back – Colonial Era Depictions of Europeans in the Lips Collection”[9] (Brus 2018) and “Der Blinde Fleck – Bremen und die Kunst in der Kolonialzeit” (ed. Binter 2017) show – then what are the spaces in which practices of perpetuating decolonial knowledge production, mediation and circulation can take place on a long-term basis?

Since this voyage started off with remarks on the complexity and im_possibilities of reversing the gaze within a modern/colonial capitalist/patriarchal world-system, the recognition of the ‘metaphysical differences’ seems to be an individualistic undertaking rather than a structural precondition of knowledge production. Hence, the timespaces of ‘epistemic reconciliation’ are seldom, but one can find them. In my studies of postcolonial and feminist STS, STS Anthropology, as well as in my exposure to so-called ‘Afrofuturism’, I have experienced a great deal of epistemic reconciliation. Experiencing ‘epistemic reconciliation’ opened me up to a different way of thinking about the debate on restitution and looted art and in that sense I want to leave the metaphysical thinking and bring back the politics into the metaphysical. Nevertheless, the old wounded activist in me can still be uncritical  excited, when she reads Sarr and Savoy’s report, but the reconciled activist and so called ‘Early Career Researcher’ in me also sees the pitfalls of the report. Yes, the report is a metaphysical boundary object of epistemic reconciliation and at the same time, it a boundary object of ‘affective politics’ (Luker 2017) and not a profound structure-changing document. By embedding it in the French discourse on the politics of memory and culture, the nation as an ideal has been reproduced (Ahmed 2004: 109).

“These affective politics of reconciliation have been the catalyst for Indigenous demand for decolonisation of settler colonial archives and have resulted in important developments in archival theory and practice. Indigenous peoples’ mistrust of state and institutional archives, demands for control of archives and legal actions for destruction of records, as well as establishment of autonomous archives, all contribute to the important and fraught process of decolonising settler colonial archives.”
(Luker 2017: 109)

Decolonising museums, decolonising colonial archives and the unconditional restitution of looted art isn´t going to solve the structural problem of state and institutionalised museums and archives, especially not if one seeks to democratize access in order to gain a greater accessibility to knowledge. Talking about the potential spaces of boundless accessibility to knowledge and for heterogeneous representation of the ‘world’, then surely one of the first spaces that one might think of is the WWW. Even though this is correct to a great extent artists and activist such as chimurenga collective[10], Tabita Rezaire (see video installation) or the Cuss Group[11] which are devoted to Africanizing Wikipedia[12] or the global Internet art scene[13] have shown that:

“[…] the Internet or the spaces I [Jamal Nxedlana, Member of Cuss: S.Z] navigate on the web are dominated by western content. It´s not as elite as say the gallery or museum systems in South Africa. But yeah it is elite when you