What do we really know about African art in European museums?

31462683605_ebc546dc0e_b (1)As part of the British Academy Summer Showcase 2018 former award-holder Zoe Cormack (Rome Fellow 2016-17), presents the exhibit ‘What do we really know about African art in European museums?’ An exploration of the arts and heritage of South Sudan. In this blog, in advance of the exhibition, Zoe shares some of the developments to her project since she left Rome a year ago.

(Photo: Antonio Palmieri)

I came to the BSR for a Rome Fellowship in 2016-17. My project was to study four nineteenth century ethnographic collections, assembled by Italians and now stored in museums across Italy, from the territory that is today South Sudan. Rome was new ground, as my previous research trips had been to remote parts of South Sudan. The time at the BSR gave me the opportunity to begin concentrated study of South Sudanese arts and material culture stored in European museums. This week, my research will feature in the British Academy Summer Showcase, an exciting opportunity to share my findings with a wider audience in the UK.

In Rome, the question I was most often asked was, how did these objects end up in Italy? There are many historical connections between Italy and South Sudan. When Sudan was incorporated into Ottoman Egypt in 1821, Italians were among the first Europeans to visit. Some came as traders, some worked in the Egyptian government, others undertook scientific journey of exploration. In 1864, Daniel Comboni (a priest, now a saint) from Brescia established a missionary order in Sudan, the Comboni Fathers, who still have a major presence in Sudan and South Sudan. The Sudanese saint, Josephine Bakhita, lived in Italy from 1885.

Of the collections I studied, one was made by Romolo Gessi an Italian soldier who was appointed Ottoman-Egyptian Governor of Bahr-el-Ghazal (a province in Southern Sudan). He is known in Sudanese history for recapturing part of the province from slave traders on behalf on the Egyptian government (the collection in now in the Museo delle Civilità in Rome).  The others were made by; Giovanni Miani, a trained opera singer from Venice who to Sudan to discover the source of the Nile (the collection is in the Natural History Museum in Venice); Carlo Piaggia, an explorer who lived at a Zande court in the 1860s (the collections are in the Florence Ethnographic Museum and the Archaeological museum in Perugia); and Orazio Antinori (of Antinori wines) who founded the Italian Geographical Society (whose collection is in the Archaeological museum in Perugia).

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A case of objects from South Sudan in Giovanni Miani’s collection, Museum of Natural history, Venice. (image courtesy of the Museum of Natural History)

My research has addressed both how these collections were formed, but also how we might understand and work with them today. These are complicated objects to study. Formed at the outset of European and Italian colonial projects, ethnographic collections were integral to the process of creating difference, of categorising people and their material culture into discrete ‘tribes’ and generating the racial hierarchies that made the ideology of colonialism possible. In Sudan, this process viciously intersected with the growth of a long-distance slave trade in the Nile valley, which remains a painful rupture in South Sudan’s historical memory.

I wanted to understand more about how collecting had interacted with this violent history, but I also wanted to investigate how these objects might speak to current concerns about heritage, memory and community relationships in South Sudan. I have always been struck by how – despite the violent circumstances surrounding their incorporation into museums – these collections are a remarkable and unique record of historic arts and material cultures from South Sudan.

Juba from the air in May 2018 (photo by Zoe Cormack)

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Juba from the air in May 2018 (photo by Zoe Cormack)

Since I finished my Rome Fellowship I have had several opportunities to address this question in more depth. On my return from Rome, I began work on an AHRC Research Network about South Sudanese arts and heritage in Europe. I have also spent about four months in Juba (the capital city of South Sudan), where with a Juba based organised called The Likikiri Collective – are doing amazing work using theatre and oral history to explore memory, ideas of community and the nation. More recently, I met Deng Nhial Chioh, who runs ‘Maale Heritage and Development Foundation’ in a displaced persons camp in Juba. For several years, Deng has been using images from online museum databases to build a curriculum about South Sudanese cultural heritage for displaced students.

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Presenting my research (with Prof John Mairi Blackings, University of Juba) at the Catholic University of South Sudan, Juba. (photograph courtesy of the Institute of Justice and Peace Studies)

Through the AHRC network we have also brought some of the South Sudanese diaspora in the UK into the research conversation. One comment about the museum collections, from a member of the South Sudanese diaspora in London, has stuck with me. He said “these things are important because they are about us. They are about people and a future that can be better than the past.”  As South Sudan grapples with a new civil war, which shows no signs of ending, these objects seem to offer constructive ways of thinking about South Sudanese identity.

Another development, which underlines the importance of the Italians collections, has been the decision in 2017 by the Government of South Sudan to put the former slave-station of Deim Zubeir on the tentative list of World Heritage Sites. Deim Zubeir is where Romolo Gessi fought with and defeated the merchant Suleiman Idris. Gessi subsequently took a ‘trophy’ from Suleiman (including his sword) and obtained other objects at Deim Zubeir. These are now stored in the Museo delle Civilità in Rome and the Musei Civici of Reggio Emelia. These museum collections could be used to build a better picture of the site in the nineteenth century and be put into a productive dialogue with heritage initiatives in South Sudan.

Zoe Cormack is now Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. She has held postdoctoral research awards at The British Institute in Eastern Africa and the British School at Rome.

For an opportunity to see Zoe’s Summer Showcase exhibit, visit the British Academy Summer Showcase 2018, at 10-11 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AH. Open: Friday 22-Saturday 23 June,11 a.m.-5 p.m. and open for a late-night view: Friday 22 June, 6.30-9pm. 

For more information on the British Academy Summer Showcase 2018 click here.

 

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