4 July 2018. Blog post by guest authors Tina Palaić and Max Zimani, invited by the Slovene Ethnographic Museum in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
The first conference of the Non-Aligned Movement was held in Belgrade in September 1961 under the leadership of Yugoslavia. Presidents of Yugoslavia, India, Egypt, Indonesia and Ghana established the international political cooperation, distanced from strict affiliation with the Eastern or Western bloc during the Cold War. The representatives of 25 countries advocated for decolonization, equality, political and economic cooperation, as well as for mutual respect for territorial sovereignty of all member states.
Due to the Non-Aligned policy, Yugoslavia established close collaboration and exchange with countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia in the fields of politics, economy, education and culture. Many people of different profiles and interests, for instance politicians, businessmen, journalists, and cultural workers traveled to those countries and some of them brought back objects to present foreign cultures. At the same time, Yugoslav scholarships for foreign students enabled many young people from member states of the movement to study in Yugoslavia. Students studied also at the universities in Slovenia, at the time one of the six republics of Yugoslavia, and some of them decided to stay, build a family and develop a career.
Slovene Ethnographic Museum investigated and presented both dimensions focusing on the existing exchange between Slovenia and African countries. Stories of Slovene collectors of the African collections in the care of museum from that time were researched, and close collaboration with African Slovenes was established. Together we did the research into their memories, experiences, and reflections about their education, organizations and unions, their professional careers, integration into Slovene society, different identifications, and cultural exchange. The results of our endeavours were presented at the exhibition entitled Africa and Slovenia. A web of people and objects. For the first time, the museum represented complementary perspectives on non-European collections from the time of Non-Aligned which deepened our understanding of the role and aftermath of this movement. Presenting African Slovenes’ personal heritage in a visually attractive way with their photos and personal objects strengthened their social visibility and emphasized integration in Slovene society. In addition, it established the museum as a place of encounter and exchange between different audiences. In five months, the exhibition attracted almost six thousand visitors who were also given a chance to personally meet our associates during several events.
In terms of the themes and methodology, the whole project was a great challenge for the museum curators. Different questions and dilemmas arose, and they were addressed jointly with heritage bearers. This is the reason why we want to shed a light on our collaboration in a form of exchanging ideas about it – between curator Tina Palaić and one of the collaborators Max Zimani.
Tina: When we came up with the idea to represent personal heritage of people who came as students in the time of the Non-Aligned the first question was who to invite. The group of African Slovenes from that time is small, and unbalanced in terms of gender. We invited eleven people to cooperate using the snowball method, and five of them responded positively, all men. Their original countries vary – they come from Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Uganda and two from Ghana. We set as a starting point their shared experience as students in former Yugoslavia, and then focused on individual stories and objects. The structure of the research process was formed together with them, and then we proceeded with the interviews. The exhibition narrative was slowly unfolding during the process.
Max: I was approached with the idea of collaboration with Africans at a very early stage. In fact I feel like I helped mould the idea and was fully involved in the implementation. At first I was a bit cautious about the collaboration as our past experiences demonstrate that as Africans, we could have been misrepresented. So while I welcomed the idea I thought it is important that I’m involved more than just as a collaborator. It was important to clearly lay out the framework of our collaboration. When this was done and taking into account the fact that trust had been established with the curators, the collaboration itself became smooth. I expected Africans in Slovenia to have a voice, an authentic voice, in telling our own stories and giving our perspectives about our realities and those of Africans. Hence I opted to participate.
Tina: During the research process as well as exhibition creation, the bearers of heritage were not considered as only interlocutors, they became our associates. We wanted to share the responsibility for researching and presenting their heritage together with them. Our collaboration was based on the concepts of epistemic justice and radical transparency. The voice of African Slovenes was equally important than the voice of curators. It is interesting that this kind of collaboration was unusual and unexpected for most of our interlocutors since they did not think that museums might work like that.
Max: Indeed, the voice of the Africans was very important in this exercise. As far as I am concerned only under this framework would it make sense to collaborate. The times when Africans were treated as voiceless people to be presented and represented by others should be a thing of the past. And in this regard, our collaboration was a step in the right direction. Indeed, our collaboration was exemplary, fulfilling and professional.
Tina: One of the challenges we as museum curators faced was the usage of terms community and diaspora. Such definitions can establish control over a group of individuals instead of enabling shared responsibility for the heritage. The problem emerges when real communities are wrongly recognized, and their identities are mistakenly represented through heritage processes. Culture of a community can be used as means to legitimize social inclusion or exclusion. We decided not to speak about the African community, but present every individual with his personal story and objects. Additionally, we avoided the term African diaspora. In our opinion, the most appropriate terms are Ghanaian, Ugandan, Zimbabwean, and Malagasy Slovenes.
Max: When I suggested members to collaborate in the project I did not have in mind that they are representatives of the other Africans in Slovenia. After all, no one was elected or given a mandate to represent other Africans. However, what was important was that they were individuals who have stories and lives to share. Their stories and views can give museum visitors a perspective of the lives of Africans in Slovenia that differs from that portrayed by mainstream media. And this is important. Having lived in Slovenia longer than in their countries of birth, all associates are Slovenes. But I am also a Zimbabwean and an African and more. And it is perfectly alright to have these complex identities.
Tina: In the research we focused on the objects which the African Slovenes either brought with them when they first came to Slovenia, or at a later time, following a visit to their native country. The selection criterion was that these objects were important to them, because of their connection with their native country, because they remind them of some particular event, or simply because they carry a message they want to convey to the museum’s visitors. They chose personal objects from everyday life. Some of them inspired them to talk about their childhood and reflect on the relations with their relatives in their native country; other objects help them to express their transnational identity in the Slovene area; and some objects help them to reflect on their values and ideas, and represent their culture and native country.
Max: Choosing the objects was easy. In all honesty it is because I do not possess too many objects and I do relate to the ones I chose. The toy car is a sign of creativity and it reminds me of my youth. The Nyama Nyama God of the Tonga (also called Nyami Nyami) is important for me because to me it represents that part of African or Zimbabwean tradition, religion, culture, that survived the onslaught of colonialism. Colonialism had a devastating impact on African cultures, with many peoples being forced to abandon their religions, faiths, beliefs and languages. The Baobab is my favorite tree. It is simply majestic. It’s fruits are not only good to eat, they also have medicinal value. The same holds for Moringa seeds. The Moringa plant is referred to as a superfood for its highly nutritious profile and powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties among many other alleged health benefits. So with the selection of objects I wanted to share my thoughts with the audience about my childhood and beliefs and how we are all an integral part of nature.
Tina: For the museum curators, involved in the project with African Slovenes, the whole process brought a lot of insights. I will highlight only two which I see as important elements of contemporary museum practice. First, collaboration with heritage bearers is of crucial importance for nuanced and balanced heritage representations. Presenting different perspectives is a first step towards a better understanding of various experiences, reflections and social circumstances. It is true that many Slovenes brought African collections at the time of the Non-Aligned, however there are many African Slovenes who care for their personal collections from their countries of origin with no less value. Second, such collaboration definitely does not diminish the role of the curators. Because the quality of the exhibition in terms of its content and accessibility is their responsibility their professional skills are irreplaceable in such processes.
Max: It is true that there are many objects of African origin in museums exhibited by curators. Many a time the authors are not named. They probably are not known. Consequently, more general terms are used to denote the objects, like Masai spear or Zulu drum. Such denotations do a disservice to the artists who produced the specific objects. In our case most of the objects are personalized. And this adds authenticity to the whole museum experience.