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Vestiges of Oblivion – Sammy Baloji’s Works on Skulls in European Museum Collections

by Lotte Arndt
18 Nov 2013 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: Afterlives [11] | Commons

“Science, science, science
Everything is beautiful
Cranial measurements
Crowd my notebook pages
And I’m moving closer,
Close to how these numbers
Signify aspects of
National character”[1]

In the last years, artist Sammy Baloji repeatedly worked on human remains located in some of the ethnographic museums in Europe. For one of his artistic works Allers et retours (2009), Baloji conducted photographic research dedicated to the skull of the murdered Congolese chief Lusinga, kept in the storerooms of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels. Following this, in 2010, he conceived a photographic series, Untitled (Passages), which focuses on the 19th century skull collection of the former Musée Guimet in Lyon, France – the museum is currently being merged with the collection of the Natural History Museum to constitute the now-called Musée des Confluences. Both of his works are only allusive in regard to the dense historical and current entanglements, of which human remains located in European collections are only a part. They constitute the point of departure I chose for the reconstruction  – however partial, of what anthropological collecting meant in the era of colonialism. Extending upon Baloji’s own pursuit in piecing together some of the disconnected chains of knowledge, I researched further and opened new tracks for reconstructing the stories of these collections. In regard to Allers et Retours, Baloji built this work upon his collaboration with several researchers and museum actors, who, in the past years, have conducted extensive research on the skull of the Congolese chief Lusinga which I will expose here, while the work on the collection of the musée des Confluences constitutes the starting point for my own further inquiries.

Although the use of human remains as the material basis for the scientific demonstration of racial classifications seems to be a chapter of the past, vestiges of anthropometry, such as the studies on skulls and bones and the data generated from their measurements, still persist today. In fact, thousands of skulls collected during the imperial period slumber in the archives of European museums of natural history and ethnography as well as in the storerooms of hospitals, where scientific research was kept over the years. In the course of the 20th century these collections either fell into oblivion or were clumsily kept under closure by the institutions, thus revealing mixed feelings of postcolonial shame and helplessness. It also testifies of their reluctance to confront themselves with the far reaching implications the presence of these collections have for such varied disciplines as the natural and social sciences, medicine, philosophy etc. – knowledge systems that still bear the traces of their shaping in the heydays of colonialism.[2] The skulls in European collections open up a field, in which the borders of what it means to belong to society are constantly shifting: This starts with the problem of naming the skulls, thus addressing the boundaries between subject and object. Indeed, the skulls were integrated to the collections as scientific objects. In that sense, they were treated as informants about nature. But as human remains they equally refer to the histories of individuals in the tribulations of (colonial) violence and loss. Thus, they dispose of a liminal character as ‘boundary objects’.[3] Nowadays, these collections are sites on which conflicts over the history of colonial knowledge and disputes over their significations take place. It seems important to me to unravel the construction process bound to these human remains in order to understand and to transform the structuring impact by which they contribute to the consolidation of racialized and social hegemonies. What kind of relation does their presence in the archives establish and reproduce? And what kind of artistic strategies does Sammy Baloji, as a Congolese artist working in European ethnographic archives, conceive in the web of the research done around the archives in order to contest the symbolic separations that they operate?

Baloji’s photographs of Lusinga’s skull

The work Allers et retours, consists of a series of six photographs and a video. The photographs show the skull in the way anthropometric photography does, that is, they opt in their representation for the nearly exact reproduction of what seems to be a mere object of science.[4] The black and white prints depict the skull from the front, back, top, side and bottom, on a black fabric background. This multiplication of views in anthropometric photography followed the logic of generating information for a three-dimensional reconstruction. Black fabric was a common background material in 19th century anthropometric photography, often rendered visible in the picture. Similarly, in Baloji’s photographs, the materiality of the fabric has also a striking presence. The integration of the scale in the image points to the purpose of the photography and its inherent functionality in the anthropometric context. Aspiring to produce ‘objective knowledge’ by scientific means, scales and other measurement tools and inscriptions were frequently pictured in anthropometric photography. Furthermore, some of the photographs depict a small plate fixed onto the skull that indicates classificatory data. The photographic lighting underlines the physical features of the skull; it itself reflects the light in sharp contrast with the light-absorbing background. Baloji’s photographic series is organized horizontally. All together, the six images seem to diverge from average anthropometric photography only by their size: Expanding beyond the life-size dimension of the skull, the chosen format – with print dimensions of 123 x 153.5 cm – brings the images close to “fetishization”.

Fig. 1: Sammy Baloji, Aller et retours, 2009, six photographies, tirages jet d'encre pigmentaire, 123 x 153.5 cm. © musée du quai Branly, Paris.

Fig. 2: Sammy Baloji, Aller et retours, 2009, six photographies, tirages jet d'encre pigmentaire, 123 x 153.5 cm. © musée du quai Branly, Paris.

Fig. 3: Sammy Baloji, Aller et retours, 2009, six photographies, tirages jet d'encre pigmentaire, 123 x 153.5 cm. © musée du quai Branly, Paris.

Fig. 4: Sammy Baloji, Aller et retours, 2009, six photographies, tirages jet d'encre pigmentaire, 123 x 153.5 cm. © musée du quai Branly, Paris.

Fig. 5: Sammy Baloji, Aller et retours, 2009, six photographies, tirages jet d'encre pigmentaire, 123 x 153.5 cm. © musée du quai Branly, Paris.

Fig. 6: Sammy Baloji, Aller et retours, 2009, six photographies, tirages jet d'encre pigmentaire, 123 x 153.5 cm. © musée du quai Branly, Paris.

Such a nearly exact reproduction of the register in which anthropometric photography operates, tending to over-affirm its conventions on how to show the human skull, raises the question of the finality and pitfalls of such representation. At first sight, the photographs remind us of the Flemish tradition of the vanitas genre painting. These depict the human skull through means of strong contrast and light reflections as a metaphor for the futility of life. By this, they also speak of a human condition that is radically equal for all in regard to the certainty of death and the brevity of life. Skulls are overly present, although not as deceased individuals but as signs for the ephemeral materiality of earthly life in contrast to divine eternity. In Baloji’s photographs however, the systematic study of all sides of the skull, the inclusion of the measuring instruments and of the plate fixed onto the skull indicate that Baloji’s concern does not aim to be a general consideration about life’s shortness and the threatening omnipresence of death as it was in the Baroque time. While referring to a specific picturing tradition, Sammy Baloji rather points to the separation of humankind in modern ‘scientific racism’ that leans upon the systematic study and imaging of human skulls: Human beings were opposed to each other and hierarchically classified.[5] Baloji explains his proceeding as such: “In this project, I re-appropriate the scientific methodology of the 19th century in order to document the story of the chief Lusinga. With the first five photographs I follow the logic of this picturing. In contrast, the sixth picture only shows the black background fabric. In the ordering logic of anthropometric photography, this picture is supposed to represent the lower jaw. But it has disappeared. In this last image, the skull and the scale are absent and thus, it questions the wiping off of the ‘Others’ history; here it is the history of the chief. It is also about the absence or the failure of all theories on racial superiority, the failure of the anthropometric photography and its pretension to represent ‘Otherness’“.[6]

Despite Baloji’s insistence on the mise en abyme of the anthropometric mode of representation, one might still ask whether his strategy succeeds in revealing the failure of the anthropometric method, namely in telling the story of the chief Lusinga. Or does his work rather reproduce a (re)presentation that does not even raise the question of the subject’s absence? His photographs show the skull as mere object, subjected to the measuring gaze, thus seemingly repeating the dispossession of the skull by remaining in the same visual register. Nothing in the work refers in any discernible manner to Lusinga: Neither the title of the work, nor a text supplement, nor the accompanying video, provide further information. Lusinga’s story is not ‘documented’ rather its absence is purposefully repeated.

Sammy Baloji’s visual strategy has to be considered on the background of his own way of proceeding. The artist gained access to the skull by ways of camouflage: As Baloji recounts it, he was introduced to the museum as a natural history researcher and he continued to act as such when he entered the archives.[7] His role-playing expands further the fictitious scientificity of his aesthetic strategy, which follows the expectations of a ‘scientific’ treatment of the skull. Thus, Baloji’s proceeding can also be read as a strategy with both operating effects: Firstly, the picturing of the skull makes it present outside of the museum storeroom and thus disrupts the museum’s silence on its collections. Secondly, the repetition of the conventions of the genre shows the dispossession to which the skull is subjected in an anthropometrical framing. With the first five photographs, Baloji stays in the same visual register and points to the fact that Lusinga’s story remains erased by – what I would call – its ‘objectifying representation’. The violent erasure is reproduced in the present time and with it, the denial of the skulls burial and thus the recognition of the crime that brought them into the European archives is also evident.

Baloji purposefully interrupts the representational logic with the sixth image of the series. In it, the skull and the measuring instruments disappear from the picturing efforts, they however leave a trace: three folds on the black fabric. This image breaks with the tradition of anthropometric photography insofar as it represents the absence of its physical object – here the picture of the lower jaw. Furthermore, the folds can be read in the sense of Jacques Derrida as the impossibility of simple identity, as the refusal of transparency and sameness.[8] In that sense, one could argue that Lusinga’s story resurfaces in the ghostly absence of this image rather than in the representation of the excessively present physicality of the skull. The emptiness of the sixth image remains – so my reading – haunted by the missing dimension of the first five ones. The leftover of the skull’s objectification resides here, in the folds of the black fabric, as a trace that connects with the absent history. As I would argue, this picture allows the inscription of the skull’s untold story, as one that evades the anthropometric order and knowledge.

Fig. 7: Sammy Baloji: Aller et retours, Film still, 2009, © musée du quai Branly, Paris.

Fig. 8: Sammy Baloji: Aller et retours, Film still, 2009, © musée du quai Branly, Paris.

Fig. 8: Sammy Baloji: Aller et retours, Film still, 2009, © musée du quai Branly, Paris.

Part of the photographic series is a short two-channel video to be shown aligned with the photographs; at first sight the video equally operates with the absence of intelligible narratives. It shows a succession of very peaceful landscapes such as a sunset on a coast, small fishing boats in a calm harbour, the surface of the ocean seen through the coastal grass etc. The images on the two screens closely resemble each other. Shortly before the end, a Barbie doll appears briefly in front of a blurred silhouette. The video ends with the images of a performing group that rehearses dancing steps. No further keys are provided for reading the images. According to Baloji, the Barbie doll refers to the integration of white female figures in pictorial and popular culture practices in the Congo, especially with the figure of the much represented mermaid Mami Wata. The landscape images allude among other things to the major implication of the French port of Nantes in the transatlantic slave trade. What appeared to me at first as peaceful landscapes are in fact pictures of nodal points in the routes of the Middle Passage such as the sea in front of Gorée in Senegal, the coast at Pointe Noire in Congo, a harbour in Mozambique and images of the French coast. Finally, the rehearsing folklore group executes some steps of the so-called Congo Minuet, which is part of today’s folklore of Nantes.[9] In fact, all of the images point out the transatlantic circulations of objects and cultural practices established since the slave trade.

An unsettling sound however disturbs the achieved visual harmony of the video; it is a reinterpretation of the Congo Minuet by Paris-based Congolese guitarist Pytshens Kambilo.

His musical interpretation sharply contrasts with the images by running progressively out of sync, thus giving a dimension of anxiety and loss to the harmonious images of silent landscapes. Kambilo’s music unsettles their seemingly calm surfaces without establishing a readable narration. No keys are provided to decipher the signification of the video – even the title of the work Aller et retours remains more than vague in its allusion to the slave trade and colonialism, the travelling of objects and cultural practices. As with the photographs, the video alludes to an irreducible historic dimension and requires from the viewers to actively search for inquiries rather than to offer an immediate accessibility. By choosing music as the dimension that transports the anxiety of history made invisible, Baloji makes yet another reference to techniques of immaterial transmission of knowledge employed by enslaved Africans on the Middle Passage and in enslavement without revealing these references to the non initiated spectator.

The resurfacing of Lusinga’s skull

If Baloji’s works point at the absence and the erasure of subjectivity, it does this precisely so as not to tell a story that could be reconstructed, starting from the Lusinga’s skull. Rather, the deliberate focus on absence opens breaches in which further research can be inscribed. The missing links and the haunting stories of those excluded, both call for the activation on the side of the spectator. In fact, Baloji’s work builds bridges between the research made by several individuals without integrating them into his work in any kind of documentary forms. Sammy Baloji repeatedly crosses his proceeding with these researchers, which preceded his own work on Lusinga’s skull and sustained it. It is precisely in these interconnections that the fragmented process becomes visible, through which several people and institutions in the world contribute to unfold the trajectories of the skull. The gradual excavation and gathering of these elements show the necessarily invented consistency of the traced stories and the fact, that without the simultaneous inquiries undertaken by different people, not even Lusinga’s skull itself would have resurfaced today. In that sense, it is the interaction of these coinciding quests that give sense to Arjun Appadurai’s formulation of the “social life of things”:[10] The resurgence of the skull is literally the product of people working at different places in the world, re-according attention to a reified human remain, that was “lost” in museum storerooms for decades precisely because nobody bothered to look into it.

Allen Roberts, anthropologist and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, has published a book about the colonial practices in Congo based on extensive field work undertaken in the region of Lake Tanganyika from the 1970s until today.[11] A couple of years later, in Belgium, the anthropologist and historian Maarten Couttenier undertook ample studies about the history of physical anthropology in the Royal Museum for Central Africa (MRAC) in Tervuren.[12] The author dedicates a chapter of his book Congo tentoongesteld to the Belgian military man Emile Storms who coordinated the attack in which Lusinga was killed, and places him in the context of colonial collecting in Congo. Both researchers played a central role in putting Sammy Baloji in contact with the story of Lusinga and his skull.

Today, Lusinga’s skull lies in the Department of Paleontology of the Royal Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels where it had been placed in 1964 when the physical anthropology section of MRAC closed down in 1960. For decades, nobody took interest in the skull until Allen Roberts, in the context of his research about Tabwa art, asked his colleague Boris Wastiau, a senior researcher at the MRAC between 1996 and 2007, to localize its whereabouts. Wastiau tracked down the skull and found it in its present location. In the meantime, Maarten Couttenier had also found it in the framework of his doctoral research; he went to see the skull and took photographs of it that were then published together with his text about physical anthropology in Belgium.[13] In turn, Couttenier introduced Sammy Baloji to the institution enabling the artist to realize the photographic series of the skull. Originally Baloji had come in search for connections between Congolese and Belgian history, and thus began with a very different starting point.

This whole chain of people in quest for the skull interrupted what had been the status quo for years: As Allen Roberts underlines, for decades, nobody other than people living along the south-western shores of Lake Tanganyika, where a chiefdom of Lusinga’s name continues to exist, had ever heard of his name. Nor had anyone paid any particular attention to the display cabinet in MRAC showing artefacts from the region and a few of Storms’ personal belongings. Furthermore, critical museum presentations of artefacts addressing colonial entanglements were faced with serious obstacles: For instance, Allen Roberts conceived a major exhibition and a book entitled The Rising of a New Moon: A Century of Tabwa Art, that was shown in the US in 1986.[14] The same year, the exhibition travelled to the MRAC; it was the first visiting exhibition seen there since 1927. On the information labels accompanying the pieces, the museum did not permit the mention of how the various sculptures – once owned by Lusinga, Kansabala or Tabwa people – were collected during Storms’ expeditions in 1884-1885.

The museum accepted to display pieces of cultural grandeur – but not the perspectives that critically reflect the context of their acquisition and their trajectories. The meshing of the aforementioned inquiries – consisting of archival research and oral history conducted on the shores of Lake Tanganyika by Allen Roberts – brought together fragments of the story of the assassination of Congolese chief Lusinga and of the later objectification of his skull; stories that had slumbered in oblivion finally resurfaced.[15]

Lusinga’s skull on his way from Congo to Brussels

The following reconstruction closely follows Couttenier ’s deductive account from his studies of the archival material. He writes that in the second half of the 19th century chief Lusinga resided in the Congolese mountains west of Mpala. He was reputed for his military power and his possession and use of firearms that eventually posed a threat to the aspirations of the Belgian colonial military man Emile Storms. The latter had been sent to Congo in 1882 to reinforce the fourth expedition of the Association Internationale Africaine (AIA).[16] He was about to extend the sphere of influence of the colonial post that he created in the region in 1883. As Couttenier shows, because Lusinga was a menace to the Congolese allies of the colonizers, the latter riposted by a deadly attack in Kansabala that was executed with the assistance of the German AIA-member Paul Reichard and 150 Congolese soldiers on December 4, 1884.[17] The chief was killed by a gunshot, his head was cut off and carried around on a spear, while the attack on the village continued, leading to the death of 50 to 60 people and the imprisonment of 125 others.[18]

Lusinga’s death itself was not only the result of a military conflict in a colonial context, but it was also inscribed with another ideological legitimization. His death took place against the background of the Berlin Africa-Conference (1884/85), by which the Congo Free State was confirmed as private property of the Belgian King Leopold II. The fourteen European imperial powers (including the US) gathered in Berlin from 15 November 1884 to 26 February 1885 and agreed among themselves about the rules regarding further colonial expansion in Africa. To gain acceptance for the agreement, they declared to pursue the ending of the slave trade by African powers.[19] This very last point – the ideological accompaniment on the imperialist road map – was stressed in order to legitimize Lusinga’s murder. “Lusinga, a real plague for the Marungu, was the most important supplier of slaves for the Arabs. Hence, his death caused great joy in the surroundings.”[20] Presented that way, a military act of colonial power expansion appears as a ‘humanitarian intervention’ pursuing the pacification of local conflicts. The role of the colonial presence in the conflicts is however by no means mentioned.

This tells explicitly about the entanglements of colonial violence with a humanist discourse especially if we are to consider the ethnographic hunger for collecting objects; this was legitimized with the purpose of testifying for allegedly disappearing cultures once exposed to colonial contact. The so-called ‘salvage paradigm’ was not only limited to objects of material culture. The meticulous documentation of the cultures of the colonized went hand in hand with a rush for the classification of natural species like plants and animals. It developed simultaneously with the rapid expansion of racist classifications of human beings themselves. In that sense, the colonizers sent by the AIA were encouraged to collect any kind of these ‘objects’: plants, animals, religious and cultural objects and – in the same breath – human skulls and bones. Further, they were provided with very precise instructions for collecting.[21] Couttenier cites the letter of the general-secretary of the AIA, based in Brussels, in which he asked Storms in July 1883 to bring skulls back “if you can without offending the suppositious feelings of your people. If possible, choose skulls of individuals who belong to a well defined race and carefully note the place of origin of the people, and also their age if that is possible.”[22]

Institutional life story of a skull

The treatment of human remains beyond death is part of the symbolic organization in which belonging, inclusion and exclusion from the societies of the living is stated. Rather than being of concern for the dead, the practices around bones in fact affect the realm of the living. The signification attached to the dead changes considerably. For instance, in relation to the discussion about the anthropological collections, one can say that if skulls from colonial provenience could have been exposed openly in ethnographic museums all over Europe until recently, their recent denomination as ‘human remains’ introduces a category, by which their treatment as mere objects becomes problematic.

In that sense, Lusinga’s skull disposes of an institutional life story, deployed through the delaminating of its trajectory through the scientific and museum institutions. Together with two other skulls (the ones of Maribou and Mpampa killed likewise), Storms took Lusinga’s skull to Brussels as a trophy when he returned to Belgium in 1886.[23] In Brussels, the skull did not stay a simple symbol of military victory for long. Rather it became the object of an anthropometric study by the physical anthropologist Emile Houzé, co-founder of the Anthropological Society of Brussels (1882). In Houzé’s study, presented at the Society of Anthropology in Brussels in 1886,[24] there appear close linkages between colonial domination and the internal struggles of the young Belgian nation-state: Couttenier shows that Houzé started his career studying skulls of Belgian population. He was eager to prove with cranial measurements and the recording of physical properties, the existence of a Flemish and a Walloon ‘race’, the former as weak and condemned to disappear in the struggle for life, the latter furnished with all the necessary characteristics to dominate.[25] Social conflicts in an ongoing nation-building process were here transposed into the technical and alleged value-free vocabulary of anthropometry. The conflict-laden relationships between Flemish and Walloon also resurfaced in the Congo. Based on the diaries of Storms and the Flemish missionary Amaat Vyncke, who stayed at the colonial post after Storms’ departure, Couttenier shows that their respective nationalist imaginations impacted their recordings of the colonial situation. Both remember the music played when Storms left: The latter accounted with emotion that he heard the Belgian national anthem, the Brabançonne, while the former wrote that it was The Flemish Lion.[26]

According to Maarten Couttenier and Allen Roberts, the location of the skull cannot be established with certainty after its arrival in Brussels.[27] Roberts doubts that it was ever kept at Storms’ private house. Photographs of Storms’ living room show a number of objects that he had brought back from the Congo exposed on the walls. There were notably two “Tabwa cephalomorph” wood carvings that today count as part of the ‘masterpieces’ of the MRAC.[28] The skull arrived together with these artefacts at the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren in 1930, when Storms’ widow gave his collections to the museum after his death. By that time, private colonial collections had converged to the museum and contributed to the constitution of the self-representation of the young and unstable Belgian nation-state.[29] Except for the exhibition “Exit Congo museum” in 2000 at the MRAC[30], in which the context of colonial appropriation for the exhibits was mentioned, the pieces related to Lusinga’s lineage remained on display in the permanent exhibition of the museum until its closing in 2013 without the slightest reference to their trajectory, thus favouring an a-historical ethnic classification.

When the anthropology department of the museum definitively closed down in 1964, the physical anthropology collections including Lusinga’s skull were partly given to the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences where they still are today. Beyond being a testimony of colonial history, the institutional transition of the skull also established a chain link to the discipline of natural history. Human beings are under this perspective apprehended as primates. Although the ongoing anthropological research undertaken by this institution changed its message and promotes today the sameness of humankind instead of its differences, the trajectories of the human remains on which the studies are executed, however, remain unaddressed. Consequently, this prolongs the history of their dehumanization, and violent appropriation in the colonial context.

Between incorporation and re-locating

Against the background of the aforementioned story of Lusinga, Allers et Retours seems to point twice at the colonial erasure of an individual biography: firstly, in stressing the impossibility of inscribing the story of a person into anthropometric photography and also, in slyly using the figure of the researcher in order to reveal pictures of the skull from the museum. With the latter aspect, further perspectives open up through the connections that the artist establishes between his own work, the findings of the researchers and the people living on the shores of lake Tanganyika. As in earlier projects,[31] Baloji plans a trip to the region of Kansabala together with Couttenier, in which they will take the series Allers et retours and Couttenier’s research with them. In doing so, they enable the material that had permitted the writing of history in Europe to travel.[32] Not only does this reverse trip intend to reconnect these stories, but it will also allow people to comment, react and reconstruct history on the basis of these representations made of their disappeared relatives, representations that were shaped in Europe in their absence. I would argue that Sammy Baloji’s work establishes connecting bridges rather than re-establishing a pre-existing memory through the “(re-)acquisition of the representation of the self“,[33] that had been profoundly troubled by colonization and its consequences. Selfhood thus changes through the process of commemoration. It is doubtful that an anthropometric depiction of the skull can lead to collective remembering of the chief’s murder in the region where he was executed, whereas the act of bringing the images and the research to the region operates in the sense of reconnection: Although this does not ultimately unsettle the institution’s command over the skull, it relocates the main focus of the work on the exchanges that the journey allows. In doing so it also contributes to the creation of the conditions for appropriation through the use of the resources provided by the European institutions that regularly invite Baloji to work on their collections.

In fact, Sammy Baloji’s inquiries about the entangled histories of the formerly colonizing and colonized people coincided with the beginning of a critical examination of the collections on the side of the institutions themselves. Artists are invested with a special role, since more and more ethnographic and natural history museums invite artists – especially from formerly colonized countries – to work around their collections and to bring about ideas for their display. (See Susanne Leeb’s contribution in this issue). Baloji’s career is largely marked by this tendency: In the past years he has worked extensively around and with colonial archives and had been widely supported by institutions or individuals in the institutions. The works considered in this text are all based on institutional collaborations, i.e. with Musée des Confluences, the Royal Museum for Central Africa,[34] and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. Baloji also collaborated with the musée du quai Branly (MQB) in Paris, where his work was shown in the framework of the Photoquai biennale of 2007. Further, in 2008 he was selected to be part of the MQB programme financed by the Total Foundation, which aims is to support “contemporary non-European artists to propose creation projects based on their own perception”.[35] As a result, the museum acquired his work Allers et retours.

Fig. 9: Sammy Baloji, Aller et retours, 2009, © musée du quai Branly, Paris.

The institutional interests that are the backdrop set for Baloji’s artistic interventions are complex and heterogeneous: If the opening of the archives to artists can initiate critical exchange, there is a considerable risk that the institutions will appropriate these works cosmetically and evacuate fundamental power considerations. Still, these collaborations are often based on a sincere endeavour from the institutions to find ‘solutions’ for their problematic collections or to pursue the broadening of their scope beyond the classical ethnographic collections. Hal Foster refers to this tendency when he states that “new site-specific work threatens to become a museum category, one in which the institution imports critique for purposes of inoculation (against an immanent critique, one undertaken by the institution, within the institution)”.[36] This tension between a theme pursued by the artist, the support and work conditions that the European institutions offer, and the fact that most of the works comment on the status of the collections without disposing of the power to change their display or handling, also accompanies Sammy Baloji’s work.

The Lyon collection

The second of Baloji’s work Untitled (“Passages”) from 2010 dedicated to skulls in European collections is equally the result of an invitation by a museum: The former director of the Musée des Confluences in Lyon, Michel Coté, invited Sammy Baloji in 2010 to work on the collection of the Natural History Museum.[37] With the freedom to choose the topic of his work and assisted by the museum staff, Baloji opted for one of the skull collections consisting mainly of 260 skulls of the former ‘modern skull collection’, a small part of the approximately 3000 skulls that the museum possesses.[38] One fully grasps the scope of this unburied graveyard by reading the brief descriptions of the documentation on the collection: Left aside the “modern Rhône-Alpine skull collection”, the collections are classified as followed: Old skulls from Lyonnais graveyards, pre-historical skulls of France, old and modern skulls from Europe, old skulls from the Canary Islands, old and new skulls from the Caucasian brought to the museum at the end of Chantre’s mission in 1881,[39] old and new skulls from the Middle East, pre-historical and mummified skulls from Egypt brought to the museum on the occasion of the missions Chantre 1899 and Lortet 1907,[40] modern skulls from Africa, modern skulls from North-America and Oceania, particularly from New Caledonia as well as different casts of skulls.[41] Perfectly in line with scientific conjuncture at the end of the 19th century, the aspiration of the collection seems to have consisted in documenting the human skull in the most exhaustive manner possible through time and space, creating thus the material foundations for racial theories.

As Baloji pertinently points out in his photographic work, the obsession with skulls did not exclusively focus on the study of colonized people. Objectification played a role in both colonial expansion and class domination. In choosing the “modern Rhône-Alpin skull collection” for his work, Baloji thus broadens the question of the denied subject-status beyond colonized people.

Reconnecting across scientific lines of division

The large format images that Baloji has produced around the collection deal soberly with death and unequal regimes of commemoration as well as with the role faith plays for the constitution of communities. In juxtaposing two pairs of images, the Untitled (“Passages”) series focuses on the idea that human societies define themselves through their relation with the dead.

Fig. 10: Sammy Baloji, Sans titre, 2010, courtesy: musée des Confluences–Département du Rhône, © P. Ageneau (musée des confluences)

Fig. 11: Sammy Baloji, Sans titre, 2010, courtesy: musée des Confluences–Département du Rhône, © P. Ageneau (musée des confluences)

The first two pictures show in a large format (132.5 x 200 cm) the splendid intérieur of a church, the Basilique de Fourvières in the city of Lyon. While one photograph emphasizes the saintly architecture, the abundance of gold and light creating the solemn surrounding for the gathering of people for a religious service, the other focuses on a sculpture of Mary surrounded by marble plates commemorating the names of defunct persons and invocating Maria’s mercy. The initials of the relatives of the deceased are equally listed, thus establishing a spiritual contact that transcends death.

Rather than just pointing at the richness of the décor, the photographs remind us that the dead are meant to remain members of society and part of the Christian community. “The community of the dead and the living presupposes that the defunct persons are treated like persons”, underlines Arnaud Esquerre in The bones, the ashes and the state.[42] Oblivion is impeded by the symbolic inscription in an imagined community, allowing commemoration. Burial rituals are therefore basic markers of social belonging, including the broad sense of marking the shared condition of humanness.[43] As a consequence, the social practices of the living around the deceased ultimately establish the idea of their society and its limits. The ostentatious visibility of the costly commemorative slabs confirms the social status of the buried; the religious surrounding reaffirms the community in faith, underlining its own hegemonic status through its richness.

Fig. 12: Sammy Baloji, Sans titre, 2010, courtesy: musée des Confluences–Département du Rhône, © P. Ageneau (musée des confluences)

Fig. 13: Sammy Baloji, Sans titre, 2010, courtesy: musée des Confluences–Département du Rhône, © P. Ageneau (musée des confluences)

By contrast, the other two photos show a neon lit archive room with a long range of clinical white shelves and a seemingly infinite amount of drawers. Here again, the two photos complement and specify each other: In the first one, the closed drawers conceal their content and point at an orderly archival system, the classifying of hundreds of objects, though completely opaque to the spectator since the labels on the drawers are empty. Regularity and perfection of classification prevail. Also, nothing reveals a specific content for the shelves, whose only function remains strict classification while ignoring the qualities of the classified. In direct opposition, the second photo shows the content of the drawers: Arranged on boards in front of the shelves are exposed hundreds of human skulls. Here again, the viewpoint of the picture gives the impression that shelves extend infinitely and the number of skulls never ends. The human remains are displayed in groups of three – an organisation that seems to belong to the classification system but nothing to do with the skulls themselves. Every now and then, one suspects physical criteria to be the basis for their grouping. Some wear the marks of measurements and studies that were undertaken on them; hair is left on others; some are remodelled in order to reconstruct a face… None of them display any personal information.

If death is, as shown with the first two photographs, framed by symbolic acts that give value to the dead and confirm her or his belonging to the community – and thus showing the transcendental dimension of faith – the second photographic series shows no traces of the individuals, whose skulls are exhibited. On the contrary, their depersonalisation and their inclusion according to a classificatory logic could not be more striking. To deprive these skulls of their names, their rights to be buried and of any spiritual dimension, casts them out of society. They become part of a collection and are, from then on, subjected to a scientific logic that – in seeking to study humanity, turns the skulls into mere material of study. The religious dimension appears here to be crucial as it provides the sphere by which belonging can be marked beyond death. In direct contrast to this idea, human skulls in anthropology were – as the anthropologist Ricardo Roque explains – “to emerge as naked physicality dissociated from any religious connotation of sacredness, or from the Western imagery of death.”[44] Baloji chose a considerably bigger format for the second two images (200 x 298 cm) than for the first two ones and with this artistic decision, he insists that the cold classificatory logic of the anthropometric collection “overshadows” the solemn harmony of the “official society,” that is of the Christian community.

On one of these photographs, Baloji intervened with the image with his handwriting and added some scarce personal data. Based on the information he found on the data forms that accompanied the skulls, he explains in the exhibition text:

My intervention consists in restoring a face to the skulls, trying to reveal a human presence in what is reduced to be a simple object in a collection; to replace the view in the empty eye-sockets in order to change the gaze that one could have on them. I base myself on the details I encountered on the data forms that accompanied the skulls in the museum, like their name, their provenance, the colour of their eyes, their profession.[45]

Baloji’s intervention seeks to bridge the separation, which was created through the objectification of the skulls. In adding a certain number of criteria from the data forms onto the skulls, he suggests that the humanness of the dead could possibly be recovered. In doing so, we step on a very slippery ground of what these data forms are. In fact, what makes the “human presence” that Baloji speaks of? Can it be found in the available information contained on the forms such as the profession, the eye colour, the name and sex etc.?[46]

As a category, profession indicates social status. In opposition to the splendid grave plates in the church, mostly marginal professions are indicated on the forms, as if to contribute to a scientific diagnosis of inferiority and thus translating, in the context of the formation of the European nation-state in the 19th century, a social order into biological terms.[47] Indications of eye-colour, origin, and profession are no neutral description of someone’s appearance. It is not fortuitous that this information is also included on identity cards and police files. This type of information is double-edged since it aspires to make an individual identifiable and to define her or him through imposed categories.[48] The data contained on the forms was collected for anthropometrical purposes and was part of a social and racial differentiation scheme. The use Baloji makes of it, as basis for the minimal reconstruction of who a person was, reveals the impossible task of simply resorting to the information available in these archives.

It is precisely this data that made the Lyon collection so fruitful for the anthropometric research: The work of authors like Paul Broca, a major 19th century doctor and anthropologist who used cranial measurements and particularly the designation of the volume of the brain to establish a racial hierarchy among human beings, was crucial for a generation of scientists. The physical anthropologist Léonce Manouvrier declares on the skulls:

This collection is particularly precious for the craniologists because it contains several hundreds of skulls of which we know the origins, the sex, the age, the profession, the last illness and sometimes medical observations of the subjects. Thus, the Museum of Lyon possesses a research field that is so far unique in France, but that is still necessary to enlarge some studies of great interest to be carried out fruitfully.[49]

Based on this declaration, the indications on the form do not appear as the criteria for ‘humanness’. In a recent study, Roque underlines exactly this contradiction inherent to the anthropometrical study of skull collections in the 19th century. He states that it is the written information that conveys the skulls their validity for scientific use: Though the skulls were conceived to be direct informers, pure materiality that led to an empirically-based objectivity of results, they only gained value in combination with text, testifying that they could be used as the material source for the researched information. The validation of the results themselves, as the author shows, depended on the liability of the accompanying textual indications.[50] Whereas the pretended value-free consideration of depersonalized objects of science prevailed for more than a century, with Baloji’s intervention of directly handwriting these traces onto the photographs, these textual archives became highly loaded entry points for the reconstruction of the stories of the deceased.

Baloji’s proceeding can be read on yet another level. He inscribes himself as a subject in relation to the skulls and thus establishes a personal link: “To write with my own hand their identity is a proceeding that bring them closer to me. The question here is not about labelling, but entering in a dialogue; to break through that distance with words, by means of invocations.”[51] In this case, it is not the presentation of the factual information  – present on the data sheet, that allows the skulls to recover a sense of “humanity”, but Baloji’s performative gesture  – his inscription as a subject by the act of writing on the photographs. He posits a human commonality through the relationship he performatively establishes with the deceased and thus introduces the idea of a possible dialogue beyond death. Interestingly enough, the artist frames his intervention further. He affirms also to introduce a transcendental dimension with his act. He describes his way of doing “a religious one – in the etymological sense – a link with the hereafter.”[52] In fact, Baloji points to the symbolic actions societies perform while referring to their former members in that they recognize them beyond death. In this way, the present is defined by the idea of the past that the societies invent for themselves. Here, they establish the boundaries of belonging. Both of Baloji’s approaches – his insistence in bringing himself as a subject and in pointing at the symbolic transcendental community – challenge the objectification of the scientific study of the skulls that is produced and presupposed.[53]

Skulls as fuel for science

Here again, the gaps suggested in Baloji’s work indicate that further research about the seldom exposed collections can start: Although Sammy Baloji worked with archival documents and with the help of the museum staff, neither does his work provide information on the Lyon collection nor the context of its constitution. Nevertheless, his trip to the storage rooms leads us right to the history of scientific racism, a paradigm in which racial medicine and colonial rule were closely linked, reinforced and justified each other. In that context the skulls acquired the status of the “paradigmatic anthropological object”.[54] The study of skulls as a basis for racial classification ultimately refers back to the late Enlightenment scientist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840),[55] In the wake of the rise of scientific racism, collecting human skulls obtained scientific meaning in the second half of the 19th century. A whole variety of methodologies of conservation, classification and description was necessary in order to transform human skulls into objects of collections. As Roque shows in his study of a skull collection in Coimbra,

“the anthropological objectifications of the human cranium pivoted around the inter-dependency between specific physical objects – ‘skulls’ – and particular abstract categories – ‘races’. The belief that the former were the best mediators for discussing racial affinity and ancestry was at the core of anthropology’s authority. Human skulls were messengers of human races, and only anthropologists knew how to make that message heard.”[56]

Consequently, the research field of craniology boomed in the second half of the 19th century to such an extent that the number of acquired skulls and of anthropologists (which meant back then physical anthropologists) could be counted in the thousands.[57]

Even though today most natural history and ethnographic museums have removed skulls from their displays, the archives of these institutions still shelter thousands of human remains. They refer to the history of scientific racism and raise the question of redefining their status in order to break with the impact they continue to have with their uncontested preservation. The mere fact that human remains can be classified as part of natural history indicates the sort of control the modern scientific discourse disposed of in defining hierarchical orders between “things”. Although the proof of racial differences has stopped to be a research aim in recent times, with the UNESCO Declaration on Race in 1950 and the following Statement on the Nature of Race and Racial Differences in 1952, the scientific principles that were elaborated prior to the adoption of these statements have not ceased to operate.[58] Furthermore, “the elevation of scientific discourse as a major component in the project of modernity and the Eurocentrism inherent in the Western scientific enterprise, has aided both the development of racial hierarchies and the creation of the long-enduring myth of science as an impartial, pure and value-free-endeavour, superior to other peoples’ modes of thinking.”[59]

Tracking the Lyon collection

Following some of the tracks opened up by Sammy Baloji, I further inquired about the establishment, the ideologies and the inherent contradictions of the Lyon skull collection he worked on. I found information at the library of the Museum for Natural History in Paris. In 1982, two scientists published the complete tables of the 19th century skulls from France that were in the collection.[60] They mentioned the creation of the anthropological laboratory in the Museum for Natural History of Lyon in 1874. Ernest Chantre, a researcher in pre-historical archaeology, obtained its directorship and received upon his request the collection of skulls from the regions surrounding Lyon from the faculty of medicine.[61] In tune with the dominant Zeitgeist of the moment, the Doyen Professor Louis Charles Emile Lortet (1836-1909) from the faculty pushed these gifts. Between December 1876 and May 1881, 348 skulls are officially registered in the museum collections. Simultaneously, the anthropology department of the museum gained increasing recognition and Chantre was promoted to Vice-director of the museum in 1877.[62]

Numerous scientists established their careers on the basis of objectified human remains throughout the 19th century. The anthropology department of Lyon became widely known, so did the names and the professional biographies of these men executing the research and holding representative functions. When it comes to the skulls however, the only information available is that which was considered to be of scientific value. The study does not give any information about the ways of acquisition, forms of consent on behalf of the dead individuals or their families to transform the body into an object of scientific studies, and if there were any, what would the reasons for this have been. Later, Didier Berthet, in charge of the Science of the Earth collections and Hervé Groscarret, in charge of Strategy and Communication at the musée des Confluences, told me that at the end of the 19th century, bodies that were not claimed by families were handed over to hospitals to conduct research – and later given to the museum.[63] This information together with that collected on the data forms lead us to think that it was probably the bodies of the most precarious members of society, which were transformed into objects of science. Finally, a further glimpse into the physical descriptions of the skulls made by the scientists reveals that they were also accompanied by highly subjective and accidental annotations, such as random statements about resemblances with living people or aesthetic judgements which equally claimed scientific status.

Through the gaps of classification

In contrast to the absent information about the dead, the documentation of the collection informs us that the skulls were registered and numbered chronologically when they entered the museum. Though the documents of this period are lost, the museum possesses a second official register dating from 1911. In it are 399 skulls accounted for and it indicates the vivid exchanges between the research departments of anthropological museums and academic institutions all over Europe in enumerating the absences of certain skulls. In January 1929 the register was checked and 77 skulls were reported missing without anyone knowing where they could have disappeared.[64] By 1950 at the time of a second count of the skulls, another eleven skulls had disappeared. Between 1950 and 1982, the publication date of the quoted study, two more skulls had disappeared, leaving behind a collection of 296 skulls[65] Finally, Didier Berthet told me that 260 skulls only remain in the museum today.[66] Despite the precise classification, listing and statistical methods being at the core of the measuring obsession in craniology, the seemingly orderly collections remained porous. Skulls got “lost” or were mistaken for one another; they could not be identified anymore. Some of the losses are the consequence of the extensive circulation of skulls between the museums at the end of the 19th century and which linked a great number of institutions together. The establishment of scientific racism was an enterprise in which scientific institutions collaborated Europe-wide. As Roque underlines “Museums became central nodes of long-distance networks through which artefacts, skeletons, and skulls were circulated as ‘collections’.[67] The gaps in the chain of conservation and preservation show that materiality cannot be fully fixed and gets lost. They indicate at its own failure at controlling it. Still, a shift cannot occur as long as there is no far-reaching collective reflection on ways of relating to skulls and human remains present in the scientific and museum collections. These noted disappearances appear to be the ironic failures of the classificatory pretention of the “exact sciences”.


In a field that increasingly recurs to artists as problem-solvers to the “unease” that the European colonial collections currently face, Sammy Baloji’s work however does not execute the research for the institutions. Instead, his employed artistic strategy points at the erasure of biographies, the ongoing objectification and the lack of attention of the institutions towards their colonial history. To re-establish the status of people appears to be a major challenge in order to break with practices of dehumanisation, which provides the basis for domination. The two discussed works focus on the difficulties or even the impossibilities of this pursuit. The means employed to grasp the irreducible leftover from the liminal character of the skulls reach a dead-end; historical violence becomes obvious. In fact, the reconstruction of the institutional lives and stories of the skulls can here trigger further research into the hidden parts of the constructions in our present time. Further, the re-inscription of the objectified human remains in present commemoration processes makes the absence productive. Formerly impeded remembering processes can emerge through the creation of links across disconnected chains of knowledge. As a subject Baloji refers to the obliterated stories of people, thus inscribing their absence in today’s society. In that sense, the present that cautions erasure through acceptance and maintenance is not more than the product of a historical construction process, in which parts of its former members are missing. Our present is therefore damaged.

From then on, the reconstruction of the histories, which turned the skull into a ‘naked physicality’ becomes possible. It is not accidental that a striking number of current inquiries on human remains kept in European museum archives take the form of a crime instruction, bringing together clues of its execution. The recurrent term ‘headhunting’ refers thus to both the European rush for skulls during the imperial era, as well as the reconstruction of the very same process.[68] Because of the biased archives and the lack of information,[69] the reconstruction and interpretations of these often untold stories only occur in fragmented ways. Both works Baloji’s and my own findings recur to this procedure; they suggest that the maintenance of the skull collections complies with the approval of an epistemic order that the collections established in the first place. As long as the historical fundaments of the ‘exact sciences’ are not deemed to be questionable, this filiation is authorized and will persist in the present.

*If not indicated otherwise, all translations were made by L.A.


1. Elisabeth Alexander, “The Venus Hottentot”, in Black Venus: Sexualized Savages, Primal Fears, and Primitive Narratives in French, ed. T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 16. [↑]

2. Waltraud Ernst, “Introduction: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Race, Science, and Medicine”, in Race, Science, Medicine, 1700-1960, eds. Waltraud Ernst, Bernard Harris (London, New York: Routlegde, 1999), 1-29. [↑]

3. Susan Leigh Star, James R. Griesemer, “Institutional Ethnology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary objects. Amateurs and professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology”, 1907-39, [1988], in ed. Mario Biagoli, The Science Studies Reader (New York, London, 1999), 505-524. [↑]

4. Although there are a huge number of instructions to explain the photographic proceeding ,in order to homogenize the results and make them comparable, there is however not one single norm that is employed. The inclusion of the scale, its standardized distance to the object, and the choice of several perspectives are however part of the requirements. Christine Hanke, Zwischen Auflösung und Fixierung. Zur Konstitution von “Rasse” und “Geschlecht” in der physischen Anthropologie um 1900, (Bielefeld: transcript, 2007), 212, 217. [↑]

5. Hanke, 215. [↑]

6. Email from Sammy Baloji to the author, L.A., 15 March 2011. [↑]

7. Telephone interview with Sammy Baloji, 31 July 2011. [↑]

8. Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, Translation Barbara Johnson (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1981), 229. [↑]

9. In the French city of Nantes and the surrounding areas, the Minuet is still alive as a dance, often without any reference to the city’s past as a slave harbour. [↑]

10. Arjun Appadurai, ed. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 3–63. [↑]

11. Allen Roberts, A Dance of Assassins: Performing Early Colonial Hegemony in the Congo, (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2012). [↑]

12. Maarten Couttenier, Congo tentoongesteld: een geschiedenis van de Belgische antropologie en het museum van Tervuren (1882-1925), (Acco Uitgeverij cv, 2005); “Fysieke antropologie in België en Congo 1883-1964”, in De exotische mens. Andere culturen als amusement, eds. Bert Sliggers & Patrick Allegaert, (Tielt: Lannoo, 2009), 96-113. Id, Als muren spreken: het Museum van Tervuren, 1910-2010, French translation Benoït Albinovanus, Koninklijk Museum voor Midden-Afrika, 2010. [↑]

13. Couttenier, 2009. [↑]

14. The Rising of a New Moon: A Century of Tabwa Art, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, January-March 1986, University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, Michigan, April-August 1986. (Book and exhibition). [↑]

15. I thank Allen Roberts for this reconstruction. [↑]

16. Couttenier 2005, 74. Founded in 1876 by king Leopold II, this Association provided the structure for the colonial politics in the Congo for years. It combined a humanist discourse with a strict economic and political programme, aspiring to define spheres of influence and profitable enterprises. [↑]

17. Parts of them should later attack Storms in his way back to Belgium. [↑]

18. Couttenier 2005, 75. [↑]

19.  See: Elikia M’Bokolo, Afrique Noire. Histoire et Civilisations: Du XIX siècle à nos jours (Paris, Hatier, 1995) 278-282. [↑]

20. E. Jansen and A. Cateau, “Storms, Émile”, Les Belges au Congo, Notices biographiques, dl.1, (1908), 538. [↑]

21. Instructions for collecting became remnant since the middle of the 19th century. Cf. Hanke 2007, 14 and Regina Sarreiter, “Ich glaube, dass die Hälfte ihres Museums gestohlen ist”, in Was wir sehen. Bilder, Stimmen, Rauschen. Zur Kritik anthropometrischen Sammelns, eds. Anette Hoffmann, Britta Lange, Regina Sarreiter, (Basel: Basler Afrika Bibliographien, 2012) 43-60. [↑]

22. “Letter from the secretary general Strauch to Storms, 20 July 1883”, in Émile Storms, Journal de la Station de Mpala fondée le 4 mai 1883, Archive. History of the Colonial Times in the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, quoted in Couttenier 2005, 75. It is interesting to note–as Couttenier does–that this hunger for skulls led Congolese people to the suspicion that the colonisers were cannibals. Meanwhile the Europeans drew a frightening image of the Congolese that depicted them as cannibals, with their own practice of collecting human remains, especially skulls; they favoured the idea that they ate the killed persons. [↑]

23. Couttenier 2005, 78. [↑]

24. Émile Houzé, “Les tribus occidentales du lac Tanganika”, Bulletin de la Société d’Anthropologie de Bruxelles, V, 1886-1887) 43-64, Plate I. [↑]

25. Fleming and Walloon people are members of the two predominant cultural and linguistic groups of modern Belgium. The Flemings, who constitute more than half of the Belgian population, speak Netherlandic (Flemish) and live mainly in the north and west. The Walloons, who make up about one-third of the Belgian population, speak dialects of French and live in the south and east. Much of the history of modern Belgium consists of the struggle of the country’s Flemish-speaking community to gain equal status for its language and to acquire its fair share of political influence and economic opportunity in a society that was dominated largely by Walloons after the country achieved independence in 1830. In the 20th century the Flemings were successful in obtaining legislation to further these aims, but their linguistic and other differences with the Walloons remain a source of social friction. (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica) [↑]

26. Couttenier 2005, 77. [↑]

27. Email exchange with the author. [↑]

28. Boris Wastiau, “The Scourge of Chief Kansabala: The Ritual Life of Two Congolese Masterpieces at the Royal Museum for Central Africa (1884-2001)”, Science, Magic and Religion. The Ritual Process of Museum Magic, New Directions in Anthropology, 23 (2006) 99. [↑]

29. As members of the museum staff mentioned, this still occurs nowadays. People who find colonial photographs, collected objects, or diaries in the attics of their aged or deceased relatives, still bring them to Tervuren, confirming the persisting idea of the museum as the institution in charge of everything associated with colonialism. It is a site of resurgence for a carefully supplanted colonial unconscious. [↑]

30. Boris Wastiau, ExIt Congo Museum, (Tervuren: MRAC, 2000). [↑]

31. See for a recent example of this proceeding the catalogue of Baloji’s last exhibition at the Tervuren museum: Sabine Cornelis and Johan Lagae, eds. Sammy Baloji & Patrick Mudekereza en résidence au Musée royal de l’Afrique centrale. Congo Far West. Arts, sciences et collections (Tervuren/Milan: Musée royal de l’Afrique centrale/Silvana Editoriale, 2011). For an extensive discussion of his previous works see Bogumil Jewsiewicki, “Imaginaire collectif des Katangais au temps de la désindustrialisation. Regard du dedans et regard d’en dehors. La photographie de Sammy Baloji et le rap de Baloji Tshiani”, Cahiers d’études africaines, L (2-3-4), 198-199-200 (2010) 1085. [↑]

32. As Couttenier and Baloji told me in 2012. [↑]

33. Jewsiewicki 2010, 1085. [↑]

34. Sammy Baloji and Patrick Mudekereza, the two artists in residence at the MRAC, worked in close collaboration with the museum team, as shown in the exhibition with the documentary on the artist residency itself. They confronted several pieces and photos from the colonial archives with their respective artistic commentaries and questioned the current relation between the archives and the Congolese present, thus enabling the act of remembrance by creating connections. Sammy Baloji chose the photographs taken by François Michel and Léon Dardenne in the framework of a ‘mission’ lead by Charles Lemaire to the Katanga region from 1898 to 1900. Pursuing his work in which he contributes to the resurgence of impossible memories, the artist travelled to the sites where the images had been taken and met and exchanged with the people living at these places today. His images account for the frequent superposition of postcolonial and colonial history. See: Cornelis/Lagae 2011. [↑]

36.  Hal Foster, “The Artist as Ethnographer?”, in The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996) 306. [↑]

37. The four big format photographs of the series were bought by the director of the museum and first displayed in the group exhibition Passages 2010. Afrique & Creations produced by the Musée des Confluences and exposed in the Bullukian Foundation in Lyon. Musée des Confluences/Fondation Bullukian: ‘Passages’ 2010: Afriques & créations. Photoexposition presented in the frame of ‘Passages’, Lyon, from 28 Mai until 24 July 2010. [↑]

38. “Modern” refers here to the evolutionist paradigm in anthropology, supposing states of evolution. I was told the number of the skulls by Didier Berthet and Sammy Baloji. Numbers differ considerably though: An inventory of the collections from 1982 indicated that the Musée Guimet d’histoire naturelle de Lyon possesses some 1500 human skulls arranged in 40 cupboards. Yves Buyle-Bodin and Michel Philippe (eds.), La Collection de crânes modernes Rhône-alpins du Musée Guimet d’histoire naturelle de Lyon. Nouvelles archives du Muséum d’histoire naturelle de Lyon, fasc. 20. (Lyon: Musée Guimet d’histoire naturelle, 1982) 8. [↑]

39.  Ernest Chantre (1843 – 1924) was a French archaeologist and anthropologist, who specialised in prehistory. [↑]

40. As the commentary specifies, the mummies constitute “one of the most interesting collections of the museum, because of its quantity (nearly 300 individuals) and the quality of the mummification”, see, Yves Buyle-Bodin and Michel Philippe, 8. [↑]

41. Yves Buyle-Bodin and Michel Philippe, 8. [↑]

42. The author refers to the anthropologist Marcel Detienne who speaks of the community of the dead and the living. (Arnaud Esquerre: Les os, les cendres et l’État (Paris: Fayard, 2011). [↑]

43. Ann Fabian, The skull collectors. Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 118. [↑]

44. Roque, 129. [↑]

45. Sammy Baloji, Exhibition note “Passages 2010. Afrique & Creations” (Lyon 2010). [↑]

46. Gunther von Hagen’s blockbuster show “Körperwelten” (body-worlds) created a scandal during its world tour in 1996 with the presentation of plastinates of mostly human bodies, as this raised the same question. It relies on the assumption that human beings can be shown as if they were essentially bodies and life cycles could be described merely anatomically. To conceive the human being as a series of exchangeable body parts draws a direct line from the 19tth century appropriations to today’s organ-markets: Both supply themselves on the weakest parts of the (global) societies. The question of the provenance of the bodies, of the free agreement of the persons, and of what would the “dignity of the human beyond death” mean, have been constantly discussed around the show. See also Elizabeth Stephens, Anatomy as Spectacle. Public Exhibitions of the Body from 1700 to the Present (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011). [↑]

47. “The ‘healthy, cultivated and civilized citizen’ is juxtaposed to the ‘ill, primitive and beastly criminal’”. See: Michael Hagner, “Monstrositäten haben eine Geschichte”, in Der falsche Körper. Beiträge zu einer Geschichte der Monstrositäten, ed. Michael Hagner (Göttingen, 1995), 17. [↑]

48. Jean-Marc Berlière and Pierre Fournié, eds. Fichés ? Photographie et identification du Second Empire aux années 60, Exhibition catalogue, (Paris: Editions Perrin, 2011). [↑]

49. Yves Buyle-Bodin and Michel Philippe, 3. [↑]

50. Roque, 119. [↑]

51. Baloji 2010. [↑]

52. Baloji 2010. [↑]

53. There is a noteworthy shift in translation from the spatial dimension in French (au-delà) to the temporal one in English (hereafter). This translational shift resonates even more with the relation of the dead and the living since one of the significations for the notion of ‘translation’ actually refers to the moving of the dead body – translatio – to bring it from the realm of the living to the one of the dead. The material, the transcendental and the linguistic dimensions are entangled. The translation from the French to the English term opens a constant oscillation between references to time and space, merging sacredness and transcendence, giving room to a vertiginous chronotopos where the absent humanity of the dead inscribes itself as a ghost. [↑]

54. Andrew Zimmerman, Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2001) 9, 106. [↑]

55. Blumenbach had published in 1775 De generis humani varietate nativa at the university of Göttingen. The text that proposes a comparative anatomy and considers human beings as part of natural history initiated a whole range of studies on the intersection of the recently started disciplines (becoming such) of natural sciences, medicine and anthropology. Humankind was classified by Blumenbach into five ‘races’ and in the last decade of the 18 th century, he began an extensive comparative study of 60 human skulls published under the title Decas craniorum (Göttingen, 1790–1828). Blumenbach, after a life dedicated to comparative anatomy, concluded at the end of his researches that the racial classification he had established did not find any confirmation in his studies. This however did not really bother the exploding scientific racism that affected nearly every field of science in the rapidly transforming system of sciences in the second half of the 19th century. [↑]

56. Roque,128. [↑]

57. Paul Broca, quoted in Roque, 133. See also: Michael Hagner, “Kluge Köpfe, geniale Gehirne. Zur Anthropologie des Wissenschaftlers im 19. Jahrhundert”, in Wissenschaft als kulturelle Praxis, eds. Jürgen Schluhmbohm, Hans Erich Bödeker, Peter Reill, (Göttingen, 1999). [↑]

58. Brückmann, Maetzky and Plümecke underline that the renaissance and common elements of race-conceptions in different scientific branches, is today closely linked to references to genetics. After the paradigm of the physis and the paradigm of the psyche, in the 1990s, genes became the main topos of contemporary in bio-scientific narratives about race. Cf. Thomas Brückmann, Franziska Maetzky, Tino Plümecke (eds.), “Rassifizierte Gene. Zur Aktualität biologischer ‘Rasse’-Konzepte in den neuen Lebenswissenschaften”, Gemachte Differenz. Kontinuitäten biologischer “Rasse”-Konzepte, ed. AG gegen Rassismus in den Lebenswissenschaften, (Münster: Unrast, 2009) 33. [↑]

59. Waltraud Ernst, “Introduction: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Race, Science, and Medicine”, in Race, Science, Medicine, 1700-1960, eds. Waltraud Ernst, Bernard Harris (London, New York: Routlegde, 1999) 3. [↑]

60. Yves Buyle-Bodin and Michel Philippe, 1982. [↑]

61. “Gift of numerous skulls of the regions surrounding Lyon which will allow the study of our races in South-East France, still very badly know from an anthropological point of view”, Rapport à M. le Préfet sur les travaux exécutés au Muséum d’Histoire naturelle de Lyon, (1878), quoted in Yves Buyle-Bodin and Michel Philippe, 7. [↑]

62. Further, Chantre is asked by the municipality to give a lecture about his research in 1880 and was the inaugurating lecturer at the Anthropology class of the Science faculty in 1881. The same year he became general secretary of the newly founded Anthropological Society of Lyon. Chantre summarizes his lectures: “Successively the taught classes dealt with the history of the anthropological sciences, the man of the caverns, dolmen and lacusters, the origin of the societies, of religion and superstition, the description of the peoples living today in the diverse regions of the globe, the detailed description of the peoples of the French colonies…”. Recurring to the evolutionist paradigm of his racist science, time and space are here merged, placing distant and often colonized regions at evolutionary stages preceding contemporaneity. Cf. Yves Buyle-Bodin and Michel Philippe, 5. [↑]

63.  Information provided by Didier Berthet and Hervé Groscarret (Musée des Confluences), on the telephone in December 2011. [↑]

64. Yves Buyle-Bodin and Michel Philippe, 6. [↑]

65. The fact that the correlative study of anthropometrical measuring of the skulls with the social indicators of the individuals continues to be conducted far beyond the prevalence of the racial paradigm is documented in the bibliography contained in the quoted volume. Here we find for instance: M. Raberin-Trojani, Analyse des parameters cranio-faciaux en correlation avec l’état-civil. Étude sur cranes secs (Thèse en chirurgie dentaire, Université Claude Bernard, Lyon, 1979) 161. As Didier Berthet told me, until now, PhD students in medical disciplines still undertake their research on these skulls. [↑]

66.  When the museum of Lyon wanted to restitute the four skulls of Maori warriors listed in the collection, after the declassification of the skulls from the national patrimony in France (Mai 2010) that built the legal ground for the restitution to the Te papa museum of New Zealand, they could only find two of them (press kit of the restitution ceremony, 23 January 2012). [↑]

67. Roque, 10. [↑]

68. See for instance: Ricardo Roque, Headhunting and Colonialism. Anthropology and the Circulation of Human Skulls in the Portuguese Empire, 1870-1930 (Cambridge: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); Martin Baer, Headhunting (documentary-film, 2001). The documentary follows a “Tanzanian computer scientist, Is-Haka Mkwawa, great-grandson of the famous East African chief Mkwawa, [who] goes ‘headhunting’ in European museums and archives, trying to figure out why German colonial officers took the head of his great grandfather a century ago to Germany, where it was finally found.” [↑]

69. Antoinette Burton (ed.), Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2005); Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Thinking Through Colonial Ontologies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009). [↑]

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Lotte Arndt is based in Paris and just finished her PhD entitled Construction sites of the coming in constraint spaces. Postcolonial negociations in Paris based cultural magazines dealing with Africa. She is affiliated to Humboldt University Berlin and Paris Diderot – Paris 7. Further, she is a member of the Frankfurt Center for Postcolonial Studies. She is especially interested in cultural politics, has closely followed, participated in, and published on ongoing postcolonial confrontations in the French society, its museum institutions and art spaces for the last years.
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