Experiential Learning: Art Against Colonialism

Joseph Beuys’ 7 year opus, Das Kapital Raum 1970-77, consists of 50 chalkboard slates onto which the German artist, philosopher and educator theorized and formulated a new paradigm for capital wealth. For Beuys, wealth is defined as the sum of our cultural experiences. The more access we have to a variety of cultural experiences (i.e. the visual arts, music, dance and social practice), the better our individual and collective wellbeing will be. Currently, the measurements of cultural capital are heavily skewed towards the elite class. The art world (see: Danto’s ‘Artworld‘) and the wealthy tastemakers determine the hierarchy of material and symbolic objects in our society. However, in Beuys’ form of capital, interpersonal creative relationships and actions divert capitalist monetary structures and institutional art theory. He argued that art is not an autonomous area of study, privy to those in the institutional art world and the academy. As a conceptual artist and educator, Beuys advocated for human beings to make beneficial contributions to society through art (see: Everybody is an Artist). Each one of us is a ‘social sculptor.’ A social sculptor is anyone who creates an expressive structure within their community utilizing social interactions, collaboration and physical objects or environments. This theory and methodology is intrinsically connected to the educational sphere because educators facilitate these kinds of experiences in their classrooms.

Beuys’ Capri-Batterie (right) installed on permanent display at the museum Iringa Boma in Tanzania. Courtesy of Courtesy Frankfurter Hauptschule.

The German collective, Frankfurter Hauptschule, recently pulled a prank on the art world by staging the ‘theft’ of one of Beuys’ sculptural editions, Capri-Batterie, as “a comment on European imperialism and the forced transfer of objects from the African continent into German collections during the colonial era” (Brown, 2020). In an act of boisterous and benevolent repatriation, the collective traveled to Tanzania (a former German colony) with the work of art (which was later revealed to be a replica) and presented it as a gift to the ethnological museum Iringa Boma (the museum’s building was formerly a military hospital operated by German colonial rulers). A replica of Beuys’ sculpture is now on display at the Tanzanian museum, while the original edition was temporarily removed from an exhibition at the Oberhausen City Theater (the edition belongs to the LWL Museum of Art and Culture). This symbolic act of restitution, places Capri-Battery on permanent exhibition alongside traditional objects of craftsmanship from the Hehe people of Tanzania’s Iringa region. The collective explains that “under the colonial regime, art objects, cultural assets and skulls of Hehe leaders were stolen from Iringa and brought to Germany in inextricable numbers” (Frankfurter Hauptschule, 2020).

Based on Beuys’ legacy promoting experiential learning via the arts, it is likely that he would approve of this action as an epitome of social sculpture. The collective’s trickery has an important pedagogical impact via its expose of the nefarious activities through which Western museums have built their collections. Calls to decolonize museum collections have come from artists, academics and the public alike. The dialogue has amplified over the years, forcing many museums to address the status of objects in their collections that were acquired via shadily brokered deals and outright looting. The fact that Frankfurter Hauptschule’s stunt is trending across international news and social media outlets, is a testament to its potential to influence further discussion around the controversial acquisitions of artifacts via colonial exploitation. In an article on Artnet, Adam Blackler, a scholar on German colonialism states that “Germany’s long and violent colonial history in Africa stubbornly remains an under-discussed topic in both public and scholarly forums” (Brown, 2020). In an era where entertaining videos like Frankfurter Hauptschule’s get hundred of thousands of views, it is hopeful that its important message will get the same enthusiastic attention.

The most obvious way of decolonizing a museum, is to return the objects of historical importance to the contemporary cultures where they hold significance. There are so many examples of objects in museums that were acquired during colonial and imperial eras and have since been requested by the people in the region they originated from. Returning the objects to their cultures of origin (known as repatriation) would ensure that current and future generations have access to primary resources regarding their cultural heritage.

Another form of repatriation is to contextualize works within the museum (objects from the collection that don’t have problematic provenances) so that they have a lasting pedagogical impact for Western audiences to understand the social, emotional and cultural relevance of artifacts and art from global cultures (see: Exhibiting Empathy and Mondo Museum). Two examples include the Seattle Art Museum and the Penn Museum. The Seattle Art Museum transforms their African art galleries into active learning experiences by presenting intimate cultural accounts and primary sources alongside artwork in their galleries. The museum has a substantial collection of art from many African nations, and its presentation shifts our gaze from colonialism to community. One way of doing this is by activating the objects in the space so that they reference and illuminate cultural traditions in an authentic manner. Masks are presented over the faces of mannequins rather than on the wall or in display cases, so we get a sense of how these objects would actually function within the cultural context of the region. The museum is also very conscious in getting advice and feedback from contemporary artists and citizens of African nations. These individuals and groups are given precedence over the anthropological and patrimonial discourse that is far too common in regards to the presentation and interpretation of artworks created throughout the continent.

Penn Museum in Philadelphia, has a renowned collection of art and artifacts from the Middle East dating back around 4,500 years ago. Although the museum states that 95 percent of their Middle Eastern collection “was excavated by Penn archaeologists” in partnership with local governments, it still raises issues about ethical acquisitions. Art critic, Olivia Jia, questions the idea of an ethical excavation, “given the fact that many of these excavations occurred against a backdrop of strife-ridden fallout from British colonial rule, and were co-sponsored by the British Museum” (Jia, 2019). Furthermore, the museum has presented their Middle Eastern objects through the lens of the archeologists, which gives Western narratives precedence over the stories that are intrinsic to the region where the artifacts and art objects were collected. To shift the narrative towards a more local and decolonized perspective, the museum established an innovative program called Global Guides, where they hire refugees from the Middle East as docents who lead visitors through thematic tours of the permanent collection. The docents provide unique insights and personal connections to the work. Analyzing exit surveys for the Global Guides program, Jia was amazed to discover that many participants never had an actual interpersonal connection with an individual from the Middle East until then. The presence of docents like Moumena Saradar, a Syrian refugee and only one of two Muslim staff members at the museum, has an empathetic impact on both visitors and museum staff (Jia, 2019).

The classroom should also be decolonized. Curricula that reflects and promotes independent critical thinking around colonialism’s legacy should supplement and, in some cases, replace more mainstream ideologies around the founding and actions of Western empires. Through analyzing primary sources (i.e. diaries of abolitionists, plantation ledgers of slave rebellions and oral narratives of Indigenous people) and mining digital anthology resources (see: resources for African American and Indigenous peoples), students can consider how historical narratives might have been markedly different if they were written through the lens of the oppressed and marginalized groups. In fact, there are many great resources already published that can serve as key texts and curriculum guides, such as Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States of America (Harper Collins) and Amber Hickey and Ana Tuazon’s zine Decolonial Strategies for the Art History Classroom. Hickey and Tuazon also provide some essential tips for educators who are seeking to decolonize their curricula:

  1. Don’t just integrate material created by Indigenous peoples into your classroom; build trust and longstanding relationships with Indigenous artists and scholars.
  2. Share space. Invite Indigenous artists and scholars to speak with your class (and remember to pay them, even if it has to be out of your own pocket).
  3. You will be a better supporter of Indigenous peoples’ visual culture if you also support Indigenous peoples’ self-determination. For instance, donate to causes such as the Unist’ot’en Camp (http://unistoten.camp/support-us/​).
  4. Consider providing students with guidelines regarding best practices in writing about Indigenous communities. Gregory Younging’s ​Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples ​is a good reference.
  5. Visit archives and community spaces that may hold materials that are relevant in your process of creating a decolonial classroom space. For instance, the Interference Archive has many relevant materials (Hickey and Tuazon, 2019).

Artists have unique roles in expressing and illuminating some of the historical research and primary sources around decolonization and re-presenting history and current events from the perspectives of groups who are marginalized. Examples include Dred Scott’s Slave Rebellion Reenactment (see: Rebelling Against the Whitewashing of History), Nona Faustine’s My Country series (see: Turning the Dismantling of Monuments into Teachable Moments), Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Untitled (Memory Map) and Wendy Red Star’s Medicine Crow & The 1880 Crow Peace Delegation series (see: Shifting the Paradigm: Indigenous American Art and Multicultural Art Education).

It is imperative that our diverse student bodies are seeing, learning and experiencing culture in a myriad of ways, while acquiring the skills that enable them to think critically and exhibit empathy and understandings around the intersectionality of identity. Western culture is not a monolithic framework, and for too long it has been synonymous with white supremacist, bureaucratic and elitist narratives. These accounts have developed a contextualization of our past and present experiences in a manner that continually oppresses groups and upholds systemic racism, classism and other forms of cultural injustice. As educators and artists we have an important role in speaking truth to power and working towards moral, ethical and socially justice driven responses to issues impacting our local and global communities.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Brown, Kate. “Artists Pulled a ‘Borat’ on the Art World by Pretending to Steal a Joseph Beuys From Germany and Giving It Tanzania as a Comment on Colonial Plunder.” Artnet, 23 October 2020. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/bad-beuys-africa-1917784

Frankfurter Hauptschule. “Frankfurter Hauptschule – Bad Beuys.” YouTube, 21 October 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emGj31I5OIo&feature=emb_logo

Hickey, Amber and Tuazon, Ana. 2019. Decolonial Strategies for the Art History Classroom. http://arthistoryteachingresources.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Decolonial-Strategies-for-the-Art-History-Classroom-Zine.pdf

Jia, Olivia. “Refugees Connect Their Personal Stories with a Museum’s Ancient Artifacts.” Hyperallergic, 19 Feb. 2019. https://hyperallergic.com/484835/global-guides-program-penn-museum/

Zinn, Howard. 1980. A People’s History of the United States of America. Harper Collins: New York


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