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Invisible Inventories. Questioning Kenyan Collections in Western Museums

An introduction to project taken from the zine of the International Inventories Programme

The zine can be ordered here.

International Inventories Programme (IIP) is an artistic, research and curatorial project that investigates a corpus of Kenyan cultural objects held in institutions in the North. It aspires to open up the discourse on restitution, which has gained new momentum since 2017, by distributing African perspectives that are barely represented in international discussions. Initiated by artists and developed over three years (2018–2021), IIP brings together a constellation of cultural entities: the National Museums of Kenya, the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, the Weltkulturen Museum, and The Nest and SHIFT collectives.

The project radiates both outwards from and inwards towards Nairobi, Kenya. We are building a publicly accessible database of these objects, thus arguing for more transparency within museums’ archives. As of September 29, 2020, the database contains information on 32,321 objects stored in museums outside of Kenya.1 Concurrently, we have initiated the “Object Movement Dialogues”, a series of events that encourage public discourse about critical object histories, their often violent movement across borders and their far-reaching consequences. As our colleague Njoki Ngumi asked in one of those dialogues “Who are the people the object left behind? And if the object is to return to a people that were bereft of it, who are the people that the object meets?”2

“Invisible Inventories” is the exhibition project of the IIP. It will be presented in the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi, the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne and the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt am Main. The exhibition critically assembles the scientific and artistic research produced over the past two years by our heterogeneous group of museum professionals, scholars and artists, each carrying their own background, expertise, mode of action and specific vocabulary. “Invisible Inventories” seeks to preserve, rather than to flatten, these different positions. Our hope is that this diversity of points of view, aesthetic practices and formal expressions will help us address the complexity of the issues surrounding the objects’ histories and restitution in the aftermath of colonialism.

With this in mind, the verb in the exhibition subtitle, “Questioning Kenyan Collections in Western Museums”, should be read in the context of its semantic siblings: claiming, envisioning, reimagining, unpacking, liberating objects held in custody. This spectrum of intentions points to a constellation of related but differing positions within our group. Our consensus-based working process was rarely without discussion. This was neither devoid of power relations, nor without discomfort. A huge number of ideas have blossomed, while others faded away, and our positions within the group have also changed over time. It is in this spirit that we decided to include in this publication one idea which could not be fulfilled. This was a collective reflection on our endeavour to work together, what we called “The Process” – a promise perhaps for future engagements and for the fragility and force of ideas.

For decades, tens/hundreds of Kenyan objects have been sitting quietly (or perhaps disquietly) in the museum storages of the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne and the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt a.M. Most of them have never been publicly exhibited before. The museum professionals of our group (Njeri Gachihi, Frauke Gathof, Clara Himmelheber, Lydia Nafula, Leonie Neumann, Philemon Nyamanga and Juma Ondeng’) have started to assemble what they call object biographies for some of these artefacts – a selection of which we present here. Additionally, they give an insight into the nature of their collaborative processes within IIP. Lydia Nafula and Philemon Nyamanga also share an excerpt of the report of a field trip they made in November 2019 to the Kenyan coast in which they assess the perception of different communities of the past and present threats to their cultural heritage. Finally, Leonie Chima Emeka and Niklas Obermann take us into the detective work of provenance research regarding a Kenyan object held in the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum.

The artists/researchers of our group give an insight into their various approaches in dealing with (the absence of) these objects. The Nest (Jim Chuchu and Njoki Ngumi) reflects on the ongoing process of putting together the database of Kenyan objects held in the North, and the related challenges and questions it raises. Sam Hopkins and Marian Nur Goni introduce the readers to the podcast and sound installation they are producing around the manifold histories of the man-eaters of Tsavo – the two legendary lions currently exhibited in Chicago, that some would like to be returned to Kenya. Sam Hopkins and Simon Rittmeier articulate their joint project A Topography of Loss, an attempt to map, poetically, the absence of these objects from Kenya. In turn, Simon Rittmeier expands the geographical scope of inquiries of the exhibition with his works Takeover and Lightning Strikes the Obelisk. Finally, all artists congregate for a discussion on trust and what that can mean in the context of a project like this.

These ‘insider’ perspectives are augmented by a number of articles and interviews by both established voices in the museum field and younger, emerging practitioners. George Abungu contextualises current discussions on restitution within the broader question of the stakes of the museum in the twenty-first century, whilst Jimbi Katana offers detailed insight into how these concerns are manifested among the Mijikenda communities regarding the repatriation of vigango. Chao Tayiana Maina opens up painful parallels between the absence of objects and that of archival documents, whereas Jacky Kwonyike argues a speculative plea for the return of one particular object from the UK. These additional perspectives complement and enrich the multiple positions from within the IIP group and embody our idea for this publication as an autonomous manifestation of the “Invisible Inventories” exhibition project. A further publication, a reader, will be published at the end of 2021. This will be based on edited transcripts of the “Object Movement Dialogues” and republished documents from the 1960s and 1970s, attesting to the broader historical context of these debates and heritage gestures in the region.

In seeking to represent and question the fragmented biographies of objects, the artworks and research of this exhibition testify to the painful, enduring legacies of colonialism both in Europe and in Africa. The process of trying to piece together and critically reflect on them had fortes and flaws, cherished moments and challenges; it is one part of an open, multivocal conversation which firmly aspires to new equitable and anti-racist futures.

1 See article by The Nest Collective in this publication.

2 This was during the Object Movement Dialogue #3, which took place at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne on September 4, 2019.