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Reading Rämistrasse #116: Nuru Heritsialonina, Rachel TonThat and Hella Wiedmer-Newman on Blinde Flecken at the Stadthaus - Akademie - Kunsthalle Zürich

Reading Rämistrasse #116: Nuru Heritsialonina, Rachel TonThat and Hella Wiedmer-Newman on Blinde Flecken at the Stadthaus

Rachel TonThat: We, Rachel, Hella and Nuru, an artist and writer, an anthropologist and an art historian, are meeting to discuss the exhibition after we each visited it individually, and I’d love to hear both of your thoughts. I've never been to another exhibition at the Stadthaus, so I don't know what the status quo is, but coming from an Asian American perspective, this exhibition immediately caught my attention. I was a little surprised that the city of Zurich would address this topic head on, especially given the prevailing Swiss mentality of having no colonial responsibility.

Nuru Heritsialonina: It’s well publicized, and outside of the Stadthaus they have die Bänder, so it was quite a presence throughout the city. Yet when you walk into the Stadthaus, there are refugees and migrants going there with their documents because they need to register as residents of Zurich or are attending other legal matters, and you wait in line behind them to view an exhibition about colonialism. You can see one of the consequences of our enterprises standing in front of you. As a social and cultural anthropologist of Swiss-Malagasy origin, this is quite intriguing to me personally and something I instantly observed upon entering the building. Within my academic career and research I focused and specialized on material culture and political anthropology, and these specializations in turn shape and influence the way I perceive any exhibition - no matter in what institution it takes place.

Blinde Flecken: Zürich und der Kolonialismus, Stadthaus Zürich

Bild: © Michael Richter

Rachel: I really appreciate the thought and intention behind the exhibition, but in my opinion, the biggest problem was its format. Parts of this exhibition, including the wall where you select a colorful sticker with your takeaway from the exhibition, seem designed to be a sound bite that has a clear message for everyone. Other parts were more expository and contained dense historical text that required a lot of time to digest. I think they didn't quite decide who the exhibition was for, and what tone to take.

Nuru: I observed that as well. Whenever I visit a museum or an exhibition, I always look at the visitors to check the amount of time they spend in the exhibition and the comments they make while passing through. So it was interesting also to see that people were not reading everything and just walking through the gallery. I also wondered about the target audience in regards to accessibility, because everything was in German. What about foreign students, foreign visitors, or even other non-German speaking Swiss?

Hella Wiedmer-Newman: I come from an art history and visual culture background and I’m Swiss-Canadian, so I was interested to see how an exhibition in Switzerland would mediate the topic of colonialism, which is so widely discussed in Canada. I found a few of the curatorial decisions questionable. It seemed as if there were two or three exhibitions combined. You could really see how they did a lot of archival work for those case studies and the images, and I thought how they mapped the colonial projects was very well done. I could almost imagine that part in a small room with large images in between and maybe some artifacts. That was very powerful and might have been enough on its own.

Die Helvetia im ehemaligen Gebäude des Schweizerischen Bankvereins am Paradeplatz symbolisiert den globalen Anspruch des Zürcher Kapitals. Die Helvetia hält die Weltkugel, Merkur tanzt darauf.

Bild: Baugeschichtliches Archiv Zürich

Nuru: I agree. I think they could have elaborated the first historically informed section of the exhibition with the topic of art and colonialism as there was not much substance to it. It's really good that they mentioned how this is problematic in the beginning, with the example of Fritz Meyer-Fierz, who through a fortune gained in the tobacco trade began to acquire art works made by prominent artists from the 1880s onwards. But to what extent is it a contemporary problem? What are we doing today with these artworks which did not originate from Switzerland, which were collected and acquired during colonial times and are sold in galleries for millions of Swiss francs? And what are the structural inequalities involved in such enterprises? The discourse is still relevant today.

Rachel: The second part for me started with the glossary around colonialism and ended with the armless cutout of a black woman, an artwork by Yvonne Apiyo Brändle-Amolo [The Most Disrespected Woman, 2022] that we all found a bit bizarre. It felt anomalous for two reasons— one, because it was the only artwork brought into what was otherwise a cultural exhibition, and two, because though the work was supposed to bring awareness of the biases black women experience, it also seemed to be perpetuating these stereotypes in its exaggerated curvaceousness. The lack of arms also felt disturbing on a number of levels, including the brutalization of these women or infringement of their agency.

Hella: The glossary was interesting because it offers the visitor a key to reading the exhibition with phrases such as “White privilege” and “People of Color,” as well as the Swahili word “Maafa” describing the atrocities of slavery. “Critical Race Theory,” which the glossary does not mention, is the study of the ways race and ethnicity are socially constructed and present in all of our institutions. This is where I thought a kind of tone-deafness emerged in the exhibition: the description of “People of Color” as being people who experience racism brings up the question of whether all forms of discrimination people in Switzerland experience – whether they come from the former Yugoslavia, or Italy or Turkey, is the same as racism based on skin color. Or would it be more apt to speak of another kind of social hierarchy because we don’t have the same system of settler colonialism and chattel slavery here; our involvement is much less visible? It felt like they were trying to overlay a critical race template over this history of Swiss colonial involvement.

The collage of the black woman is a good example of this tone-deafness, like maybe they thought it was subversive or the woman had agency because there were these buzzwords written all over her, like “tokenism” and “racial profiling,” but in the end it was still this hypersexualized vision that reminded me of something from an ethnographic museum. It’s also an example of thematic exhibitions that are not explicitly about art using art outside of its art historical context, which can work very well if they explicate something or reveal a representational strategy, but here it didn’t add anything.

Nuru: When I saw the image of the black woman, I wondered why they did not include women from other ethnic backgrounds. Throughout the whole exhibition we talk about how we are involved in colonialism in locations such as Indonesia, but then there was no further mention of how women from such societies are viewed today and what stereotypes are attached to them. The collage is a reminder of the stereotypes attached and ascribed to black women, but viewing this exhibition through an intersectional feminist lens I felt like they could have talked about other marginalized women too.

Rachel: The final segment of the exhibition felt like an attempt to bring it to a much wider, and possibly younger audience. Concepts were much more simplified and interactive, with the stations for listening to examples of modern day colonialism such as exploitative tourism and extractive industries while flipping through small wooden books. There was also a map of sites around Zurich with colonial history, and the mirror on which you could write down your reflections on racism. I thought this mirror was a bit reductive, as I don’t think anyone who is serious about changing racist thinking believes it can be done through these exercises, yet at the same time I can imagine the curators installing this in an attempt to reach children and young adults who are visiting on school trips and would be more interested in thinking about this topic with a physical component.

Nuru: Reflecting upon how we think in terms of racism, personally I don’t think it’s done by looking at something, even a mirror. The idea of prompting the audience to reflect through the use of a mirror is legitimate, but the execution was not really fully thought out. You cannot read what was written on the mirror anymore since it is already full. Some people wrote things which did not seem to relate directly to the exhibition such as “viva la vida,” “education,” “women and power,” and more. I observed two girls who were writing on the mirror and laughing, and they had a great time. I'm not saying anyone shouldn't have a good time at the museum or at an exhibition. But to me, it was really heavy reading these posters [about colonialism]. And so I felt like a lot of people were simply going there as a sort of entertainment.

Hella: Simply because of its reflective quality, that mirror reminded me a bit of Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial. That memorial holds the names of all the soldiers who died, but the surface is so dark that it’s reflective. When you’re reading all these names, you see your own reflection, so you’re somehow implicated in all that nonsensical violence. But in this exhibition, you just have a mirror and you can write stuff on it. All this lettering is getting in the way. It was simply a mirror which didn’t really play with the reflective surface.

Die Black Lives Matter Demonstration vom Juni 2020

Bild: Yasmin Müller

Nuru: Another interesting point about the exhibition was that they didn’t draw any clear connections to the Stadthaus or offer any reason for it to be exhibited there. When I walked out of the exhibition I was thinking about these connections and, thinking back to the tagline of the exhibition, the entanglements.

Rachel: I think the entanglements are visible in the funding and the different departments in the city. Because the exhibition is funded by the city, the exhibition intrinsically contains these blind spots. Thinking about colonial sites in Zurich, one incredibly problematic site is the refugee center across from the Toni Areal. There have been multiple articles about what goes on inside of there with testimony from the staff, and even walking by when I was a student, there was regularly violence right outside of the door. Occasionally this was between refugees, but often there was a group of almost always white, armed police officers subduing one unarmed male refugee of color.

In their list of colonial sites around Zurich, the exhibition included Letzigrund Stadion, where black football players are exposed to racial slurs. While it’s important, it’s a completely different level of violence and discrimination, and it’s perpetuated by individuals. What the exhibition ignores in the present day are the Swiss asylum regimes which are tied to a complex intersectional hierarchy, rooted in a colonial logic.

Nuru: I agree with you on this critique. It seems as if there were a few shortages or blank spaces which should have been at least mentioned throughout the exhibition. However, although the exhibition bears some weaknesses, the curational board put a lot of effort into organizing and curating it and I really do appreciate their efforts. Personally, I believe that this exhibition is a fruitful starting point to open discussions on colonialism and Zurich’s involvement/connections to it. But due to it being so text-heavy, it loses some potential. The accompanying program helps to dive more in depth into different aspects of colonial legacies, and the events I have visited so far such as the panel discussion about restitution at the Völkerkundemuseum Zürich were all highly interesting and insightful.

Rachel: I think it brings us back to the question of audience. The first part was so dense and academic that I don’t think visiting classes or even some of the general public would be able to absorb it easily, yet that understanding is crucial to being able to do any of the reflective work in the last part. I also think that the choice to provide this exhibition primarily in German was also prohibitive. Since this is a fairly new topic in Swiss public discourse, it’s doubly important that the full message is easily accessible. While I felt this exhibition was a great step in the right direction from such a huge public institution, in my opinion it failed to deliver.

Hella: I’m of two minds about this. On one hand, it seems like the curators were not taking their audience seriously enough because intelligent visitors who read the news would understand how all these things are connected, but on the other, educating visitors about inherited institutional racism is a nuance we’re not used to talking about in Switzerland because we have this narrative of neutrality and humanism. This exhibition, I think, is part of this wave of confrontation with our past; it’s Switzerland constructing a public memory culture. The question is, whom do they want to let into that culture and how? They’re offering guided Colonial Zurich tours, but will they just be in German? In other cities there are so-called “dark history” tours in several languages, whatever the ethics of the tours themselves may be.

In the end, it’s surely a good sign that such exhibitions are being curated in Switzerland, but they need to be handled with nuance and care and actually connect to current manifestations of colonialism, or it’s just lip service.

Blinde Flecken – Zürich und der Kolonialismus, Stadthaus, Stadthausquai 17, 20. Januar–15. Juli 2023

Top image: Blinde Flecken poster, image: Baugeschichtliches Archiv Zürich, graphics: Stilgraf

Reading Rämistrasse

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