Decolonising the Curatorial Process

Author: Orson Nava
Format: Video Essay/Documentary
Duration: 39′ 29″
Published: July 2021


Research Statement

Decolonising the Curatorial Process is a forty-minute documentary which explores decolonial strategies in an academic and curatorial context. The film features academics, activists and practitioners, and contains case studies of institutions that are deploying critical, self-reflective forms of curatorial practice.

The Museum of London Docklands exhibition on slavery and the sugar industry is examined as an example of how an institution can decolonise the curatorial process, utilise the work of artists in a museum context, and critically examine East London’s imperial history. The Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford, who are working with Maasai activists from Kenya and Tanzania on a project centered on repatriating the museum’s collection of sacred Maasai artefacts, also features in the film.

Research Questions

What kinds of strategies can curators and academics deploy to contest or disrupt Eurocentric structures of knowledge in a curatorial context?

How can film operate as a tool for disseminating decolonial theories and strategies?

Context
My research planning process began with the Wish academic exchange between creative practitioners and academics from the Cape peninsular University of Technology and the University of East London. I was conducting a full-time funded PhD research project into racialised inequality in the creative industries driven regeneration process in East London. My PhD research combined a sixty thousand word written thesis with a one-hour documentary looking at creative practitioners based in East London.  While not directly connected to my funded PhD I saw the visit to Cape town as a valuable opportunity to see how some of my research work around racialised inequality and the creative industries might apply in an international context. Before the exchange began, I lobbied for the workshops at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology to include the voices of students who were engaged with decolonial political activism on campus. The students who participated in the workshops actively critiqued the idea of cultural ‘inclusion’ so prevalent in a British context. They advocated instead for a strategy or radical transformation of, not just inclusion in, dominant cultural institutions. For me this critique further consolidated the argument of my PhD research in which I argued, not simply for the inclusion of racialised minorities in dominant cultural institutions, but also the formation of relatively autonomous black and brown cultural sectors akin to those that existed in the UK in the early 1990s. The exchange trips emphasis on decolonial debates also impacted the network of practitioners and theorist that emerged out of the exchange project. This network included Sindi Gordon who organized the conference on Decolonisation at Sussex University, decolonial activist Asanda Nogoasheng who features in the film, and Nick Lunch, whose participatory media company Insightshare was already working with Maasai groups in Kenya and Tanzania and was a partner with Pitt Rivers museum in the project I filmed. After I returned to the UK, I approached The Museum of London Docklands as I was aware of their Sugar and Slavery Exhibition and it seemed a good opportunity to platform an exhibition in which Black Curators such as Dr Kristy Warren and Dr Mellissa Bennet (who I interviewed for the film), played a central role.

More broadly the film can be situated within a broader cultural engagement with the significance of decolonial strategies and discourses across a range of institutions including universities, art galleries, and museums. The emergence of these spaces as ‘sites of struggle’ has been prompted by the cultural critiques developed by decolonial activists and scholars (Mignolo et al.) that highlight the Eurocentric focus of many exhibitions, literary cannons, teaching modules and events. These forms of cultural exclusion reflect Britain’s and the West’s colonial legacy and their historic erasure of indigenous and non-European forms of knowledge and creative expression. In the context of the museum sector these processes also include the historical acquisition of artefacts over which museums have contested moral and legal claims and which indigenous groups are struggling to have repatriated to their countries and communities of origin. It seemed crucial to further explore these cultural/political struggles and a research-based film seemed a useful vehicle for examining the debates, platforming decolonial and indigenous activist and offering case studies of organisations and groups attempting to explore decolonial strategies within a museum context.

In making the film I was guided by Walter Mignolo’s assertion that an ‘epistemic de-linking’ (2007, p 12) from Eurocentric structures of knowledge was necessary for the construction of truly decolonial political strategies and forms of cultural expression. While acknowledging that, as an irredeemably hybridised post-colonial subject, I am produced within and through those Eurocentric structures of representation and discourse (Bhabha,1994) I still feel I can use film practice to radically critique them. I feel this process can be achieved by dialogically engaging with anti-racist and decolonial scholars in the production of film practice work that simultaneously deconstructs dominant hegemonic conceptions of European history while platforming indigenous political activism and cultural practices. As Wiebe states ‘collaborative filmmaking provides a forum for resistance to dominant colonial discourses while creating space for radical difference in pursuit of decolonization’ (Wiebe, 2015, p. 244). (I explore this process further at the online MeCCSA media practice and education conference. Available to view here).

Previous relevant film work has been done on decolonial strategies in a curatorial context. This includes The Museum Will Not Be Decolonised a video essay adapted from an article written by Sumaya Kassim (Media Diversified, 2017) on the The Past Is Now, an exhibition which sought to decolonise Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s collections. This film questions the possibility of ever successfully implementing decolonial strategies in a museum setting. While this critique is undoubtably valid I wished to explore strategies or projects that may have been designated with having some relative degree of success in his context. While accepting that any definition of ‘success’ is clearly open to contestation, in my framing the construction of an archival space curated by black historians that exposes the economic exploitation of Africa by the British Empire, and a Maasai lead project focused on the repatriation of stolen artefacts may at least be contingently considered ‘successful’ simply by virtue of their existence. Formally The Museum Will Not Be Decolonised can also be distinguished from my film in that it is entirely composed of archive footage while mine consist of original interviews and observational sequences.

Decolonising the Curatorial Process can be viewed as a continuation of the work I have been doing with university research centers. Previous examples include:

Multicology? (2019) is a one-hour documentary featuring interviews with academics, politicians and creative practitioners working in East London. It was produced in response to industry reports that showed a fall in rates of racial diversity across the creative industries and explores the role BAME creative producers play in an urban regeneration process increasingly structured around ‘creativity’. The film forms part of a fully funded doctoral research project at the University of East London and is intended as a focus for panel discussions and public engagements around the development of racially inclusive regeneration strategies. Available at here (accessed on 1 June 2021)

Everyday Borders (2016). Funded by the European Union this fifty-minute documentary was produced in collaboration with The Centre for Research on Migration, Refugees and Belonging (based at the University of East London). It examines the way members of civil society are increasingly obliged to act as border-guards in the communities where they live and work. Employers, landlords, health workers, local government officials and educators are now legally compelled to check the immigration status of people with whom they come in contact. Using interviews with academics and activists who have been tracking these developments the film explores what the ‘hostile environment’ really means for the UK’s migrant population. Available at here (accessed on 1 June 2021).

The ICR Road Movie (as co-director, co-camera, editor 2015) is an hour-long documentary exploring creative collaborations between the UK and France and their impact on the regional regeneration process. The film was funded by the European Union and produced through The University of the Creative Arts. Available at here (accessed on 1 July 2021).

This montage of factual films (2014) includes excerpts from some of the thirty factual films I produced for the Rix Research and Media  who are based at the University of East London. The research center promotes the uses of new technologies for people with learning disability. The films were funded by a range of clients including local government and the NHS.

This work uses film as an academic research and dissemination tool, and in the case of Multicology? (2019) and Everyday Borders (2016) explicitly addresses the impact of racialising cultural discourses and government policies on British society. More broadly I have been influenced by the research report ‘The Creative Role of Research’ produced by Hewlet, Bond, and Hinrichs-Krapels, S. (2017) at Kings College London (available here, accessed on 1 June 2021). The report ‘draws on the data from the last Research Excellence Framework (REF) to interrogate the longstanding ways in which academics and creative practitioners have forged relationships, collaborated, borrowed from and influenced one another. The report illuminates for artists and creative professionals the manifold ways in which academic research can inform and develop their practice and, at the same time, inspires researchers from a wide range of academic disciplines to foster new opportunities for collaboration beyond the university walls’. Hewlet, Bond, and Hinrichs-Krapels, S. (2017)

The report points to the mutually beneficial relationship between creative practice and research in the humanities, suggesting the potential for new dialogic forms of knowledge to emerge at boundaries where the two spheres intersect.

Methods
I researched, produced, wrote, shot and edited Decolonising The Curatorial Process myself (using a Canon C100 Mark 11 Camera and Premier Pro CC editing software). My methods primarily derive from documentary filmmaking and reflect my background working in broadcast television, participatory film projects and collaborative film projects with academic research groups. While the University of East London supported the project by providing access to equipment it was produced independently by myself and was not funded or commissioned by any institution. However, while the film was not connected at all to the written or film components of my PhD, its production was facilitated by the fact I was provided with a living bursary during my studies and I made this project ‘on the side’ during that time. While reflecting my own analytical perspective and situated knowledge through the films voice over, choice of content, focus etc., its primary intention was to provide a platform for curators and activists working in the cultural sphere to discuss their own decolonial strategies. This is not to suggest my presence was in any way absent from the text or that it was some kind of transparent medium for the unmediated transmission of the participants knowledge. Only that there was dialogic interaction between my own positionality and that of the film’s subjects, whereby my approach was informed by their work and research and their responses were prompted by my questions and situated within framework that I constructed. Broadly speaking I have an inter-disciplinary analytical approach informed by post-colonial cultural studies, ethnographic filmmaking and a political economy of the creative industries. This means my focus is on the way cultural practices and systems of representation are produced out of geographically and historically specific systems of economic production, and racialised structures of power. Academics such as Stuart Hall, Anamik Saha, Sarita Malik, David Hesmondhalgh, and Phil Cohen featured heavily in my PhD research.

Outcomes
The film was intended as a free online resource that can be used by academics, historians, curators and activist. The hope is that some of the case studies can inform the strategies of people working in the field. My hope is that viewers will come away from a film with an increased awareness of how dominant hegemonic cultural institutions can operate to erase the value of non-European epistemologies and cultural forms, but also how those processes can be contested by radical curatorial strategies and cultural networks. In addition, my intention was to demonstrate the way the Wish exchange between South Africa and the UK helped facilitate the dissemination of radical cultural discourses and mobilise specific cultural projects (including the Sussex conference, the Pitt Rivers project and the film itself).

Dissemination

The film has been featured and platformed by the following:

HNet (Humanities and Social Sciences Online).

Pit Rivers Museum Facebook page. 

– ‘Museum and Controversial Collections’ Facebook page

The Development Geographies research Group.

BAFTSS Practice Research SIG ‘Exploding the Container’ panel event

15thAnnual congress of the International Society for Ethology and Folklore in June.

It has also been promoted on the MuseumNext Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Impact
The film has been reviewed by Dr Carrol Ann Dixon on the Decolonial Dialogues website. In her review she states: ‘These important museum-based consultations, research narratives and conference discussions also foreground the lived experiences (and collective memories) of communities from the global South who have been severely impacted by the racialised violence, cultural conflicts and legacies of the colonial past. Consequently, issues of restitution and legislative activism (involving legal requests for the rightful return – or “repatriation” – of stolen artworks and heritage artefacts back to their countries and communities of origin) are a significant aspect of the decolonial de-accessioning process’. Full review available here.

The film has been viewed 794 times on my vimeo site and 442 times on the Insightshare website.

Bibliography

Bhabha. Homi K., (2012). The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.

Black, Graham (2011). ‘Museums, Memory and History. September.’ In Cultural and Social History 8(3): 415-427.

Bond, Katherine, Hewlett, Kirstie, Hinrichs-Krapels, Saba (2017). ‘The Creative Role of research.’ London: King’s College London. Available at here (accessed on 26 June 2021).

Dixon, Carol Ann (2016). The ‘othering’ of Africa and its diasporas in Western museum practices. PhD University of Sheffield. Available at here (accessed on 26 June 2021).

Finneran, Patricia (2014).  Documentary Impact: Social Change Through Storytelling. Toronto: Hot Docs Festival. Available at here (accessed on 26 June 2021).

Hewlet, Kirstie, Bond, Katherine, Hinrichs-Krapels, Saba (2017). The Creative Role of Research: Understanding research impact in the creative and cultural sector. Kings College London. Available at here (accessed on 26 June 2021).

Mignolo, Walter D. (2011). The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Durham: Duke University Press.

Mignolo, Walter D. (2009[2007]) ‘Epistemic disobedience: the de-colonial option and the meaning of identity in politics.’ In Theory, Culture & Society 26(7-8): 159-181.

Petrešin-Bachelez, Nataša (ed.) (2015). Decolonising Museums. L’Internationale. Available at here (accessed on 26 June 2021).

Shohat, Ella, Stam, Robert (2014). Unthinking Eurocentrism:Multiculturalism and the Media. London: Routledge.

Wiebe, Sarah (2015) ‘Decolonizing Engagement? Creating a Sense of Community Through Collaborative Filmmaking.’ In Studies in Social Justice 9(2): 244-257.


Peer Reviews

All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:

Review 1: Accept submission subject to major revisions of written statement
This 40-minute film project documents a series of collaborative and consultative workshops and initiatives in the contexts of Museum of London Docklands and Cape Peninsula University. The documenting of these events serves as a pretext to address how institutions in South Africa and in the United Kingdom address not just the colonial past in museums but also how these ideas are connected to transforming university education and its curricula. Further it is an exploration of museum collection and curatorial approaches to address colonial histories and slave narratives. The film gives space to various voices: curators, educators and student leaders involved in addressing decolonial processes in institutions. The spine of the film project is drawn from the opportunity to observe workshops in Cape Town (focused on decolonising education in the space of the university) to workshops in London drawn from the ten-year anniversary of London, Sugar and Slavery exhibition and the Maasai Collection in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. The film does not necessarily aim to connect these different institutional spaces in a direct way, instead the filmmaker’s position is one of recognising the political necessity of how decolonial practices exist both in the space of the museum and, as it pertains to their anthropological collections and the education imperatives of museums in (re)cataloguing collections and re-orientating the expertise derived from cultural activists inside of the communities from whence the artefacts originate. The process implies how institutions such as museums have capitalised on producing knowledge based on their own epistemological references that served to validate their own political power. The film contributes towards documenting how ongoing discussions in museums amongst various stake holders allows for new knowledge and histories to be brought into view that would otherwise not be made visible.

The documentary foregrounds the political and urgent necessity for decolonialization – as a way for institutions to reflexively work through historical relations of power and disenfranchisement and seeks to introduce revised ways of structuring connections to places, people and institutions. The documentary is a useful contribution to the ongoing discussions about how decolonisation might be understood in different spheres: its curatorial practice in museums and cultural “industries” amongst them. The contribution is a valid engagement that shows (through the documenting of events and activities) how collaborations are developed across different groups and how these processes may be used to inspire similar initiatives in other tertiary institutions and similarly with museum collections in other places.

The documentary is produced in an accessible manner and is not illustrative of any theoretical o conceptual proposition but attempts to show how the proposition of decolonial may be operationalised in curatorial work. It makes some passing reference to some thinkers in the context of decolonial scholarship but only as it relates to the material in the documentary film project itself. This is an observation, not necessarily a critique. The written submission is a project description of the documentary and does not necessarily serve as the theoretical contextualisation of the project. It may be useful to invite the contributor to submit a brief literature review and/or theoretical framework to augment the current documentary description which may include a brief reference list or a short bibliography. This will then serve as a way to position (in relation to the documentary) the research work as a scholarly orientation of connecting the documentary to the theoretical propositions of decolonial theory that the film is reaching for. In the context of the documentary no changes are required as the project as a film appears to be resolved and completed. The suggestion rather, is to augment the written submission with the additional theoretical underpinnings and a reference list. This should not be an extensive document by any means but rather serve to contextualise and “map the field” as it were, of how the project either foregrounds and/or revitalises curational practices (as is the emphases here) or higher education (as was the entry point) of the film. The former (curational practices) seems more in keeping with the focus on this research. The final written submission may not need to be longer than approximately 2000 words.

Review 2: Accept submission subject to minor revisions of written statement
The documentary “Decolonising the curatorial process” undoubtedly brings to the surface a truly relevant theme for curatorial practice in general: the questioning of a Eurocentric and hegemonic approach when designing selections and collections displayed in spaces such as museums. The film proposes to address this issue by bringing two brief case studies, not without first situating the problem from moments in which there was an attempt to negotiate between hegemonic and “indigenous” views from a meeting / congress between a European and an African university.

At first, the documentary is pertinent in situating the issue, bringing thought-provoking testimonies from African and Afro-descendant researchers in an academic exchange space in the United Kingdom. These testimonies, recorded during the meeting and not directly to the camera, reveal relevant material, which was well explored by the film, those African subjects being fundamental to construct the discussion based on their own experiences and epistemologies. However, the second moment of the film, when we follow the case studies of museums that, according to the approach proposed by the author of the documentary, would have effectively practiced a gesture of decolonization of their curatorial practices, the film ends up avoiding the debate that brings up from the start. In the first museum we have only one speaking source, there is no discussion placed on her speeches or on some moments that would yield a deeper discussion, such as the decision to put up a mural where people who visit the exhibition can express their feelings about slavery, for example. This decision is controversial if we take into account the space, the curatorial approach and the audience that usually goes to museums in the United Kingdom. There is a weakness in this part of the film that seemed to me to be a waste, considering all the possibilities opened by the documentary itself from the beginning.

The other case study, curation with active participation by the Maasai people, follows the same path. Even though we have now the incisive testimonies of the Maasai, the questions brought by them are positioned as testimonies only and not as material for discussion. Fundamental issues such as the very museum’s possession of those objects, a controversy that cannot be resolved with the “help” of the Maasai by analyzing its disposition within the museum space, is ignored by the documentary. This whole section, as well as the film itself, is very peaceful in the face of a controversial situation.

Considering the opening of the film, the question of the Eurocentric gesture on curatorial practices was expected to be discussed at a level of putting in perspective two examples of museums in the United Kingdom – but not in the sense of being “exemplary”, but of representing perhaps a space of dissent that proposes a negotiation, but that does not necessarily get to negotiate in a way that breaks with neocolonial curatorial practices. The film avoids having a critical eye on these two examples, and even if at a certain moment it shows many cameras photographing an “unusual” scene – Maalai people walking around the museum and guiding white people about their culture – it also offers its own camera to frame them dancing their “typical” dances in the middle of the gallery – dancing to the camera. It seems to me, therefore, that the documentary lacks this decolonizing gesture it seeks to investigate in other spaces.

With that, I affirm that the filmic product is relevant for publication in this journal, mainly because it brings up issues such as those described here. I would strongly suggest that the statement be more in-depth about the creative process, the issues that arose during this process and, more strongly, those that were configured once the film was finished. The statement is the place for these reflections and what we received does not fulfill this role. Therefore, I believe that, for a better level of the proposed discussion, that the author can offer us a little more about this very controversial universe from his own reflection on the filmic product.

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