May 28, 2021 to August 29, 2021

Invisible Inventories

Questioning Kenyan Collections in Western Museums

During almost 70 years of British colonial rule (1895 to 1963), not only did countless Kenyans lose their lives as a result of colonial oppression and resistance, but thousands of historic Kenyan cultural and artistic objects were also taken out of the country to be sold to museums and private collectors throughout Europe and the USA. Tens of thousands of historical Kenyan objects have since been in European museums. What does their absence mean for Kenya? And what does their presence mean for the European and North American museums that hold them today?

Answers to these questions have been sought since 2018 by the International Inventories Programme (IIP), an international research and database project of the Goethe-Institute, which initially identified the historical Kenyan cultural objects that are in cultural institutions around the world. Initiated by artists, IIP has brought together a constellation of artist collectives and museums from Kenya, France and Germany in an effort to disseminate African perspectives on restitution that are rarely represented in international discourse. The result is an intensive interdisciplinary collaboration between the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi, the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne, the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt a.M. as well as the two artist collectives "The Nest" and "SHIFT" and other partners. The most important tool to emerge from the collaboration is a database that currently (as of 30.03.21) contains 32,501 historical cultural Kenyan objects from thirty institutions worldwide, several publications and the joint international exhibition "Invisible Inventories: Questioning Kenyan Collections in Western Museums".

Under the collective artistic direction of the IIP team, the exhibition will be shown in 2021 in the three locations in varying versions: from 18 March - 30 May 2021 at the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi, from 28 May - 29 August 2021 at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne, and from 6 October 2021 at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt a.M. The exhibition brings together the results of two years of collaborative scholarly-artistic research on the absence and missing of historical Kenyan cultural objects located outside Kenya: through art, activism and scholarly enquiry, and the Kenyan cultural objects themselves. "Invisible Inventories: Questioning Kenyan Collections in Western Museums" is an attempt to address the asymmetry of the shared history and painful relationship that underlies it. The exhibition draws from the diverse experiences of the participants in the project and attempts to approach the shared history together. The Kenyan objects from the Cologne collection are missing from the exhibition in Nairobi. Their absence is represented by staged empty showcases.

In Cologne, the IIP curatorial team will present the entire Kenyan collection of 82 objects acquired by the RJM between 1905 and 2006, most of which, with a few exceptions, have never been exhibited before. The staging alludes to the presentation of the objects on the occasion of the IIP team's visit to the museum depot in 2019 and thus makes the previously invisible inventories visible. For some of these objects, scholars from Nairobi have for the first time jointly compiled comprehensive object biographies that make clear the significance the objects still have in Kenya today but also for members of the Kenyan community in the diaspora in Germany.

In addition to the Kenyan objects, the artistic works of the two artist collectives "The Nest" and "SHIFT", which were significantly involved in the overall project, play an important role. For the Kenyan collective "The Nest", Jim Chuchu and Njoki Ngumi have visualised excerpts from the object database to illustrate the unbelievable volume of data collected and the mass of over 32,000 objects located in institutions outside Kenya. A seemingly endless, continuous band of object labels will be "wrapped around" the RJM from the outside and continue into the exhibition spaces. In the exhibition, Sam Hopkins and Marian Nur Goni from the international "SHIFT" collective present a sound installation on the diverse stories of the so-called "Man Eaters of Tsavo". Around the turn of the century, the two legendary man-eating lions succeeded in blocking the entire British imperial machinery in East Africa. Today, the two stuffed lions are on display in Chicago and, for many Kenyans, are among the National Treasures that must be returned to Kenya. Simon Rittmeier, also part of the SHIFT collective, investigates the museum as an institution in the process of decolonization in his work "Takeover" in collaboration with the musician Richard Ojijo and together with Sam Hopkins in "Topography of Loss".

Participating artists and scientists

Jim Chuchu, Julia Friedel, Njeri Gachihi, Frauke Gathof,Clara Himmelheber, Sam Hopkins, Lydia Nafula, Leonie Neumann, Njoki Ngumi, Marian Nur Goni, Philemon Nyamanga, George Juma Ondeng’, Richard Ojijo, Simon Rittmeier, with support by Leonie Chima Emeka, Niklas Obermann und Jane Pauline Waithera.

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