In conversation with Sandra Ferracuti. Curator, Africa. Linden-Museum
Zainabu Jallo & Sandra Ferracuti
Looking for Exú in Stuttgart
In conversation with Sandra Ferracuti.
Curator, Africa. Linden-Museum Stuttgart
The first encounter with Sandra Ferracuti was in 2018, at the early stages planning her exhibition Wo ist Africa? The exhibition was over a year away, so I had the good fortune to work with her for a few weeks before heading back to Brazil. This first meeting was already charged with discussions around the many responsibilities of Ethnographic museums. One of which is challenging erroneous paradigms by producing self-critical, potentially remedial dialogues through exhibitions; this is what she sought to do with Wo ist Afrika?
Following the continuity of Yoruba traditional worship within Candomblé in Brazil, the primary mission at Linden-Museum was to examine a few religious objects from West Africa that were produced within Yoruba cosmological and traditional beliefs.
We spoke about the collections and their significance, their modes of acquisition and the need to "awaken" these objects through more robust biographies.
Upon returning to Linden-Museum over a year later, Wo ist Afrika? had opened as a permanent exhibition with a focus on weighty questions about colonialism, slavery, object provenance, museum procurement practice and historical continuities.
Another mission for this visit was to find a particular ritual object on behalf of Prof. Vagner Gonçalves da Silva (University of São Paulo). This object, a sculptural representation of Exú, the deity of the crossroads in Yoruba cosmology, appeared in Robert Farris Thompson`s Flash of the Spirit (1983). Images of a “family” of Exús were sent by Ferracuti to us in São Paulo, and we had fixed an appointment in Stuttgart for a physical examination. After attending several ceremonies and witnessing the veneration of this deity across Brazil, I was curious to return to the museum to see some Exús from the late 19th and early 20th century West Africa.
In Brazilian Candomblé, Exú is one of the most important Orixás and always the first to receive the offerings, songs, and prayers. He is acknowledged before all other Orixás before the commencement of all ceremonies. He can be found at the entrance of all Candomblé terreiros as a guardian. In every such house, there is a room for Exú, which is always separated from the other Orixás. His mischievous side is said to have made him notorious for initiating calamity and chaos into the affairs of humans. The Candomblé community views him as a fearful character and this has led to his common association with the Christian image of the devil. Exú can provoke misunderstandings and confusion within people who are at fault with him, it is one of his mysteries. He is also linked to male sexuality and fertility.
Exu`s days are Mondays, his colours are red and black; his symbol is the ogó, a staff with gourds which represents the phallus; his offerings are of black goats and roosters, and aguardente, (strong liquor) accompanied by food made with Palm oil.
Exu is the Orixá of communication. He is the guardian of towns, cities, houses, of axé (supernatural forces of energy, power and nature), of happenings and of human behaviour. The word Èsù in Yoruba means “sphere” and he is considered the Orixá of movement.
Exú is regarded as a bridge between human feelings and the superiority of the Orixás. Characteristically, he is energetic, cheerful, charismatic, playful and very attractive, he owns an enviable magnetism and is very cunning. Robert Voeks, In Sacred Leaves of Candomblé, writes of Exú:
“The concept of Exu is integral to Condomblé health and healing.
On the one hand, he is a problematic Orixa as enigmatic as he is unpredictable as the owner of the streets and the cross roads- the arteries of communication- Exú symbolically directs traffic between the Aie and the Orun. He facilitates horizontal contact between the different Orixas as well as vertical communication between the Orixas and humans.” (Voeks 75).
After looking through and studying a number of Exús, there, we found him, sitting quietly at the back shelf in one of the Linden-Museum’s storage rooms, with not many words to frame him, he appeared somewhat smaller and comelier than in the publication.
Labelled with the inventory number 082189, this Exú was acquired by Prof. Adam Mischlich - a Christian missionary in the then German colony of “Togoland”. He worked in this region from 1894 to 1897 and sent it to Count von Linden in 1913. The museum description reads: „modellierter Kopf mit kleinen Kaurimuscheln anstelle der Augen und einigen in der Masse steckenden Hühnerfedern, in schüsselförmigem Gefäß. Legba-Fetisch des Priesters Abu, gegen Krankheit. Gerichtlich eingezogene Ausrüstung des Priesters Abu.“
“modelled head with small cowrie shells in place of the eyes and some chicken feathers stuck in the mass, in bowl-shaped vessel. Legba fetish of the priest Abu, against illness. Legally collected equipment of the priest Abu”. Legba is another name for Exú.
Digging up information about Adam Mischlich was akin to going down the rabbit hole. He was a missionary trained by the Basel Mission House whose main interests lay in the region of Misahöhe primarily and the Hausa societies of West Africa (Nigeria particularly).
The hours spent in the storage with the Exús kindled object-based questions and discussions that were carried on to different occasions. During a video call in April 2020, between Bern and Stuttgart, and amidst the COVID-19 confinement, we managed to have a more full-bodied discussion as Ferracuti responded to some of my research inquiries.
Ethnographic museums possess collections of objects from around the globe and exhibit them in ways that estrange the objects from populations that originally produced and used these artefacts. What do the moves towards community relations, co-curating and other museum decolonisation projects mean for reinstating objects to their original bearings?
In previous research on the mythopoesis of Chicano/a Laguna Pueblo and Sioux of North America, I had come across the indissoluble relationship between the artistic and the ritualistic elements that objects embody in specific contexts; where the artistic is neither separated from the functional nor the sacred from the secular, as is the case in Native American ethnopoetics and performance, which Gloria Anzaldúa contrasts with a Western perspective as follows:
"An Indian mask in an American Museum is transposed into an alien aesthetic system where what is missing is the presence of power invoked through performance ritual. It has become conquered; a dead thing, separated from nature and, therefore, its power (90)."
In the following conversation, we discuss possible ways in which objects can be infused with life again within a museum. This certainly wouldn’t be an invocation of original life, as their profiles ought to now include several encounters involving voyages.
ZJ: It appears that we are returning to the importance of things again. A return to materiality… with philosophical and theoretical tendencies such as the Thing-theory, Actor-Network Theory, Speculative Realism, Vibrant Materialism, and object-oriented ontology that continue to interrogate the role of the object and its agency. Do you have the impression that this is an appropriate turn or re-turn?
SF: Some years ago, I had been discussing this with my colleagues in Italy (I am part of SIMBDEA, the Italian Society for the Anthropology of Museums and Heritages) … about the rise of Material Culture studies and how they were blooming but usually not at all connected to museums. So, we were kind of struggling to get colleagues from the universities to engage with museum objects because they were left out as if they wouldn’t have a social life so to say, it was more about pop culture objects and regular social life objects but not museum objects. We thought that the museum objects should also have entered earlier these discussions to renew discussions around critical museology. I think it is a good time even though since I began working within museums I ask myself regularly if it is not already too late, because the materiality of these objects and the traces of the global histories of European imperialism and colonialism are incredibly important and timely today, but they have been for some time. The lack of this global history is dramatic. So, these objects can be alive and are alive in the minds of a lot of people, but in a very vague sense. The museum collections in Europe are colonial, but if we get down... and these museums have the potential to do it…, to each single object, we may go away from this sort of essentialist ethnological old-fashioned view where “these people do so and so…”
ZJ: In terms of limiting the description to the function of the objects…?
SF: Yes, …and give object biographies, objects identities and try to find out the biographies of the people who dealt with these objects then basically, we are making history. Histories are very important for the present. Everything about our world today is about global networks. So, these objects testify to how relationships have worked and we can compare them to the contemporary relationships between people and how we construct our identities through these relationships and on both sides identities are constructed again, you know, so to say, from the African side, “The Europeans” and from the European side “The Africans”.
ZJ: To mitigate the projection of alterity.
SF: Yes…But when we get down to the biographies of the objects, there is no Africans, or Europeans anymore, but there`s people, who live in a specific context which has a material structure of that context that makes them do something.
It would be very important to use the methodology of material culture studies with museum objects, it is an amazing potential and for Actor Network Theory I think it is also very important, I also refer to the museum context again, it’s time to finally start working in the direction that museums don’t represent cultures of people but they represent collections, encounters, histories and I was inspired especially by Ruth Phillips who reflected a lot on the ANT and how these relationships should become clear in Museums. So, where do objects come from? They do not fall from the sky! Basically think, together with other people who have been engaged in Museum Anthropology, that museums are being left out by academic studies but they are extremely precious to sort of reconnect to historical narratives and reflections about how human beings work.
ZJ: In assembling resources for a course I am going to be teaching on Material Culture within Anthropology, I am having to reach out to other disciplines such as Archaeology an Art History for teaching Materials… to be fair, they are not far removed from each other given the rhizomatous connections between disciplines. The problems you refer to do not seem to be specific to museum Anthropology alone but Anthropology as a whole… the methodology of working with objects does not appear to be elaborate within the discipline. it is really emphasizing with what you said earlier about detailed object biographies. They should not be circumscribed to function and form but also related to interactions… entanglements that they mediated.
As someone who works closely with objects, how would you interpret the kind of agencies these objects have… given also, that they once had a life, for example the Exú from Togo we were looking at that had a past life as a ritual object. How would you react to the kind of agencies they possess post-transfer?
SF: I can refer to something that happened during a residency we (Linden-Museum, February-March 2020) were having with colleagues from Namibia. The Residency happened within the framework of Linden-Museum's project "With Namibia: Engaging the Past, Sharing the Future": part of the "Namibia-Initiative" funded by the Ministry for Research, Science, and Art (MWK) of the State of Baden-Württemberg.There were four persons, one is a member of the Herero Genocide Foundation (Usiel Seuakouje Kandjii), two are members of Heritage Watch Namibia (Steven Hendrik Isaack and Anna Petrina Haigomas) who are working to safeguard and promote Nama culture, and one belongs to the Maharero Royal Traditional Authority (Ebson Urbans Hiruke Ruuna Kaapama). We were in the storage and had selected some objects for them to see, and especially these four persons, who are deeply engaged in politics, activism and the numerous issues that come to play when we think about the relationships between Germany and Namibia. So, we found ourselves in the storage and Steven Isaack started to film. It was me, Christoph Rippe (Provenance researcher), them, and Nina Frankenhauser, a conservator, also working at the Linden-Museum… I was about to talk to Anna (Heritage Watch) when Steven attracted my attention and told me “Karingana wa Karingana”, which is something I have written in the exhibition because it is what people say in Mozambique… in Shangaan when they mean “now a story is about to be told”. So, he told me to refrain from speaking in that moment, knowing I would understand, because there is no translation in English as powerful as the original. It is not some story, it is a story about to be told, he meant… I understood and moved aside and Anna started to sing as he recorded. She was singing with the objects, to the objects, with us. So, it is difficult to really subsume what happened in one direction because the relationships among us… the group, changed. Everything changed and everything became part of a story with a deep breath and the story was not only about Nama, not only about Herero, it was about us. This is a very strong example of what objects can do, it is one of the things they can do, depending on the actors and their choices. What they were doing came from a choice to share it with us but in a limited way…for example they could decide to share it on Facebook, we could have asked them if we could put that in the exhibition but what happened there was, and remains, a fact in itself.
ZJ: What changed? How did it change the participants? Or perhaps from your own perspective specifically.
SF: It was an operation that changed all the participants. It is one example of how collection objects can have a certain power and this power is given to them also because they are in museums. The reason we were in that room was because the objects are in the museum and because of the critical nature of the history they talk about, because the history they talk about is what the present is constituted of. What she was singing was not a happy song, it was a mourning song for the loss suffered by her people and many other people. Museums have indeed often been compared to cemeteries. Still, there is a difference between the symbolic action that we took part in the storage that day act and a religious ritual act (referring to a mourning song in an intimate and religious context). The museum context can host ritual acts which are of another kind… in a way the objects become part of museum-specific forms of lay ritual acts. They vary depending on where they are acted, why, and with whom- if they are acted within an exhibition then they are framed by a curator, by guides… and of course they depend on other personal engagements and perspectives… the original ritual nature of the object requires an actor who is aware of that and this also depends on the special biography of the person, he or she will react in a different way. Some still feel the original agency of the object, while others believe that the objects that came here are dead, that they are not active anymore. This is one point of view but others will think of it in the contrary. It is really a universe, the problem and the ideas that without people there is nothing, there won’t be objects.
ZJ: The kind of objects we work with are definitely not self-constituting in that way
SF: In my view, if we are not looking at them together, and this “we” is very varied, they don’t have that power, but the fact is that they are there forces for us to meet around. And that is the root of the power of these colonial historical collections, they are there, they can be also considered- for many of us- for me- like a weight on your shoulders about our ancestors and what happened… and our present. Whenever we have a relationship and we have this knowledge then the dynamic of this relationship changes because we know what happened and the consequences. It is a very complex process for visitors or people who are not aware of that but it is the museum personnel that has the chore to do that, you need a lot of sensitivity, a lot of capacity for communication, to bridge, translate. It is especially delicate, because often museums are seen simply as places where nice things are, to be looked at. So, it is very difficult to turn it again into a place for some constructivist learning. To create a space for dynamic relationships between visitors and objects and among visitors in the museum space.
ZJ: When you refer to variables, it all comes down to perceptions doesn’t it? How an object is understood also comes with the notions and preconceptions we come with… which brings me to this quagmire about the variances between art and ritual relics… if we agree that they are indissoluble, don’t you suppose this is reductive in a way, to present them as just art? Taking a more compelling aspect away from the object by generalizing descriptions. I am often confused by the interchangeable terms, going back to these Exús and the other ritual objects we looked at, will it be fitting to refer to them as simply Yoruba art knowing that they had an intrinsic ritual function that was primary over their aesthetic compositions? But then we may have to revisit the definition of art, of what an artefact is…
SF: I totally agree with you, it is reductive, I do not remember when it was that the Louvre for the first-time inserted objects from countries other than Europe into its galleries, in a way to sort of dignify them by including objects from other cultural traditions in the European art paradigm, as if it would elevate them. In Europe, the art system is incredibly powerful but I think we can go back to the expression “Karingana wa Karingana: this is a story, a depth into which these objects have originally been embedded, and the philosophical, cosmological dimensions of these objects go far beyond the Eurocentric notion of art... it is probably more similar to the concept of performance art, where you have Marina Abramovic, for example, doing something with somebody… I always think of this sentence I read by Mudimbe that the Eurocentric system is unable to learn… so, this system should hopefully be able to learn a concept that is broader than the ones it has. If you take a masked performance in Cameroon for instance, it is political, it is spiritual, it is beautiful, it is historical, it is extremely synchronistic, and it changes all the time. The concept of intangible heritage helps a little bit, where also objects mediate its existence. I think, yes, it is reductive and the objects in our collection in these museums are, all of them, more than just an art or artefact… because also the concept of art in Europe is super ambivalent. It also works within a power structure, where powerful collectors from Europe go around Africa deciding what is art and what is not… you know... turning some objects into art, which will enter art museums.
I find it also unfair… for the arrows in these collections for example, because they are also extremely beautiful. They were made to be used but those who made them did not only spend a lot of time to make them work technically well, with the high level of knowledge and craftsmanship that was required to derive them from natural elements and metal, but they made them also beautiful, they are decorated, inscribed… so they also are not just functional objects, they also contain something more, the only problem is that the system they are taken into does not conceive of this. It is a very dichotomised system, you have to be either here or there. You have to be Yoruba or whatever, it is difficult for the system to learn these broader concepts: to put one object or the other under one glass is a very arbitrary operation but it is the only one we have. Still, we need to try to communicate more, something that visitors can learn from. When all the arrows, containers, shields were made, those who made them also made them beautiful, while not to be put in museums… but because life is better when things are beautiful.
ZJ: That is a lovely statement, Life is better when things are beautiful! And these arrows you talk about, are you referring to any particular set? Because I saw a few in your exhibition.
SF: They come from different parts of the continent, some are from Namibia, others from Cameroon. In my view, they are extremely interesting also because of that extra element of beauty…I call it beauty, I think it is a form of poetry done with objects when you add non-functional elements to them. You are drinking from a cup, and the cup has poetry.
ZJ: And that is the artistic component ….? Is it safe to then say ritual objects have the multi utility based on perception? And art also gives a notion of commerce no?
SF: It also has to do with and requires the artist`s ego. There is a commercial aspect and there is an individual aspect. They are all confronting their own ego with us. There is a higher level of consciousness, a level of awareness… of the interconnectedness of everything and everyone.
ZJ: As a curator, are there any measures being taken to liberate collections from the Procrustean rule of categorization? If this is the case, can you share some of the methods are you employing?
SF: That’s an incredible amount of work to be done. The problem with museums is that they are often running to exhibitions very fast. I came to Stuttgart in 2016 and I was to open an exhibition in 2019, and this is more time than most exhibitions are given…exhibitions need to change often and we need to respect deadlines because we need to deliver to visitors. The State asks the museums to be very productive but unfortunately research is extremely sacrificed, research of all kinds. Museums are also extremely understaffed. Most curators are happy when committed researchers come to the museums and also research on collections because then they can do a lot for the museum when they share their results with us so that we can integrate them into exhibitions. In my view, also the model of the curator as the expert on a continent is problematic.
ZJ: That’s quite vast!
SF: My way of interpreting this role is as an orchestra director, something like that… For example, Zainabu has an expertise, she`s been working for 15 years on this topic, I am not the one interpreting this object that she has done research on. For example, for the necklace from Namibia that we display in the exhibition (Wo ist Afrika?), my colleague Dr. Anette Hoffmann designed and produced the sound installation on praise songs in Herero culture. She has been researching and studying this topic for years. And this is just one example. There were also some objects I could not include in the exhibition because of some uncertainties. I prefer not to write what I cannot be sure about even after consulting with colleagues with experience in the specific topic. More research is needed in these cases and we have to give it time and effort.
The idea for this exhibition, however, is that it is a start… The Museum is not ready to say it knows everything about the objects in the collections but also it is the same thing you said about Anthropology because I consider myself more of an anthropologist and there is no exclusive, fixed definition for anything basically. It is also interesting to construct narratives around objects. For example, the motorbike from Cameroon in the exhibition, I had my view about it, Stone Karima Mohamad (ABRAC), who collected it with me, had another view about it and both of them in their own way make sense. There are multiple views about the same object.
ZJ: It is a fair approach I think. To include all of these multiple perspectives and not have a single narrative for an object where the underlying dynamism would be lost. I was having a similar conversation with Carine Ayéle Durand (MEG) on objects having different lives… different associations: giving objects this multiplicity would be one way out of narrowing taxonomies within museums; that is, stamping it as one thing and that’s it! A ritual object for instance. What kind of ritual? What is its role within the ritual etcetera…
This is what is proposed with the idea of co-curating, working with experts from source communities. It helps with the assembly of robust lives of objects within institutions such as yours.
SF: To add to what you were saying before… all we are doing anyway has to do with people no? More than the objects, so trying to frame the objects in unexpected ways so that visitors are invited to understand the object more dynamically, than sort of learning a lesson by heart, that is the difference between a constructivist and a frontal lecture. When you present an object as: this is my object, this is what the object means to me, and this is what I am trying to do with the object, visitors will hopefully be made aware of the dynamic relationships between objects humans, and the cosmologies behind the objects. So, it is a question of using the narratives to refocus on us (on the visitor) so that the visitor is not passive, but when the narratives behind an object are presented, it is like a book, sharing situated knowledges and perspectives while liberating inspiration, reflexivity, and creativity on part of the reader. It is nice if we can start perceiving museum as such.
Objects within Ethnographic museums also serve as latent inquiry and instructive resources for museum-based scholarship and for researchers as myself. Organising newer schemes for the collections and exhibition stratagems as it concerns representation controversies do not have a singular tact. Still, a starting point of reviewing critically, the historical errors and transgressions, brings objects into even-handed light. After this conversation, Ferracuti was in contact with the donor`s family. As it were, this Exú is about to have a biography that is much longer than a one line sentence!
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987.
Mudimbe, V.J. The Invention of Africa. Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1988, p. 28
Phillips, Ruth. “Making Fun of the Museum: Multidisciplinarity, Holism, and 'The Return of Curiosity'.” Museum and Society, vol. 17, no. 3, 2019, pp. 316–341., doi:10.29311/mas.v17i3.3216.
Voeks, Robert A. Sacred Leaves of Candomblé: African Magic, Medicine, and Religion in Brazil. University of Texas Press, 2003.
 Orixás, Candomblé deities.  Aie- Yoruba word for earth  Orun- Yoruba word for an otherly place, often translated as heaven.  In reaction to Latour`s ANT Phillips certifies a polyphonic approach towards translating museum collections. In her opinion: “homogeneous, purified collections, while favouring certain kinds of investigations, cannot reveal the kinds of interdependencies we need to understand today more than ever, in light of multiplying racial and cultural tensions within and between nations on the one hand, and environmental degradation on the other. The adequate representation of human life on earth, in other words, requires a heterogeneous approach - the linking of human, animal, vegetal, mechanical, and technological actors that work together to create and sustain systems. Conversely, to ignore the heterogeneity of all functional systems and the processes of ‘translation’ that connect disparate entities leads to the system breakdowns that increasingly plague the modern world.” (Phillips 330)  In The Invention of Africa. Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge (1988), V.J. Mudimbe writes, “[...] epistemological ethnocentrism; namely, the belief that scientifically there is nothing to be learned from “them” unless it is already “ours” or comes from us” (p. 28) "With Namibia: Engaging the Past, Sharing the Future": part of the "Namibia-Initiative" funded by the Ministry for Research, Science, and Art (MWK) of the State of Baden-Württemberg