Preserving to forget?

Door Marte Van Hassel , op Thu Oct 17 2019 22:00:00 GMT+0000

Nothing is more current than the past, nowadays. Jelena Jureša’s film Aphasia will be screened at the Contour Biennale 9 in Mechelen this weekend, along with Jureša’s latest film Ubundu. Contour wants to reflect on the political and social responsibility for the colonial past, and for the structural racism that lives on as a result. Aphasia forces us to consider the place of the (colonial) archives in this discussion.

Aphasia sketches out three fragmented European pasts that play one after another in a loop: Belgium’s colonial past, the anti-Semitism in Austria, and the wars in Yugoslavia.

By joining together these three traumatic events in a single film, using both archive material and her own footage, Jureša not only draws a line between three European genocides. She also demonstrates how the way in which we approach archives plays an active role in the fragmentation, oblivion, and questioning of these histories. What is preserved and what remains hidden? And in whose interest?

Preserving to forget

Today, the battle for the future quickly proves to be one for the past. Whilst the Netherlands debates its ‘Golden Age’, the new Flemish government wants a canon and a museum for Flemish history. Heritage and archives are not innocent. They are profoundly political.

Heritage and archives are not innocent. They are profoundly political.

Precisely this question about the archive also plays a central role in discussions about the restitution and repurposing of colonial heritage, in which organisations such as the non-profit Bamko-Cran, Collectif Mémoire Coloniale and Change are taking the lead. It was only in late 2018, following the publication of the report on restitution by Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sar commissioned by the French Ministry for Culture, that the urgency of their question also received media attention.

Last year at about this time in Brussels’ French-language parliament, Mireille Tsheusi-Robert (Bamko-Cran) argued in favour of the restitution of the stolen Congolese objects and human remains held in institutions such as the AfricaMuseum, the Museum of Natural History and the ULB, the university in which I work.

Time and again, Bamko-Cran forces us to question how archives not only preserve, but also – and above all – forget. For example the organisation was deliberately absent from the De l'ombre à la lumière conference convened by the ULB on 15 February 2019 to discuss the future of the 14 Congolese skulls in the academic institution. In a letter read out by the researcher Martin Vander Elst, they expressed how conferences of this kind threaten to become a substitute for actual restitution. They quickly turn into an instrument for postponement, for forgetting.

Political aphasia is therefore the forgetting of certain episodes from history, the inability to tell the whole story.

The film Aphasia is also about such danger of forgetting. ‘Aphasia’ is a neurological disorder in people who have difficulty in fully describing or grasping an object or situation. Political aphasia – described in the film by an authoritarian, David Attenboroughesque narrator against the backdrop of the AfricaMuseum – is therefore the forgetting of certain episodes from history, the inability to tell the whole story.

Twofold positions

Jureša was born in the former Yugoslavia in Novi Sad (in what is now Serbia). She has been living in Belgium for the past five years. As regards Belgian history, her position is twofold. Not only is her own East European history, that of the Other, often forgotten within a Western context. At the same time, in the narrative and the traumas of the Yugoslavian wars, she is just as much put on the position of the ‘perpetrator’. How can these two things be reconciled?

It is with this twofold gaze that Jureša shapes her film. Alongside Belgian colonial history and Austrian anti-Semitism, she sheds light on her own history. She does this through a famous photograph by the American photographer Ron Haviv from 1992 in Bijeljina. In it, a soldier from Arkan’s Tigers, the Serbian volunteer corps that claimed victims in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, is kicking a woman who has been shot dead, Ajša Šabanović, in the head.

Jureša does not show the photograph itself, but conjures it up all the more powerfully by first describing the Croatian journalist Barbara Matejćić, and then presenting a choreography by the Croatian dancer Ivana Jozić. To the captivating rhythm of Goa music, Jozić appears to be re-enacting the perpetrator’s kick, like the trauma of a victim who recalls and re-lives the violence of her attacker.

Good or bad, victim or perpetrator: these seem to be the only possible positions in Western historiography.

The perpetrator in the photo, Srđan Golubović, also known as DJ Max, today plays music in Belgrade’s nightclubs. In Aphasia, Matejčić talks about the indifference that the photo evokes among partygoers. ‘Who knows what he went through, he is a victim of war’, they say. ‘It’s so sad, what happened to our generation’ Or even: ‘He’s just like us.’

Good or bad, victim or perpetrator: these seem to be the only possible positions in Western historiography. It is precisely these kinds of one-sided positions that sharply narrow our view of the past.

Fragmentation = negation

They also offer an escape route from having to take responsibility for that past, as a third part of Aphasia, about anti-Semitism in Austria, points out. For this, Jureša uses sections from the HBO series Waldheim: a commission of inquiry, a fictional trial about the war crimes of former president Kurt Waldheim, who in reality never had to take formal responsibility for his actions.

As a soldier with the German Wehrmacht in Greece and Yugoslavia, Kurt Waldheim was involved in anti-Semitic propaganda. The public prosecutor in the HBO series asks a pertinent question: ‘For two years, Kurt Waldheim has been urging the world to do what Nazis have done since 1945: to slice the responsibility into such tiny pieces that no one can be held responsible. If we believe that, what do we believe next? That these millions of dead, were victims of a natural disaster?’

Waldheim, A Commission of Inquiry, 1988

When we fragment any involvement in a crime, soon people are no longer required to answer for the structures that they enabled. But who continues to activate these structures today?

With her layered montage of new, old, ‘real’ and fictional images, Jureša demonstrates that the archive works through a logic of fragmentation. In Aphasia her own black and white photos of the AfricaMuseum during its restoration – featuring empty display cases and stores full of stuffed animals – alternate with film fragments from pioneers of Belgian colonial film such as Ernest Genval and André Cauvin. These show images of hunting ‘wild’ animals or impressive natural landscapes. Later they would be enclosed in the same display cases in the idyllic dioramas of the museum. ‘This is how it is in nature’, the narrator ironically declaims.

Today the renovated AfricaMuseum still follows the fragmentary logic of the diorama, for example in the ‘Rituals and ceremonies’, ‘Landscapes and biodiversity’ or ‘Afropea’ rooms. Conversely, ‘Colonial history and independence’ has been banished to the margin of the building, so the way in which this ‘margin’ in fact forms the structuring principle for the rest of the museum remains hidden.

Connecting again

What Jureša attempts with Aphasia is to render these connections visible once again, within the traumatic histories of Belgium and Europe. The male voice-over compares the stuffed animals in the AfricaMuseum to the way in which the Museum of Military History in Vienna exhibits the murder weapon and suit of the Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand as fetish objects.

This fragmentation of the archive is not innocent. There is a strategy behind it.

Here Aphasia moves into an inimitable gear. The model of that pistol from 1914? FN1910, the Belgian brand from the Fabrique Nationale in Herstal: ‘Oooh, did Belgium have arms!’, the narrator cries, ‘Belgium had so many arms!’ The associations follow one another at lightning speed.

As the initially controlled voice of the narrator grows more and more agitated, Jureša cuts the footage shorter and shorter: weapons, the hunt, rubber bicycle tyres riding through ‘Flanders fields’, the First World War, conflicts in the Middle East, in Nigeria… She weaves together each and every one of these histories in the film, while in the (Belgian) archive they remain set apart from one another as separate events.

Still uit 'Aphasia', Jelena Jureša, 2019

This fragmentation of the archive is not innocent. There is a strategy behind it. ‘If we were to tell the whole story, then the entire system of Western superiority would collapse: both moral, economic and technological’, Olivia Rutazibwa argues in an interview with Zwijgen is geen optie (ZIGO). ‘Without all this [colonial] theft, that system would never have existed. That’s why we can almost never bring ourselves to tell the whole story: everything would fall apart. Capitalism certainly would, given that it is built on racism, slavery and colonisation.’

From the position of the West, splitting up different histories is almost schizophrenic. It is as if it only wishes to acknowledge part of its skeleton.

Jureša draws attention to the subversive power that connecting different stories can unleash.

So what about – for example – the position of the ULB in the discussion about its archives? The university has finally raised the question of its Congolese skulls – at least after repeated acusations from the African diaspora – and yet once again it seems to be forgetting again. Because their collection also still contains the human remains of labourers, vagrants and East Europeans. How is their presence connected to that same colonial mindset?

Aphasia makes us sensitive to these kinds of deeper connections that the archive conceals. Jureša draws attention to the ambiguity in every positioning vis-à-vis the past. And to the subversive power that connecting different stories can unleash. There is never only one history, regardless of how those in power might wish to push that idea through for the future.