“Moving the Forum – Inhabiting”, ©Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss

Performing Decolonisation Is One Thing, Decolonisation Another

In an interview with Jana Lüthje, curator of the participatory dance project Moving the Forum at the Humboldt Forum, the question of if, and how, the institution was implementing change proved inevitable and, ultimately, inconclusive. The third of its four chapters called “Inhabiting” ran from 14 Feb to 26 March 2022, with the final chapter, “Interacting”, set to span 2 May to 11 June 2022.

After two decades in the making, Berlin’s fiercely debated Humboldt Forum finally opened in July 2021. It wasn’t until September of that year, however, that the museum unlocked the doors to its Asian and ethnographic galleries. It was around that time that I first encountered the Forum, albeit not within the building’s cold concrete foyer, where Baroque meets Modernity in an all-too-telling confrontation. Rather, I first encountered the Forum across the street from its Franco-Stella façade, where I joined the tail end of a comparatively fiery protest. Humbug Forum!’ proclaimed one protester’s placard, and ‘Bring Back Ngonnso!’ another. “Tear it down and turn it upside down!” went the chant that rallied everybody together. For while they were campaigning, first and foremost, for the return of the queen mother of the Nso people, in the form of a statue called Ngonnso that was plundered from Cameroon by Germany over 120 years ago, they were also protesting, more widely, the ‘678 million Euro contribution to the commodification of colonial history.’ Indeed, Ngonnso was but one of countless objects that were looted during Germany’s colonial past, and which now greet fee-paying visitors in the Forum’s galleries — or else languish in its basements with little hope of seeing the light of day, let alone returning to their countries and communities of origin. As the former cultural secretary Monika Grütters admitted in an interview with DW, “Germany’s colonial past has long been a blind spot in our culture of remembrance.” And while a light has recently been shone on German museums with colonial collections by the media, protesters, and politicians alike, too few institutions have turned this beam voluntarily upon themselves — the Humboldt Forum included. Sometimes someone is daring enough, however, to go into these institutions and shine a light from within. Jana Lüthje’s participatory dance project Moving the Forum at the Humboldt Forum is one such example. 

“There are two ways of provoking change,” Lüthje told me during an interview shortly following the third of the project’s four instalments. “You can do it from the outside, or you can try to go in.” ‘Going in’ takes not only a great deal of grit, however, but also, it seems, a good degree of patience. “The Humboldt Forum is a large, complex and slow institution,” Lüthje explains, “where every process you trigger takes years to be implemented.” Take, for example, Lüthje’s own journey. She was first approached by the Forum five years ago regarding a participatory dance project involving international dance company Akram Khan working with members of the public. As far as Lüthje saw it, however, this would not have been the right way to go about anchoring the Forum here in Berlin and in the minds of Berliners, who have increasingly fostered an indifferent, or, indeed, openly critical relationship to it. It would be better, she proposed, to embrace their criticality and to join in with the ongoing debates, rather than to turn their backs on them and risk becoming ever more out of touch. “We want to be actively involved in these debates,” responded the Forum’s director, Hartmut Dorgerloh, when questioned in an interview by DW upon the opening of the museum. Lüthje’s project proposal of ‘a participatory dance project, which critically examines the contents of the collections at the Humboldt Forum, the associated themes and its history, and questions of restitution and decolonisation,’ was thus given the go-ahead and an open call for Berlin-based artists was sent out.

At once, I was reminded of another open call sent out by the Forum that I’d come across on Twitter. This time, the Forum was looking for contributions to the first edition of their magazine, which would address the question of ‘The Instrumentalisation of Critique’. As I read the call, I couldn’t help thinking that, however well-meaning the editorial board of the Forum’s magazine might have been, they had still somehow got it all terribly wrong. Were they not part of the problem that they were proposing to analyse and, inevitably perhaps, monopolise? Indeed, it soon became clear to me and other scholars alike that the Humboldt Forum was, in the words of Duane Jethro in his recent article for ‘100 Histories’, ‘not only wanting to embrace but actually lead critique, despite being the main object of critique.’ Here was an institution that was trying to instrumentalise Eurocentric critical thinking to address decolonisation, all the while failing to recognise voices from the margins, diasporas, and the Global South. Unlike similar publication projects such as ‘100 Histories’ that encourage multilingual contributions, the Forum was inviting proposals only in European languages. It reminded me all too uncomfortably of the many online conferences on decolonisation that I’d attended during the pandemic, where panellists and speakers were comprised of mainly white, male professionals who seemed to spend a lot of time patting themselves on the back for their own progressiveness. If the accompanying image to the call was anything to go by (a yellow sweatshirt emblazoned with ‘Decolonise’ in white letters) it was as if they were saying (and I don’t think ironically) ‘Get the T-Shirt!’.

I asked Jana if she had any reservations when she was first approached by the Forum, or if she has ever since felt as though she is being used by the museum to their own advantage. “I had to think about it,” she confirmed, “and I continuously have to think about it — to constantly reflect and reconsider my arguments for making the project and whether they are still valid. If you have this semi-position within the Humboldt Forum,” she continued, “then you must regularly question yourself: ‘Are we being instrumentalised? Are we letting ourselves be instrumentalised?’.” I pressed her for the answers to her own questions. “Content-wise, we managed to keep our independency. In the process of the curating practice, I felt autonomous enough — that we weren’t censored, that we weren’t narrowed down to be less critical.” Her answer makes me wonder to what extent Moving the Forum is critical, exactly. From what I understand of it, it claims to be critical insofar as it takes possession of a space that, in the programme’s own words, ‘evokes histories of colonialism, white supremacy and systematic oppression,’ and also by addressing ‘processes of representation, inclusion and exclusion’ within it. I failed, however, to see how “The Living Room” by Yotam Peled, Nitzan Moshe, and Marie Klemm did that with its cast of white, elderly, female participants who, though brave and brilliant, already make up much of the Forum’s demographic. I was more convinced by Adrian Marie Blount and Telmo Branco’s The March”, which describes itself as at once ‘a funeral, a parade, a riot.’

In this piece, a group of BIPOC and white LGTBQ+ individuals stand huddled together at one end of the hall. Behind them, a 28-meter-long video panorama traces the tumultuous ‘History of the Site’. Once the audience has gathered, they disperse into the four corners of the hall, only for one performer to ‘drop dead,’ then another, and another. ‘Funerals’ are then held over each dead body in which the increasingly depleted group stands stooped over their loss, until at last, there is no body left to witness the final fatality or, indeed, the entire group’s demise. Except for us, that is, their audience. Indeed, their eyes remain frozen wide open — as often happens at the time of death — looking straight at us. No, through us.

“It is about returning the gaze,” Lüthje clarified when I asked her about this aspect of the performance. “Since the performers often feel that, within society, they are looked at wherever they go, that they are somehow being observed, now it is about the audience being observed.”

I certainly feel as though one performer’s silver contact lenses are piercing my own perception, as I peer down at the ‘corpse’ staring, unblinkingly, back at me. Then, resurrecting each other from the dead, the performers comfort one another with literal shoulders to cry on, before gathering strength and resolve as a community.

This trajectory of figurative death followed by resurrection and comfort reflected much of the rehearsal process, Lüthje told me: “Not all of the group knew each other beforehand, and they needed to build a community and establish a safe space between themselves, before they could go out into, and be ready for, the public.”

As the group makes for the door, each performer picks up a placard for, presumably, the ‘parade’, save for one performer who reaches instead for a megaphone and howls:

We are not here to make you feel comfortable

We are not here to educate you

We are not here to be digestible, to entertain you, to make you love us, accept us, take us in — in a shared space that you took over, although it never really belonged to you — just you

We are not here to please you

We are not here to make you feel any less guilty, less ashamed, less responsible for the way you erase us when you look at us, with those eyes of yours that eat us with prejudice, with fear, with ignorance — those eyes of yours that patronise us, that ridicule us, our identity, our existence.

By this time, the group are out in full force in the Forum’s passage, which Lüthje later describes as both “a non-exhibition space” and “a public space” that is meant to “trigger some encounters.” I am certainly taken by one unexpected but symbolic encounter between a performer and an elderly white man, who stands in their path on the threshold to the Forum’s foyer. Oblivious as to who these people are and whether he is witnessing a ‘real’ protest or not — not all visitors to the museum are here to see Moving the Forum — the look in his eyes does, indeed, seem to me to be caught somewhere between fear, ignorance, and prejudice. As he steps sheepishly aside, the parade then becomes ever louder and more animated as the protesters enter the 30-meter-high foyer, shouting at the tops of their voices:

We are not here to embody your stigmas, nor your phobias

We are not here for you

We don’t need your saving

We don’t need your inclusion

Inclusion is needed where exclusion reigns

We are here for us

We came into the devil’s house — we looked him in the eyes — and we said:

We are not afraid of you

You can retaliate, you can bully us, childishly attempt to attack us — with enraged muscles and words

But you will never take away our truth

And truth is something that you will never know, something you will never feel — and for that —

We pity you

We came to stay

We came to be

Regardless of you

Despite you

And if it needs be — without you.

But who is the ‘you’ they are addressing? Is it the Humboldt Forum? The audience? Or both? As I read the message on one placard — ‘Neutrality Is Complicity’ — I can’t help feeling that they are addressing me, the onlooker, as much as any museum staff member. For I am not given the opportunity to join in. Indeed, the performance seems to be pitted as ‘us’ against ‘them’, which is somewhat at odds with the programme write-up: ‘THE MARCH invites the museum’s visitors to a revolution.’ Actually, I feel more like a spectator. This feeling is only cemented by the fact that the climax of their revolution is staged around the corner from the foyer — in some back room of the ‘devil’s house’ — where their movements become ever more manic, but still, ultimately, contained by the four walls of the Forum.

When I shared my frustration with Lüthje about the so-called ‘riot’ moving to a less public and thereby explosive space, she maintained that “this was a decision made by the group themselves, to move to a safe space within the Forum, so as to cool down and close the protest.” This seemed to me to be counterproductive, however: it effectively turned their professed ‘dismantling of the imperial space’ from an act of decolonisation into a performance of decolonisation, where the audience had little to do other than applaud as the performers theatrically walked ‘off-stage’. “The applause also struck me,” Lüthje confessed, imagining that the audience must have felt in conflict, caught somewhere between recognising that these were non-professional participants taking part in a protest, yet still “somehow wanting to acknowledge their contribution to the project.”

Now that she is facing the final leg of the project’s journey, I asked Lüthje if she felt that Moving the Forum has in fact changed the museum, as its name implies, or if it has at least moved it further along in its journey toward decolonisation. “I have seen change in small steps,” she replied, “such as in the willingness to open the space to different communities, and actually doing something about that, rather than just hoping that these people will come of their own free will …but of course, many people don’t want to step foot in such an institution,” Lüthje admitted. “As an artist going in there, you encounter a lot of critique from your peers. But I am trying to do this for the dance scene — It’s mainly choreographers who are taking part in this project, together with some sound designers and visual artists.” I asked her what she thought dance in specific could do for the debate on decolonisation and how it was ultimately implemented within institutions. “It opens up a different way of dealing with the topic,” she replied, “of not rationalising the discourse, but rather critically tackling it through the body. My big question is, of course, how lasting this change will be.” I picked up then on Lüthje’s sigh and asked her what change she would ultimately like to see. “In an ideal world, I would love there to be more space for dance in the Forum and that the space is given to different artists without conditions,” she stressed. “Being able to curate and place their own topics. In fact, one team of choreographers, after their chapter of Moving the Forum brought through an idea of a weekly urban dance event, which will soon be implemented”. So, there has been progress, I pressed? “It’s all small steps,” Lüthje admitted, “but I hope there is something moving. I wouldn’t be able to do such a project if I didn’t think I could implement change. Internally,” she continued, “I think that if the institution learns something, then it should be more transparent about its learning processes, in terms of its own accountability, and that it should be led by more diverse members of staff. But then again, a lot will have to change before certain people will want to take up those positions. It is, as we say in German, a Teufelskreis — a vicious circle!”

While the Humboldt Forum may find itself in a vicious circle, it seemed clear to Lüthje (and to me) how they could easily break out of it: “By transparency, by accountability, by taking a position publicly, and by tackling the discourse honestly.” Indeed, it is perhaps the Forum’s arguably disingenuous approach to decolonisation through projects like Moving the Forum that, for all their worth, are, at the end of the day, very small steps, which drives home the point. At least for me, performing decolonisation is one thing, and decolonisation another. The Forum, if it is to truly change, would do well to consider this distinction.

“Inhabiting”, chapter three of the participatory dance project Moving the Forum, ran from 14 to 26 March 2022 at Humboldt Forum in Berlin. The fourth and final chapter “Interacting” will run from 2 May to 11 June 2022.