Marina and Irini slam the hammer on the museological methods of collecting, archiving and exhibiting historical objects to assess their proximity to imperial violence and colonial perseverance. They delve into Gala Porras-Kim’s artistic practice and her engagement with the Proctor Stafford Collection of ceramic artefacts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and explore how her work creates a potential space for healing amidst the unyielding forces of hegemony.
Cemented in our collective consciousness as the fictional centres of history, museums are the supposed guarantors of quality, authenticity, truth and “aura”, but to quote Gabrielle from the White Pube, museums are just bad vibes. No two ways about it: the typical “world culture” museum is irrefutably rooted in colonial endeavours. Would it then be so unusual to say that museums have contributed in sustaining ongoing hierarchies of the imperial matrix? Colonial histories don’t end when they enter a display cabinet. Rather, the vitrine becomes a vessel for their persistence. Artefacts accumulated from such histories are reduced to mere context, as decorations to the backdrop of imperial violence.
Calls for the repatriation of indigenous artefacts directed at the culture and heritage sectors, as well as for institutional accountability in the arts, have long been adamant. Institutions tend to respond by claiming to value diversity, however proceed to superficially engage with sociopolitical issues via shallow, ostensible methods of virtue signalling and co-option. Projecting an image of cultural diversity, the institution attempts to sustain the façade that the space is sanitised and free of wrongdoings. In doing so, they effectively flatten the social parameters of trauma. Our demands fall on deaf ears and earless cash registers while their performative gestures signal an enchantment with difference that’s branded and commodified.
Everything that enters a museum vitrine dies. It’s the site where ethnography is met with necrography, where knowledge is created through death and loss. An object’s history is retroactively revealed through processes of naming, indexing and archiving: “created then”, “acquired here”, “displayed there”. For contemporary artists who navigate past histories and national traumas in their practice, museums with historical collections – including “world culture” museums – can be fruitful sites. Critical artistic practices see the museum itself as a space that, in hindsight, reveals the violent and persistent processes of a “post” colonial world ratified in material form. We’re reminded of what art historian Claire Bishop refers to as “multi-temporal contemporaneity”; not a rejection of historicism, but an embrace of alternative topographies.
This happens to be a large part of Gala Porras-Kim’s artistic practice. The Colombian-born interdisciplinary artist considers the effects of time in relation to materiality, particularly in the case of Latin American indigenous cultures. In an effort to understand the relationships between artefacts and cultural identity, she explores narratives of erasure, appropriation and co-option. A prevailing method in her practice is working with information extracted from historical artefacts, a process of collecting fragments and speculatively reconstructing the gaps between them. In the exhibitions ‘An Index and its Histories’ , ‘An Index and its Settings’ , and ‘A Universal History of Infamy’ Gala observes the vague and imprecise institutional indexes of the Proctor Stafford Collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Her work attempts to reconcile the traumas induced by colonialism upon artefacts, beyond locating a productive space that is antagonistic towards the institution’s way of acquisition.
Largely comprised of burial figurines and vessels excavated from the states of Colima, Nayarit, and Jalisco on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, the collection was sold to LACMA in 1986. First shown at the museum in 1970, the objects were displayed as pieces of fine art, lacking information on date and provenance beyond the name “Proctor Stafford”. In an interview of the same year, radio host Clare Loeb refers to Stafford as a man who “lovingly and carefully” put together a collection that reflects “his level of connoisseurship”. Above all else, the collection was celebrated for its aesthetic value, implying an unassuming neutrality and a demure purity in the ways it was collected and displayed. There was a general indifference towards the circumstances of collection in the west, glazing over the legal ambiguities that allowed the export of historical artefacts. A resident art critic of the LA Times had even noted that the artefacts were amassed “before Mexico instituted tougher laws against the export of material considered part of its cultural patrimony.” Regardless of when, where and how the objects were extracted and exported, they always remain part of the region’s cultural patrimony.
Regardless, Stafford was publicly commended “for possessing a keen eye for artistic quality in primitive art”. Here, we can identify a general art-historical obsession with ‘primitivism’. It often replicates a longing for a pre-industrial mode of existence for the west; a longing that links the primitive to the exotic, the Other. It’s alarming that art criticism from 35 years ago would venerate collectors such as Stafford as superior, controlled and enlightened connoisseurs with such explicit colonial overtones.
In a public lecture about this body of work which Irini had the pleasure of attending, Gala had noted that eponymous collections are usually retained by arts institutions so as not to hinder collaborations with collectors in the future. And here we find ourselves asking: Why is personal recognition such a powerful incentive for the contribution of culturally significant collections to institutions? Stafford’s relationship to this particular collection of archaeological objects is merely by virtue of acquisition. His connoisseurship and ability to build an individual legacy as a private collector through the means of collecting public history is a typical case of the malaise surrounding the contested ownership of artefacts. These heterogenous objects that are thousands of years old, are homogenised and defined by the fact that a pillager was riding on horseback in remote west Mexico, fulfilling his real-life Indiana Jones/Tomb Raider adventurer archaeologist fantasy, all while claiming that “the sense of discovery and adventure of collecting are outstanding!”
In selecting this particular collection, Gala reveals how the relationship between private ownership and public institutions is beneficial in validating a collector’s legacy by virtue of the artefacts. In ‘Naming Rights’, a heavily annotated Microsoft Word document, she questions the meaning assigned to archaeological objects through cataloguing processes, especially in the case of eponymous collections. Directly addressing the policies at LACMA, the document interrogates the museum’s decision to keep Stafford’s name in place despite the fact that he is no longer alive and has no surviving relatives. It reads:
“It could be that Stafford got the naming rights to these objects indefinitely by possibly funding the looting of graves and then flipping them to sell to the museum, right before Mexico made it illegal to do so, but since he can only be their temporary steward, I’d like to know the terms of the current name categorization [of the collection], and if it expires.” – Excerpt from Naming Rights (2017), Gala Porras-Kim.
The museum cannot depict the cultural memory contained within the artefacts that’s been divorced from its cultural environment and true authors. It can only sustain the memory of the collector. Expanding her investigation to include the artefacts themselves, Gala exhibits her own indexes as corrected versions to LACMA’s, responding to the lack of historical diligence which broadly classifies the artefacts as west Mexican. In the form of large-scale paintings, the Jalisco, Nayarit and Colima indexes shed the perception of the artefacts as mantlepiece decorations. With size being one of the only things that are factually known about the objects, they are organised according to scale in the paintings. A series of six contemporary ceramic sculptures titled as Future Artifacts after West Mexico, Los Angeles Index, was purposefully displayed alongside The Colima Index. These sculptures were made to resemble forms commonly found in Colima ceramics and stage an indirect speculative intervention upon the artefacts held by LACMA. GPS trackers attached with monofilament onto the sculptures generate precise data about the location and movement of each piece, allowing the objects to gain political agency outside of their institutional and art historical context. The work’s power lies not in its ability to merely deconstruct museum paradigms. It lies in its ability to actively establish a new paradigm through decolonial aesthesis: a departure from the embodied consciousness of the colonial wound and a subsequent move towards a space of healing.
It’s generally become common practice for institutions to appropriate power struggles which – at their very core – are about the redistribution of equity and power, as a way to appear woke. With representation becoming a virtue that’s reduced to surface-level interaction, the only real goal in sight is to accumulate cultural capital. LACMA’s initiative with the exhibition ‘A Universal History of Infamy’, was to engage Latinx artists working across a range of media to challenge absolutes and stereotypes in terms of what constitutes Latin America and its diaspora in the US. Whilst this may appear as a virtuous attempt towards supporting largely marginalised artists and their practices, it is not. The encounter between artwork, artist and audience within a museum space is effectively depoliticised due to a symbiosis between institution and hegemony, which would ordinarily disregard these artists. The political potential of Gala’s work being exhibited within the museum doesn’t lie in the conception of a radical artistic gesture that’s faced with the colossal task of macro-political reformation. Rather, the work acts as a decolonial interstice, a pocket, or a rapture, undermining the space that shapes it. It functions as a tool for subversion that momentarily articulates the museum’s fallacies: its complicity in violence and its subsequent pursuit for redemption.
To reckon with the flaws of the archive is to restore the ambivalence of lost narratives and their constant motion against the flows of history and capital, so as to finally initiate a process of healing. Like history, healing is nonlinear and oftentimes requires creative maneuvering. Under Gala’s stewardship, the artefacts are momentarily removed from the shadow of Proctor Stafford’s legacy and repatriated through speculative memory. Lifted from a life sentence suspended in fragmented history, the vessels and figurines gain a charge that can speak to the immutability of the static museum vitrine, to the violence of the archive. Artworks that problematise the imprints of colonial histories serve as antidotes to hegemony’s totalising tendencies, bringing us closer to multi-layered understandings of culture, history and identity.
As these institutions adopt neoliberal value systems promising adaptation, interaction, diversity and exchange, their entrenchment in colonial histories becomes increasingly seamless. Direct links to government donors as well as multi millionaire and billionaire art collectors mean that they are so heavily, desperately and inextricably tied to capital, that every attempt at decolonial investigation will be inert and devoid of meaning. Audre Lorde’s wise declaration is one we think about a lot in these discussions:
The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. – Excerpt from The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, Audre Lorde, 2018
Contemplating her statement, let’s assess how the parameters of change are ever so narrow. We can temporarily “beat [the master] at his own game” by looking at the practice of collecting historical objects for what it really is: theft of cultural property – but does this recognition suffice? The bruise of the colonial wound marks the foundations of the master’s house – the western museum – but also infiltrates his vicinity, what we understand as the western world.
The neoliberal art museum disguised as an educational site desperately strains for relevance, but its mere existence within a progressive cultural zeitgeist prevents any hope for genuine change. Our faded history books offer an interpretation of the entire world as an extended object of Eurocentric knowledge, making it absolutely necessary to look at colonialism as a capitalist enterprise. Entrenched within such structures, this bruise feels permanent in every place that global capitalism has infected with its touch, and is stubborn in its inability to fade.
Gala Porras-Kim’s current exhibition ‘Precipitation for an Arid Landscape’ is on show at the Amant Foundation in New York.
This text was sponsored by the Youth Board of Cyprus.