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Decolonisation in focus at HKW’s exhibition double bill

Our critic takes a look at HKW's two shows tackling the colonial-era and 20th century white gaze, "Spectral White" or "Love and Ethnology", both through Jan 6 and explores how the problem is still present in today's big state museums.

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Photo by Alair Gomes. Catch Love and Ethnology at HKW through Jan 6. Photo from the series “The Course of the Sun”, 1975–1980 Archives of the National Library Foundation, Brazil.

If you’re thinking of visiting either of HKW’s two current shows Spectral White or Love and Ethnology, it’s worth taking a trip to the Neues Museum as a primer. Among the many archaeological objects is the highly lauded bust of Nefertiti, a painted, stucco-coated stone sculpture of the wife of Egyp­tian Pharaoh Akhenaten by court artisan Thutmose, dated to 1345BC.

With its own room at the muse­um, Berlin’s Mona Lisa is part of the ongoing exhibition of the Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection and one of the museum’s main visitor attractions. But it is not without its problems: since it was unearthed in 1912, the Egyptians have been asking for its return and Time magazine put it on its list of “top 10 looted items”. Still, the Neues provides an accom­panying text panel mainly dedicated to the German man who “discov­ered” the bust, archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt. Reading like an out of date Tintin caper, the text glamour­ises his treasure-hunting instead of providing historical facts either about the piece’s subject or creator.

Two current exhibitions at the HKW do everything to turn such archaic attitudes on their head. Spectral White takes as its subject a collection of colonial-era portrayals, mainly in carved wooden sculptures, of Europeans made by indigenous artists. Brought to international attention in 1937 by exiled German ethnologist Julius Lips in his book The Savage Hits Back, they are a fasci­nating insight into the perception of European culture by the colonised. Works such as the sculpture “Couple Walking with a Dog” by Thomas Onajeje Odulate, made in Lagos, Nigeria (ca. 1920-1952) reveal how the Europeans’ idea of leisure time and keeping pets for pleasure were viewed with bemusement.

Other works depict policemen, missionaries, kings and queens alongside spreads from Lips’ original publication. Also on display are the notable drawings of Aboriginal artist Tommy McRae (1835/45-1901), which alongside his biography eloquently articulate the repressive and cruel regime of colonial force in 19th cen­tury Australia.

Based around the work of another, albeit self-styled, German ethnolo­gist, Love and Ethnography is a big­ger show with a sprawling agenda. Positioned as “a forerunner of today’s postcolonial and queer dis­courses”, Hubert Fichte (1935-1986) cuts a strange figure: a child actor, a novelist, a music critic in swing­ing 1960s Hamburg, he turned to ethnographic research in the 1970s when he travelled along the Black Atlantic with his partner photogra­pher Leonore Mau.

The exhibition spends some time illustrating Fichte’s life before get­ting to artworks born from a project started in 2017 that took his writ­ings, translated for the first time, back to their geographic origins and prompted new exhibitions by local curators. Highlights among these works include the film Whitenogra­phy by Michelle Mattiuzzi, tackling the white gaze: the camera follows the Brazilian artist around Athens as it prods and probes at paradigms of whiteness. Also not to miss are two African-American photographers finally getting the limelight they deserve: Alvin Baltrop’s 1970s and 1980s portraits of young men on Manhattan’s “pier scene” and James Van Der Zee’s fascinating 1978 Book of the Dead.

The show requires a deep dig to penetrate the typically theoretical language of HKW, but ultimately it is worth your trouble.

Spectral White – the Appearance of Colonial-Era Europeans and Love and Ethnology – the Colonial Dialectic of Sensitivity (After Hubert Fichte) | Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Mitte. Through Jan 6.