Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Sacred and Secret Heritage: The diversity and sensitivities of African cultural traditions: A personal view


by Helene Vollgraaff
Heritance Participating Professional and Secretary of the South Africa ICOM


The South African Museums Association (SAMA) 72nd National Conference took place from 24 – 26 June 2008 in Cape Town and included a special session on Diversity and the Role of Museums organised by ICOM-SA. The conference was well attended by just over 140 delegates. This report is a personal view and does not reflect the full discussion at the conference. The conference proceedings will be published by the South African Museums Associations.

Despite the theme, the discussions at the debate at the conference focused on identity issues, access and power relationships. As Professor Crain Soudien, the facilitator of the wrap-up session put it, the conference dealt with the pressing issues facing South Africa in every sphere today. In some ways, the debate mirrored discussions around xenophobia and the brand of African nationalism associated with the current South African government.

A controversial perspective, but one not without significant support, is the opinion that defines “authentic Africa” as “black Africa”. This definition of African excludes people from European and Asian descent, many of whose roots on the continent date to the 17th century. While not explicitly stated, it also excludes the descendents of the first inhabitants of the country, namely the Khoisan. This view of the “authentic African tradition” considers other influences as a foreign corruption of the “authentic” and sees the museum as having the task of conserving and documenting this “authentic” version in cooperation with the gatekeepers of these traditions. One speaker cautioned the delegates to focus on their own culture as one cannot fully understand the traditions of the “other”.

Though no serious heritage practioner will argue against a process of informed consultation with community members and respect for traditional structures, the above perspective does raise serious concerns. Are traditions static or should one accept that living in a globalised world will influence traditions and that adapting to these influences is as valid as changes in previous centuries? And, how do one deal with discriminatory traditional practices, for example against women? Is respect for traditional practices not sometimes used to continue with these discriminatory practices and to affirm the position of those already in power?

An interesting paper in this regard was that of Paul Tichmann of the Luthuli Museum. The Luthuli Museum honours the life of Chief Albert Luthuli (1898-1967), a former ANC President and South Africa’s first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Luthuli, Chief of the Grooutville Umvoti Mission Reserve, challenged discriminatory traditional systems by allowing women into the kgotla. The kgotla is the centre of political power and decision-making in traditional African societies and women are still excluded from this powerful arena. Luthuli thereby indicated that these traditions may be challenged and adapted to conform to contemporary human rights values. The main thrust of Tichmann’s paper was that the Luthuli Museum uses the value system of Chief Luthuli to address contemporary social problems such as the recent xenophobic attacks.

Paul Tichmann’s paper was also one of the contributions that put a South African twist on the meaning of the sacred. Does sacred imply a religious site or can a site of significant political meaning also considered to be sacred? Another paper in this regard is that of Sabine Marshall of the University of KwaZulu-Natal whose paper dealt with two museums on the site of the Battle of Blood River (1836). The Battle of Blood River between the Voortrekkers and the local Zulus has been a significant symbol within African nationalism for many years. The two museums gave opposing views of the battle and Blood River is a clear example of a site that is sacred (in the political sense) to a section of one ethnic group, but has little relevance to the rest of South Africans. Marshall argued that the existence of two museums, a strategy that has been duplicated elsewhere, does provide a workable solution in respecting diversity in the country as it acknowledges that sites/events may have different meanings to different sections of the South African population.

Another theme that ran through the conference was that of museums as agents of social change (to borrow the phrase from ICOM). The keynotes to the ICOM-SA session, Kurt Dewhurst, Marsha McDowell and Diana N’Diaye urged museums to measure their success not in outputs, but in terms of the impact they have on society. My own paper, Depicting Religions: The Iziko Bo-Kaap Museum as case study, argued that religions are diverse and one always have to make choices of which viewpoint will be emphasised. Though these choices should be informed by thorough research and an understanding of the dynamics of the community, it will also be informed by your own values – in the case of Out and About Muslim Women Today, support for gender equality (a viewpoint that have strong support amongst Muslims in Cape Town).

During the wrap-up session, it was argued that museums should not only reflect cultural traditions, but critically engage with them. It was also argue that people are relational beings – we know ourselves through interaction with the “other”, including people of other cultures. Museums do not only play a role in creating understanding between different cultures, but also by focusing on which values are shared across cultures. In his wrap-up, Prof Crain Soudien urged museums to be bold and to become active participants in public debate.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Traditional Dance in Adjara, Georgia


During our visit to the Gonio Fortress at Batumi (on the Black Sea near the border with Turkey) we were treated to a performance of polyphonic singing and traditional dance.

On the radio

This npr story talks about American museum pioneer Charles Willson Peale is worth a listen.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Georgia as Crucible and Crossroads

During the International Symposium of Georgia Arts, there were constant reminders that Georgia is a crucible and crossroads of European and Asian culture: the haunting choral singing, the churches abuzz with chanting and incense, the dagger throwing dancers, the wines and chivalric toasts, the Bronze Age treasures... The Chavchavadze family estate provides a concise explanation of the historical role of Georgia in the region:

Georgia has emerged as the birthplace of the first Europeans and is often called the "cradle of European civilization." Remains of the earliest hominids, outside of Africa, were unearthed in 1991 at Dmanisi, Georgia. Srveral skulls and a full skeleton were found; they are estimated to be about 1.8 million years old thus representing an evolutionary bridge between man’s ape like forebears and ourselves.

The next major chapter in Georgia’s history is related to a treasure trove of gold and silver objects discovered in Vani, a templar city located in Western Georgia. The items, which date from the 8th to the 1st Century BC, are linked to the prosperous settlement of Colchis which might have been colonized or might have been a trading center. They are also linked to the legendary Greek hero, Jason, and the Argonauts. Vani produced vast arrays of exquisite artifacts including potterykat, gold and silver jewelry, graceful bronze sculptures, and a vast variety of funerary pieces. The pieces are characterized by advanced metallurgical techniques and Greek and Persian influences.

During the last century of pre-Christian Georgia, the Georgian Kingdom was tied to Rome. In 330 AD, King Mariam III adopted Christianity which strengthened Georgia’s ties to the Byzantine Empire. In 645 AD, neighboring Arabs captured Tbilisi. In 813, the Bagradids, a royal family of Armenian descent, ruled a part of Georgia, and in the 11th Century Bagrat V united East and West Georgia.

In 1099-1125, David IV (David the Builder) transformed the country by defeating the Turks and expanded Georgia’s territory Southward into Armenia and Eastward to the Caspian Sea. The golden age that he ushered in concluded when Queen Tamar’s reign ended in 1212. The Mongols invaded Georgia in 1236. The capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453 began three centuries of Turkish domination in Georgia.

In the late 1700s, Erekle II united the Eastern provinces of Kartli and Kakheti. He soon turned to Russia to gain protection from the unpopular Turks. In 1801, Tsar Alexander I of Russia abolished the Kingdom of Kartli and Kakhetia and Russian prescence steadily increased. after 1000 years, the Bagradid Dynasty ended its reign. In 1810, Tsar Alexander annexed the Western Kingdom of Imereti. As a result of several Russian wars against Turkey and Persia, other territories were annexed to Georgia, a part of the Russian’s strategic base in the Caucasus.

In 1918 Georgia declared independence and was under British protection from 1918-1920.In 1921, the Red Army invaded Georgia and from 1922-1936, Georgia became a part of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Republic. In 1936, the federated republic was split up as Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. The three countries remained separate Soviet Social Republics of the Soviet Union until the end of 1991.

In 1989, Georgian nationalism again began to resurge. In 1991, Georgia became an independent state. At present, it is the focus of conflicting interests between the U.S. and Russia. It is also facing a challenge from two separatist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have close ties to Russia. Nonetheless, Georgia aspires to join Nthe North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU).