An Imagination Battle

Cultural ownership, decolonial listening, and Pablo Picasso were up for debate at Malmö Art Museum’s symposium on the mediation of public art collections.

Temi Odumosu, Charles Esche, Manuel Borja-Villel, Cecilia Widenheim and Tone Hansen during the Migration Symposium at Malmö Art Museum. Photo: Lena Bergendahl.

What are the latent possibilities within museum collections, and how can they be mobilised to discuss contemporary social and political issues? Can temporary exhibitions have lasting effects on art institutions? Finally, when speaking of museums, what is common and collectively shared? These are just some of the questions which framed the Migration Symposium that took place on Friday, 24 January, at Malmö Art Museum.

Held in conjunction with the museum’s current exhibition, Migration: Traces in the Collection – a collaboration with Konstfack CuratorLab and Tensta Konsthall, where it premiered in 2019 – the symposium sought to address the curation and mediation of public art collections through a number of case studies presented by guests including: former director of Malmö Art Museum and current director at Tensta Konsthall, Cecilia Widenheim; director of Henie Onstad Art Centre, Tone Hansen; director of Museo Reina Sofia, Manuel Borja-Villel; and art historian, curator, and senior lecturer in cultural studies at Malmö University, Temi Odumosu. Several of the curatorial case studies presented harkened to the ‘New Institutionalism’ of the 1990s and early 2000s, a discourse with which the symposium’s curator and moderator Maria Lind, as well as another one of the presenters, director of Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven Charles Esche, are closely linked.

Sonia Delaunay-Terk’s Rythme couleur (1952) is a central work in Migration: Traces in the Collection at Malmö Konstmuseum.Photo: Helene Toresdotter/Malmö Konstmuseum

The symposium kicked off with Widenheim, who gave a brief history of Malmö Art Museum and its collection, as well as an overview of projects conducted during her tenure as director. Her talk opened with the question, “to what extent should a collection reflect its context?” and ended by proposing “the collection as a collectivity… maybe.” Esche continued the questioning with his presentation, ‘Can a Modern Museum Turn?’ In it, he outlined Van Abbemuseum’s colonial history (its namesake built the museum with profits from his tobacco plantations and cigar factories in the Dutch East Indies), as well as a broad program for decolonising the museum. Among Esche’s key points: modernity is coextensive with colonialism; and self-critique is insufficient unless it is supplemented by a kind of “decolonial listening,” exemplified in his talk by the Public Art Agency Sweden supported project Al-Madhafah/The Living Room by architect Sandi Hilal. Forms of migration and displacement were also evoked during a discussion of Picasso in Palestine (2011), a collaboration between Van Abbemuseum and artistic director of the International Academy of Art Palestine, Khaled Hourani, whereby Picasso’s Buste de Femme (1943) was presented in Ramallah – the first time such a work had been loaned to a Palestinian institution.

Curiously, Picasso was omnipresent, making appearances not only in the prelude to Hansen’s talk in which she discussed Henie Onstad’s recently opened exhibition Picasso 347 in relation to the events of 22 July 2011 and current efforts to preserve the Y-Block building in the Oslo government district, but also Borjel-Villel’s presentation, which offered as a case study the Museo Reina Sofia’s efforts to “re-historicise” the crown jewel of its collection, Guernica (1937). Both talks problematised ownership to varying degrees. Yet, while Hansen’s case study centred on concrete issues surrounding provenance and artwork looted by Nazis during the Second World War, Borjel-Villel facetiously encouraged audience members to steal works of art – just not from the Reina Sofia. Interestingly, Hansen was the only speaker to mention the colonisation of Sápmi; Borjel-Villel, for his part, underscored the importance of a subaltern perspective, yet mostly meandered around a somewhat obscure diagram triangulated by the points history, dispositif, and “situated museum.”

The day’s most convincing talk, however, came from Odumosu. The art historian reflected on the questions “what calls us to act?” and “how do we know when things are working?” Among the former, she cited being a black body living and working in Nordic white space, and the possibility of intervening within that space – broadly understood as ranging from photographic archives to museum collections, and educational video games – an undertaking she compared to repetitive strain. A curator and scholar working ‘fugitively’ across various institutional contexts and collaborations, Odumosu invoked theorist Sara Ahmed’s statement that if questioning history is vandalism, then we might need to damage institutions. Her presentation concluded with a lengthy video clip from Bamboula (2012), a performance by Oceana James inside the Whim Greathouse, a plantation house-cum-museum on St. Croix.

Temi Odumosu is an art historian, curator, and senior lecturer in cultural studies at Malmö University. Photo: Lena Bergendahl.

A panel discussion moderated by Lind capped the day’s activities. Predictably, calls for increased transparency and outreach ensued, as did pleas for more time and resources for risk-taking and research; at one point, Borja-Villel claimed that museum directors are like squatters. That comparison’s plausibility notwithstanding, it was generally agreed that museums are in need of reform: they can’t continue expanding, franchising, and capitulating to state and market pressures.

Ample time was also given to defining what exactly is meant by “interpellating collections” (the panelists seemed to settle on questioning from the outside as opposed to preserving and conserving an inside), yet hardly a word was spoken about the interpellation of subjects. A perplexing omission, because as Odumosu asserted in her talk, quoting author adrienne maree brown, “we are in an imagination battle.” The stakes of this battle were perhaps most clearly attested to by the symposium’s predominately white audience – which one attendee ironically remarked was “quite an achievement.” What would happen to museum collections in a society where common ownership of and access to cultural production were a reality? Art would cease to be distinct as a category, and symposia on curation would be rendered obsolete. Until then, we would do well to follow Ahmed’s vandals. Or Esche, who, when asked what he would most like to do next at the museum, responded simply, “leave.”

Installation view from Migration: Traces in the Collection at Malmö Art Museum. Photo: Helene Toresdotter.