Conference Report–"Disturbing Pasts: Memories, Controversies and Creativity"

This summer saw the conclusion of ‘Disturbing Pasts: Memories, Controversies and Creativity’, an international research project led by Leon Wainwright (Department of Art History, The Open University, UK) which began in December 2011. (For an overview of the project, visit: )
The main focus of Disturbing Pasts was a major conference that took place over three days at the Museum of Ethnology, Vienna (recently renamed Weltmuseum Vienna) on 20-22 November 2012. The majority of speakers were from outside academia, the event was free to attend and widely publicised, while ample time was allowed for discussion and interaction with the audience and for networking among participants. It consisted of panels of highly-illustrated presentations on five distinct yet complementary themes. Each panel combined speakers from the three selected groupings of stakeholders (artists, curators and academics) and saw a productive exchange between them.
The sessions were filmed by technicians from The Open University and an audio-visual record of speakers’ presentations is now available at the Open Arts Archive ( Click on the links below for each presentation, available by ‘open access’.
Panel 1, ‘Cultural Loss and Fragmented Heritage’, began with two presentations from the artists Peju Layiwola (Lagos, Nigeria) and T. Shanaathanan (Jaffna, Sri Lanka), who showed how historical episodes of violence and the removal of cultural property – a British punitive expedition of 1897, and conflict in Sri Lanka – have been explored in each artist’s creative practice, as well as those of their peers. The curator Shan McAnena (Naughton Gallery, Queen’s University Belfast) evaluated recent curatorial attempts to reconnect the city of Belfast to the troubled memory of the Titanic. The visual anthropologist Elizabeth Edwards (De Montfort Leicester) and art historian Simon Faulkner (Manchester Metropolitan University) responded with a related critical debate on museum practice and colonial archives across the UK, and issues of public memory that are raised by paintings of Gerhard Richter recalling the history of Left-wing extremism in 1970s Germany.

Panel 2, ‘Colonial Pasts and the Exhibitionary Order’ brought together a cultural policy-maker (senior arts advisor Liv Ramskjaer, Arts Council Norway), a museum curator (Clara Himmelheber, Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum – Cultures of the World, Cologne), a senior researcher (Anette Hoffmann, Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative, University of Cape Town, South Africa) an artist (Dierk Schmidt, Berlin, Germany) and a political historian (Susan Legêne, VU Amsterdam). Through their individual presentations they evaluated the public display of colonial histories and the record of innovations (and difficulties) that has ensued in the process of tackling and presenting these ‘disturbing pasts’, often through strategic partnerships with artists. They examined what museums and the interpretation of archival materials such as voice recordings may tell us about the historical memory of communities in Africa (Namibia and the Congo) who share a record of European contact, or whose ancestors were conscripted into World War I, or the complex story of decolonization evidenced by photographs taken in Surabaya (Indonesia) in 1945.
In Panel 3, ‘Remembering Jews and the Holocaust’, cultural anthropologist Erica Lehrer (Concordia University, Montreal) tackled a combination of recent art, tourism and ‘memory work’ that are relevant to post-Holocaust Jewish experience, focusing on Poland. This topic and national context were investigated further by the Gdansk-born artist, Rafał Betlejewski, who gave a performance and slide show relating to his provocative visual work on Polish identity and the ‘re-writing of a Polish narrative’ in response to that country’s ‘absent’ Jewish presence. Curator and anthropologist Margit Berner (Museum of Natural History, Vienna) addressed an analogous process of reparation that is taking place in the physical unpacking, analysis, display and artistic interpretation of materials including death masks, samples of human tissue, handprints and measurements that were compiled by Nazi anthropologists. The literary scholar, Uilleam Blacker (University of Cambridge) responded with a critical overview and debate of Betlejewski’s art practice alongside that of Joanna Rajkowska (who would speak on Panel 4), and a third artist (Yael Bartana), drawing attention to how their artworks confront Jewish and Holocaust histories.
Panel 4, ‘Tainted Landscapes, Trauma and Public Space’ took up similar concerns, showing how certain contemporary artists reach out creatively to the public and raise issues of national identity while provoking debate on the meaning of place. The artist Rita Duffy (Ireland and the UK) demonstrated this with an account of her own award-winning painting and sculptural practice. Duffy explained how such processes of making and showing art are integral to autobiography, a theme that Sigrid Lien (University of Bergen) addressed in the setting of contemporary Sami art. With reference among others to the artist Bente Geving (a speaker on Panel 5), Lien showed the rich and broadly-ranging ways in which artists have confronted the colonisation of ancestral territories and the landscape traditions of the ‘majority society of Norway’, in favour of a Sami postcolonial cultural consciousness.
In the remaining part of Panel 4, the artists John Timberlake (Middlesex University, London) and Joanna Rajkowska (Poland and London) outlined two aspects of their own creative practices which highlight ‘unrealised’ projects or discontinued historical trajectories. Timberlake expressed his fascination for the ‘fictions of nuclear war’ – a war that never happened and so became the subject of ‘false memory’. He showed how the cultural legacy of Britain’s nuclear test programme of the 1950s and 60s may be explored meaningfully in his paintings and photography resulting from archival research at the Imperial War Museum in London. Rajkowska addressed another ‘unwanted’ presence: her architectural proposal to turn a smokestack into a minaret in the Polish city of Poznan, a project which was ultimately rejected by municipal planners who deemed it to be ‘culturally foreign’. Panel 4 was concluded with a joint presentation by another artist, Heather Kemarre Shearer (South Australia), and the anthropologist Fiona Magowan (Queen’s University Belfast). Their collaboration framed matters of justice and ‘intercultural trauma’. Magowan drew on her longitudinal ethnographic research in this field, while Shearer offered an arresting personal reflection on her life experience as one of the ‘stolen generation’ of Aboriginal Australians, the inspiration for her vocation in the field of legal rights and her practice as a painter.
Panel 5, ‘Diaspora, Displacement and Home’, was another panel of extended length, its theme cutting across the lives and professional involvements of a range of speakers: the curator and academic, Carol Tulloch (University of the Arts, London), curator Wayne Modest (Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam), the anthropologists Maruska Svasek (Queen’s University Belfast) and Maria Six-Hohenbalken (Austrian Academy of Sciences), and artist Bente Geving (Norway). Each presentation was an exploratory look at the value of visual materials and creative processes for considering diaspora or minority ethnicity communities and their continuing attempts to come to terms with difficult histories.
Tulloch expounded on the significance of her Caribbean descent and her Britishness for setting the parameters of an on-going challenge to dominant ‘truths’ about people of the African diaspora. She reported on important exhibitions that have brought new audiences into museums and exposed the vital ‘conjunctive’ nature of black and white cultural histories and heritage. Modest problematized the remembrance of plantation slavery in Jamaica and its contemporary treatment by museums and artists. Svasek detailed her collaboration with several artists, including Sophie Ernst, in their emotional and creative exploration of concepts of ‘home’, while Six-Hohenbalken enlarged on the crucial need for such attention to personal experience as a way of combating the generalisations that are commonly reached about the persecution and struggles of the Kurds. Remaining on the matter of personal memory and trauma, Bente Geving gave an intimate account of her Sami lineage and the domestic collecting habits of her mother, showing by way of her own photographic practice how her family’s identity was privately constructed in the everyday objects and organisation of the home. She concluded her discussion by singing movingly from a repertoire of Sami verse.
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In response to the project, a blend of selected single-authored articles and contributions from artists – including personal testimony and visual essays – is being compiled for inclusion in The Open University’s peer-reviewed Open Arts Journal. This special issue on the theme of ‘Disturbing Pasts’ (Issue number 3, Summer 2014) is co-edited by Uilleam Blacker (University of Cambridge), Elizabeth Edwards (De Montfort University Leicester) and Leon Wainwright (The Open University):

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