Imagining an Archive for Decolonial Knowledge


A digital conversation in December 2021. With Njoki Ngumi, Jim Chuchu, Neo Musangi, Malick Ndiaye, Mahret Ifeoma Kupka and Isabel Raabe

Dieses Gespräch liegt aktuell nur auf Englisch vor.



Isabel: The TALKING OBJECTS Archive is to become a digital archive for decolonial knowledge production, based on a collection of objects that serve as door-openers to other schools of thinking and other epistemologies beyond the Eurocentric canon of knowledge. The main question we are pursuing – in the think tank and exhibition series Talking Objects Lab, and in the Archive – is: What can knowledge be today? Let’s begin this conversation with a quote from Felwine Sarr: “The Western archive is exhausted!”


What happens if we start acting as if the objects were dead? And then start asking ourselves: What are we burying? What do we want to work on in order to heal? What ties do we want to cut?
Njoki Ngumi


Malick: Maybe I can start, using that statement as a point of departure. If the thesis that the Western archive is exhausted is not a hypothesis – because we all know that the Western archive exists – we must ask ourselves what decolonizing an archive means. How does the archive need to be defined? From a postcolonial or decolonial perspective, we should begin to deconstruct the signification of archives in order to understand what the decolonial archive must be. From a postcolonial perspective, we have to expand the definition of “archive”. I think the archive should be built beyond handwritten documents, and we should consider archiving all kinds of objects – everything produced by our societies and collected by men and women to pass on to the next generation. African history and a lot of knowledge was not just documented in written documents. A lot of knowledge is also inherent in objects. Our archive of experiments should be revisited to explore this lost knowledge, which has been undervalued by intellectuals and by society. We should go through the past and go through this archive of objects to explore all the world visions that our ancestors have put in this archive.

Jim: I’ve been thinking a lot about the statement that the Western archive is exhausted, because I find that statement to be quite radical and earth-shaking. My question is: If the Western archive is exhausted, isn’t it unimaginative to use the same basic framework without necessarily interrogating the very existence of the word “archive”? Thus, my questions would dig a little deeper and ask whether archiving is a natural societal urge that is shared across communities, across the world, or whether it is just a product of this very dominating, controlling façade. The archive sometimes seems to be a way for powerful nations to preserve the memories of their power. Do societies naturally gravitate towards keeping a few samples of their best cultural works and thoughts and motivations, saving these for another generation? Is that a passion that exists worldwide? And if not, does that allow us to interrogate the idea of an archive as being particularly Eurocentric in its very existence? Can there truly be a decolonial archive without unpacking that? We need a place to examine whether there are alternative urges that produce the best outcomes. We should walk away from the power, the domination, and the preservation of other people’s things for the sake of memorializing power.

Mahret: Yes. So, the hypothesis could also be that, if the archive is a colonial or a Western invention, the concept of the archive itself is exhausted.

Neo: I was thinking about the “curated collections of objects” in an archive. How do we create an archive from collections that are not accessible or known to us, speaking from this geo-historical place of origin? What is an “object” in this conversation? What do “objects” mean? And what objects are talking? I personally think that archives in Western centers, like museums, can’t be decolonized. There is no way to decolonize them, because they have already been acquired through processes of colonial violence. I don’t think it’s my place to try to decolonize them. If the objects are held elsewhere, how are we going to create this digital curated collection of objects without knowing the original archives? How are we going to make a selection of objects from objects that we don’t know? What do you think?

Isabel: We were already critically discussing the term “object” beforehand, and we often use the terms “object/subject”. Last week, when we talked to Chao Tayiana Maina and Erik Stein about a decolonial digital archive, they came up with the idea that an object is maybe always a bunch of things that are connected to each other. But, of course, a very, very crucial question is: What objects can we take into a digital collection? Where and how are they stored? And for whose sake are we doing this? Hopefully not as a fig leaf for the museums that still have those objects in their collections.

Njoki: I love the thoughts surrounding archiving as a limiting practice. How can some of these other objects with their contentious histories and poisoned legacies contribute to that? I love the provocation to go beyond the Western… not to think about the Western archive at all. The holders of these archives knew that they were stealing. They knew this when they created laws like the law that museums can’t disclose where some of these objects came from. The museums know this. And now they are playing innocent. I think it could be an interesting place to start, if we say that we have held space for the objects that are far away for long enough. It could be interesting if we ask ourselves: What else can we hold space for? And to leave room for people to hold space for the objects, which will hopefully return. It is as if you’re waiting for somebody to come home from war, and you don’t know if the person is still alive or dead or if the person will ever come home. And then you must ask yourself if you want to spend the rest of your existence in this kind of limbo. Because that limbo and this intangible suffering are also part of the Western archive. The objects went with our grief and our sorrow, and people are still crying for them. These cries also form part of the archives. The vice and the lack of accountability on the part of West for the past are also part of the archive. So, the evil is part of the archive as well. Thus, I ask myself: What if I were to step out of that archive? What happens if we grieve lost objects? What happens if we begin to imagine somebody came and knocked on the door, to use an American analogy, and presented us with that folded triangular flag and said that the object is dead? What happens if we start acting as if the objects were dead? And then start asking ourselves: What are we burying? What do we want to work on in order to heal? What ties do we want to cut?

What can archives contain that is the “now” and what can archives contain that is the “future”? If you look at Western archives, they are always looking backward. Is it possible to have an archive that’s primordial? An archive that has room for things that are not yet here? Things that were imagined that people made later? In that sense, you can make an archive of a future that doesn’t exist. That is interesting for me. And that can’t ever be the focus of the Western archive – it’s too invested in owning the past and colonizing the past and the narrative of the past. Even now, when you hear the most progressive, the most liberal museum people talking, they want to be applauded for returning objects that aren’t theirs. You know, I’m really tired of my emotional ties to that archive, even though it can be a very painful process.

Jim: I like this thought, Njoki. The grief of robbed communities as an unacknowledged one; the invisible element of the archives because it was not a factor worth measuring. And so, perhaps, the West is more optimistic about the archive as a framework, because they do not see the archive as a record of evil. But who wants to archive grief? We want to live our lives, not keep records of nonsense. We want to make things and use them, not stick them on walls and auction them and temperature-control them.

Neo: Like Lumumba’s tooth?

Jim: No, that one is still stuck in Belgian bureaucracy. You shoot the man, throw his body into a shallow grave, dig him up, dismember him, dissolve him in sulfuric acid, grind his bones and scatter them, and then – sixty years later – there is bureaucracy around returning his tooth?


I would say that decolonization labor cannot be shared with the architects of colonization.
Jim Chuchu


Neo: Archives domesticate the past for present causes. What is the cause here? We have to ask ourselves: What is this building of an archive for? Whom is it for?

Isabel: We might have to replace the term “archive” within the project and start thinking about a more appropriate term and approach to exclude the violence and make space for something new. Maybe something like “decolonial imaginations”. I envision the project as a counter-archive (I’ll use the term for now in this conversation until we find a better one), providing counter-narrations around knowledge and objects. I understand the counter-archive as a site of knowledge, as a tool of mediation, and as a dynamic platform for exchanging ideas – a platform for “multiple truths”. I’m also very interested in what an untying process could look like – this process of disrupting, delinking and de-privileging when it comes to geopolitical power relations, like the privilege of being the one telling the story.

I have some additional thoughts: When we think about curating a collection, we are once again coming up with a narration. So, whatever we do will never be neutral. How can we avoid determining something again?

I very much like your image, Njoki, of holding space for the objects that are away for so long. You said you’re tired of holding these spaces, and you had this radical idea of maybe just acting as if the objects are dead. I am wondering if the digital space could nevertheless be a space we can keep for these objects?

Jim: Listening to this conversation, I feel like we represent one of the darker elements of it. What guilts, anchors and resentments accompany those positions? And how do those positions affect us in an unspoken way? I do like this idea of Njoki’s – to let the objects die, to let them go. This would release a lot of space that people in the South have been holding for the lost objects. Let’s have a look at global economy. It exploits us and uses us, but the radical action of decoupling from the global economy doesn’t work. So, what does that mean for international partnerships where you can’t remove the power dynamics? Even the question that Neo was asking: What is an object? That’s a question that only one half of this group can answer because of the power dynamics of history. Truly, how do you decolonize something which is very much formed by the power dynamics of the people taking part in it? Last year, we described decolonization as emotional labor. But this year, I would say that decolonization labor cannot be shared with the architects of colonization. COVID-19 taught us that the sons and daughters of colonialism are still complicit in it. The logic of vaccine inequity is the same as the logic of resource inequity. So, if decolonization labor cannot be shared across this divide between the South and the North, that brings me back to the question of archives. The natural response from the Global South should be: let’s walk away from the Western archive and make our own. But can that ever be a decolonial urge? Or are we just mimicking and copying what we’ve been told is important, which was never a natural urge? For me, to walk away from the archive isn’t to go and make your own decolonial version, it is to literally just walk away and let the objects die. I find that more interesting, even though it is a radical step.

Isabel: To question whether the practice of archiving is even a natural urge for the Global South can apply just as much to the Western practice of the museum, which is a Western notion, right? Malick, you are a curator of an ethnological museum with a collection and an archive. What do you think about this?

Malick: As a curator, I am always facing the question: How should I consider an object in my collection and how should I exhibit it? An object has its own memory and therefore an autonomous rationality. We should also consider the materiality of the object and supply energy to its materiality, as our ancestors did when they interacted with the object and made it become animate. It is difficult to exhibit the narrative of such an object, as we encounter it with their preconceived understanding of its significance. By decolonizing objects, I mean that we should reinvestigate the object, challenge its history and meaning. Why not change its meaning? By recontextualizing and starting to experiment with the object, for instance. The fetishizing of objects is rooted in European history. I think it’s very interesting for our contemporary practice to return to materiality and its meaning and energy – for example, with important objects like those belonging to the Dogon people in Mali, which are connected to agriculture but also to sacred rituals. In our contemporary interpretation, which considers the past, we should connect this object with the future. Many of the object’s meanings related to astronomy and astrology – the imaginations of the other worlds. But today we are limited in our imagination because we are in the space of the ethnological archive. It is challenging for us to connect to this object in the way our ancestors did. We are afraid. But I think we should dare to do it! We said lately that an archive is not about the past, but about the future. I think that contemporary curators should go back and investigate what we called “indigenous knowledge”.

Jim: I think we should ask ourselves to whom an object might be interesting. Because the esthetics and interests of Western societies are formalized for the mainstream, and give structure at the expense of “indigenous esthetics”, to pick up on thoughts Malick already had.

Neo: Indigeneity complicates things even more because of nationalism and the ideas of citizenship. Indigeneity very quickly morphs into origins and root identity, even within peoples of the same place. Of course, the “alternative” of ethnography and ethnology brings this to the fore.

I’m going to choose to be hopeful about the idea of a contemporary archive – one that honors the present and survival.
Jim Chuchu


Njoki: Whiteness is only whiteness because it has other entities to be white against. The Western archive is only the Western archive because it has a universe to be Western against. Non-participation in that nonsense hierarchy would be a result of walking away from a connection to that archive, because our grief fuels its value. They can still hold onto things and have power over us by keeping things because they know we want them. Because of the focus on objects, we’ve allowed Western rhetoric around returning objects to become framed as Africans welcoming their objects back for spiritual reasons – which then just continues to echo Hegelian assumptions about who we are, what our spiritual lives are, etc., etc. We can’t just say we want our objects back because they’re made of gold and they’re valuable, and you guys are fucking thieves. We can’t say that! We can only say we want our objects back because they’re spiritual objects, which then keeps us playing the role of Africans. And it’s not just the objects we want back. The restitution debate is intentionally framed around objects. It is a strategic move to put them in the focus of a conversation that is actually about colonial records. What if the French were not allowed to define themselves by the Louvre anymore? What if it just disappeared? Or what if the Eiffel Tower just disappeared, and Paris was not able to frame itself as the “city of love”? With all these bridges where people go and put padlocks on – even people from Africa. People leave Africa and go to Paris and think that love can be maintained by the empire by buying a lock and putting it on a bridge that your ancestors paid for! We could also ask: What is the cost of the Louvre as part of the identity of France? How many things bearing the image of Paris exist? How many are sold per day? Things have been purposely devalued or obscured so that Africans can continue being Africans in the scripture of the universe, or of this Earth.

Jim: Njoki, that thought is making me wonder whether, if all these explanations we give, be they spiritual or economical or just moral… whether this exchange makes sense. It’s very easy to get stuck in what we call a “dialogue industry”, where there’s so much energy put into curating audiences, curating people speaking, curating… you know. But then no objects move. And then, when just one object moves, people want a press event, which tells me that they’re not listening. Because if they were listening, they would realize the return of such a small, tiny percentage should be a shameful thing. These two societies are not hearing one another, they are not listening to one another. And this is a structure that has been in place for 60, 70, 80 years. Will this go on forever? Does this mean that Gen Zs are going to have their own versions of IIP [International Inventories Program] and Talking Objects? How long does labor continue before it becomes obvious that it needs a radical change? And we could say the same thing about racism and black people being shot in the U.S., because that conversation has gone on for so long. If we don’t engage with those underground questions, there can be no progress, right? 

Isabel: Njoki, I remember you once said that giving back the objects is maybe the easiest step. The complicated part is everything that goes with it – and that’s what the Western societies do not deal with. Objects are being instrumentalized and fetishized by the West. And now even the return of some objects is again being instrumentalized as a distraction strategy for not having to deal with other painful and uncomfortable questions related to the toxic relationship between the Global North and the Global South. Whose blood is on the objects? How are the bloody colonialities still inscribed in our lives? Another theme terrifying to the West is decolonizing knowledge. The idea of TALKING OBJECTS is to use objects as door-openers for a whole other narration on what knowledge is; to go one step beyond and ask what knowledge is inherent in and connected to these objects, instead of keeping them.

Malick: Knowledge can be everywhere. Knowledge can be in literature, in the imaginary. Knowledge can be academic, knowledge can be scientific, knowledge can be in a text – and knowledge can also be in practice. When I say that knowledge can be in practice, I am talking about two things. Firstly, the artistic practice. How can we create new knowledge through a non-scientific practice, through artistic imagination? The second practice is very controversial right now: the practice of activism. We are in a very interesting phase in the history of knowledge, because the understanding of knowledge is dominated by the European understanding of this knowledge, which excludes all kinds of other forms of knowledge around the world. But we should go back to explore older research protocols that were not rooted in this modern comprehension of an academic, scientific laboratory. These two practices, art and activism, can be very useful for our understanding of what knowledge can be today.

Jim: It goes without saying that we live in a world where there are hierarchies of knowledge. And these have, of course, been affected by Eurocentrism. Language is a vehicle for that – the fact that we are not able to move away from the word “archive” because we are using English as a common language. I’m interested in the postcolonial archive because, if the past is so problematic and so bound up in immorality and evil, I do find the idea of a postcolonial archive interesting – where we document the postcolonial contemporary cultures of people in the world. Perhaps then there is hope for us in memorializing the present. It is a testament to the fact that we survived and that we are still here – and that we are a product of colonialism. But even in that captured space, culture is still happening. Very often, culture is extremely local and truly captures the zeitgeist of a local community. This could be quite powerful and redeeming, because then we start to speak about survival. We are trying to work out which argument will finally move Europe to return objects. Is it the spiritual one? Is it the moral one? So far, none of them are working. The spiritual argument can be easily dismissed as a primitive remainder of traditional societies. The moral argument is difficult, because then the Global North will have to unpack its history. So, I’m going to choose to be hopeful about the idea of a contemporary archive – one that honors the present and survival.

Njoki: Jim, you said that we give ourselves dignity by considering our novels – and not even our epic novels, but literally writings that show us what Kenyans were in the 1980s. We become people who become interested in ourselves. We have to stop consistently looking across the sea, yearning. We can yearn for other things.

A thought on the diaspora: remaining objects can do different work in different places, and evolve a different kind of relationship to the people. This allows the diaspora to own those objects in a way they have not been able to before, because they belonged to Africa on the continent first. The diaspora can create their own idea of a nation and their own idea of community building, without necessarily having to participate in a Western archive. Being stuck in the grief exchange, which continues to flow towards the Western archive, we are denied the chance to be part of a new archive. COVID-19 has shown us all that it’s possible to create a new world and a new way of being in an instant. So, do we have 400 years – which is how long it took Black people in the U.S. to be “free” – if we consider climate change, various prions, and virus species being resurrected from deep glaciers? Do we have 400 years to wait? Maybe we don’t. But what else can we do besides send our grief towards an archive of evil? I’m interested in that. 

Mahret: Isabel, we talked about the idea of the toxic relationship between the Global North and the Global South. I like the term “limbo state” that Njoki was using before. And I asked myself: Is it even possible to say no? Because both parts are connected and interwoven. This also relates to my previous question: What would these “cut ties” look like? And is it even possible?

Allow me to add a personal anecdote from my life about practices of knowledge. I’m currently trying to finish a text on Black cultural practice in Germany, or Black German cultural practice, for the Federal Agency for Civic Education. I’m trying to examine that whole term, in a way, and investigate what Black German cultural practice actually means in relation to cultural practice in Germany. And I am constantly finding myself in the state of struggle. Of course, I have some kind of knowledge system implemented within me that works and knows how to write academic texts. But as soon as I try to implement different sources and things I’ve heard in talks or experienced myself, I start to question my knowledge and the relevance of these sources. And yet I try to resist, and I keep resisting when I hand in the paper and it comes back with questions about what sources I used, who said that and when. So, the question is: What is valued knowledge and what isn’t?

Isabel: Yes, I remember we talked about this toxic relationship, and we suggested that the Global South and the Global North have to go to couples’ therapy, because we cannot simply untie ourselves. We are entangled with each other. And Jim, you asked what arguments could work. The moral one doesn’t work, the spiritual one doesn’t work... What if knowledge – the epistemic shift – works? Turning the meaning of knowledge upside down entirely. This is exactly the struggle of “implementing” other forms of knowledge and other systems, as Mahret described it. We had this conversation in a profoundly academic talk in December entitled “Mapping Academia – European Black Studies, African Studies, Afro-American Studies”. We invited three speakers and we were trying to open up this academic practice by asking the speakers to bring music. It was amazing what happened when we interrupted the talk to listen to the pieces of music for a few minutes, and then continued talking. What I am trying to say is: yes, Malick, knowledge is everywhere, not just in written texts and academic practices. To quote Aimé Cesaire: “Poetic knowledge is born in the silence of scientific knowledge.”

Njoki: We talked about the toxic relationship before. What do the partners in a toxic relationship want to remember about that relationship? And as the person who needs to leave that relationship, what should this person remember? Should the person be forced to remember? And who gets to say no to remembering?

Neo: I think we must talk about memorializing. Toni Morrison reminds us that archives and history are fixtures, a reminder that it is not over for those still struggling to write the genealogies of their people and to keep historical consciousness alive.

The vocation of archives is always memory work. Archival work is always a work of fiction. I’m aiming for more imagination that is not necessarily based on an existing collection or an existing archive. But if we could do the work of imagination, then what do we come up with? And with whom are we building it? I do think the work of imagination is a very considered invitation. So, who can imagine with us and who can’t? It depends on who we ask, right?

Also, Christina Sharpe says: “Memory work is wake work”. So, sometimes, remembering is a funeral, it is revisiting the crime scene. And this is, in many ways, painful. Going back to Njoki’s ideas of grief and letting go: perhaps we can also think of how imaginations needn’t be shared or circulated. We can think of imagination as a ritual and the occult and internal. Glissant’s opacity comes to mind: the need to keep some things opaque (not necessarily secret) and probably unknowable.

Jim: In an archive that simultaneously allows digital “all-knowledge” and play alongside opacity and ritual and the occult and the internal, can an object truly be known and accessible while at the same time being unknowable?

Njoki: I was thinking: is it possible to create something without the Global North taking up space in the room – watching over our shoulders or providing the framework and funding and so on? Because for me, I do feel that part of this imagination labor must be “separatist” in its foundation. To be “separatist” means to say that we disown and refuse everything that has been used to construct the world that we live in. Mahret was talking about being paralyzed by the idea of how to walk away from these foundational ideas. History taught us that when you try being separatist with the Global North, violence would follow...

Malick: I am wondering if we should consider memories as a construction, like history is a construction. Here in Senegal, people discussed the statue of Faidherbe in Saint Louis some months ago. Faidherbe was a colonial governor, and the big statue is commemorating the history. But, for many people, it is just memorializing the colonization. Statues were removed from public spaces around the world. Many people began to discuss memory: how to remember, how to deal with memory. My questions would be: Shouldn’t we consider memory as a construction? And what do we mean when we talk about memory?

Archives were not always Western. Western archives are archives that were Westernized – like ethnographic objects are not ethnographic, but objects that were ethnographisized. One part of our collection has been collected during the colonial period. When I want to deal with these objects, which are part of the history of our continent and our ancestors, I cannot reject them. I have to Africanize their memory and their history. They have nothing to do with the West. The West came after. And if the West came after, we can also remove it from the notion of an archive and of memory. The archives of slavery are another example. When we look at slavery archives, we notice that all these archives are the archives of the master. The master tells of the history, the burden, the memory, the image of slavery. How should we deal with this kind of archive now? We have to reject it and try to remove the DNA of this, you know? For me, that’s what we call decolonization.

Jim: Neo’s thought here about imaginations not needing to be shared or circulated sits very uncomfortably next to the materiality question, which is not interested in the idea of opaqueness or unknowability. So, it does make me wonder if these arguments cancel one another out. Because this need for things to remain unknowable cannot be allowed to sit next to this insatiable hunger to understand and catalogue everything. Can an archive be mysterious? Can an archive be spiritual? I don’t think so. Because the archive is very scientific; it’s a discipline. And then that thought about the Westernization of archives, I find that a little optimistic. Because for me, there’s a very fine line between Westernization and integration. The struggles of the Black German community, for instance, just demonstrate that people can live in Germany for decades and still be separate. And I feel like the ethnographic archives are still ghettoized and exist separately from a kind of wider story of humanity. I don’t see room for integration of knowledge, only for extraction and control. There is the scientific discipline and the understanding of everything, and another group that is coming from a place of wanting things to remain poetic and mysterious – which is sometimes leveled against communities as being kind of naïve. There is this hierarchy of knowledge, where science will always sit on top of mystery and poetry. And yet mystery and poetry are the things that have kept human beings going when there was no scientific knowledge. Isabel mentioned Aimé Cesaire earlier and how poetry picks up where science lacks the words, right? But there is a hierarchy within that thought – that you go to the humanities of the arts when the science is exhausted. 

Decolonizing knowledge means deconstructing and reconstructing knowledge in epistemic plurality – and looking at how this epistemic plurality can be redefined vis-à-vis hegemonic knowledge.
Malick Ndiayé


Isabel: Chao Taiyana came up with an interesting approach, saying that the digital maybe overcomes boundaries and non-equality and becomes a space of relational thinking. It could bridge the tangible and intangible, the social and the object’s sphere. And thus our archive could be understood as a digital playground rather than the classical idea of an archive as a scientific discipline. You can have an object free for download, let people work with it and then come back to the digital archive with their imaginations around this object, just to give one example. And I found this idea very interesting. So, I think we really need another term for “archive”, actually. Because “archive” is rooted in – and limited by – this scientific idea.

Njoki: For the TALKING OBJECTS program UNEXPECTED LESSONS, hosted in Nairobi in the summer of 2021, we were drawing a line between what is our problem and what is not our problem. People who own colonial archives should be the ones building decolonial ones.

None of us opted to be living in a postcolonial morass of trauma and evil, having to carry out decolonial work. It’s not my work to build a decolonial archive when I did not build a colonial one. If I want to build an “archive”, I can sit down and make decisions about my priorities, you know? I can make the decision that my archive is not about things, that it is conversations between people that may never have to be recorded, for instance. It could be games, and not just a physically existing game – it can be the process of play. Those are the sorts of things that my archive can contain. And then everybody can have this beautiful memory of a game that we all played at one point in time. It can be anything I want. But must I force it to be decolonial, using the frame of what coloniality was? For me, the calls for a decolonial archive, especially when they come from the Global North, are disingenuous.

Malick: I would like to have a deeper look at these two ideas that you mentioned: the idea of decolonization and the idea of archives. Decolonizing knowledge means deconstructing and reconstructing knowledge in epistemic plurality – and looking at how this epistemic plurality can be redefined vis-à-vis hegemonic knowledge. Because what we call hegemonic knowledge shapes our idea of the world. Decolonization must be defined as the deconstruction of the methodology of epistemology and the construction of a new "local" epistemology so that we can free ourselves from hegemonic knowledge. If we do this, it becomes very easy for us to know what “decolonial archive” means, because archives are not always necessarily colonized in our society. An archive today must be constructed as a space of struggle to define a new way of facing our reality. Local knowledge is not considered to be scientific. We should struggle against that. And we should come back to what I call “indigenous knowledge”, “practical knowledge”, the “knowledge of practice”, and revisit them to analyze African history and African culture through their own categories. I speak English and I also speak French. These languages are deeply rooted in colonial intellectual and cultural history. We should go back to our own African practice. With regard to what we call “knowledge”, we should deconstruct this term and try to understand knowledge in a new, constructivist way.

We need to radically rethink the concept of “the archive” and radically rethink the concept of “the object”. We have to find ways of displaying poly-perspectivity, and we need to create space for thinking and imagination. In this regard, I like the understanding of this decolonial digital platform as a space of struggle – in a positive sense.
Isabel Raabe


Isabel: Coming back to the TALKING OBJECTS project, this is a central question we have to ask: Why are we doing this and for whom? As the West begins to realize that the Western archive is exhausted, it is asking the Global South to provide the answers to what it cannot figure out. You have to be careful with a project like TALKING OBJECTS not to fall into this trap. The Global South is constantly invited to give answers, but isn’t the Global North enriching itself even more in this way?

Njoki: The empire’s agenda consists of marching forward, and the empire can always find “yes” people. I don’t think that taking empire money makes me a “yes” person – I think we can say no. That’s interesting. I think if they want to frame themselves as magnanimous and as listeners, then that is their prerogative. And that I think for us, the dignity is in being able to ask questions like: How many more epistemologies have to be deconstructed? 

Neo: What I get from this conversation is different interpretations of what’s going to happen or what should happen. Maybe we can come up with a project that is about those interpretations, allowing space for different kinds of thinking. I think it’s important for all of us to think about the importance of difference and to inwardly think about how different we are – and then to figure out ways of working together across these differences.

Jim: This discussion and this project are very interesting, because right now things are changing in the sociology of knowledge and the sociology of the history of memory, of cultural heritage. We can see movements within great institutions like ICOM – and this is a big evolution. The engine of this evolution does not come from a university, nor from epistemology. All these evolutions come from practices that people do! And those practices in society, in associations among activisms, are now about to be translated into a new epistemological language. That’s the problem we are facing now. Because all social mutations that we are facing in ecology, in economy, in politics, in sciences – these mutations are the new historical and political project. But they don’t have new epistemic tools or a new epistemic methodology. The society needs new connections with history and with the future. Connecting yourself with history is also connecting yourself with the future. Thus, we need to choose new paths to go into the future. I think that in this process, the digital is very interesting. All these mutations should be taken into account in the analysis that we do now in order to understand what happened to us.

Njoki: I really enjoyed this conversation, to see the scope of the places that we’re coming from. And I am excited to see what this can yield that can also be healing to me personally. It’d be great to have my thought labor be in communion with the thought labors of others, and directly contribute towards my personal healing. Jim asked a very valid question: Who do we speak as and for whom do we speak? I think at this moment, I can speak for myself. And I am excited about that.

Jim: This idea of an archive that serves me is interesting. Perhaps in extrapolating the personal needs, we can find that thing that serves other people in the same way. I will reiterate that I’m interested very strongly in the “release” that Njoki and Neo talked about, and that the only archive that is left after that is one that walks away from the materiality, the criminality and the history, and starts to honor the living. I think the problem with the archive, or the way we understand it right now, is that it has this way of making us feel like we were a people and then we stopped: We stopped being cultural. We stopped making. We stopped imagining. We stopped dreaming. And the only way an archive would push back on that thought, for me, would be if it took a strong look at contemporary culture.

Njoki sends me videos every now and then from young women who are figuring out very complex things to do with beauty, like gel nails and acrylic nails. For me as an outsider, this feels like a science. It’s not happening in a laboratory, but here are people still innovating and building and dreaming up new things. So, how could there be an archive that could make a record of those things? Because they do disappear. Mahret, the conversation about the diaspora is very interesting, because I feel like the African diasporas are so ephemeral. Everything that they have built in the construction of some kind of paradise in the diaspora disappears, because what they build is not institutional. There are no statutes. I do believe that even as we speak now, such knowledge, cultural knowledge and cultural production is just disappearing because there are no objects associated with those cultures. This obsession with objects means forgetting that culture has moved on and that the field of knowledge was expanded. 

Mahret: I would like to add that, for me, objects – especially in the context we are discussing now – are placeholders. The relationship between Europe and Africa is a very weird one. And I would ask: What is Europe and what is Africa? Where does one end and the other begin? I’m currently reading a book by Christian Kravagna, a white Austrian curator, writer and cultural theorist. And he’s developing a concept he calls “transmodernity”, which is very interesting because there is important work being done – also on the, let’s say, white European side – which makes me hopeful. Because I see that there are others who are really interested in overcoming this wrong concept and who are able to think beyond the dichotomy of “us” and “others”.

I absolutely agree that there’s a necessity to overcome this idea of “the archive” and think of something that is different, and I’m really looking forward to the process. Because I see it as a process. A very important one. And I’m really excited about it.

Isabel: I agree. And I also want to say thank you. I’m deeply grateful to all of you. Even if it is impossible to summarize all your brilliant and complex thoughts, one thing is for sure: We need to radically rethink the concept of “the archive” and radically rethink the concept of “the object”. We have to find ways of displaying poly-perspectivity, and we need to create space for thinking and imagination. In this regard, I like the understanding of this decolonial digital platform as a space of struggle – in a positive sense.


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