Credit: Fred Pedersen

The Trembling Museum curators on modernism, Glissant and the problem with museums

By Erin Doak

The Hunterian Art Gallery’s new exhibition traces the connection between African art and modernism using the ideas of Édouard Glissant.

Meet the curators:

Dominic Paterson: Curator of Contemporary Art, The Hunterian Art Gallery

Andy Mills: Curator of World Cultures, The Hunterian Museum

Terri Geis: Art historian, curator, museum educator (guest curator)

Manthia Diawara: Art historian, cultural theorist, filmmaker (guest curator)

One of the first things visitors see on entering the The Trembling Museum is a scaled-up image of the storage shelves that house the Hunterian Museum’s “ethnographic” collection, where many of the objects in this exhibition have lived up until earlier this month. Like many other museums, The Hunterian has had a long-standing problem in classifying African art as “ethnography”, curator Andy Mills tells me as we sit down to chat. “It’s an extremely limiting way to view this incredible art.” The Trembling Museum, curated by Dominic Paterson and Andy Mills from the Hunterian in collaboration with guest curators Terri Geis and Manthia Diawara, breaks from the categorial constraints previously imposed on these works, many of which have been held in storage for over a century. Guided by the ideas of Martinician poet and thinker Édouard Glissant, instead it invites visitors to explore its African art collection in a positive, expansive, and non-defined way, recontextualised alongside contemporary artworks in the Hunterian Art Gallery.

In his book Poetics of Relation (2008), Glissant set out a new understanding of modernity by speaking about its creation of a “whole world”. Rejecting the polarities of oppositional discourse, where sameness opposes otherness, his concept of Relation reflects a world in constant transformation; a dynamic world where people, cultures, and histories are interconnected in complex and dynamic ways. We all, according to Glissant, have the “right to opacity”; this aspect of unknowability that exists in all of us. Opacity, as opposed to transparency, allows for the recognition and appreciation of differences between people and cultures while resisting generalisation and the pressure to conform.

An excerpt from Glissant’s writing in the gallery space reads: “The earth is trembling, systems of thought have been demolished, and there are no more straight paths […] Trembling thinking is the instinctual feeling that we must refuse all categories of fixed and imperial thought. Tremblement is thinking in which we can lose time, lose time searching, in which we can wander and in which we can counter all the systems of terror, domination, and imperialism with the poetics of trembling – it allows us to be in real contact with the world and with the peoples of the world.” Rather than assigning fixed meanings to objects, The Trembling Museum embodies Glissant’s philosophy by exploring the ways in which different cultures and peoples tremble with each other; how they influence and change each other, and how that creates something new. 

Manthia recounts that in Glissant’s theory, “to know one another, we have to learn to tremble with each other. I have to tremble with your trembling, you have to tremble with my trembling. You have your opacity and I have my opacity, so we need to learn each other’s opacity in order to have a common ground. And in order to do that, we have to tremble together.” By putting this concept into practice, placing works and objects dating back hundreds of years with contemporary works and letting them tremble together, The Trembling Museum asks viewers to challenge everything they have been taught about art in the Western world.

“I keep remembering a quote from a great African poet and founder of the Négritude movement, Léopold Senghor, who happened to be the first President of Senegal,” Manthia says. “Senghor once said that the African mask and the African American trumpet were the two biggest influences on modernity and modernism. If you look at cubism, primitivism, film noir, painting, the kind of people you studied, they’re all taking something either from the African mask, or from jazz. They’re the traces that gave shape to modern art.” Through Glissant’s theory of trembling, in its fluidity and rejection of fixed categories, the exhibition invites visitors to explore these relationships in the works on display and to trace their own connections between them. “We’re really not looking for a solution,” he adds, “but we’re teaching people how to tremble with the trembling of these objects.”

In a recent collaborative work guided by Glissantian thinking, Terri and Manthia wrote of the need to develop a new sense of the “sacred” in the contemporary world, one that enables us to rethink and transform relations between different cultures and peoples. “Modernity is killing the sacred,” Manthia says. “As an African, I would say, ‘I don’t have time for all of this, I have to go to Europe, go to school and modernise myself and find shortcuts, transparency–no complexity, I’m not interested in any of that.’ And then suddenly, we realise that we, not just the Africans, or the Latin Americans, or the Aboriginal people, but the whole world, have cheated ourselves in a way. We have killed the sacred. So how do we look for the sacred all over again?” 

Terri notes that the idea of the sacred is so often associated with a “specific people”, and seen as something exclusive and private and secret. But the world as we know it is one that is open and moving and changing and involves so much exiling and diaspora and all sorts of movements, which entail connections and peoples coming together in new and different ways. And so when we talk about the new sacred, “we’re also talking about something which has an openness. It’s no longer rooted in one specific tradition, but it spreads out and evolves in new ways.” 

In contrast to other political movements in Africa that were important in state formation, Glissant was thinking much more about what happens beyond the state, in connections between different peoples. For Dominic, this show is less about returning these objects to where they started, and more about finding where they could move to: “How could they be in relation?” In the same way that in the Caribbean islands different languages and cultures mixed and produced something new, Creole culture isn’t just Europe plus Africa. It’s a new, third thing that wasn’t there before, where a sense of sacredness could emerge. “It’s not a return to an old version of religion or the gods of the past, it’s something emerging now. The exhibition doesn’t necessarily claim that we know what that is, because it has to happen. It’s something that’s happening around us.” 

Dominic highlights that one of the problems of the museum is it’s such a resilient technology for restricting the meanings of objects. While art history teaches you that your best knowledge of an object will “fix” it, that somehow you’d get it right, and it would stop changing, this exhibition is instead talking about the life of objects and their interaction with other cultures. “What I find so inspiring in Glissant is he was absolutely an anticolonial thinker. I think he’s a radical thinker. But he’s not somebody who wishes that we could put things back. He doesn’t want a world that is simple and transparent and unmixed, he’s interested in the world that we actually live in.” The topics of restitution and reparations, which are key subjects of debate in the art world today, are embedded in this discussion. “Is that what we should be doing?” Manthia says. “Returning them? Or not returning them? Where to return them to? That debate is here. We’re trying to talk about that.” And then there’s the question of, he adds, as human beings are we fixed? “If you send it to Africa, do you assume that Africa is still the same Africa as in the 17th century? And then what do we do about the Caribbean and the African Americans who were taken into slavery, enslaved with this mask? What do they get? These are some of the questions we hope will come up.”

Credit: Fred Pedersen

Glissant also wrote a number of essays on the work of contemporary artists he knew. His writings on art echo the sense of openness Dominic was speaking about; he would talk about works of art as ever-evolving and changing. “I found this to be so beautiful,” Terri says, “but I was always slightly confused about that–like, how could that actually happen when you have a static work?” She proposes that maybe in part, what he may have meant is that artworks change as we come into contact with them. “It’s our relationship with them that actually builds their meanings and movements and evolutions back out into the world. Some of what they have been trying to do in this exhibition involves this.”

I wondered if they’re noticing a wider shift in the way Europe-based art historians are thinking about African art. Andy says there has been a significant change in recent years, but he’s quick to add that “that’s more a response to realising how lazy people have been–how lazy we, as European academics, have been–in thinking about African art. It’s 100 years overdue.”

Two films were borrowed for the exhibition, one made by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais in 1953 and the other by Ni Kwate Owoo in 1970. Both of them were already raising these questions over half a century ago: Why are these African art objects hoarded in museums towards the West? What categories are imposed on them? What would it mean for them to be understood in a different context? This topic isn’t a new one, and despite waves of criticism, museums have continued to hoard objects. “It does feel like there’s an urgency now,” Dominic says. “There’s something happening. I think there’s a real moment of understanding again, all of these ways that culture could support systematic justice. But we’re also conscious that this is a long stream.” Although museums are acknowledging these questions, he adds, they have most often come from radical voices, marginalised voices, postcolonial voices, and artists. “We’re not claiming here that we’re doing something out of nowhere. We can make this show because so many of these artists are already thinking about these questions, and they’re thinking about them in relation to long histories. Alberta Whittle, Adam Pendleton, Jimmy Robert, these are artists that are thinking about these things all the time.” 

Near the entrance to the gallery, there is a library of books by Manthia and others related to artists and themes in the show. The hope is that people will come back, and as they continue to watch and read, more layers will be revealed over time. Dominic extends the invitation to students and any audience to come and see how they feel about the relationships that are constructed in the exhibition, rather than to try and work out what the curators thought they were doing. “The labels and texts are really open in that sense, ready to be interpreted and changed in your perception of it.” Just as Glissant understood works of art as constantly changing, the exhibition too will change, especially as they host events that bring new textures to it.

The curators of The Trembling Museum make their aim clear: they are not trying to tell you what to think. Above all, the exhibition is a catalyst for questioning and learning, for challenging the fixed boundaries imposed on people and places, and for navigating the intricacies of some of the most pressing topics of our time. As cultures converge and evolve, The Trembling Museum invites us to tremble together, and to be part of an ongoing discourse taking place within and beyond the gallery walls.

The Trembling Museum is on display at the Hunterian Art Gallery until 19 May 2024, and is free to enter.


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