On 2nd January Dr Mahret Ifeoma Kupka landed in Lagos under a harmattan sky ready to embark on her long-anticipated two-month residency at G.A.S. Lagos. She is the final Germany-based curator to join us as part of the TURN2 Programme. The initiative, developed by the German Federal Cultural Fund, was conceived to facilitate artistic co-creation between Germany and African countries. Here she shares insights into her practice and hopes for the next eight weeks.
What is the current focus of your practice?
My current exhibition and research projects explore possible museum and exhibition futures. The restitution of looted African artefacts from colonial contexts not only challenges institutions on the continent but also offers valuable opportunities to rethink forms of collecting and exhibiting in Europe. Museums are in crisis. To be relevant, as sites of encounter, cultural education, and joy, in constantly transforming societies, they need to change.
The TALKING OBJECTS LAB, which I am coordinating with the Berlin-based curator Isabel Raabe, is a research project in which we consider restitution as a process of re-appropriation beyond the mere materiality of looted cultural artefacts. With our curatorial partners Chao Tayiana Maina (African Digital Heritage, Nairobi), Njoki Ngumi (The Nest Collective, Nairobi) and El Hadji Malick Ndiaye (Musée Théodore-Monod, Dakar) we engage with objects in ways that transcend their ethnographic objectification. For this, we collaborate with contemporary artists (Caroline Gueye, Elsa M'Bala, Gladys Kalichini, hn. lyonga, Ibrahima Thiam, Jim Chuchu, Jumana Manna, Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro, Onyeka Igwe, Stefanie-Lahya Aukongo, Syowia Kyambi, Tabita Rezaire, Uriel Orlow, Viyé Diba, Wanuri Kahiu and others) to let the objects themselves speak, to open up ways for new contemporary approaches. Part of this process is looking into the past, constantly reflecting on colonial continuities and the pitfalls of their reproduction. We do this through different platforms: UNEXPECTED LESSONS, think tanks and workshops.
What can European museums learn from these appropriation processes? 'We have to create and destroy at the same time', says Malick Ndiaye about the challenges he faces on the African continent: Creating places for communities and destroying colonial implications. We need to embrace this as a joyful process, that's the challenge. Restitution, in that sense, can be a way to restore agency to the objects. They become mediators of new relational ethics, between people and people, objects and people, objects and objects, Europe and Africa, perhaps.
Exhibition View: Life doesn't frighten me. Michelle Elie wears Comme des Garçons. Museum Angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt, Germany. Photo: Wolfgang Günzel.
What drew you to apply for this residency and how do you think it will inform your wider practice?
In recent years, I realised projects in Kenya and Senegal. Within the TALKING OBJECTS LAB, we established flourishing networks. The opportunity to work in Lagos for a longer period of time enables me to explore more deeply the rich diversity of contemporary cultural practices in Nigeria and create the basis for new networks and possible future collaborations. Central impulses for the debate on the restitution of African cultural artefacts from Europe to their communities of origin came from Nigeria. A new museum is being built in Benin City. Only recently, Germany signed a joint declaration of intent to facilitate the restitution of Benin bronzes to Nigeria.
My interest in Nigeria is rooted not least in my biography. I was raised in Germany, born to a white German father and a Nigerian mother. I hold a special position in the power constellations of the restitution debates. My research cannot be separated from my background and thus from a personal quest. By constantly reflecting openly on my own entanglements and understanding this reflection process as part of my work, I create connectivity and space for joint reflection on forms of solidarity and conviviality.
Curatorial Team. UNEXPECTED LESSONS #2, Nordic House, Reykjavik, Iceland / Photo: Goethe Morph, Iceland.
Can you give us an insight into how you hope to use the opportunity?
My way of working is process oriented. Therefore, it is not easy to outline a clear agenda for the residency beforehand. My projects and collaborations grow organically through exchange and shared inspiration. I hope for a vivid exchange with the other G.A.S. residents. In Lagos, I wish to deepen existing contacts and form new relationships. The extensive network of the G.A.S. will be very valuable. I plan to realise an UNEXPECTED LESSONS event during my residency. Sustainability, consistency and connectedness are central to my work.
Dr Mahret Ifeoma Kupka is an art scholar, freelance writer and, since 2013, senior curator at the Museum Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt/Main, Germany. In her exhibitions, lectures, publications, and interdisciplinary projects, she addresses the issues of racism, memory culture, representation, and the decolonisation of art and cultural practices in Europe and on the African continent. She is a member of the advisory board of the Initiative of Black people in Germany (ISD), the art magazine TEXTE ZUR KUNST, and a founding member of the Neue Deutsche Museumsmacher*innen (a network of BIPoC museum practitioners in Germany). In addition, she has been and continues to be active on international juries, scientific panels, and search committees. She studied Economics in Heidelberg as well as Aesthetics/Media Theory, Philosophy, Curatorial Practice and Exhibition Design at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design, where in 2015 she received her doctorate in art and media theory.
TURN2 is a programme developed by the German Federal Cultural Foundation to facilitate artistic co-creation between Germany and African countries. The TURN2 Residencies were devised to facilitate research for emerging curators and cultural practitioners with curatorial experience based in Germany and on the African continent with ambitions to make them the starting point for more international collaborations and knowledge-sharing opportunities.
Header image credit: Mahret Ifeoma Kupka in conversation with Peggy Piesche and Natasha A. Kelly during UNEXPECTED LESSONS #1 - Akademie der Künste, Berlin, Germany. Photo: Thabo Thindi