The information on this page came together as a result of the collaboration of Art&Dialogue e.V in Berlin, Germany, with the l’Union des Cultes Traditionelles du Togo, and with financial support of the Mondriaan Foundation, Amsterdam. Art&Dialogue supports the UCTT in its claim for the restitution of powerful spiritual objects from western collections. Together, we want to resolve the question, if and how it is possible to return “museum pieces” to their original status as spiritual objects. What should their new surroundings offer, and what use could this process have for the communities to which those objects are returning. This project also poses crucial questions about the potency of replicas to absorb audiences in enduring emotional encounters with universal art treasures. Throughout this collaboration artists, scholars, cultural researchers, spiritual dignitaries, political activists, and cultural workers speak about, explore and celebrate their differences and commonalities by giving space to and exchange spiritual knowledge and narratives. By revisiting past places and times, we hope to open up new possibilities of the present. This project wants to make a small contribution to a series of projects, films, books, and theories that also aim for the decolonization of thought and the deconstruction of structures that keep western powers, borders, and privileges in place.
The object in the pre-colonial system of African thought was different, an object was never just an object. The object was a depository of a vital force, a repository of powers and potentialities. Stories about potentialities of what something could become. Structures of meaning would circulate with them. Whoever touches or works with those objects can benefit from their powers. When missionaries and later colonialists came they thought of Vodou as animism, they believed that those objects act. There was a diabolisation of objects, and their first step was to clean them up or try to get rid of them. However, vernacular forms of knowledge come together with the objects, and those have been lost.
When missionaries from Europe encountered these objects they encountered a framework in which Europe is obsessed with the question of the devil. The place of residence was thought to be in Arika, the dark continent. They were a manifestation of the demonic. When the Mission came their relation to objects was one of antagonism and massive destruction.
Dr. Ohiniko Mawussé Toffa (from the research cluster Dynamik der Missionierung und der Kolonialisierung) is working in a Togo provenance research project of the Staatliche Ethnographische Sammlungen Sachsen together with the University of Bremen
Inhabitants from the village of Agouegan work together at the construction of Maison Gbébé. With music and dance by Comlanvi Joel Adjamlan, alias IVALMOK and Chris Nons!
Sénamé Koffi Agbodjinou, an architect and anthropologist based in Lome and Paris, talks to Mathilde ter Heijne, an artist based in Berlin, about the problems of creating an architecture for Maison Gbébé that could exhibit religious artefacts, and, at the same time, hosts charged objects.
The Villa Karo Finnish Cultural Center Museum in Grand Popo, Benin, houses a collection of Mami Wata figurines from private collector Matti-Juhani Karila.
Copies for ethnological collections?! What does it actually mean; to return “ethnological artifacts” to their place of origin? And maybe even to their original status as spiritual objects? The UCTT has been discussing these issues for the last few years. Who can accept returning sacred objects? Is it always clear who was the original producer? And what are the costs when objects return? What rituals or sacrifices are needed? And will the objects automatically help the rehabilitation of the community and repair the loss of lost knowledge?
In early 2020, Matti-Juhani Karila restituted a Mami Wata altar sculpture to L'Union des Cultes Traditionnelles du Togo, an organisation of Vodoun priest in Togo and Benin. Here Georgette Singbé hands over the sculpture at Villa Karo. UCTT members investigated the origin, production, and migration process of the object in order to recover the meaning and production of the figure and the spiritual knowledge associated with it. The sculpture will be activated again at Maison Gbébé in Agouegan, Aného in 2022.
Culture and heritage are at the root of how we all see ourselves and others; it helps shape identities. School children, students, tourists, and many other visitors are exposed to these ideas on a daily basis. For far too long museums all over the world have operated as fortresses, collecting, creating, defining, defending, and preserving single stories from (post) colonial or imperial perspectives. With ‘Maison Gbébé’ we imagine a cultural center where local, living, traditional culture is practiced, performed, preserved, and can be studied. Where spiritual ceremonies and rituals can take place by knowledgeable persons. Maison Gbébé will be open to people with any religious or non-religious affiliation. We want to activate a space of sharing, participation, reappraisal, and ethics. In spring 2020 the construction of a temple for the Mami Wata sculpture has started at Maison Agbébé in the village of Agouegan, Aného, Togo.
First concepts and plans for Maison Gbébé by Sénamé Koffi Agbodjinou from L'Africaine d'architecture.