Collection of Matti-Juhani Karila
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The Villa Karo Finnish Cultural Center Museum in Grand Popo, Benin, houses a collection of Mami Wata figurines from private collector Matti-Juhani Karila.

Ethnological objects found their way to Europe in many ways. They were often illegally seized without permission, taken by force, or left to mission stations as a result of conversions and are intimately linked to colonial conflicts and unjust power relations. Objects have been incorporated into the complex hierarchies of ethnological museums, often without regard to their original context and history, without input from the original users and owners, categorized based on outwardly formal characteristics, and displayed in sterile vitrines. Yet, for the descendants of the original producers and communities, many of these objects are still of great importance and are increasingly being reclaimed by families, communities, and states.

“(…) what many Western museums and institutions wrongly and forcefully harbouring many so-called ‘objects’ from the non-West do not understand, or have not fully recognised, is that most of the so-called ‘objects’ have never been and will never be objects. The objectification of these ritual and spiritual beings, historical carriers, cultural entities, orientations and essences is in line with the dehumanisation and objectification of humans from the non-West. (…) it is about time that the so-called objects also be freed from the bondages of objecthood, in which they have been detained ever since they were taken away from their societies as captives, as were humans as slaves. Understanding these so-called objects as subjects necessitates a radical shift from Western understandings of subjecthood, personhood and community, as well as a drastic shift from a Western understanding of art, authorship and society, and subsequently a profound reconfiguration of what it means to be human.”  –  (Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung in: Those Who Are Dead Are Not Ever Gone, On the Maintenance of Supremacy, the Ethnological Museum and the Intricacies of the Humboldt Forum, South as a State of Mind, October, 2018)

(…) to understand the subjectivity of the so-called objects, one must be able to understand that some of them are indeed ritual entities that also possess subjectivity. As such they contain the possibility for healing, mediating between (wo)men and gods, and conscious of the dynamics of communities as they protect individuals in society. The so-called objects have feelings and desires; they hunger and thirst, and this is why they are fed, given sacrifices, prayed to and appeased in various ways to avoid them shedding their wrath on us. If agency is the capacity to act and make choices, then the so-called objects also possess agency, as they determine, act upon and wield power over individuals and societies, and most especially hold perspectives for their societies. 

– (Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung in: Those Who Are Dead Are Not Ever Gone, On the Maintenance of Supremacy, the Ethnological Museum and the Intricacies of the Humboldt Forum, published in: South as a State of Mind, October, 2018)

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Copy of a Mami Wata figure

What does it take to return “ethnological artefakts” to their place of origin and their original status as spiritual objects? And what role could a copy play in restitution projects? 

 

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The Copy and The Original #1
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The restitution initiated by Villa Karo, Grand Popo
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In early 2020, Matti-Juhani Karila restituted a Mami Wata altar sculpture to L'Union des Cultes Traditionnelles du Togo, an organisation of Vodun 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 Egbébé in Agouegan, Aného in 2022.

Georgette Singbé hands over the sculpture to Mamissi DaPovi at Villa Karo. In the background sits UCTT member Boconon Anani Gangalizo.

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The Copy and The Original #2
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The Copy and the Original #3
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Construction site at Maison Gbébé
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Can we use non-rational methods and spiritual, shamanistic practices to test and construct new spaces for culture? With Maison Gbébé 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. 

Here are some images of the construction site at the village of Agouegan in summer 2020. Beside the temple dedicated to Mami Wata’s fertile, regenerative, and conservation powers. Sénamé Koffi Agbodjinou of L’Africaine d’architecture has been invited as an architect to realize an annex, a cultural space. Maison Gbébé will serve as a local and international platform for dialogue, exchange, and knowledge transfer, a place where ancient spiritual knowledge can be passed on. The villages of Ageougan donated the L’Union des Cultes Trationelles du Togo a piece of land for this purpose. The annex will be a focal point for the UCTT, where visitors can get information and controlled access to voudun culture.

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