The Copy and The Original #8
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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.

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The Copy and The Original #7
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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

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The Copy and The Original #6
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The Copy and The Original #4
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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! 

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The Copy and The Original #5
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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.

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Collection of sculptures dedicated to Mami Wata
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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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The Copy

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?

 

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The Copy and The Original #1
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Ceremony at 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 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.

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, Agouegan
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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.

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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Maison Gbébé; Concepts and Architectural Plans
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First concepts and plans for Maison Gbébé by Sénamé Koffi Agbodjinou from L'Africaine d'architecture. 

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Temporary assembling-, and showroom
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