Black men fighting in a tunnel. On Humboldt Forum’s new ethnographic exhibition

Well, this has come, too. After eight years of jackhammering and towering cranes, construction blinds and traffic diversions, pink pipes (for the debris) and blue pipes (for the water) winding through the heart of the city, the baroque royal palace finally rises in the middle of Berlin for the second time. Not as beautifully carried out, with the meticulous care of the old masters, as the first one, but rather roughened up a bit, like “so umgefähr, on the basis of this you can already imagine what the original might have been like”. And of course this all just the exterior facades, because inside it’s all modern, like a mediocre mall. The master apparently came from this scene, he had a feel for it. Franco Stella, of Venice, is almost eighty years old, but he has not had a really significant building yet. Maybe he accepted this job in 2008 because it was a real wasp nest, poked by only a few. Rebuilding a completely destroyed historic building out of nothing (the palace was bombed in WWII, and rather than restore it, the remains were instead cleared away by the new East German leadership, who built the GDR’s asbestos concrete parliament in its place), moreover in a place historically and ideologically so sensitive: the whole process of design and construction was accompanied by much debate and criticism. The opening of Europe’s most expensive cultural project was delayed from 2019 to 2021, but that is nothing compared to the fact that Europe’s most expensive airport, in the same city, is almost ten years late, or that no German trains or S-Bahns run on time.

The Humboldt Forum, as the new palace is called, was intended to be a museum of non-European cultures, “the German equivalent of the British Museum”, as touted in the German press. Its collections – the Ethnographic Museum and the Museum of Asian Art – had been housed in the Dahlem Museum up until 2015, when they started the process of moving them. Since then, I have been missing this excellent museum painfully; to it I dedicated one of the first posts of this blog. Now I go to see how the new museum outperforms its predecessor, already world-class, and how the larger space and state-of-the-art museum technology will enrich the exhibition of the objects.

The placement of the collections is still going on. So far, two sections have opened, representing Africa-Oceania and Asia. The latter has been really given a boost by its new home: many more objects are on exhibit now, and the cultures and their contexts are better visualized. I want to write about these separately. But the first impression, the African exhibition, is depressing. It’s as if we were in a completely different museum from the Asian section: everything is more amateurish, from the organization through the exhibition to the labeling.

In the old Dahlem Museum, one of the great master strokes was the lighting. They were among the first museums to adopt individual spot lighting of each object in a dimly lit room, which made the objects stand out in their uniqueness and plasticity, lending them a radiance, an aura, even. In the Humboldt, this form of presentation persists in the Asian section. But in the Africa-Oceania section, the background of the displays is dark (Why, when the vast majority of the objects is also dark?), and harsh spotlights are trained on them from the wrong side of the glass. Thus, the whole display glass reflects the room, the window glare and the reflections of the visitors, and you can hardly see anything of the objects themselves in the midst of a laser storm of hundreds of spot lights. The reason you cannot see much of this in the photos below is that I tried to shoot the less exposed pieces and retouched the photos in many places. The overall impression is better conveyed by this painting by the Polynesian Greg Semu, Self-portrait with Twelve Disciples or: The last Cannibal Supper, Because Tomorrow We Become Christians, although I have also retouched this photo.

Maybe it is not bad that we se so little of the objects, because otherwise we would start to wonder about the identity of each one. However, the concept of the exhibition is not to fiddle with single objects. In the huge central hall of the African collection, objects are exhibited in bulk in the three wall displays, like in a colonial souvenir shop, without labels, with only a few illegible dog tags linked on the feet of some of them. Unbelievable, but true. I remember that the Bradt Guide Ukraine wrote in the 1990s about the Museum of Atheism in Lemberg/Lviv (which has since been renamed the Museum of Religion, with the actual collection unchanged), that its exhibition – the furnishings of many closed-down churches and synagogues was simply dumped there – is like a provincial junkshop. The Lemberg express has now reached Berlin. I can only hope this is a temporary state; that as most of the rooms in the floor plan of the African section are still closed due to the process of moving in and arranging the pieces, so they will later dedicate some attention and care to those rooms already open, and we will then find out where the otherwise high-quality African artefacts came from, what they mean and what purpose they served.

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However, our hopes wither in the already more attentively arranged smaller rooms, where the objects have their labels. In fact, these rooms seem to be arranged by two separate museologists. One has dealt with the individual objects and mostly provided thorough information about them, while the other was tasked with creating the general concept. Most of the objects originate in the pre-1920 German colonies in Africa and Oceania – their history is now experiencing a renaissance with numerous exhibitions, books, publications of personal photo collections and memoirs –, and so the second museologist considered it his job to focus on the colonial past. And, strangely, he used the same approach as a century ago, but turned it on its head. While the nostalgia exhibitions of the 1920s and 1930s primarily emphasized how much the white – Aryan – man gave to the blacks, the current exhibition focuses on the sins committed by the colonists, in the spirit of overall German guilt. I’m not saying that one should not confront the past, but at the same time, I am not visiting an exhibition about Africa to learn more about the bad German conscience. I am here to learn about the African cultures themselves. Sadly this is not the place for that. And, in the midst of the deeply felt guilt, this only serves as another kick to these already much-kicked cultures.

A mask representing a European man, 1880s, Papua New Guinea, the island of New Ireland (known in the period as Neumecklenburg)

In the Dahlem Museum I did not have this sense of lack. But if I had, I could well have restored my faith in a visit to the museum’s excellent bookstore, which was perhaps the best bookstore of ethnography and anthropology in all of Europe. The Humboldt’s souvenir shop – I would not call it a bookstore – is a deep disappointment in comparison to the Dahlem, or to any other museum. Mugs, puzzles, T-shirts, plush figures. Of books or catalogs, there are maybe a dozen. Whosoever needs such things, let them order them from Amazon. Of course not on the deplorable, third-world German internet, but rather by means of a trusty letter or stone tablet.

Humboldt Shop, or guilt takes off its mask

Missing women

the photo is from here

“How many letters are there in the Chinese alphabet?” The answer to this frequently asked question is not unambiguous. First of all, Chinese writing is not an alphabet, that is, it does not use letters, but rather word signs abstracted from images, the number of which is many times higher than even the richest alphabet. The largest Chinese dictionaries and the Chinese national character table count tens of thousands of characters – 48,000 in the 1992 edition –, but most of them are historical or obsolete term that cannot be said to be part of “the Chinese alphabet” anymore. Readers of fiction recognize an average of 3-4 thousand characters, and specialists some 5-6 thousand. The standard published in 2013 in mainland China contains 8,105 characters, of which one must be able to write virtually all.

However, this number is only two-thirds of the comprehensive character set of pre-war Chinese, and the vast majority of today’s characters does not even look like the ones used for millennia before.

In the rush of the  fever of modernization that began in China around the turn of the century which intensified after the republican revolution of 1912, more and more intellectuals proclaimed that the complexity of Chinese writing was one of the biggest obstacles to the country’s development. Many wanted to switch to a Latin script – which, however, is almost imposible for writing Chinese –, or at least to reduce the number of characters or simplify their complex forms. Their opponents claimed that this would have brought on a fatal impoverishment of the rich historical heritage encoded in the characters.

Finally, the Chinese Communist Party – officially to promote literacy, but also to break with the past – introduced today’s simplified writing system in 1956. It simplified the form of many characters, and eliminated nearly one-third of them. This system is only official in mainland China, while Hong Kong, Taiwan and the old Chinese diasporas – in the USA, Britain or Indochina – still use the old characters.

The vast majority of Chinese characters consist of two parts. The reason for this is that the first Chinese dictionaries, composed in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, organized the characters into semantic groups, and then the character of the given group became part of all the characters included. This facilitated memorization and the consulting of dictionaries. At the same time, new characters could be created by adding a new group name – 部首 bùshǒu, “group head”, in English radical) before an existing character, which thus took on a new meaning. For example, if we add the radical 女 “woman” before the character 馬 “horse” (which still shows the mane and the four legs of a horse, while its post-1956 simplified form 马 no longer does), we get the new character 媽 “mum” (simplified form: 妈), that is, “a word we pronounce like horse, but belongs to the group of woman words”). Woman 女 and child 子 make together 好 hǎo, “good” (see calligraphic variants here to the right), woman 女 and ancient 古 are together “aunt” 姑 gū. In the word 妻 “wife”, the sign of the woman is at the bottom. What we see above it is the long hair of the girl that she is braiding with her hand. And three women together 姦 jiān mean “evil” … perhaps the depressing memory of polygamy.

And speaking of women, it is well known how the combination of the “one child” policy and the pension system introduced by the Communist Party distorted China’s demographics. Since married couples can’t rely on their pensions, and with only their sons to support them in their old age, they obviously want the permitted “one child” to be male, because any girl would support her husband’s family. Therefore, since the sex of the unborn child can be determined in advance, a much higher proportion of female fetuses have been aborted than males. In mainland China, there were 117 men per 100 women in 2001, meaning that nearly 20% of men will not be able to find a wife back home because of the missing women.

It is necessary to know all of this in order to understand the laconic painting on display in the recently opened Chinese exhibition at the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. The 2016 picture One Hundred Women was painted by Jia 嘉, born in 1979, who works a lot with Chinese characters. There are a hundred characters in the picture arranged as a chessboard, each of which contains the “woman” radical, that is, each means something related to women and femininity. Another common feature of these characters is that the communist writing reform evicted all of them from the set of accepted characters. They can no longer be used to express concepts for the nuanced recording of which they had been invented by the several thousand year old Chinese literature. The “femininity content” of Chinese culture has declined with the ban, just as with communist birth control. The proclamation character and message of the painting are underlined by the typography chosen by Jia, which is identical to that of early communist posters. As if it was publishing a list of one hundred women sentenced to death by the regime.

Christmas in Mallorca

The question of “where is the most beautiful Christmas” touches emotional archetypes. To some in the high mountains, where there is still real snow and plenty of pine trees so huge that even the smallest one beats the Parliament’s Christmas tree. To some others, in the southern seas, where there is no snow and pines, but, in contrast, there are palm trees and heat. Both offer a way out of everyday life, to another, cleaner, ideal world. To me it is where so many other things are most beautiful: the beach, the orange and olive grove, and the seven-hundred-year-old sounding in a single soprano voice in the darkened cathedral on Christmas night.

El Cant de la Sibiŀla, Mallorca. Jordi Savall, Montserrat Figueras, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, 1998 (36'50)

The ideal world also sends a message even when you cannot get there. No one would think of this picture as being a Christmas postcard, though it is. In the top, only indicatively, the same sea as in the pictures of the just linked post. In the middle, the tops of the olive trees. And in the foreground, the garden of Wang Wei, with a severe hiatus: the stump of the beautiful and beloved pine tree that the storm tore out a year ago. But the focus of the image is not this lack, not the loss, but the small red promise towering in front of it. Like in Fereidun Moshiri’s Believe in the spring.

The postcard in my little home Kunstkammer, together with a mediterranean Venus found on the other sea

Bethlehem in Cordoba

The former Jewish quarter of Cordoba is organized around Renaissance palaces with arcaded inner coutyards, which until 1492 were owned by wealthy Jewish merchant families, and then by Castilian aristocrats. I will write about them soon. Now I only want to write about the one in which we find Jews even five centures after their expulsion in 1492. And not just Jews, but an entire Jewish city. Or perhaps two.

The 16th-century palace of the Marquis of Motilla – theirs is also the 10th-century Almodóvar, the best-kept Spanish castle where many scenes of the Game of Thrones were shot – is a Catholic youth center today. Its gate is invitingly open in the weeks before Christmas, when a model of Bethlehem is on display in its courtyard.

The belén or presepe is a genre of representation in the Mediterranean, with parishes and communities competing to create a more vivid and more touching Nativity scene. But here it is as if they really wanted to create a model of the ancient Bethlehem, in the full length of the courtyard.

The city model begins at the only gate of Bethlehem, surrounded by the typical clay houses of the Middle East. In the background, Roman soldiers (eunt domus!) are just promulgating the census decre of Emperor Augustus. In the foreground, the first Bethlehem expats are already arriving home, and negotiating accommodation at the inn. The rabbit in the vegetable garden feels totally safe, as its flesh is not kosher. To the right, the small house with the woman exiting in contrapposto with the probably full bucket, and with the chariot of firewood, is a real Italian neorealistic movie cutout.

We see the inside of a carpenter’s workshop, with the carpenter angrily sawing, and his little son sitting on the ground and watching him with reverence. Of course, there had to be some carpenter’s workshops in Bethlehem. But if we move a little aside, we also see the young wife sitting in the back room. This is too many hints to miss the Holy Family. However, then we are a few years later and in another city, Nazareth.

John Everett Millais, Christ in the house of his parents (The carpentry shop), 1850

That Nazareth is in fact already present in Betlehemben, is confirmed by the next scene, where the angel greets the same young woman in her room in Nazareth. The dove of the Holy Spirit has just arrived upon the roof.

And right next to it, another angelic apparition: the annunciation to the shepherds, who are about to direct their flocks to the city. But the camels of the three kings have already gotten there, and just kneeling down to offer the gift bags.

And meanwhile, life goes on without stopping among the houses of the city: a fair is held, carpets, pots and vegetables are sold, they are washing and fishing in the creek. “When the aged reverently, passionately waiting / For the miraculous birth, there always must be / Others, who did not specially want it to happen…”

And finally the camera, like in a panoramic shot, return to its starting point, the city gate. But time has passed in the meantime. The couple, who had just entered the gate and got a baby, are now leaving the city and the country, away for Egypt. Here the story falls off the sand table, and continues in the Ethiopian frescoes.

The Elephant’s Well

Ten kilometers west of Cordoba lies Medinat Al-Zahra, the Shining City, built as the most beautiful city of the world by Abdurrahman III in 929, on the occasion of declaring himself the caliph of Andalusia, as a sign of his independence from the Sunni caliph of Baghdad and the Shiʿa caliph of Cairo. Today, only the central part of the city is standing, deprived of all its ornaments, carvings and noble wall coverings, but even in it ruins, it clearly testifies to its former beauty and richness.

Directly above the city rises the Sierra Morena range, a national park whose springs once supplied the city with water. One of these springs is a few kilometers above the town, in the main square of the present-day town of Santa María de la Trassierra. The spring is today surrounded by a regular granite well, with a large animal carved from pink limestone on it. Its shape, ears and legs are of an elephant, only its nose is too short, as if the sculptor found impossible to accept the existence of an animal carrying its tail on its face.

Although the statue looks old, it is just the copy of a really old one. Its original stood in the woods a kilometer away for a thousand years, until 1988, when it was transferred to the courtyard of the Archbishop’s Palace in Cordoba. Since then, a copy stand in the original place, too, but in order to boast with it not only to hikers, but also to all other visitors of the town – for example to those who come to the excellent Candil restaurant across the street –, the municipality also erected a copy here, in the main square. None of the three has any information board.

According to radiocarbon dating, the original sculpture may have been created sometime between 982 and 1193, that is, during the heyday of the Shining City. We also know its cause and function. It stood next to the Valdepuentes aqueduct, known by the Latins as Aqua Vetus or Aqua Augusta, which had supplied water to the expanding city of Corduba since the time of Emperor Augustus. The architect of the Shining City, Maslama ben Abdallah renovated this aqueduct in the 930s to provide the caliphal city with water. And not long after, Caliph Abdurrahman, or one of his high-ranking courtiers, had a pleasure garden built here, in the Valley of the Roses, which was also irrigatd by the water of the Aqua Vetus. As evidenced by the opening on its forehead and the bed of a tube carved in its temple, the elephant was the well statue of this water somewhere at a prominent point in the garden, just like the lion statues in the garden of the Alhambra.

The origins of the elephant, like most relics of al-Andalus, are enveloped in a legend that Manuel Pimentel has included in his book of legends of Medina Azahara. The legend, like the tales of the Thousand and One Nights, has a swirling structure: leaning over it, we see another legend. According to it, Maslama ben Abdallah roamed in the Sierra Morena in search of building materials for the new city of the caliph, and everywhere talked to the locals in hope for information about the materials on the site. This is how he met a hermit in the woods, a connoisseur of the traditions of the Christian world of two centuries earlier, who told him the following legend:

The Romans conquering southern Hispania, had to wage war with the Carthaginians, who regarded the region as part of their own colonial empire. To fight them with weapons equivalent to theirs, a large group of combat elephants were brought over from North Africa, and with their help they could oust the Carthaginians. Thereafter, the elephants were stationed at the headquarters of the legion at the foot of the Sierra Morena, but their feeding during in the dry and barren years put the camp’s logistical capacity to test. Eventually, the centurion in charge of the camp decided that since the Carthaginian threat was over, the elephants would have to be killed. However, their caretaker, who felt sorry for them, preferred to release them. The herd set out for the green mountains, where the head elephant stopped at a point in the valley, and turned a large rock out of the ground. From under the rock, abundant water flowed and gathered in the form of a large lake at the foot of the rocks.

Combat elephant. AD 5th-century Roman mosaic in the town of Huqoq, Galilee

The centurion was informed of the fountain, and hurried to the spot. However, he slipped at the shore of the newly formed lake, and fell into the water. His armor would have pulled him to the bottom of it, but the elephant with its snout reached after him and lifted him ashore. The centurion then ordered the elephants to receive ample provision until their deaths. An aqueduct wa built from the lake to supply the center of the province, Corduba. And in the decades that followed, the two aging males, the centurion and the elephant, were often seen walking together in the mountains above the city.

Pilate and his dog walking with Ha-Nocri until the end of times in Vladimir Bortko’s movie The Master and Margarita

On hearing the legend, Maslama ben Abdallah renovated the Roman aqueduct and led the water of the Elephant’s Well to the new city of the caliph. And when the hermit died, he had an elephant statue carved on the shores of the lake in memory of him and his story.

The original statue next to the Aqua Vetus in the 1930s

So far the legend. Its core is certainly an attempt to explain the origin of the lake accumulated near the ruins of the aqueduct. And the elephant is an Arab well statue erected after its restoration, a unique work in Muslim art which otherwise rejects sculptures and modeling living beings. However, in al-Andalus, existing in close contact with European culture, this ban softened in many cases, as we shall see later.

The wise rabbit and the Elephant King at the Moon’s Well. From the Arab animal tale collection Kalila wa Dimna, 16th century, MET