from local to global

Scarborough Museums Trust

A research and reflection phase of a commission to respond to a collection as part of an ongoing decolonising appraisal project. Looking at the Harrison collection and the broader colonial context of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a compilation of enclosure dynamics occurs describing multitudinous modes of carving up existing ecologies. Three sculptures were produced as adjacent thought processes, see this part of the project here.

Three written responses, ANCHOR, ACT and ALTER, were published on the project website.

How do we address the paradox that recognising and undoing the othering process relies on drawing attention to the othering processes documented in the collection? And could I really diminish the false neutrality of my whiteness if my art dared to take a political position?

Working with the Harrison collection, I began to compile dynamics that could be read as enclosure, that is, divisions forced into an existing ecology of things. This compilation became expansive: enclosure of common resources and means, enclosure of movement by state borders imposed by colonisers, of wealth by financial entities and plutocratic policy-making, of wildlife by militarised parks, of culture by appropriation, of land by appropriation, of people by categorisation and enslavement, materials by taxonomy, of language by morality. In these, enclosure is divorce and containment. Similarly, the objects in the museum store are divorced from their context and, as I examined them, I sensed myself complicit in their containment. I became hyper-aware of the latex gloves that mediated my handling, their cardboard cases, the drone of the climate control, the locks and seals that insulated the basement store from the rest of the building.

Sitting among the silent bones and hides, even with a disgust regarding the perpetrators of this history, I felt mainly sad, I felt that all of us in that room, animate and inanimate, were sad and lonely. Displaced, disconnected, unable to communicate. That however skilfully the craftsperson had tried to reinsert a ferocious glory into these taxidermies, they had simply managed to exaggerate a pitiful superficiality of killing for glory, that if the trophies were testament to anything now it was this. And that, in an attempt to enclose life permanently as keepsake, what is now most palpable is its erasure.
During the partition of Africa, Western European powers rushed to divide and invade the continent in order to exploit its resources using the pretence of guardianship and development. The Congo Free State, as it was named during Harrison’s visits, was “designed as an extraction area and never as a political space” (Kabamba in Dowling 2020, 7). I sense that enclosure cannot be estranged from violence, but also that this relation is not straightforward. Enclosure denotes a making of unfreedom and of stasis, a task of capitalisation. On the flipside it does this protecting thing too; I can see the action of enclosure as it could attempt to defend something progressive, for example a practice of freedom or nurture. But this scenario is precisely how exploitative enclosure has been falsely justified.
Regarding the treatment of wildlife in the region, much has changed since Harrison’s visits, though a familiar mode of violent control is enacted through the DRC’s national parks, created in the name of combatting biodiversity loss. The highly militarised boundary enforcement and extreme anti-poaching measures lead to the expulsion of indigenous groups and in some cases, the creation of de facto warzones. And though hunting is prohibited within park boundaries, human shoot-on-sight policies are authorised and used by park rangers as per their training under Belgian former paratroopers (Jones 2020, 34).

Enclosure of these parks can be seen as a means of accumulation by securitisation, lucrative to state elites and private landholders, and supported by donations and tourism of misled consumers. Tracing the physical enclosure of the park, these practices exemplify a moral boundary drawing in which established racial otherhoods, for example the conceptualisation of poachers as terrorist groups, are exercised to enable the policy agendas of white conservationists. This continues to perpetuate the colonial falsehood that local actors are unfit for self-governance.
I’m swivelling nervously in my office chair as Jim clicks through the photos on his monitor. Among the hoards of Harrison’s trophy photos is an angular silhouette of what looks like headgear at a pit edge. Later I am equipped with the entire hard drive and spend hours dragging jpegs into thematic groups; one is titled ‘extractive industries’. The era of digitalisation has altered discourse around decolonising museums, with the possibility to create whole collections of simulacra seeming to offer a neutral parallel to their plundered originals; evidence, but not on a plinth, less appealing to venerate when rendered in pixels.

But enclosures of hierarchy and exclusion continue to to be strategically employed in digital realms. And the devices with which I zoom, scroll, and form my perspective are made up precisely of the stuff that DRC mine workers labour to extract, and no amount of critical reflection can expunge me of this contradiction. I don’t find any more photos of the mine. The brutal realities of the burgeoning extraction industry was of little concern to Harrison, as the plight of labouring bodies often are to wealthy white men. Only recently are the victims of such supply chains able to fight for some genuine comeuppance; a 2019 lawsuit launched by International Rights Advocates on behalf of 14 families from the DRC saw Apple, Google, Dell, and Tesla held to account for knowingly sourcing lithium-ion batteries originating from mines where children had been injured and killed (Dowling 2020).

I am trying to know that the matter is not some neutral resource for my investment.
It relates, through kinship or origin, to frontiers of segregation between the bodies that toil and the bodies that architect the frontiers between toil and rest.

Moving from knowledge translation I begin sketching art that could be part of an act – or actions – of critically and collectively re-making the record. I imagine a device to redraw the collection using layering and interference, and forming a record that would be bulky and continuous, needing to be unrolled and reappraised by a large group. But focussing on a remade end product evokes a kind of static up-to-date perspective.

I collect up my sketches, shapes and objects, doorway, umbrella, blocks and instead consider the land, excavated, patrolled. In 2018 the International Trade Union Congress ranked the UK alongside Russia and the Congo as a country where there are “regular violations of workers’ rights”. I’m thinking now about momentarily suspending chronology, and using the association of enclosure to bring experiences of labour, commodity, and relation to land between the DRC and the UK into the same field of view. Perhaps allowing protagonists agency from a strict historical schema and can encourage points of access between time and geography to be revealed?

The severe material, corporeal and psychological equivalences of enclosure were not repercussions, but rather the core economy and modus operandi of the colonial project.

Archival photographs courtesy Scarborough Museums.