Les Archives Suédoises: An Intercultural Collaboration Around a Colonial Pile of Glass-plate Negatives

Cinergie – Il cinema e le altre arti. N.17 (2020)
ISSN 2280-9481

Les Archives Suédoises: An Intercultural Collaboration Around a Colonial Pile of Glass-plate Negatives

Cecilia JärdemarKonstfack University of Arts, Crafts and Design (Sweden)

Cecilia Järdemar is a visual artist and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Fine Art

Submitted: 2020-03-12 – Published: 2020-07-30


This article will discuss the intercultural, collaborative art project Les Archives Suédoises, which brings a repressed part of colonial history into the open by re-contextualizing and reworking a hidden trove of historical glass-plate negatives photographed by Swedish missionaries in the Congo DR between 1890 -1930. Through a practice of inter-cultural artistic interventions, the material remains of the missionary project are investigated and reformulated; questioning Sweden’s colonial history, and simultaneously giving Congolese communities access to parts of their history lost in the process of colonization. The project explores the possibilities of intercultural artistic interventions – is it possible to redress and reformulate our difficult shared history through a shared practice? How can we bring the past into the present in ways that consider the different needs in the Congo and Sweden? Is it possible to find new ways of conceiving of the narrative potentials of the photographic archive – beyond digital repatriation projects that strip images of their context and echo the exclusionary mechanics of earlier versions of the archive?

Keywords: Art; Colonial archive; Counter memory; Intercultural collaborations; Photography.

The article has been amended in date 2020-09-23, see the corrigendum: https://doi.org/10.6092/issn.2280-9481/11531

How we narrate and organize memories has a bearing on how we orient ourselves within our globalized world – and a discourse of innocence has allowed Sweden to claim a neutral position as an objective observer, building a narrative and self-image of a humanitarian superpower. Using the term “colonialism without colonies” Purtschert et al (2015:6) as a way of framing a discussion around how colonialism has affected Sweden, a society that does not acknowledge colonial complicity, we unbox and unfold piles of decaying photographic materials stored in private attics and archives by heirs of missionaries. Using archival practices to reanimate eradicated histories, we explore how we can confront these images today, from a Swedish perspective, where there is great reluctance to remember this part of our history? And from a Congolese perspective, where the photographs both bear witness to the suffering of the people living through colonization, and depict historical village life and traditions? An intercultural collaboration between Congolese artist Freddy Tsimba, Swedish artist Anna Ekman and myself resulted in a series of site-specific installations in Sweden and the Congo, looking beyond our own context-specific histories and addressing the traumatic memory left in both nations.

Figure 1. Map of Svenska Missionskyrkans missionary fields in Congo 1908. Riksarkivet, Stockholm

1 Historical Background

My own engagement with this history started in 2016, when Anna Ekman and myself received a commission to create a new permanent installation at Persbo Studio Sculpture park, set on the grounds of an old missionary chapel 2 hours north of Stockholm. The Swedish countryside is dotted with these wooden buildings, constructed towards the end of the last century when an evangelical revival spread through Sweden. The new parishes that emerged had a deep concern for missions, and any member of the congregation could be called to serve, regardless of social class – something that could be both a frightening, deadly prospect and an escape from a daily reality often marked by poverty. Inspired by Stanley´s accounts of traveling in the Congo, the church started sending missionaries to the Lower Congo region in the 1880’s, and Sweden was soon one of the major operators in the Congo Free State, sending not only missionaries, but also seamen for the steamships on the Congo river and officers to serve in King Leopold’s Force Publique. Larsson (2016).1

The opening of the missionary fields coincided with the rapid spread of photographic techniques, and the camera’s ability to collect and construct the world was soon intrinsically mixed with colonialism and the Christian missions, as analyzed by Schneider (2018) and Landau (2006). Unlike the source material that Congolese artist Sammy Baloji used in his searing photo collages The Album, merging his own contemporary images of Katanga with historical photographs from the eastern Congo Free state by British missionary and anti-slavery campaigner Alice Seeley, the Swedish missionary photographs were not created with the aim of denouncing the atrocities inflicted by the Belgian colonial state. In fact, the church sent out camera equipment with their missionaries with the aim of increasing donations from their home parishes for the missionary activities, and selections of images were made into lantern lectures touring chapels, schools and community centers up until the early sixties. For many Swedes it was their first encounter with Africa, and the images thus had a profound influence on how Africa has been imagined in Sweden (Granquist 2001:114). At the same time, the touring lantern plate presentations brought about a longing for elsewhere in the Swedish viewers, often rooted in a reality defined by poverty. In the Congo, on the other hand, not many photographs from the historical period remain: the Belgian colonizers controlled the technology, and the tropical climate and political turbulence has destroyed much of what was left. The missionaries were also very much part of a process whereby they documented the existing culture in the places they settled, then set out to do their best to change or even destroy it (Granquist 2011:115). Postcolonial social scientist Boaventura de Sousa Santos terms this kind of destruction epistemicide: “the destruction of the knowledge and cultures of populations, of their memories and ancestral links and their manner of relating to others and to nature” (20016:22). We still retain the scattered material remains of this epistemicide in Sweden today. As an example, the Museums of World Culture in Stockholm and Gothenburg between them hold about 10 000 objects acquired from the Congo Free State (1885 -1908), most of them donated by Swedish missionaries in the Lower Congo. (Reinius 2009:77).

This history is not often discussed in Sweden today, and according to Gunlög Fur, “distancing themselves from European colonialism has allowed the Nordic countries to adopt an attitude of superiority that could well be regarded as its own form of colonialism – of knowing what is best for others.” (2016:12) We decided to make a piece that would remind visitors to the sculpture park of this history, so we visited the church archive, where we came across boxes and boxes of glass-plate negatives often donated by the families of the missionary-photographers and not opened since. In conversation with one of the archivists, we asked if there was any access to this material in the Lower Congo? No, the archivist said, we own their history. Yet the church, with ever-dwindling numbers in the congregation, lacked both the funds and the skills to do anything with the images. Andreas Huyssen speaks of “our complicity and responsibility to at least remember” (2018), and we felt compelled to find ways to carry this material inheritance, this archive-yet-to-be-made, and all the possible narratives contained within it, into the future and, crucially, to find a sustainable way to share it with its communities of origin.

Contacting the families2 to gain permission to use the materials uncovered more glass plate negatives held in private storage, and we, as two independent artists, became both custodians and curators. But what could an unboxing of these images do today, considering the unequal conditions of their creation? We found Elisabeth Edwards comments about images “random inclusiveness” (2009:4) helpful, proposing that scenes in photographs can never be controlled to such a degree that other readings are not possible. The properties of the camera create a potentially democratic space, where images can be rediscovered and meaning rewritten, even in the cases where they were the result of unequal power relationships between photographer and subject. Therefore, despite the conditions under which the images were made, we wanted to offer them up for reinterpretation – and we were also interested in exploring how doing so as two artists, outside of an institutional framework could open up other kinds of possibilities compared to institutional repatriation projects – not only repatriating the images to the places where they were made, but also creating opportunities to critically reflect on this history in Sweden, beyond the common narrative of ‘the good Swede’. We selected around 300 glass plate negatives to digitize, both from the private archive of the family of Johan Hammar and from Svenska Missionskyrkan, in addition to a complete lantern plate lecture with images coloured and captioned by various Swedish missionaries.

I will now go on to discuss some of the work that came out the unboxing and unfolding.

Figure 2. Pulpet by Anna Ekman and Cecilia Järdemar, 2015, permanent sculpture, steel, plexiglass, duratrans from original glass plate negative, original photographer Josef Öhrneman, Persbo Studio Sculpture park. Photograph by Fredrik Strid

At Persbo Studio, a backlit transparency inset in a steel preachers pulpit articulates the difficult and multi-faceted relationship between the congregations in Sweden who funded the missionaries’ activities overseas, and the people living within ‘the missionary fields’ in Lower Congo. A reverb from a meeting between a missionary and local men today resound within the linden tree arbor at Persbo Studio, and remind us of how individuals living far from Persbo were affected by the activities that once took place there. In order to view the image, depicting 10 Congolese men and boys standing in water looking back at the photographer with expressions ranging from pious to angry, visitors need to physically put themselves in the place of the missionary preacher, behind the pulpit as if about to start preaching.

Figure 3. Porter, Kingoyi Church, Digital print from glass plate negative, Anna Ekman & Cecilia Järdemar, 2016, original photograph by Josef Öhrneman

Repatriating the images to one of the villages of origin in the Lower Congo, we installed a series of images in the old chapel in Kingoyi missionary village in the Lower Congo, still in use today. The photographs depicted people and village life in this particular location. When we first arrived, the people we encountered expected us to arrive with photographs of the Swedish missionaries, but we choose not to include any such images of Swede’s as we wanted the images to be useful in building historiographical agency and capacity in the present. We also brought a digital hard-drive with all the images that we had found relating to the village, which were shown as a slide show in the chapel. Village elders went through the images, explaining the content to the young people of the village and to us, identifying people and customs. In a much more tangible way than we could have imagined in Sweden, we experienced the value of and interest in the photographs. This is our history, one of the old men said of the images that had languished unseen in the archive for so long. However, as the source villages do not have access to electricity, and most are also outside the reach of mobile connections even in the case where solar power can be used to charge phones, we quickly saw the limits of an online repository for the materials. An archive hosted online would be inaccessible to the local population, instead of replicating what visual culture theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff argues defines colonial orders: “the right to look without being looked at.” (2011:107)

Figure 4. Monument to the Porters of Kingoyi, digital print from glass-plate negative on fabric. Anna Ekman & Cecilia Järdemar 2016. Original photograph by unknown photographer

In an attempt to create a temporary monument to the porters of Kingoyi we carried an image of the landscape and a group of porters, found in a box marked unusable, through Kingoyi. Local people joined us and helped find what may be the location, but of course, we cannot be sure. Porters carried all the possessions and equipment, including the heavy glass-plate negatives, of the Swedish missionaries as they spread out north of the Congo river. The trek to Kingoyi from the nearest port took 3 weeks – the porters work was both heavy, dangerous and barely remunerated.

2 Re-viewing and re-making, in collaboration

Making use of De Sousa Santos’ ideas around intercultural translations as a framework for how to construct intercultural collaborations, it was important to find collaborators who could meet the material from a Congolese perspective. After spending some time in Kinshasa meeting artists, we were very fortunate to encounter sculptor Freddy Tsimba, not only one of the most well-known contemporary Congolese artists working today, but also someone with a strong connection to the history of the Swedish missionaries in Lower Congo. Both his parents are Kikongo, from the village Isangila situated between the Swedish missionary stations Vivi and Kibunzi. Tsimba’s late father received his schooling at Kibunzi Mission school during the 1930’s, and stayed on to work as a local preacher before he left the church for a new life in Kinshasa. The photographic images thus evoke Tsimba’s personal history and material and cultural heritage – rendering the importance of their re-emergence and re-contextualisation of great importance for him.

Together we have explored how to develop a working practice based on equal power-relationships and shared authority whilst acknowledging a past defined by dominance and subordination, investigating how we can make space for new forms of cultural encounters and intercultural translation in the process. By engaging in a dialogue “with one foot in one culture and the other in another,” De Sousa Santos (2016:192) we have attempted to bridge the gap between us without the assumption that we understand ourselves and the materials in the same way. The goal was not to find complete knowledge or understanding, but rather to let the unequal exchange of the past be transformed by a radical co-presence in the present. Investigating how we can use intercultural artistic interventions to redress and reformulate our difficult shared history, creating a space between our individual practices where the unknown could step in and generate new ways of thinking and seeing, unfolding new possibilities within the materials. We were interested in exploring how collaborative artistic research can interact with decolonial processes by shifting the historiography away from a focus on the Swedish perspective, and instead making space for more complete versions that include a multiplicity of viewpoints and voices, embracing interpretations that have been ignored, forgotten or eliminated. “…the contact zones are frontier zones, borderlands, or no-man’s-lands, where the peripheries or margins of knowledges and practices are the first to emerge…” De Sousa Santos (2016:355). We worked through the image materials together, sending things back and forth, and we also visited old people in Kinshasa with memories of the Swedish missionaries, and children of the missionary photographers in Sweden. Before the exhibitions we made, we worked alongside each other in a shared studio space, both in Stockholm and in Kinshasa, keeping the dialogue open at all points in the process. This way of collaborating made the curating of the exhibitions less a case of mine and Ekman’s photographic work versus Tsimba’s sculptures and drawings; instead we installed the work in dialogue, as one, coherent installation.

The title, Les Archives Suédoises, references how the Swedish missionary archive is commonly referred to in the Congo DR today. The language question is not uncomplicated however – using the language of the former colonial power in a postcolonial project is far from unproblematic, even though French remains the official language, alongside national languages Kikongo, Lingala, Swahili and Tshiluba.3 We considered using both Kikongo (which is spoken in the source villages) and Lingala (The language of Tsimba, writer André Yoka Lye, who provided a text for the catalogue, and most of the art students we worked with in Kinshasa) for the exhibition title and publication. But after some discussions, the Congolese participants came to the conclusion that in this case, French would be the most inclusive language, and that using all three languages alongside Swedish would make the publication too cumbersome. Tsimba, however, most often uses titles in Lingala for his works, with translations into French.

Figure 5. Skioptikon image, Svenska Missionskyrkan with new captions by students at Institute National des Arts, Kinshasa, 2017

We also held a series of workshops for photography and film students from the Institute National des Arts in Kinshasa based around the digitized lantern plate lecture, and together with their teachers they spent a term working with the materials. The students engaged performatively with the images creating a series of re-enactment photographs, and they also wrote new captions for a few of the images. The re-staging became a way for the students to enter into the historical images and both explore them and make them their own. We can’t know, of course, if what the students wrote is historically correct or not, but from our point of view it is not important – what is interesting is the stories that emerge in the students writing, and how those stories work to rehabilitate the image and the persons depicted, from the often-denigrating original captions supplied by the missionaries.

Figure 6. The Opening, Anna Ekman & Cecilia Järdemar and Freddy Tsimba, Jönköpings Länsmuseum 2019. Original images by Josef Öhrenman, Johan Hammar and unknown photographers

3 The opening

The opening up of the missionary fields is taken as a starting point for the first of the collaborative exhibitions – the long trek on narrow caravan trails where the porters carried all the goods deemed necessary, sometimes perishing in the process. The Swedish missionaries used the same transport system as the colonial state, and one missionary described in his diary how walking along the caravan trail was like walking across a graveyard, there were so many human remains scattered along the way. In the installation Kristi Kärlek tvingar oss, (The love of God forces us, from a sign in Swedish we found at one of the old stations in Lower Congo) the viewer first encounters the lone woman in the landscape, and then she returns in fragments and retakes, finally surrounded by the other porters. The large photographic prints, printed on semi-translucent rice paper, are suspended from wooden handlebars as an echo of the porters’ equipment.

The placement of the figures towards the lower part of the frame in the original image is inviting the spectators to look above their heads onto the landscape behind them. We subvert this by gradual enlargements, making the viewers look at, not past, the porters, transforming them from props within a staged visual narrative to the central subjects of the photograph. The woman returns again and again, first on her own, then surrounded by the other porters. Tsimba’s sculptures are to be found alongside the images; a cross made out of rusty mousetraps is leaning against the wall as if a porter has just left it there, and off to the side a foot made out of found bullet casings from the Lower Congo.

Figure 7. Man in Grass, Anna Ekman & Cecilia Järdemar, original image by unknown photographer, with Lokolo (leg) Freddy Tsimba. Centre for Photography, Stockholm, 2017

A single leg, a cut off limb meets a man standing behind high grass, watching. Muscles and torn flesh made out of rusting steel bear witness to how bodies have been transformed into tools. The discarded body part remains as a fragment, a reference to the forced labor and mutilations of the colonial era. Tsimba’s sculptures are all turned into fragments in the exhibition, not showing a complete body but rather the cold and rusty fragmented remains of the colonial project. At the end, a pile of small skulls are installed on a pile of Congolese dirt, reminding us of the fact that not only humans were deeply affected by the colonial project – Tsimba says that each time a tree in the forest is cut down, a thousand monkeys die.