Warning: This post contains details of colonial histories and violent experiences that some readers may find upsetting.
Walking through the world as an African informs your gaze in a curious way. The legacy of colonialism can be found everywhere. In museums, it's inescapable; virtually every display of African art history is steeped in violence. In a cultural reckoning that is long overdue, a debate over the restitution of Africa's heritage has returned with new fervor – but never more poetically than in the short film Retribution.
The film is a mark of resistance to Berlin's Humboldt Forum and its large collection of colonial art, which opened this month. Encompassing close to 75,000 artifacts from Africa, Asia, and Oceania – mostly former colonies – the Forum has been lauded for its vast and permanent anthropological library. But for Berlin-based filmmaker Philipp Groth, this new museum stirred questions into the murky history of the foreign art on display. What was once described as "Europe's largest cultural project" quickly turned into pandora's box.
In truth, the Humboldt Forum is just the latest facet of an insidious network of stolen works displayed globally. According to a state-commissioned French report, European collections hold 90 percent to 95 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s cultural heritage. This isn't an innocent showcase of global culture, it's a colonial relic. And even with debates in academia and social media finally beginning to question this cultural plunder, one crucial question is too often left unasked: How does it feel to have your culture stolen?
In Retribution, Groth unpacks this question with the help of Nigerian-British writer Oyinkan Akande. In her original poem, which narrates the film, Akande processes the feeling of cultural exploitation and the intimate pain of seeing your identity robbed. Meanwhile, visually Groth conceptually pens a love letter to art and culture, while dealing with the trauma of this cultural exchange.
To mark Retribution's debut, we spoke to Philipp Groth and Oyinkan Ankande to find out more about this passion project and the fight to give Africa back its stolen artifacts.
Could you give me some context on the Humboldt Forum in Berlin and the stolen art from colonial times it contains?
Philipp Groth: The Humboldt Forum has taken twenty years to come to fruition. It houses thousands of works and artifacts with histories that date much further back than that, and it is this history that the project is concerned with. There has been widespread criticism over the museum’s collection of close to 75,000 artifacts with dubious provenance mostly from former colonies in Africa, Asia, and Oceania. The sought-after Benin bronzes that are well discussed globally play a big part in the attention the museum is getting; the launch of the Forum highlights it as the second-largest collection in the world – after the British Museum, another controversial institution – with 530 bronzes and other Benin artifacts. The demand for the return of these artifacts is not a new one. Retribution is about new ways of engaging with this topic. It seeks to explore the more emotional, less institutional aspects of the conversation.
What first brought this issue of looted artifacts to your attention?
Groth: Friends of mine [were] approached by Humboldt Forum to create artwork for the opening. It was this that inspired me to look deeper into their collection. As remarkable as it is to have institutions that house such a wealth of cultural history, we must think about the costs and about the communities affected. There is a duplicity in the practices of these museums that enables them to put forward something poetic to paint over their devastating actions and histories.
Why did you, a white man, decide to engage with this subject matter in your work? And why now?
Groth: Generally speaking, when I engage critically and creatively – especially through filmmaking – I try to let go of myself in order to gain new perspectives. I make films as a way to learn and not primarily as an outlet or a vehicle to entertain others. Personally, I think it would be unproductive and bleak to fill my work only with my own perception and experience of things. In this case, I entered the topic through a point of criticism of my country of birth and of my hometown, Berlin, but, critically, I hoped to expand beyond my position. The subject at hand is injustice. You don't have to be an intellectual or to be personally affected to recognize these issues. There must be more people willing to take a stand. Ultimately, though, I recognize that it is important to have candid conversations with people with lived experiences of any subject I explore.
How did this collaboration with Oyinkan come about? Why did you decide to frame the film with a poem?
Groth: I was introduced to Oyinkan shortly after relocating to London and fell in love with one of her poems, entitled I Grow Flowers in my Hair. There was something exceptionally vivid in her writing. I knew also that she was engaged in the institutional art world, working for the auction house Christie’s, and wanted to know more about her views on this. I first approached her more in general conversation on the topic and eventually asked her if she could imagine writing a piece for the film.
The poem is literally the voice of the film – one of its centerpieces. It is part of a conscious design to frame the film in a way that gives it the depth and perspective necessary to contextualize this dense topic.
Talk us through the poem. What’s the significance of the metaphor of your mother and trauma?
Oyinkan Akande: The poem isn’t about my mother but the symbolic idea of the mother. I hoped that this disturbing image of violence and vulnerability would feel personal, urgent, and disconcerting. In part, it is a parody of "mother country," a British imperial concept that has shown itself to have been a farce. This is most evident through the Windrush Scandal (the unveiling of how the British Empire invited many from the then-colonies to the UK with the idea of their being welcome that would only prove untrue), the perpetual devastation of these former colonies, and the entirely hollow notion of the Commonwealth.
With the poem, I wanted an element of shock and unease at the brutalization of the black body. I wanted emotive imagery. I actually went too far with it at first and Philipp had to help me temper my own emotions so that the poem was effective and not just triggering. At the back of my mind, I had Alice Seely Harris’ 1904 photograph of Congolese father, Nsala, staring at the dismembered feet of his five-year-old child. His child’s feet had been given to him by Belgian overseers as punishment for not meeting his rubber quota.
How do the visuals cues in your film bring this issue to life?
Groth: I imagined a collection of short visual bits coming together as a new whole, almost imitating the rhythm of poetry with representations of hope, cruelty, resignation, ecstasy. The scenes are distinct and take place in different locations but when they come together, there is a collective sense because they share a common context. Maya Joseph’s performance on the doorsteps of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin provides a literal context to ground the film. It almost serves as a specific marker for a place in time. Her performance embeds a mixture of helplessness and pride in the piece. In contrast, the scenes shot in London are much more intimate. Altogether they mirror this compelling feeling I already spoke about: "Everybody can see you, but nobody sees you."
As an African, how do you feel when you walk into a museum and see these items that have been violently taken from home?
Akande: I don’t go to the British Museum anymore because I cannot possibly enjoy the experience. And this is less about being African and more about knowing the histories these institutions are built on. Europe’s colonial legacy is such that it can actively invest in institutions that are, in effect, a taunt. It can display these relics of its imperial power without true remorse or contrition. It’s a painful experience to visit these places and I wanted to communicate that pain in the most visceral way I could. I cannot go into any museum that displays these artifacts without images of Nsala and his child’s feet at the back of my mind. I truly think everyone should, at the very least, understand the true costs and histories of how these objects came to be where they are today.
But, as a Nigerian, I also understand that I have been disconnected from my own cultural history. I still know more about Donatello’s David than I do about the bust of the Ooni of Ife. Europe has done a lot to preserve its own cultural past. At the same time, it has actively divorced many countries from theirs, including through colonial miseducation and proliferation of the idea that these objects are pagan, evil, and primitive – an idea that many still believe today.
Is there a way to heal this cultural trauma?
Akande: I don’t think we can begin to have a conversation about healing whilst there are still agents actively deepening these wounds. How can it be that, while conversations around returning looted artifacts are becoming louder and more frequent, an institution like the Humboldt Forum opens up and is proud of its own collection of objects from colonized Africa? There is a pervading culture of callous indifference that we need to talk about. For me, this project is entirely about retribution. Until amends (in the form of acknowledgment, restitution, and reparations) are made, there can be no talk of healing, in my opinion.
What do you hope this project achieves?
Akande: This project is a little bit about awareness. Although, I really hope it goes beyond that because the past has taught us that awareness only goes so far. Ultimately, I hope conversations about accountability and interrogating institutions like the Humboldt Forum and the British Museum start to catch like wildfire – enough to gain traction and apply pressure, enough to hit them where it hurts. So far, these museums can profit off of their display of these objects because too many people don’t know or don’t care about how they got there. To change that, we have to start by talking about it. But it is only a start.
Groth: It’s difficult to say. I think it is important to accept that there are different stages to a project like this. There is the initial verve that comes with the release and conversations generated with momentum. And maybe one of the early-stage outcomes is signatures for a petition against the stolen collections of Humboldt Forum and the British Museum. But we really need to consider the larger, long-term questions like "how far back do these histories go?" and "how long will they continue to happen?" Behind this project is the concept of “Everybody can see you, but nobody sees you.” This speaks to passivity and a sense of frustration that is the locus of the project. In a broad sense, it is something that resonates with many people.
Watch Retribution in full below.