Interview with Ulrike Bergermann
How is knowledge produced? How do we get to know something at all, what are the beliefs and ideologies coining the respective sensory impressions, concepts in the mind, and the media shaping, if not enabling thought, and: who is 'we'? I have been wondering about that for a long time, focusing on the roles of imagery, sign language notation and the ideologies around "the deaf" in the emerging discipline of Deaf Studies in Germany, an then focusing on the productivity of not having a fixed subject in cybernetics and the new discipline of Media Studies in Germany. The question of how we can conceive of our academic thinking as deeply engrained in the history and presence of colonialist and racist structures is harder to tackle, because it is so pervasive. But it remained persistent, and in this case, it was not the institution of the university, but another space for representing, archiving and producing knowledge, which became the vantage point for my new project: the museum.
In that event, it was the British Museum, well known as one of the places where thousands of objects taken from other countries, often looted, can be watched. So it looked to me like a counter narrative of resistance to colonialist strategies of appropriating land and resources, when a video in the basement of the museum displayed the story of the Zanzibari women, who at the end of the 19th century had taken a special good from the Portuguese traders and appropriated it to their own use: the kanga, a garment derived from cotton handkerchiefs and designed anew. I started to read everything about the kanga I could get; the plan was to tell the history of the appropriation in detail first, and then to contextualize and assemble it with the concepts of property rights sketched in the global North.
After several visits and cooperations with scholars from Bayreuth, from Media Studies, from the "FAVT"-Project, and through a shared exhibition in Iwalewahaus, "Reconfiguring Africa Multiple" offered a perfect environment for the pursue of this project. After a first phase of research, I had realized that the story told about the Zanzibari women, mainly written by scholars from the North, was missing several perspectives - 'reconfiguring' seems to be a task here. As far as the history of East Africa is concerned, the cluster brings together a wide range of expertise; in the Academic year of 2020, the overall theme of 'relationality' offers a key concept to describe the entanglements of the cultural practices on the Swahili coast, as well as the scholarly North/South-enmeshments; and then there is the cluster's overall focus on knowledge production, on the need to reassess our working modes and methods, and on the possibilities of 'reconfigurations', that make for an inspiring surrounding for my ideas and questions. I am truly happy that I got the opportunity to work in the context of the cluster, thanks to my colleagues at the HBK Braunschweig, and to the cluster members and the management board who supported my application.
The need to adjust my project in at least two ways became very clear to me in this setting: The history of slavery is much more at the core of the history of the kanga as has been acknowledged, and slavery itself needs to be taken into account when reflecting the history of our notions of property and ownership – Bayreuth offers a forum for this perspective, too; the second reassessment needed is to study the concepts of "colonial property", "whiteness as property" or "postcolonial copyright" as a specific perspective of my project, not only the history of "cultural folklore" and other legal concepts, which seem to be more like a part of the problem than an illuminating key to an explanation of appropriation practices. This is a direction of thought which also resonates with the discussions of the cluster. Especially the need to reflect on the situatedness of the tools of thought and analysis, as have been highlighted in Zoom meetings about the relevance of the Black Lives Matter movement for academic work, ethical questions, and European based scholarship as incurred in connection with colonialism sustain this perspective.
The covid-19 pandemy made it impossible to come to Bayreuth, which changed the modes of exchange and cooperation completely.
I cannot be in Bayreuth, have informal talks, get a better feeling of who would be fine to collaborate with than I can through online meetings, and share a beer sitting outside on summer evenings, no chatting aside and no way to find out if sharing a joke would make any sense. Especially for international exchange, informal communication would be helpful – now it is mainly topics and titles of co-scholars that I can look up for possible contact points (while oftentimes, it is less the research subject than the mode of thinking that brings people together). The amount of unexpected encounters (or contact with people I would not have had the idea to have something in common with) is extremly limited. Nevertheless, I am happy about several inspiring researchers I have become aware of and hope to get or stay in touch with.
My contributions to the research cluster mainly consist of taking part in discussions, presenting my work (on July 23rd), and moderating a panel at BIGSAS' Festival of African Literature (Queer care, on July 4th). I am looking forward to coming back to real life discussions – and to ongoing shared conversations in the future.