Letters to Fritz and Paul on the complicity of the narratives of western museums with colonial history
Fritz and Paul Sarasin with Dead Elephant in Sri Lanka, 1883–1886 (original photographer unknown) from ‘Letters to Fritz and Paul’, Inas Halabi 2017
11 October to 24 November
Al-Ma’mal, New Gate, Old City of Jerusalem
Open daily from 10am to 5pm except Saturdays and Sundays
“A man stands with his foot placed on an elephant carrying a rifle which he must have used to shoot the elephant. A second man sits on the elephant’s back, with a dagger pointing downwards, almost piercing the elephant’s skin.” This photograph, hanging on the wall of the Museum of Ethnology in Basel, Switzerland, was a starting point for Inas Halabi’s exhibition “Letters to Fritz and Paul” at Al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art in Jerusalem.
The exhibition, which continues until 24 November, explores the expeditions of the Swiss second cousins, lovers and scientists, Fritz and Paul Sarasin who ventured across the Dutch and British colonies, as well as parts of Africa and the Middle East, between 1893–1907. Working with original material from the archives of the Museum of Ethnology in Basel, Halabi explores the relationship between colonialism and science, ethnographic objects and their collectors, and the settings in which these objects have been placed.
“In most instances, ethnographic museums and institutions of this kind were founded either by, or in affiliation with, the ethnographers, anthropologists and zoologists who embarked on scientific (colonial) expeditions, and brought back to the museums a generous collection of objects and photographs. This is the case with the Basel ethnographic museum, to which the Sarasins donated thousands of objects and photographs”, she says.
“Ethnographic objects represent a past, a dying culture. They become this way once they are removed from their origin and their present time. This action serves to construct a past time in which ‘the Other’ has to be situated in order that colonial scientific schemata can make sense, and, more importantly, be justified”, she says, adding, “This is justified, whether knowingly or not, by the museum or the institution which ‘preserves’ these ‘foreign’ objects and photographs of ‘foreign’ people today. In this context, it is important to note that the indigenous people to whom these objects belong and whose ancestors are in the photographs, as captured by the Sarasins, still exist.”
Halabi hopes through this exhibition to create an alternative narrative to that of the ethnographic museum in Basel that she visited in 2016, and to raise critical questions about the role of the museum in colonialism today. “Letters to Fritz and Paul is not really about Fritz and Paul Sarasin”, she says, “nor is it about Switzerland. It is about my ongoing encounter with colonialism.”
The exhibition is part of the Jerusalem Nights programme organised by Shafaq - the Jerusalem Arts Network, and is generously supported by the European Union and SIDA (Swedish International Development Agency).
Notes to Editors
Inas Halabi was born in 1988 in Palestine and uses video, sculpture and archival material to examine historical and political narratives of national identity, collective memory, myth-making and hierarchies of power. Her process is fundamentally research-based and she presents data and visual material, often with an interventionist component, in the form of installation. Halabi is a graduate of Goldsmiths College, University of London (MFA) and the Bezalel Academy for Arts and Design in Jerusalem (BA). In 2016, Halabi was the recipient of the A.M. Qattan Foundation’s Young Artist of the Year Award.