A Pavilion inside A Museum: Healing Colonial Pasts of/in/with Museum

How can we make the best out of past suffering in a cultural space? Wellcome Collection’s  latest art commission The Healing Pavilion by British-Kenyan visual artist Grace Ndiritu,  curated by Janice Li and Emily Sargent is ambitiously experimenting the synergy of textiles,  architecture, and curation on this notion. As Ndiritu asserts, ‘We can’t deny the past – we need  to find ways to transfer and interrogate and heal and repair it.’ The Healing Pavilion is a  manifesto declaring a new possibility of healing institutions’ colonial pasts through experience making grounded in architectural reinvention. The viewing is an artistic encounter layered with  psychological comfort and cognitive transformation in a distinctively avocado-like manner,  designed intentionally and meticulously.  

The Healing Pavilion, installation view, 2022 [courtesy of the artist and Wellcome Collection, London]

Shoes off, but not the burdened histories. 

Concerning the contested attitudes and practices of European museums towards their  ethnological collection objects, the two selected archival group portraits are enlarged and  woven into The Twin Tapestries: Repair (1915) and Restitution (1973) hanging oppositely  within the installation, as the main substance of the pavilion. The two tapestries are  undoubtedly challenging and anxiety provoking, both visually and contextually. From the  possessive and colonial authoritative ways of holding the objects from the Global South, the light-hearted and disrespectful attitude of sitting and leaning on a royal throne from the  Kingdom of Bamum in Cameron, to the slightly chilling stares, these bloodless yet disturbing  aesthetic stimulus on the difficult pasts of western museology clearly demand a particular  condition of containing to be encountered, comprehended, and reflected on.  

Wilfred Bion’s theory of containment was derived from the mother-infant relationship, describing the support from the primary care-giver to the infant in processing unbearable  experiences that are beyond the capacity of the infant’s undeveloped mind. Putting into a broader object-relating field, containment is a descriptor of varied realms of thinking (unconscious,  preconscious dreamlike and more fully conscious secondary-process thinking) operating in  concert to allow meanings to be digested. Rather than limiting to specific techniques or  assistance, this theory in general signifies a curatorial consciousness to enable and support the audiences’ psychological processing of their complex and perhaps overwhelming experiences and effects prompted by the colonial narratives surfaced through the works. While the  European museums’ handling of collection objects acquired during colonial period has been  the subject of countless institutional critiques (at least on my reading list), The Healing Pavilion works with textile, architecture and curation in setting up a ‘containing space’ for my  ‘transformative’ engagement with the ‘not me’ traumatic colonial histories in the exhibition  space, from indifferent to connected and inspired.

The Healing Pavilion, installation view, 2022 [courtesy of the artist and Wellcome Collection, London]

At the outset, tenderness permeates the site-specific pavilion inspired by Zen Buddhist temples  in Japan. The pavilion is a see-through structure lined with walnut panels, carpeted, and filled with the wooden upholstered benches in coherent khaki tone. Following the five-stop audio walkthrough and guided meditation, I took off my shoes and entered the sanctuary-like structure. I first sat on the bench right around the entrance focusing and regulating my breath with my eyes closed. Ndiritu further invited me to the two large-scale rectangular tapestries  with her pampering voice. Once again with my eyes closed, she verbally depicted the tapestries and told the backstories behind the group portraits referenced respectively at a slow-down pace  in an embracing manner. Whenever the light came to sight, again, my ‘not knowing’ uneasiness  and distantness simultaneously faded away in quiet contemplation and pure listening. I was  relieved, and more prepared physically, emotionally and cognitively to engage with the works  and the institutional violence beneath.  

Not only Ndiritu’s walkthrough and mediation but the hollow temple-like space, as well as the  wooly textiles, were altogether no different from a dam, buffering the pressure one had in  facing the devastating histories. Indeed, meandering and contemplating inside the pavilion on  the saxony carpet accompanied by the audio mediation, it was the slowness, softness and the  safeness embedded in the mind-soothing surrounding that granted me more-than-ever  consciousness and attentiveness to the painful and unresolved colonial past of museum  practices reflected in the two tapestries. The material and the symbolic weight of the tapestries, inversely, unloaded the initial burden for its art historical significance of storytelling rather than the cold factuality we might feel from the original photographs. Having said that, the intense looking was still demanding but I was all-rounded supported by the ‘breathing’  structure and the walking meditation at the interval that made retreat easily attainable, as a form  of re-charge. 

Not in a vacuum 

My mind hereby entered the reverie in a well-contained condition. Reverie is a state of  receptivity that is meditative and imaginative. The presence of this dream-like state is  paramount to one’s effective psychological work, promoting the subject to make links between  their affect-based experiences and the objective material world without shoe-horned into any  fixated categorizations or narratives. In an avocado-like direction, from soft to hard, The  Healing Pavilion assuaged the anxiety in confrontation and thereby seamlessly transited the  audiences into a ‘mental digestion’ of their fragmented emotions and thoughts situated in a  socio-political context.

Grace Ndiritu, ‘Repair (1915)’, 2022 [courtesy of the artist and Wellcome Collection, London]

The question of ‘what if…?’ revealed itself to me variously upon the two tapestries. Posting  with masks and skulls from the Global South, Repair (1915) staged inside ‘Hall of Primitive  Medicine’ with staff of Henry Wellcome’s private Historical Medical Museum is manifold.  Along the quasi-paradoxical symbolizations of the yellow-threaded border to signify both  positivity and toxicity, I was appeased by the affectionate and protective way of holding the  objects in some, especially in the women workers, but also the trophy-displaying gesture in the  others as well as the exoticized, biased naming of the gallery sections. “What if they are  holding something from my culture and my history?”, this self-reflexive hypothesis further  locked me up in an emotional stalemate but also rendered me more sensitive and critical. The  thoroughly presented complexity of the colonial museum practice struck me as  something beyond pure plunder, humiliation, and demonstration of superiority. In The Healing Pavilion, Ndiritu rejects superficiality, provoking a call of “authentic knowing” prior to repair,  so as criticism. 

Grace Ndiritu, ‘Repair (1915)’, 2022 [courtesy of the artist and Wellcome Collection, London]

In Restitution (1973), the casual and slightly playful atmosphere of the museum staff sitting  and leaning on the royal throne from the Kingdom of Bamum in Cameroon is seamlessly  suggesting a residue of the high-handed, mastery attitude of the German colonial rulers, even  after 70 years. Moving from Repair (1915) to Restitution (1973), it was the designed  juxtaposition that rendered the latter more disrespectful to me, albeit it is believed to be an  after-work internal group photo that is never meant to be disclosed. Knowing that the throne is  still on display at the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, my discomfort here prompted me to ask  immediately “What if the throne was simply returned?” Undoubtedly, the object would be  given the respect and authority it deserves. Lo and behold, given its diplomatic nature as a gift  from King Njoya to Kaiser Wilhelm II for their friendly tie, “an opportunity to celebrate our  joint history does not go unused” weights far beyond a mere restitution of the throne to the  people of Cameroon. As Nji Oumarou Nchare, the Director of Cultural Affair, Cameroon has  said, “The throne that is in Berlin is an ambassador of our rich culture”. Cameron is hoping for  a mutually beneficial relationship with Germany rather than a “divorce”. It is convenient to carry  the healing of the heavy colonial history on our lip.  Restitution (1973) is a mirror here to reflect how straightforward institutional actions like restitution can be seemingly quintessential yet  arbitrary and authoritative.  

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”,  curator Janice Li beautifully associates James Baldwin’s wisdom with Ndiritu’s work in  direct response to the “colonial amnesia” of many institutions across Europe nowadays.  Extending beyond, through The Healing Pavilion, Ndiritu courageously connotated such a vision  with the ineffable power of slowness, softness, and safeness for the arrival of a more generative  museum future.