Accepted paper:

If we burn there is ash: The potentialities of fire in approaching a colonial collection of material culture in the Wits Anthropology Museum


Talya Lubinsky (University of Witwatersrand)

Paper short abstract:

The exhibition titled, If we burn, there is ash, probes question around what is to be done with a colonial era collection of material culture belonging to the Wits Anthropology Museum. The exhibition uses the metaphor of fire to embody the necessity for burning to facilitate building and growth.

Paper long abstract:

My paper will discuss a recent exhibition I mounted at the Anthropology Museum at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg. The exhibition, titled, 'If we burn, there is ash', centres around a fire at Wits University in 1931, that burned most of what was then called the Ethnography Museum's collection of material culture. Some of the only objects that survived the fire are small clay burial bowls, collected by a British missionary in the 'Congo' region in the 1920's. Able to withstand the heat, the bowls remain, broken and blackened by the fire, stored at the Wits Art Museum. The walls of the Anthropology Museum are lined with Victorian-style wooden display cabinets. For the exhibition, one wall of cabinets is filled with heaps of ash, the other with crudely fashioned cement replicas of the bowls that survived the fire. Ash, the material remains of fire, however elusive, does not disappear. Even when things burn, they are never fully physically or ephemerally eliminated. Ash is not just the physical remains of that which has been burnt. It is also used as an ingredient in cement mixtures. It is literally transformed into a building material. Using ash and cement as a poetic relation, this exhibition asks about the potentiality of burning in the project of building and growth. Ash and cement serve as a provocation on the question of what is to be done with the material remains of a violent and unwanted colonial past.

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