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Stories from our Programme

On healing and the extractive politics of cultural exchange: A conversation between Dunja Herzog & Taonga Julia Kaseka

The following conversation is an excerpt from a longer exchange between Swiss artist Dunja Herzog and Zambian curator Taonga Julia Kaseka in the context of their ongoing research and engagement around themes relating to copper. They met in Lagos, Nigeria in 2019 where Dunja was based at the time and where Taonga was visiting as an invited guest participant of the Curatorial Intensive during the Lagos Biennial. The two shared an intense first encounter around their deep interest in the spiritual properties of copper as well as extractive mining histories. In early 2020 Dunja visited Taonga through the Modzi Arts Residency in Zambia for a research trip, which included visiting mines and local archives as well as meeting with artists and copper workers. What began as a desire to explore copper divination in Zambian folklore and research the history and politics of copper mining, evolved into something far deeper and more personal for them, touching also on the extractive politics often at play within cultural exchange.

Dunja: We had a very strong connection from the beginning! When I think back it was kind of a magic encounter! I recall that you (Taonga), Patrick Mudekereza, George Mahashe and I were standing together getting totally and unexpectedly lost in an intense conversation about copper. After that we went to my studio where you tried on the Red Gold Jewellery and our conversation went deeper as we talked about the role of copper in Zambia and how you were interested in finding out more about the ‘technologies of your ancestors’. I love this wording! Can you perhaps elaborate on it?

Taonga: When I recall the encounter with Ba Dunja, Ba Patrick Mudekereza, and Ba George Mahashe in your living room this point for me was an opening towards things we cannot explain with words but a spiritual gathering of minds that are in the position of seeking knowledge. As you and I later exchanged through the Red Gold Jewellery, I cannot help but understand why you decided to take on this path to work around copper elements in Africa but also learning about the witch hunt that blew through Europe and the continued discourse around the effects of colonialism in Africa, which for me seemed far from what already took place in Switzerland. It’s a very difficult process for me to grasp but very important to come to an understanding that this so-called fight and activism I am so proud of is buried in whatever criticism has been placed on my ancestors as an existence. The resistance of my own illusion for development, informs my understanding of the cycle of encounters. Technologies are all the communication mediums used by the ancestor existing within the western museum spaces which of course is a distant reality. I follow the colonised mind as a living museum and memory into copper as spiritual enhancement.

Dunja: Your interest in the role of copper concerning your ancestors is very interesting for me. There is a quote form Susanne Wenger (an Austrian-Nigerian priestess who was key in protecting the sacred grove in Oshogbo) that mesmerized me since I read it for the first time: She mentions that brass bracelets ‘act like  subtle filters, sorting out congenial from alien radiation. Or one could perhaps say they act like antennae, picking up certain wavelengths in the universe and not others’. The notion that brass supposedly has the capacity to work with energies fascinated me deeply, as I generally believe that materials can have a deep effect on living entities. Perhaps at this point I should also mention how it came about that I seriously envisioned the jewellery line Red Gold.

In 2016 I was participating in a project that was interested in paradigm shifts. As I was somehow not sure where I should go with my work I decided to ‘ask the gods’, to try another way of making decisions. As life has interesting ways of manifesting, it happened that around 20 years ago I was working very seriously with a music researcher/medium that was initiated into Candomblé. It was just when I started to go to Nigeria and reading about Yoruba culture that I realised that the Yoruba deities where not foreign to me. As in 2016 I was obsessed with Susanne Wenger, I decided to visit this teacher of mine so that through her I could ask the deities for their advice concerning my work. They showed me a beautiful brass ring. My teacher interpreted the message that I should take the matter with the brass jewellery very seriously. And I did!

Taonga: After our encounter in Lagos, I felt it highly relevant for you to visit Zambia in order to experience our culture, meet Zambian artists through Modzi Arts and share ideas which could in some sense help us both to build stronger connections to copper. The Bene Mukuni, my people of central Zambia and areas around the Copperbelt Region, make reference to copper in teachings about not mistreating the natural world or any persons. This then involves looking towards healing, between each other, between the ancient and present times, and referring to our own histories and narratives to constructively base our encounters of healing within the spiritual sphere. While we can’t change what is happening today with copper mining and capitalism generally in Africa, we should still try and heal and bring peace to ourselves, which can then be shared with one another, and in this spirit the cycle can assist us to find better solutions. As we exchange ideas about what the healing process can look like I feel like something terribly relevant and exciting could emerge from our encounter, which can hopefully provide reference for others to negotiate exchanges between the north and so-called ‘Global South’. What has been important for me has been how you have opened yourself towards us talking freely about healing and our interpretation from our different contexts that recognise historic power dynamics. What is your experience of our monthly discussions around healing?

Dunja: I hope that this exchange we have right now is part of the healing process… and I have the feeling that we are slowly going in the right direction… there is no agenda, we just felt that it would be good to keep on talking after a complicated situation, where our different positions of power came clearly to light… for me it’s kind of tapping into some murky, insecure, delicate and also sometimes highly explosive terrain… but at the same time it’s also a kind of a safe place, where through dedication, time and intuitive trust things are possible to be brought up that would be difficult in other contexts… I’m more than grateful to have this exchange with you, as I learn so much and it feels highly relevant and important!

This discussion started after I wanted to invite you to give a talk during my exhibition at the Kunstverein Köln. The show was focused on mining and the plan was to use material from my residency in Zambia, but somehow this did not happen. For institutional reasons, the timeslot for the talk was cut to just 20 minutes, which at the time I thought could work. Through some frank conversations I came to understand that this would not do you nor our research or the time we spent together any justice. This instance made me aware of my position of power inside the art context and that by forcing the talk to happen I would just be replicating the logic of ‘extraction’ instead of building something constructive. So this led us to also start talking about our power positions and how it might be possible to establish a common ground despite the different points of departure, as they are very real and will always be there. I think it’s important to sometimes consciously go to complicated places. For me personally it’s important to be as open and sensitive as possible to listen, to learn, to change attitudes, to be creative about given opportunities and possibilities. To try to be as honest and real as possible so that interactions and trust can deepen.

Taonga:  This encounter allowed for me to experience a possible healing narrative and undefined path of my role within cultural affairs, to reference any philosophy books or academic researcher would only mean I give strength to a system that does not acknowledge my existence and instead grants permission for me to vindicate myself of the ancestors. For me a great African teaching speaks of “Ulema”, the process towards love. Our monthly encounters had an interesting approach for me on the politics of exchange and collaboration. I was very excited for the space we had, to really observe and reflection on the power dynamics and insecurities within our encounters. I asked myself whether my relevance was towards the collaboration or the idea or just a matter of agency, brought about by my doubt in trusting the process of healing.

I recall our meeting with one of the oldest miners from Mopani Mines still in the hands of Glencore –  we sat in his living room and he shared stories of disappointment and disparity in cultural existence, I could not help absorb the connection we had and the possibility in having a conscious cultural exchange with you. As a Zambian ‘curator’ with a complete lack of academic utopianism, I had much reservation to talk with you in an art society system I knew very little about and couldn’t see my relevance within that space as it’s just not important to show African art outside of the land. The process is to heal the land, the initiation of self!

Could we see a next level of our research happening focusing on healing? Could we call it a healing research residency and further make it official via online platforms? Why are outcomes and defined paths not as valuable within your personal healing narrative?

Dunja: I like the notion of a healing research residency! How would we go on about that in a practical sense? With what kind of techniques/tools would we research? How this could be then even transferred to an online platform? When we think online… what is the role of our bodies? I agree that there is too much emphasis on outcomes. Something needs to be measured, we need to account for something. Perhaps we need to invent a machine that can measure the amount of healing we experienced for example in our relationships. Perhaps that would be something, as often encounters are more meaningful in the long run than projects. Projects end, while the relationships remain. What about this? Perhaps we need to take relationships much more seriously as a first priority and then see what kind of projects evolve from there. The truth is that the logic of institutions pushes us to invent projects in order that we can get funds, when we sometimes don’t have any idea what we really want to do. We just follow an intuition. But because we invented the project, we feel the obligation to follow that idea we had… and perhaps sometimes that makes us a bit blind to what really could be possible.

When I think further about healing and what could be done as continuation, then I have also to think about where I am with Red Gold and that I started to make Instruments. As I’m really interested in sonic vibrations and what they can do with our bodies. The healing qualities of vibrations. Perhaps for me this is a kind of lead that I would like to pursue further on. I think for me the notion of looking to the past to learn, in order to invent the future which then circles back to the present, is very intriguing. To be able to imagine the future provides direction of how to act in the present. It’s like a reaching behind (or forward) to then leap into the other direction to then finally find the balance in the centre.

All images © Dunja Herzog.

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