Not Just an Object: Decolonizing Southasian Art in Berlin

A small, intricately carved ivory box from Sri Lanka was one of the highlights of a recent exhibition in Berlin aimed at ‘de-colonizing’ such artifacts

By Kanika Gupta: As a film student in Berlin, I am aware of the melting pot of cultures from around the world in Germany’s capital. The city’s past is well-documented, riddled with World War and Cold War. However, there is little discussion about its post-colonial history and how that persists today.

When I visited a special exhibition at Charlottenburg Palace’s new wing some weeks ago, I noticed the Prussian Palaces. Colonial Histories exhibit used the limited information preserved over time to uncover the life stories of those who were forcibly brought to Berlin and Potsdam.

The exhibition, which ran from July 4 to October 31, also explored artworks from beyond Europe in the collections previously interpreted solely from a European perspective. As such, these artworks had been culturally reappropriated, losing their original meanings and purposes.

Sri Lanka artifact: Craved Ivory box

One such piece is a small, intricately carved ivory box, accompanied by a brief documentary titled A Jewel in Ivory, besides text and photos that provide additional context.

Constantijn Johannes Leliveld, research assistant and part of the curatorial team researching on non-European items in the collection, told me that he wanted to demonstrate that there was a lot of misinformation about artifacts held in these institutions because “they have the authority on these pieces.”

The exhibition has attempted to “provide people from the originating countries a voice,” said Leliveld, adding that more than 11,000 visitors attended the exhibit.

Giving me a tour of the palace and its collection, Leliveld offered valuable insights into the Kunstkammer, or the Cabinet of Curiosities. This section of the exhibition featured artifacts from around the world that were incorporated into the collection through colonial trade.

The focus was on an attempt to ‘decolonize’ these objects by accurately identifying them.

The ivory box had found its way into the museum’s collection during the 19th century and was initially – mistakenly – classified as Indo-centric or Eurocentric.

Leliveld’s meticulous research into similar objects in collections across Germany, which had been correctly identified, revealed that the box was actually from Sri Lanka.

The Ivory box from Sri Lanka present at the museum

He then needed to find someone who could speak authentically about the cultural context of this box. The person he found after inquiring with Sri Lankan academic institutions was Dr. SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda, a historian, art historian, academic, and author in Colombo.

Dr Tammita-Delgoda, who explained “all these different motifs” to Leliveld personally and for the exhibition, played a pivotal role in de-objectifying the box.

Dr Tammita-Delgoda emphasises that a practical approach to decolonizing an artefact is to provide it with context. He did this for the carved ivory box by producing the Jewel in Ivory documentary that visually illustrates the environment, culture, and living history associated with the box, explained Leliveld.

A Jewel in Ivory provides insights into the cultural background and the intricate, uniquely Sri Lankan motifs carved into the ivory box. They represent a Sinhalese creation made using traditional ivory carving techniques.

“It helps people understand where, what, or why. For a long time, the perception was that the craftsmen were either European or Indian, which I think contextualization dispels for the first time in Europe.”

Charlottenburg Palace

Historian Antonio Rojas Castro from Spain, whom I met at the exhibition, shares Dr. Delgoda’s beliefs. It’s essential to understand the people, objects, and their historical context, which is still relevant today, he told me.

“This is the first exhibition on this topic I visited here in Berlin,” said Castro. “I have learned new things and made connections with people, objects, and history.”

He added that as a historian, he is more interested in stories and texts than in objects alone. The documentary and the text provided the context he sought.

As Dr Tammita-Delgoda says, “We recreated the context and the world around us and explained it. Otherwise, it would have just been an object.”

Kanika Gupta is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker. She writes about human rights, women’s rights, and humanitarian issues in conflict zones. Email: [email protected].