Anke Bangma is a cultural theorist, writer and curator, and currently Artistic Director at TENT, platform for Contemporary Arts, Rotterdam.

Mathilde: Anke, in the past 10 years, we have been working together and exchanging ideas about our common interests. In 2004, I contributed some interviews to your publication Experience, Memory, Re-enactment. What was that book about?

Anke: Questions around the issue of representation already interested me at the time. For Experience, Memory, Re-enactment, I invited artists and writers to reflect on the ways in which representation mediates what and how we remember. In a world full of images, these representations form a kind of public memory that influences what we can and cannot imagine and what feelings and judgments we attach to things. Many contributions engaged critically with certain types of images and their influence; examples include the images of terrorism that already dominated the news at the time, or the distant aerial view that has been inextricably linked with longer histories of military and colonial invasion.

But the most challenging contributions talked about traumatic memory. I was fascinated by artistic uses of re-enactment or re-staging as a means of confronting us with societal traumas (histories of war and violation, and the human capacity for violence) that are so distressing that we either can’t really face them or can’t consign them safely to a distant past. The power of re-enactment as an artistic form is that it doesn’t seem to offer an explanation or way out—as we see in your work Small Things End, Great Things Endure (2001), for example, which staged acts of self-immolation when faced with the horrors of war. It places the viewer right in the middle of human acts that still haunt our present, and not only points to what happened then and there, but addresses our conscience in the here and now.

Mathilde: That same year, I started my ongoing project Woman to Go, which involved researching influential women from the 19th century who were overlooked or forgotten by the historical canon. For this piece, I also started collecting images of unknown women who lived during that century. In 2012, you invited me to produce a new series for Woman to Go, for which you opened up the photographic collection of the Tropenmuseum, an ethnological Museum in Amsterdam (now part of the newly formed National Museum of World Cultures of The Netherlands). How did the Woman to Go installation fit in with the new perspectives and approaches of that museum?

Anke: Your work offered one way of going beyond the historical narratives we have inherited—in this case about women, and especially women outside of the Western world. If the predominant narrative is still that people outside the West played no active role in shaping modern societies, then this is doubly true of the perceived role of women. But the biographies you and your team collected of women from all over the world show that there are parallel narratives of the myriad actions women took to try and change the societies and power structures in which they found themselves.

For us, the way you assemble the images for this ongoing project was also challenging. You find your pictures by searching in all kinds of archives for women labeled as “unknown.” As a consequence, Woman to Go stirs up conventional distinctions. Usually, a woman made into an anonymous and generalized “ethnic type” or “orientalist beauty” would not so easily find herself side-by-side with a bourgeois portrait. But here they all become part of a new ensemble of women, all of whom are misrepresented and nonetheless have a presence in these images. So I was curious to see what could happen when photographs from our archive became part of this project. Could it change the terms under which museum visitors encounter the women we see in them?

The twofold gesture enacted in this work seemed productive to me. It is critical of the way women have been represented, but it also offers a new emplotment by pairing them with life stories that are also empowering. This kind of twofold gesture ties in to how we are thinking about our photography archive at the moment. We want to continue our investment in the critical analysis of photography as an instrument of colonial power and myth-making. But it is perhaps even more urgent to go beyond the idea of photography as the explosion of a “Western” technology of power onto passive subjects elsewhere. The growing recognition of other, parallel histories of photography and the range of ways it has been used by people across the globe since its inception requires a rethinking, perhaps even a literal reconfiguring, of our photo archive.

Mathilde: In 2014, you co-organized “Imagined Selves: Photography, Self-Fashioning and the Archive,” a conference aimed at expanding recent scholarly and curatorial attempts to rethink the histories of photography. In what ways has photography been used as a stage for self-fashioning or re-imagining the self? 

Anke: You could think, for example, of the vibrant African studio tradition, and the portraits people commissioned from Seydou Keïta, Malick Sidibé and many others who are now famous. The studios offered people a stage to choreograph an image of themselves as they wanted to be seen.

In our own archive, questions about self-fashioning were triggered by a series of remarkable photomontages that a Javanese regent called Chokronegoro III distributed among his relations around 1900. Each composite image shows him three or four times, in different guises. The costumes show different combinations of Javanese, Indian, European and Arab influences, suggesting a connection to a range of cultural and political spheres far beyond the dominance of the Dutch. The images put many assumptions about photographs from the colonial period into question. Chokronegoro’s savvy performance of multiple selves invited us to reconsider the ways Javanese rulers imagined their position within colonial society, using photography as a public stage and statement.

Mathilde: How might we rethink questions of agency, presence and subjectivity within genres such as colonial or ethnographic photography, where subjectivity seems to be denied or at risk? How does an ethnological object become a political subject?

Anke: This remains a complex and delicate question. Of course many people were not in a position to act the way the Javanese rulers could. The question as to whether or not we can attribute “agency” to people in images from colonial times was a much debated issue during our conference. After all, people often had no say in how they were being framed and some visual practices, like the racial studies of physical anthropology, were deeply desubjectifying. To think about subjectivity in relation to such images requires recognizing that there is no passive subject in the event of having your picture taken, but always a person who thought and felt even if they could not act. For writers like Tina Campt and Elizabeth Edwards, this becomes the basis for bringing experience into the picture. But to speak about agency would be a denial of that experience.

At the same time, the assumption that colonized people had no agency at all can be problematic. Let me give you a thought-provoking example from Elizabeth Cory-Pearce’s work on Maori photography, since it actually ties into your own work. Her research focuses on photographs of Rotorua women in New Zealand, which one could easily mistake for typical 19th century ethnological pictures. Many of them ended up in Western archives as anonymous “ethnic types,” and as such one of these pictures, a portrait of Susan Hunt, also featured in your Woman to Go at some point. But really, these images were taken at the initiative of the women: they commissioned them, signed them with their names and handed them out to promote themselves as tour guides in the developing tourist industry around Maori sites. So these women were never ethnological objects. Assuming that they had no agency just because their images might look like ethnic stereotypes at first, is a retroactive denial of the active roles they took in their societies.

Thinking about questions of agency and subjectivity in “ethnographic” or “colonial” photo archives will have to involve moving across this range of concurrent subject positions to come to a more complex understanding of multiple subjectivities.

Mathilde: Do you think we can still use the term “ethnological”?

Anke: It is a term that echoes a worldview that divided the world into neatly separated ethnic groups, and assumed that it was up to one part of the world to write the histories and map the cultures of the other. Of course ethnicity is still part of our world today, and it is being both contested and reinvested. But as a founding principle for a museum or for understanding the complex dynamics of culture, it has been under critique for a while. It certainly does not contribute to an understanding of multiple subjectivities. I use the term only to refer to an inherited, historically and culturally specific set of practices still resonating in our collections, which requires ongoing critical analysis, rethinking, perhaps even unthinking at times.

Mathilde: Art history can be understood as a series of representational practices that actively produce definitions of sexual difference and contribute to the present configuration of sexual politics and power relations. Gender studies allows us to question and also re-write this history. Are we witnessing a paradigm shift that will rewrite all of cultural history?

Anke: Gender studies must encounter a predicament that is similar to some other areas outside of historical canons: Sometimes there are no images or written sources to retrace, or they existed but were not preserved. How to write histories around absences and silences, or draw on indirect or even non-verbal ways in which memories were kept alive in hostile situations? So if cultural histories are being rewritten, then the very idea of what writing history entails must change as well.

Printed in: Performing Change, Mathilde ter Heijne, Published by Sternberg Press in association with Museum für Neue Kunst, Freiburg