How do colours affect us? Does a chimpanzee’s hand belong in a museum? And can our consumption behaviour help improve conditions in the global clothing industry?
These are questions that Mouhamed Abed-Ali and Jan Hagen discussed with visitors during a guided tour of the exhibition “After Nature”. The 18- and the 17-year-old are part of “Critical Young Friends”, a group of young people who organise exhibitions and offer workshops at the Jugend Museum in Schöneberg as part of the “Discover History – Act Now!” project. They want to bring young perspectives into play, and those that critique power – including as part of their collaboration with the Humboldt Lab, which was initiated by the museum educator Mohammed Minar Quayim. For selected objects in the “After Nature” exhibition, the Critical Young Friends have, in each case, replaced one of three exhibition texts with their own statement. In these statements, they address current socio-political developments and references to colonialism. In an interview, Mouhamed and Jan talk about what they want visitors to be able to take away with them, and what they have learned themselves.
Who are the Critical Young Friends?
Mouhamed Abed-Ali: The Critical Young Friends are a group of around 15 young people from the Jugend Museum in Schöneberg. We participate in projects in order to integrate the point of view of young people and, for example – as here at the Humboldt Laboratory – to critically question why something is being exhibited. It seems strange to me to say that, but young people know some things better than older people. We know when something is “cringe”, that is, when you feel embarrassed or ashamed on someone else’s behalf. We also know how to get young people interested in things.
What did you do at the Humboldt Lab?
Jan Hagen: When we were there for the first time, we looked around the exhibition and gave feedback. That was last year during the autumn holidays. That’s how the collaboration came about. We then chose six objects that we found most interesting and addressed these in groups. Originally, each exhibit had three texts accompanying it about the object in question. Of these, we scrapped the one that we found most irrelevant. Usually these contained repetitions of the first two texts or things that we did not consider to be so important. Instead, we wrote our own text. The biggest difference is that we bring in current references to world politics or ask questions about colonialism. For, the purpose of our work is to question things within the framework of a critique of power. We look at the power gap between the Global North and the Global South and ask: What are the circumstances, why are they like this – and should they be like this?
Which objects did you choose?
Jan Hagen: Among other things, I chose the masks that the Beninese artist Romuald Hazoumè made from old petrol cans. My sister studies ethnology, and we had already had frequent discussions in the family about looted art and how to deal with it. I think the example of the masks makes it easy to talk about the topic – and to critique the Humboldt Forum. I think this is a cool institution, but it is also important to scrutinise certain things. I don’t think it’s okay for the Humboldt Forum to have Benin bronzes from Africa and stolen art in its collections in general.
Mouhamed Abed-Ali: As an example, I selected the colourant samples from the Petrochemical Dye Collection of the Technische Universität Dresden. The idea with this exhibit is to address the effect and symbolism that colours used to have. In my opinion, though, it’s much more important to consider what sometimes unconscious effects colours have today. Everywhere you go, you’re confronted with them. If you look out of the window, there are bright colours everywhere. Most of the time, you don’t realise that you immediately make associations: blue is for boys, pink is for girls. Black often stands for something negative – such as schwarzfahren [to “travel black”, i.e., ride the train without buying a ticket, drive without a licence]. White, on the other hand, often stands for positive things – like weiße Weste [a clean slate, literally a “white vest”]. It’s important to talk about this.
How does it feel having your texts now be part of the exhibition?
Mouhamed Abed-Ali: That’s a really good feeling. The texts displayed in the showcases are not written by scientists or politicians, but by young people. I’m very proud of that.
Jan Hagen: I think it’s an amazing privilege that we have the opportunity to change an exhibition. It is a terrific opportunity.
What criticisms do you have of the exhibition? What would you do differently?
Jan Hagen: In terms of the exhibition texts, that would first and foremost be the lack of reference to current events. In terms of the objects themselves, I don’t think there’s much to criticise. We actually like the exhibition. It also does not include any looted art. With the chimpanzee hand, one could, of course, start a discussion about animal ethics and ask whether such a thing ought to be exhibited in a museum.
As far as the presentation of the objects is concerned, we have one suggestion for an improvement. Each of them is accompanied by three texts from three perspectives. These aspects could be linked to tracks on the ground. One could then follow the topic of global inequality, for example, and find various objects that relate to it.
You went through the exhibition with a group of visitors, presented them with your perspectives and discussed these. What was your experience of that tour?
Mouhamed Abed-Ali: A tour like that is a great responsibility. We were a little bit nervous for that reason. It went really well – also because we were not completely on our own. We had each other and also Mohammed Minar Quayim, who was able to give further information about the exhibition. What was difficult was when questions came up that we could not answer so quickly or in such a blanket way. One person, for example, asked about what’s next in Germany with the oil crisis, inflation and protests. We can’t answer that because we don’t know.
What did you yourselves learn while engaging with the exhibition?
Mouhamed Abed-Ali: Personally, it has become even clearer to me how connected the world is in a both a positive and negative way. There is nothing that gets packed elsewhere or that happens elsewhere that will not affect you here sooner or later. In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, for example, we thought: That’s in Wuhan. That won’t happen here – but the world is smaller than we think.
Jan Hagen: The project also strengthened my political views because it confirmed that we have to change things. There is a power gap in the world that is not good for the Global North, either, in the long run.
Mouhamed Abed-Ali: It is frightening that double standards still get applied incessantly. We didn't think it would be that bad in 2022. For us, this means we have to address this more.
What other projects are you pursuing with Critical Young Friends?
Jan Hagen: Apart from this, we put on exhibitions in our own museum, the Jugend Museum in Schöneberg. We also have collaborations, for example with the HTW Berlin – University of Applied Sciences.
We do a lot of museum work, but also other projects. For example, the museum helped with the U18 elections. We are trying to teach democratic awareness and to show others: You have to get involved! You could call that activism, to some extent.
Mouhamed Abed-Ali: Yes, we do a lot of education and empowerment work – for example, in the Tape Art project, in which we produce a work of art from adhesive tape together with other young people. In the very first “Discover History – Act Now!” project, called “Zeichen setzen” (Taking a stand), we interviewed various activists, in front of the camera, who deal with anti-racism, anti-Romani sentiment and anti-discrimination in general. We wanted to show that racism is still a big issue.
|Date:||22. August 2022|