DR. HAGEN’S PHOTOS
‘Open up your hearts, people.’
Lil Wayne, Please Don’t Shoot Me Down
Coffined, confined – back, front, side view – these bodies are all now dead, and before they died were made objects of scientistic study: an objectifying, racialising gaze focused on measurement – the leg, the arm, the nose – like any inventory of colonial power and possession.
They were migrant workers, including Chinese, Malays, Afghanis, Tamils and Solomon Islanders, drawn to tobacco plantations in Dutch Indonesia and German New Guinea. Their bodies tell me they lived hard lives under harsh conditions of plantation labour; many bear the marks of horrific scarring from chemical fertiliser. Dr. Hagen’s task as plantation physician was to keep them alive and working as long as possible.
Colonised or not, you can’t own people, even in expropriating their freedom, labour, dignity, chance to speak. All you get is flesh, and if you can’t consume it entirely what’s left becomes dusty fragments of bone.
Historically, that’s where we stand, with the work of conserving dusty albums of photographs that embarrass and shame us, like fragments of human bone we really ought to think of burying. Short of earth burial, an iconoclastic solution would be to cast them into the fire of cremation.
But we’re not there yet. Custodians of these collections, we have to stay with the bodies, to wake them, watch over them, reflect on them, their lives, their deaths. Display, or rather, air burial – exposure to the decaying light of day, the full glare of the sun – seems in order, together with a little light spring-cleaning of the dusty storage basements of colonial era ethnography.
‘some men lie interr’d
Lov’d the church so well, and gave so largely to’t,
They thought it should have canopied their bones
Till doomsday; but all things have their end:
Churches and cities, which have diseases like to men,
Must have like death that we have.’
John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi
I spotted two moths stuck to a trap in the storage cellars beneath the Weltkulturen Museum, where these photographs are kept and where Dr. Hagen was founding Director in 1904. More than two or three you’d have to unpack everything, shake it out, to find the nest. And I mention this not because my clothes were eaten away in these last years, but because all things decay – empires, cities, institutions, objects and people.
There is no general theory of letting go in museums, of throwing out or releasing back to nature, or to an original if now changed culture, or to a previous owner – though it sometimes happens. Some things, remember, can’t be owned, or owned up to, or are on their own. Museums rely on conservation – scientific solutions to mortality. Unable to contemplate the death of objects – even those of a vanished people (in the cellar I found shoe boxes of bangles and trinkets left over from the Herero people of German South-West Africa) – the ethnological museum cannot contemplate closure, its own death.
Museums become, then, custodians of forestalled or arrested death. In the sense that the past isn’t dead, isn’t even past, but permeates the present with its unresolved claims on closure. The ritual observance of such museums is to occupy in the present those many frozen or interrupted moments in time unable to bring themselves to completion – those pasts outside of time and in our lives, proliferating like snap-shots at a wedding, forgotten faces in a family album – while drifting ever further out on to widening oceans of unknowing only an elderly aunt, or research and study, or renewed (sometimes forced) marriages of meaning can map, identify or travel. Museums are unable, in holding and observing their objects, to go that extra mile and enact the necessary rituals of recognition, completion, burial or closure.
Picture the practice of treading water, while our lives flash before us, and ocean currents waft us on past islands of hope, loss, celebration, regret, lust, cruelty, remembrance, emptiness, forgiveness, despair or redemption. This is also a way in which we populate the present with the past, with the smell of our mother’s scent, the iodine of our first stinging cut, the lost feel of a lover’s skin, the taste of shop-stolen liquorice when we were kids, all going on in the gaps and slips of time, among the simultaneous activities of the day. It’s another way to experience who we are, outside of chronological time, released from the tyranny of the present and the inevitability of endings.
But sometimes objects can be re-made, lives renewed and remembered. For example, I gave my wife a green ring when I married her, tying a blade of grass around her finger. If she lost it, or wanted to remember me, she could easily and renew our relationship as long as there was grass. As long as there was her and me. Even if like gold the grass was yellow.
What seemed to matter was the meaning of the ring, its changing relationship to our flow of feelings – the in-built, resurrectionist magic over long life, or short, and after us, a generosity in remembrance and in foreseeing the growing up of other loves and other lives.
Museum objects can’t do that. In an important sense, they can’t live because they can’t die.
‘Thou hast committed—
Fornication: but that was in another country;
And besides, the wench is dead.’
Christopher Marlowe, The Jew of Malta
Returning to Dr. Hagen’s photos – I avoid looking at them; they sadden and depress me, in their peculiar deadness. Or is it lifelessness?
I go away, I come back. Grimly aware that my stare is forensic – What happened to these bodies? So broken, damaged? – I turn from the narrow frames to look for human presence, agency. Not theirs – still standing cadavers in a site of horror – but someone else’s. Dr. Hagen’s; they are Dr. Hagen’s photos.
Why did he take them? Who was he? How did he happen to find himself, a young, newly-qualified doctor drawn perhaps to the adventure of tobacco plantations in the colonies? Was he a smoker? How was he standing that day on his veranda, with his clunky photographic equipment, the backdrop curtain drawn down against the sun and prying eyes, against any flicker of the erotic?
All these speculative questions – sharing their silliness with his ‘scientific’ sampling of human populations… the recorded details of body measurements published in Anthropologischer Atlas – Ostasiatischer & Melanesischer Völker (C.W. Kreidel’s Verlag, 1898) of more use to a tailor, or undertaker, or in a lonely heart’s column – ignoring the scars, the sunken breasts, the frailties of skin.
Some might blame him for taking these photos, looking to find someone to pin it on. But I don’t. I feel for him – responsible for their health, powerless before the horrors of a plantation system paying his wages, unable to curb its excesses or cure its ravages, needing something (a camera!) to distance and separate himself from, somehow record and make sense of, a bewildering multiplicity of human and cultural identities, including his own, in bondage to the time – but I think of them.
These photos could be these people’s main or only footprint on the earth, the only trace of their lives. I have to look at them. Economic migrants like my family, isolated from each other by the picture frames, but living and working and dying in as multicultural an environment as mine in Europe, where I rub shoulders with bankers and princesses, asylum seekers and the working poor. Is there a prostitute among them, a poet, a sister or a thinker? Could I be one of them? Are they like me? Does my nude body look like this?
I don’t mind people saying multiculturalism has failed if what they mean is integration or assimilation. The differences between people have value, they matter; I owe others only acceptance and, for any suffering, compassion – because that is my culture and what I hope for my society. One value of our differences is that other people enable us to see ourselves more clearly, to become that much less strangers to ourselves. We can exchange, at least, our foreignness with each other. More, we can share a sifting of our own values and sense of identity; more again, we can identify with each other, across boundaries of class, ethnicity, culture, gender, age and religion. We are people: we can love, as well as hate or despise (not everyone looks nice with their clothes off). More even than the empathy of compassion, we can see ourselves in the other. I certainly recognise the power of people to change me, if I can accept to be open to them.
But now I see how things can go wrong. Reading left to right as we do the scribbled notes above and below the pictures, in each of the groups of three photos – front, side view and back – these people are turning their back to me, are turning away.
I can’t change the past, and I don’t want them to go. I want them to come back. I have so many questions. What is that look in your eyes? What did you see? Who were you? What happened? How did you feel to undress? Who touched you? Who combed your hair? What were you thinking? Were you hurt? Did you feel sorrow? Before your skin blistered and melted upwards from your feet, were you already leaving it behind?
Or should I let these people go?
“They are not of the living. They must be our ancestors from the place of the dead… We believed our dead went over there, turned white and came back as spirits… Our own dead had returned… Our ancestors had come back to look for their bones.” Papua New Guinea highlander, First Contact (1983, Bob Connolly, Robin Anderson)
We are the witnesses and not the victims; we should let them go. Shadows passing from the face of the earth.
We are alive and witness their passing. Their footprint from silvered photographic plates catching the last glimmers.
What are the rituals that allow these people the dignity of their lives and deaths? Ones that work across cultures and peoples, across time and change, from brutal past to the shame of the present and hope for a way forward?
Highlanders in Papua New Guinea, who burnt the bodies of their dead and scattered the bones in the rivers, took the Irish-Australian prospectors panning for gold as their ancestors.
Is there a way forward? For us, for them, some way to ease their return and their passing?
By being custodians of these images, their trace on this earth, we hold a great treasure and responsibility. The dead who went before us are our guides to life and death, they simply lead the way. They help us.
202 people named (and unnamed)… how do we sing over the bones?
Jetteke, a man, c.25-27, Solomon Islands
Lanei, a woman, c.20-25, New Mecklenburg
Ammona, a woman, c.25-30, Madras
Makabul, a man, 21, Afghanistan
Mabelong, a boy, c.13, Kaiser-Wilhelmsland
Bawene, a woman, c.18, New Mecklenburg
Sugamo, a man, c.18, New Mecklenburg
Si Bunga, a woman, 40, Sumatra
Suami, a woman, c.30-35, Java
Ditja, a woman, 24, Java
Salim, a boy, 13, Sudan
Teo Ah Heng, a man, 38, China
Metlu, a man, c.30-35, New Mecklenburg
Lokam, 20, Papua New Guinea
(No name), a boy, 13, Solomon Islands
What will it take for us to accept these people as our dead, our ancestors?
On the bank of the river Main in Frankfurt rise the skyscrapers of the financial district. Beneath them, under the arches of the bridge crossing over the river are rough sleepers folded into blankets. On the opposite bank is the Weltkulturen Museum, where Dr. Hagen’s photos are.
Gabriel Gbadamosi October 2013