Identity negotiations

The lack of cultural contiguity between project participants and Congolese objects did not detract from establishing meaningful interactions with those objects. If anything, participants’ imaginative engagement with objects allowed their meaning to become more permeable to people’s lived experiences, turning them into platforms to negotiate local ethnic and religious dynamics.

The debate around a ceremonial staff attributed to the Luba-Hemba people of modern-day DRC offers important insights in this respect (Figure 6.4). Following the object’s introduction by Brenda, one of the volunteer guides, a brief discussion on the meaning of the word ‘scarification’ began. Once the concept was discussed, the participants reacted immediately, alternating between French and Swahili to establish their respective ethnic backgrounds.

Narrative block 1

Léo These things are used for witchcraft and they are no good. I

don’t like them. They are traditions that village people believe in...

Adela I know that some Angolans still use these things...When I lived in a refugee camp in Zambia, I saw lots of people with tattoos practising rituals.

Albert Yes, it is also true that some bad people in the Congo still practise witchcraft. Have you seen the documentary on the BBC about it?

Fabienne These things are against the Bible. We don’t do them anymore.

Albert I don’t like the object from Bahemba [Hembaj because I am Christian.

Madalene The statuette from Luba is not good for the Bible.

Babette This is not for us. These are old things for old people.

Madalene They are traditions for village people, not for us. We are British


Ceremonial staff. Central and East Africa, Zaire

Figure 6.4 Ceremonial staff. Central and East Africa, Zaire: Luba-Hemba. Late 19th century. Wood, iron, brass, beads, shells, fibre, h. 146 cm; Acquired 1953. Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection. UEA 266.

Source: Courtesy of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts.

As the first narrative block suggests, people assumed that the ceremonial staff was an object of sorcery and employed a number of narrative strategies to distance themselves from the artefact. This is despite scholarly accounts indicating that the object is meant to depict a female ancestor, the founding-maternal figure of the Luba people. Among the Luba, in fact, the sceptre -kept in charge by one of the chief’s wives -identifies the spokesman, standing

Objects and belonging 111 as the formal symbol of his leadership (Hooper, 1997: 203). One participant, Adela, attributed the object to Angolan people through a personal memory of life in a refugee camp. Adela was most likely referring to the Lovale people, an ethnic group that is well-known within present-day Zambia for witchcraft and voodoo, still practised in both rural and urban areas. This narrative is reiterated by a participant’s linkage to ‘Branded a witch’, a recently aired BBC documentary exploring the interplay between Christianity and witchcraft in DRC.1 However, the object is also used to create a divide between village traditions (of which the object is seen as an expression) and modern city life (with which the group is willing to be associated).

At the same time, the strategies participants used to disentangle themselves from the object also offer a line of inquiry that reveals the extent to which museum objects have intersected local identity politics. According to the researcher’s initial information, at least one member of the group self-identified as Luba, but they did not affiliate themselves with the artefact in the context of the workshop. There could be several reasons for this omission. On the one hand, it is possible that this person had no prior experience with such an object; a plausible scenario given that the ceremonial staff was looted to Britain in the late 19th century. However, it is also possible that peer pressure could have acted as a deterrent to comments that could cause internal group conflict, which leads one to look more closely at the social dynamics at play when the group encountered the object. As discussed in the previous chapter, religious affiliation played an important role in local Congolese identity politics. Ann Webb, local health care practitioner at City Reach who assisted several Gateway resettlement cases, offered a further line of inquiry in this respect.2

Ann observed that one of the biggest tensions amongst Congolese refugees in Norwich was the split between those who believed in witchcraft and those who vehemently opposed it. She reported several instances when illnesses were attributed to sorcery and patients refused treatment, causing various conflicts to arise. On one occasion, a Congolese sorcerer visited a sick patient at a local hospital. Ann Webb reported that the sorcerer told the patient’s family that they had been cursed and there was little doctors could do to help. The family was very upset by the sorcerer and the exchange escalated into a fight in which, eventually, the police were called.3 The verbatim in block 1 seems to corroborate this perspective, as -considering the Bible and its teachings - Christianity emerges as the ideological backbone to the critique of the ceremonial staff. This is despite the fact that the object had enjoyed a more positive reception in the museum’s work with other Congolese groups. In a 2010 video produced by filmmaker Matthew Robinson, a teenage girl is shown next to the ceremonial staff as she proudly chooses this as the object that most resonates with her in the collection. The different reactions to the object might corroborate the impact of the external group on the meaning attributed to the ceremonial staff. At the same time, it could also indicate intergenerational differences in the way people affiliate with their multiple heritage.

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