Author Archives: Aliosha Bielenberg

A Bronze Bust and its Legacy at the RISD Museum

Photo credit: RISD Museum.

About a year ago now, I submitted my final assignment for a class with Yannis Hamilakis called Decolonizing Classical Antiquity: White Nationalism, Colonialism, and Ancient Material Heritage. The prompt was “Decolonizing the Museum”: we were to select one object from the nearby RISD Museum, research its history and context, and present it from a decolonial perspective. The object I selected is shown above. It was previously known as “Vase and Lid in the Form of the Head of a Nubian Boy.” I argued that the name should be changed to avoid racial language. Why? To answer, here’s an excerpt from my paper:

I argue that the name used for this object should be changed from “Vase and Lid in the Form of the Head of a Nubian Boy” to remove racial (and gendered) language. An example of an alternative title is “Vase and Lid in the Form of the Head of a Child.” I suggest that the word “boy” be replaced with “child,” since there is no clear evidence that the subject is male. Making this change acknowledges the legacy of patriarchy in naming museum objects; the “unmarked” term should not be masculine. Most importantly, I strongly believe that racial terms like “Nubian” should be avoided when naming objects. As I contended earlier, using such terms – even with the best of intentions – reinforces the structural racism that still pervades our world today. Removing racial language from the label of the object is not a panacea, but it does signify the commitment of the RISD Museum to a just future. Leaving out racial language also does not mean ignoring the continuing legacy of racism, especially in the United States. Ideally, a name like “Vase and Lid in the Form of the Head of a Child” would force the viewer to reflect on their ideas of race. Whiteness is currently the norm; no object is (or should be) described as a “Vase and Lid in the Form of the Head of a White Child.” Using unmarked language (with no racial descriptor) for the object under question normalizes blackness. Rather than ignoring race, changing the label to remove racial terminology provokes reflection on race and racism while also avoiding ahistorical vocabulary that is inappropriate when referring to classical antiquity.

My full paper is available here if you’re interested in reading more. What I was happiest about, though, is that this paper actually made a difference (albeit a small one). After the class, I emailed Gina Borromeo, the curator of ancient art, suggesting this change. It took nine or ten months, but I’m very glad to say that the object is now called “Bust of a Child”!

Testimony, Sara Baartman, and Agonistic Humanism

Over the weekend, I was a chair at BUSUN XXII, a high school Model UN conference here at Brown.1 The committee I ran simulated a session of the Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. One of the issues we talked about extensively were the withdrawals from the ICC of various African Union states. At some point on Saturday, I was becoming a bit frustrated with how glibly the students were treating the topic. I therefore began introducing more and more real-world examples. The most powerful part of the session was when I read out excerpts from a report compiled by Human Rights Watch. A representative of HRW interviewed several dozen victims of the violence associated with the May 2018 referendum in Burundi. The testimony these witnesses gave to Human Rights Watch was horrifying. To give just one example, here is a passage from the report, which is entitled “We Will Beat You to Correct You”: Continue reading

Jan Tzatzoe, John Wesley Gilbert, and Women’s Refugee Care

I want to take the chance to reflect somewhat on how Roger Levine’s A Living Man From Africa (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011) intersects with other things I’ve done and am interested in. First, I want to elaborate a bit on the similarities and differences of Levine’s project from my work on John Wesley Gilbert. Second, I want to discuss my work with Women’s Refugee Care in light of Jan Tzatzoe’s life as an intermediary and interpreter. Finally, I want to think a bit more about Levine’s method — particularly his relationship to “theory” — and consider what I can learn from A Living Man From Africa. Continue reading

Enchanted Mountains, Chinese Scholars’ Rocks, and Geoaesthetics

Mountain Grove with Path, Cheng Jiasui, c. 1630. All images from the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

In August of this year, I visited the Minneapolis Institute of Art. We only had three hours until we had to catch a flight, so my father, my uncle, and I agreed that we should choose to focus on just a few of the galleries. I had visited the top floor — with mostly European art and contemporary art — a few years back. Besides, I wasn’t too excited about the prospect of seeing yet more eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Western paintings. So, instead, we walked through the lower floor. There was an exhibition of Dakota art, but soon enough I drifted over to the side of the floor devoted to Asian art. The collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art was phenomenal. What I want to do here is stop and think about this statement I just made: what was it that I liked so much about the Asian art in the MIA, particularly in terms of its relationship with nature? And what, if anything, does this have to do with the geoaesthetics of Daoism? Continue reading

Review of The Broken String: The Story of a Lost Language

The past twenty years have seen a real surge of interest in the San. Since the end of Apartheid in South Africa, more and more attention has been paid to the story of the indigenous people of the Cape, the first people Dutch settlers encountered in 1652. Although relations did not immediately sour, the next century and a half saw the progressive dispossession of the Khoikhoi and San and the disintegration of their society. The San in particular — generally identified with foragers, as opposed to the Khoikhoi pastoralists — were driven to more and more marginal land as the Dutch East India Company’s demand for cattle grew ever greater. The latter half of the eighteenth century was particularly violent, marked by state-sanctioned robbery, massacre, and forced labor. In 2011, Mohamed Adhikari convincingly argued that these events constituted a genocide of the San people. Adhikari’s book was released a year after The Broken String (2010), although it retrod the ground that historians such as Susan Newton-King and Nigel Penn (notably in The Forgotten Frontier, 2005) had already demarcated in painstaking detail.

This, then, is the context in which The Broken String intervenes. In particular, this film documents the story of the Bleek-Lloyd collection, probably our most important source for understanding San society. Between 1857 and 1875, Wilhelm Bleek (a German linguist) worked with his sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd to conduct, record, and translate interviews with a few dozen San people — most of whom were prisoners in Cape Town. Bleek’s interest was first aroused as a linguist exploring the development of language by documenting two San tongues, ǀXam and !Kun, before they disappeared. The texts he and Lloyd created not only provide our only sources for these languages but further tell rich stories of dispossession and survival. One of these stories, translated as the “Song of the Broken String,” furnishes the film with both its title and its connecting thread. As the director Saskia van Schaik narrates, through their work Bleek and Lloyd gradually shifted from scientific interest in the San to an attitude marked by empathy and collaborative spirit. Their informants were invited into the Bleek-Lloyd family home in Mowbray, which seems to have been a warm and welcoming environment. Sadly, Bleek died at the age of 48. Lucy Lloyd continued transcribing and editing the collection they had assembled, eventually publishing a selection of stories as Specimens of Bushman Folklore in 1911. The full extent of their work, though, only became known after the Bleek-Lloyd collection was assembled and cataloged in the archives of the University of Cape Town. Continue reading

Satellite Images and Early Maps of the Cape of Good Hope and Southern Africa

Above, I’ve presented just a few maps and satellite images of Southern Africa. Apart from the ones I’ve selected, many images and much valuable information about Southern Africa can be found at the following online sources:

Emerson, Olmsted, and Muir

Albert Bierstadt, Yosemite Valley, 1868, 91 x 137 cm, Oakland Museum of California

There is a line connecting Ralph Waldo Emerson’s more abstract reasoning in Nature, Frederick Law Olmsted’s requests to Congress in his Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove: A Preliminary Report, 1865, and John Muir’s popular writing as exemplified in “The Fountains and Streams of the Yosemite”. This link is more than just conjectural, too. Muir was a great admirer of Emerson. When the philosopher visited Yosemite in 1871, at the age of 68, the young Muir’s “heart throbbed as if an angel direct from heaven had alighted on the Sierran rocks” (The Life and Letters of John Muir, ch. 8; quoted in Galbraith, “Muir, Emerson and the ‘Pure Night Air’”). Olmsted also met Emerson in person and admired his Nature greatly. So much for the tangible links; the intellectual influence of Emerson is also, I think, readily apparent in the two later texts. Continue reading

The Sounds of the Cape

Three sources: PRONK, Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy, and Derek Walcott’s The Schooner Flight.

I stand on the wharf.
A lascar cries from agil
To his serang: “bas!”

Onboard, a sahib’s
Call is glossed by a Malay
Who runs to fetch wine

For patroon’s kajuit.
The bay babbles, but so does town.
I face her alleys

To hear joyous drums
Some free black has brought from her
House to the harbor.

Above the rhythm —
Then — violins commandeer
A tune from the waves.

Or is it from the
Geese honking, circling over
Table Mountain?

Boa Gente at the Cape: An Alternative History

This story is a response to a simple question: what would have happened if the first European settlers at the tip of Southern Africa had encountered not Khoikhoi pastoralists but rather Bantu-speaking agriculturalists? The two main sources for imagining this alternative history are Noël Mostert, Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People (New York: Knopf, 1992) and Catherine Cymone Fourshey, Rhonda M. Gonzales, Christine Saidi, Bantu Africa: 3500 BCE to Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), both of which I read for a class with Nancy Jacobs called Southern African Frontiers. I have tried to be as historically accurate as possible, but at heart this remains a thought experiment.

“Table Bay” by Thomas Bowler, in the Iziko Museums of Cape Town.
I’ve come to lie.
I’ve not come to tell the truth.
Because if you discover that there’s truth
in the lying, you’ll love my poetry.
But if you discover a lie
in poetry that claims to be true, you’ll hate me.
Now let me sing:

—Euphrase Kezilahabi, “Stray Truth,”
in Stray Truths (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State
University Press, 2015), ed. and trans. Annmarie Drury

Through the blue mists, far away on the horizon, a distinct promontory appeared: the honey-glazed profile of Table Mountain. The sailor who sighted the cloud-high peak sank to his knees in joy and immediately cried out: “Land ahoy!” As the Dromedaris neared the southern tip of Africa, every member of the crew had begun to strain his neck to catch sight of land. For one, the first to see Table Mountain was always given an extra swig of wine, a new hat, or some other gift. Since leaving Texel in December 1651, the passengers under the command of Jan van Riebeeck had lived in filth, disease, and insubordination. In the four months since their departure, not one person on ship had not wished themselves at one point or another to be one of the lowest animals ashore. From the original complement of passengers — two dozen sailors and 100 settlers chosen (or volunteered) by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) — only half had survived.

Emotions ran high on the boat carrying the landing party to shore. The prospect of immediate relief was on everyone’s mind. It seemed as if they could already taste the sweet water running down from Table Mountain and curl their toes in the firm, rich soil beneath their feet. But there was also trepidation. The previous night, they had seen bright fires dotting the cape, and some sailors had even sworn that they had heard faraway echoes of song and snatches of conversation. Now, as they neared the beach, they saw that a small group of natives — armed with spears — was awaiting them. How would they treat the strangers arriving on their shores?

Continue reading