October 17, 2013 – November 2, 2014
Asylum at the Stadtmuseum

African puppets in an artistic installation by Pélagie Gbaguidi and Stefanie Oberhoff

Asylum at the Stadtmuseum tells the tale of an imaginary journey made by two female artists in the company of fifty traditional African puppets and masks that they first met in the storeroom of the Puppet Theater Collection. The exhibition seeks to recreate the shock of that first meeting with the puppets, which at the time were still wrapped up in their protective packaging, and trace its impact on the artists’ imagination.

Gbaguidi and Oberhoff are not interested in ethnographic interpretative paradigms. Consequently, they do not see any need to describe the identity of these objects by assigning each and every one to a particular scientific category. Instead, their work with the puppets focuses on an underlying historical context marked by racism, religion and politics.

Asylum at the Stadtmuseum blends the telling of the colonial history that forms part of our collective heritage with autobiographical elements in a narrative style that switches between the documentary and the metaphorical. By taking the risk of not putting the objects “on display”, the artists hope to reconstruct a rediscovery of how they have come to be perceived.

The artists follow the trail of colonial history, the exploitation and coercion of stolen gifts handed over by people against their will. What do these objects reveal in their present state? That the time of mutual understanding has finally arrived? That it is now possible for a de-colonialized perspective to emerge? But will they be able to escape their fate? Is it a truism to say that history repeats itself?

The puppets invite us to continually reassess our traditional ways of looking at things. Viewing them demands humility in the face of the challenge that they confront us with – to develop a new way of seeing the world.

The structure of the exhibition comprises four sections for visitors to wander through. The beginning of the journey (“Voyage Initiatique”) revisits that first encounter with the objects and the beginning of the creative process. In “Curators’ Curiosity”, the artists comment on the conventions of exhibitions and the supposed authority of ethnographic museums when it comes to interpreting such objects. Information and facts about the imaginary journey through European cities and on to Africa are interpreted in an extravagant and unconventional manner. In “Le Cercle”, visitors are confronted with an allegory of the trauma of our shared historical heritage. They are invited to question what they understand by “we”, by our collective consciousness. Around the circle, different objects representing the collective unconscious occupy a territory where the puppets and masks have made their home. They have chosen the location called “asylum”, literally a place of refuge.

The imaginary circle drawn by the exhibition reveals the transitional situation in which these objects find themselves. Their “asylum” helps us to see the place where they are analyzed and discussed through the lens of a future where it has been liberated from its post-colonial avatars.