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A Visit to the Museum of African Art in Belgrade

I could have taken a bus, but I decided to walk. This was a mistake, as my journey on this otherwise beautiful autumn morning in Belgrade took me along a highway full of thunderous traffic, noxious car fumes, and a bewildering labyrinth of pedestrian over- and underpasses. But after getting lost and taking twice as long for the trip as intended, I finally arrived in the leafy suburb of my destination: The Museum of African Art.

Its impression is modest: apart from two other tourists, I am alone. The man at the ticket counter seems troubled by my unexpected arrival. The first object that faces the visitor is a contoured representation of the African continent made of blocks of different kinds of wood. The plaque next to it problematizes imperial cartography and the Berlin conference of 1884 that saw the imposition by Europeans of ‘borders’ and their parceling out of the continent as dominions for European interests. The MAA positions itself here, from the first, placing itself in the context of its origins in socialist Yugoslavia’s policy of non-alignment and its concomitant discourse of anticolonialism.

During the Cold War, and perhaps especially after the conference of Afro-Asian representatives that happened in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955, many activists and artists from the Global South were interested in articulating a position for themselves that went beyond being co-opted by the so-called superpower blocs. Non-alignment was one strategy mobilized in this name, and it was a strategy also attractive to Yugoslavia’s Tito, who acted as host to the first summit of the Non-Aligned Movement – initiated along with Jawaharlal Nehru, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Kwame Nkrumah, and Sukarno – in Belgrade in 1961. It’s this history that allows the MAA to frame itself as inheriting a certain anticolonial genealogy.

The next thing I notice as I move into the museum proper is a sign placed so that you can’t miss it before entering. Written by Zdravko Pečar, who acted as Yugoslav ambassador and collected, along with his partner Veda, most of the pieces in the museum, it reads:

Every piece in our collection left Africa accompanied by a license of a written permit – granted by the independent government of an independent state. / I express the deepest gratitude to all the heads of state, both the living and those who are no longer amongst us.

It’s striking, maybe, because so very few European museums can say this.

What follows is an array of African art and cultural artifacts, set up as such things are often arranged in these kinds of spaces – with here and there a critical intervention, like small red signs that read, for instance, “There is no anticolonialism without antiracism”, and “I will not speak on someone else’s behalf.”

At the end, atop a handful of stairs, a separate room is prefaced by a large sign declaring the exhibition that drew my attention and caused me to wend my way to this corner of Belgrade: “An Anticolonial Museum”. I can’t do justice to the exhibition – though it, like the museum that houses it, is also hardly grand in scale. But I found very notable a plaque encouraging a critical engagement with the coloniality of museums as such. In this way, it put up for critique its own title, and asked questions about the extent to which it is even possible to be properly anticolonial within colonial institutions.

The visit reminded me of another small museum outside of the metropolitan centre: the Treptow Museum in Berlin, and its “Looking Back” exhibit, which has been revamped since I wrote about it here, and is very much worth visiting. There’s something about modest museums on the margins. If you happen to find yourself in Belgrade, the MAA is definitely worth checking out.

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