Boundary Objects Telling Stories of Communities: Critical Perspectives on Post-colonial Heritage Restitution in the Arctic

Interview with Magdalena Zolkos, Humboldt Research Fellow at Frankfurt Memory Studies Platform, Goethe University, interviewed by Ali Ali, PhD student at the University of Helsinki. The blog series Stories of Europe introduces researchers and guest speakers at Eurostorie. The aim is to make the topic accessible, and to have a more relaxed discussion on the research at hand.

The topic of this blog post spans shamanism, politics and decoloniality. The tupilaq: a figurine of ill-wishing and revenge from pre-colonial Greenlandic tradition. It was assembled from driftwood, seaweed, animal bone and pelt, and human body parts, and animated in secret ceremony in order to bring misfortune and even death to the antagonized community member.

Zolkos tells even more complicated stories of tupilai (plural of tupilaq): not only as a practice shrouded in silence and secrecy, but also as a commodified and translocated item in Western museums and souvenir shops, and a memory object of historical, social and political significance. The three tupilai centered in Zolkos’ discussion were recently included in the collections of the Danish National Museum (after their relocation from the Museum of Trade and Shipping in Elsinore). They were originally made in 1905/1906 by shaman Mitsivarniannga in Ammassalik in East Greenland in response to a request by the Danish ethnographer and philologist William Thalbitzer. As tupilai traditionally involve unresolved issues between different parties, Zolkos suggests that we can approach the history of these objects as part of the broader debates about restitution, de-colonization and politics of cultural heritage today.

The three tupilai that appear in this text marked a rare encounter with the object, an encounter that had been and is still virtually impossible, because of the secrecy required for the practice. Therefore, tupilai mainly appeared in the form of fictitious figures in the Danish presentations, and they were associated with folktales. For Zolkos, the story of these three heritage items sheds critical light on the formal legal instruments of repatriation of objects to the places of their creation and custodianship.

A: By linking the two fields of “restitution of cultural heritage” and “memory studies”, you mentioned in the seminar that there is a chance to connect them (Zolkos, seminar at the University of Helsinki, 12 February 2021). Where do these two areas overlap?

Z: The shared element in both fields is the concern with material objects. The contemporary debates about restitution of cultural heritage have centred on the return of material artifacts to places where they are made and from which they were translocated in colonial contexts. Recently we have witnessed other legislative and political attempts at thinking about heritage restitution, which takes a more holistic and contextual approach, for instance by approaching these items from the perspective of their entanglement in the category of ‘traditional knowledge'. One area of concern, which has been vocalized by scholars in indigenous critical studies, is that the Western discourse on non-human objects and artifacts almost automatically assigns to them inanimate and non-agential characteristics. Adopting the distinction between things and persons as a key binary in Western epistemology has enormously limited our thinking about material objects in all areas of public life. Contemporary philosophers from Heidegger to Esposito have spoken at length about the nature of our impoverished view of materiality and objectivity, including that the word “object” has become synonymous with possession. So even if you think of Western concepts beyond private property, like the commons, it is still often something that is ownable, collectively ownable. When we think about memory objects and objects of restitution that were created by non-Europeans, often radically different epistemologies and ontologies of objects are at play – ones that take as their starting point the complementarity of people and objects, and not their separation and non-identity.

Let us think about the interconnection between Western object epistemology and [t]he historical processes of material extraction, theft of traditional knowledge and [h]eritage translocation that occurred during the colonial era. [R]eductive views of objects, for example as possessions that can be assigned monetary value or as artefacts in the institutions and discourses of Western museums that provide aesthetic pleasure and cultural knowledge to their viewers, are deeply connected to the violence of dispossession.

This also entails questions of what injustices are responding to today, and what history we are trying to rectify, undo or repair, through acts of restitution.

Conceptualizing heritage items as “memory objects” is part of a larger trend in the field of memory study today, which attempt to think about cultural memory non-anthropocentrically, that is by approaching other-than-human entities, such as material objects as active contributors to memory processes on a broader social scale. Much of that impetus has come from the so-called “planetary turn” in memory studies, and the attempts to think about collective memory in the context of, for instance, climate crisis and its affective dimensions, such as solastalgia and ecological grief. Personally, I am interested in the categories of objects and things, and much of my research has been structured by the attempts at analysing and theorizing objects as containers and transferors of cultural memory. The importance of contextualizing this inquiry in relation to colonial and post-colonial narratives, as well as questions of historical justice, is that the history of heritage things is always plural – in addition to the descriptions often encountered in our museums, there are also stories told by local communities and by descendants of these objects’ makers and users. It is the history told by the latter that often sheds critical light on the circumstances that enabled the acquisition and translocation, as well as on broader socio-economic contexts and consequences.

A: I am not sure whether I grasp the issue of tupilaq here: the multiplicity of narratives and memory communities and the paradox of juxtaposing these narratives and communities. but perhaps it is the point here, not to claim to grasp a universal knowledge about something that has too many stories and histories. But would you elaborate more in that regard?

Z: Prior to the Western ethnographic interest in tupilai in 19th and 20th century, they were one-time use objects. They were made and secretly animated in ways that the colonial anthropologists of the arctic region immediately associated with a “taboo practice” because the process involved having the tupilaq suck on its maker’s genitals. They were subsequently left in the sea, or in proximity to the sea, and it was believed that the animated tupilai had at their disposal powers of the animal or animals that were part of their assemblage, for example a walrus. The tupilai then set off in pursuit of the object of their maker’s revenge, and they only way the community was able to ‘see’ that the tupilai was at work, was when accidents (for instance during hunting or kayaking in the fjord) were ascribed to their agential powers. Tupilai-making was highly disapproved of by the community. When Westerners, missionaries and administrators first showed up in Greenland, in late 17th century, and colonialism and the missions were established, they did not see the tupilai or were able to acquire them as material objects until much later. In the early colonial diaries by Danish administrators, tupilai-making was frequently described as witchcraft. Later, in the 19th century, explorers and ethnographers who wrote down Greenlandic oral mythologies, included among them stories of tupilai-making and revenge, as part of narrative traditions. The early 20th century brought more anthropological and folk-art interest in the material objects of tupilai, which were first assembled and later took a form of carvings.

I would say that an underlying discourse of the colonial interest in, perhaps even fascination with, the tupilai was part of a distinctive colonial and imperial concern about the indigenous people and indigenous cultures in the arctic region (and of course also more broadly). These people and cultures were perceived as endangered by the expansion of Western civilization, and hence in need of protection. [...] The paradox of these Western colonial imaginaries was thus that the indigenous people were seen as vulnerable, endangered and in need to protection and external assistance at the same time as the colonial policies of extraction, expansion, and settlement were established, bringing about conditions of real precarity for these communities.

A: It sounds that the secrecy of the practice was a crucial part of how the tupilaq was supposed to work. In your research and presentation, I see an interesting of publicizing something that is conventionally secret, and the publicity of which is synonymous with the neutralization of the act. How do you deal with that in your research?

Z: My understanding is that

the secrecy of the creation of the tupilaq in the Inuit communities in precolonial Greenland was deeply connected to the criminality of the act. [E]uropeans interpreted that secrecy [b]y employing the binary category distinction between the public and the private, where the public was associated with sanctioned and approved norms and communally constructive practices, and the private with something covert, unmentionable and potentially shameful.

I think that what is revealing is that those elements of the practices that generated most interest and fascination, but also anxiety, were connected to the genital animation of tupilai and to the use of body parts of dead people, and especially dead children. One of the tupilai models that Mitsivarniannga made on Thalbitzer’s request was a wooden figure, sometimes described as a doll, which contains eyes and teeth taken from an infant that died (figure 1), and for that reason it has been described as gruesome and macabre. What Mitsivarniannga did not tell Thalbitzer, or what Thalbitzer did not include in his accounts and descriptions of the object, is that its original was made by Mitsivarniannga’s mother, containing body parts of her dead infant, and that its creation was involved in family story of conflict and revenge. Mitsivarniannga’s granddaughter preserved the story orally and in 1970s related it to a teacher, who wrote and published in. That part of these tupilai’s history is almost completely ignored in their official records, but is hugely important because, as we could say, it shows that these items are irreducible to the story that Europeans want to tell about them when they categorize the items as source of ethnographic knowledge and as expressive of primitive and ‘authentic’ creativity’, unspoilt by civilization.

Here we encounter an ecliptic moment; something that restitutive legal instruments cannot ‘see’ and occlude because their sole focus is the question of the return of material items. These three tupilai were not objects of restitutive demand during the Greenlandic-Danish repatriation process, which was called Utimut, and took place since 1980s for nearly 20 years. This was because the return concerned the divisions of the Greenlandic collections of the Danish National Museum, and, as I have already mentioned, at that time these tupilai were part of different collections. Also, one of the principles upon which Utimut was based was that Denmark could retain objects that were important from the perspective of the documentation of their colonial and explorative presence in the arctic region. These tupilai would certainly belong to that category: they were made on Thalbitzer’s request, hence were considered ‘models’ or ‘copies’ of the original tupilai, and they came into Thalbitzer’s possession legally. My attempt at pluralizing the history of these tupilai, and at bringing to the surface their less known, local and familial narratives, suggests that the coordinates and outcome of these legal and political processes and the communities’ opportunities to make restitutive amends, depends on the stories we tell about these objects.

What becomes clear is that the goal of preservation as the discursive and normative pillar of the institution of the Western museum can contrast with human-thing relations in traditional societies in the which communally embedded objects, often invested with agential and animate capacities, functioned in ways involved the completion or fulfilment of their life cycle.

Importantly, in such context people exhibited attitude of great care for these objects without always necessarily embracing the norm of their preservation ad infinitum. One should really be quite specific what objects are at hand, and what their communal function and relevance was. I mentioned that

tupilai in pre-colonial Greenland were thrown into sea, unseen by others, and without any incentive of being retrieved and preserved. They had a relatively short life cycle. And, of course, in the last decades a whole market of tupilai-making developed, which has bridged the domain of ‘native art’ and tourism industry.

A: And the restitution involves the recognition that there is multiple stories to an object.

Z: As important as it has been for me to pluralize histories of these items, and to subsequently “provincialize” (to use a concept of Dipesh Chakrabarty) their dominant European narratives, I also think that one can approach them as “memory objects" - as containers and transferors of colonial memory. At present, it is hard to talk about any shared arctic colonial memory of Greenland and Denmark; rather, at hand are two separate memory communities. I would suggest that these items can function as cultural and affective connectives in social memory construction, which needs to take place across, rather than within, national borders.  

The Danish and Greenlandic narratives of these items are different, and the latter cannot be reduced to the former - we could say, it cannot be colonized by it – but they are not separate from one another. They echo each other, they imbricate and resonate with, and perhaps even trouble, each other.

Here I use the sociological concept of boundary objects to capture a sense in which these histories and narratives are linked, without being identical or reducible to one another. Such objects serve as points of contact, between heterogeneous fields or communities which do not merge or become one as they come together. It is a kind of togetherness without homogeneity[.]

A: You speak of “togetherness without homogeneity” but I could not help imagining an overarching narrative; in the light of the Danish colonial intervention and the poverty, worsening life situation of those families and the infant deaths that accompanied that (as you mentioned in the seminar). This sounds due (or rather overdue) in the stories of tupilai, knowing that these are partly made of dead baby organs or tissues. Could the figure and/or figurine of tupilaq be threading the memories and narratives of memory communities, without reducing them to each other? The object (which you called boundary object) seems to rest on narratives and happenings that transcends these differences to problematize a hegemonic narrative rather than homogenize narratives in a Hegelians sense.

Z: Yes, precisely.

Let us think for a moment about the element that has generated such emotional responses to these items in Europe, namely the incorporation of infant’s eyes and teeth into their assemblage. What is not being questioned here, insofar as the infantile death is seen as a natural occurrence, rather than an outcome of larger political and social processes, is how this bodily ‘material' comes about and what it means, what it witnesses, so to say.

I do not mean the direct causes of the end of this specific biological life, which are unknown to us. Rather,

I want to suggest that we think of this child’s death as part of a larger whole, namely as one in a series of events that are described and evaluated through the category of child mortality. Here I suggest that we link mortality of children among native populations of colonized countries to direct and indirect impacts of European colonialism and extractivism, and to their profound disruption of traditional modes of communal sustenance and to local economies.

This includes famines resulting from the transition to less predictable sources of nutrition by Greenlandic peoples, which came in response to the environmental changes brought about by European whaling industry. We do know that children mortality rates were one of the indicators of such changes and disruptions, and a marker of the precarities I mentioned earlier. Part of Denmark’s colonial identity in the arctic has been to understand itself as the modernizer of Greenland and as a non-violent and ‘benevolent’ colonial power, and as an initiator and facilitators of changes that bettered local people’s lives. But the truth is that colonial legacies in the arctic are a matter of a far more ambiguous and difficult legacy, which cannot be reduced to celebration of life improvement. Writing in a different context (though not entirely), Achille Mbembe proposed the concept of necropolitics, suggesting that the governance of local colonized populations cannot be seen solely from the perspective of regulation and improvement of life, but also what he referred to as governance of death.

Death in this context does not need to be an immediate outcome of, for instance, violent attack and killing, it can also be an example of what Lauren Berlant has called “slow death” - a gradual attrition and destruction of living in its multifarious physical, psychological and social modalities. As a “memory object” this is perhaps what the tupilaq “remembers” - the slow (and not so slow) unfolding and entrenchment of coloniality and its violent structural effects, materialized, as it were, in the teeth and eyes of a dead child.


Text: Ali Ali & Magdalena Zolkos