"Unearthing. In Conversation" by Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński


Working with photographs that Paul Schebesta, Austrian-Czech missionary, writer, and ethnographer, took in the former Belgian Congo (nowadays Democratic Republic of the Congo), the performance Unearthing. In Conversation (2017) deals with violent histories of archival material and the trauma of colonization. Bringing to the forefront the haunting qualities of colonialism the artist engages in an uncanny dialogue that negotiates strategies of representation, the reproduction of specific ways of looking and the trauma of being made other in the here and now.

Belinda Kazeem

This is in remembrance of those to come.

This is in anticipation of those that are.

This is in conversation with those that were.

We are.


The first time I encounter you, is in Frankfurt. 2014. I look at old ethnographic materials, photographs taken by an ethnographer and his collaborators.


There is a connection, something that clings to me—the immediacy of a colonial flashback, an uncanny familiarity lingers.


My eyes are meeting yours.


I wish that you would open up and tell me what you were thinking, while standing there. I wish that the thoughts of your past could channel through the materiality of the representation. That they would creep right into my present, be transferred to me, whenever we lock eyes. I want to know what you were thinking.


How can I talk to you—the people in the photographs?

How can we communicate?

While I try to formulate my questions, it seems as if the others—ethnographers, photographers, missionaries, writers—are always in the way. Their words, their photographs, their everything.


There is a proverb, used in various African countries. Loosely translated it says:

“Until the lion has their own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story.”

Some people read my first attempts as pop art.

Other ones say that the collages remind them of Baldessari. As if this would be the reason I chose to use the red, blue, and yellow squares …

… red, blue, and yellow—the colours of the national flag of nowadays Democratic Republic of the Congo. What does it mean to cover you with the colours of that flag, the colours of a nation that discriminates against you and questions your belonging? And by the way, I don’t even like flags.


Still, it’s not about the colours, it’s the strategy I applied that I question: besides wanting to focus on the ethnographer, I was aiming at protecting you, shielding your images from looks that have preserved themselves since the first colonial encounter. Looks that keep on inviting and enabling the becoming of colonial agents.

But by doing so, I have covered you up, making it impossible for you to address the spectators, to look back.


Back to the photographs, I am focusing on the ethnographer in your midst. “Who is this guy?”, I think.

Lips grimly pressed onto each other, eyes covered by the shade of his hat—in fact his two hats.


It takes me a while to understand that he is signalling something. As I will find out later, his pose repeats itself in various times, bodies, and contexts.


When he decides to freeze this moment in space and time, he wants the possible future viewer, the audience he is envisioning, to get the message he is transmitting immediately.

While I look at the photographs, my need to oppose becomes inevitable.

How does one oppose by looking? How does one develop an oppositional gaze?


How did he manage to not mention the Belgian colonial system at all? There is no trace in his writings—at least as far as I have seen until now.

It seems as if he had been moving somewhere totally out of time and context, moving in an anachronistic forest that hasn’t been part of the colonial world.

If not for the photograph of the Belgian colonial administrator, there would be nothing pointing to a colonial system.

Schebesta was moving in his own imagination of the Congo, a place called Congo Free State by that time.


My aim is to concentrate on Paul Schebesta and other colonial agents, but the effect is that I am taking part in your erasure, I am literally cutting you out of the frame.


At first I leave the cut out empty,

I feel your absence painfully.

Secondly I put a mirror underneath—I want the viewers to confront their own presence, their imaginations, their thoughts, their knowledge.


The Congo and its people functioned as a screen for Europe’s colonial imaginations.

In order to conquer the Congo there had to be measures taken,

a social identity of the Congo had to be constructed,

a spatial identity of the Congo had to be invented,

enabling a colonial script to be written to make specific practices acceptable.

But by applying these representational strategies, I equate you with the land, again.


I cannot throw the cut-outs—your images—away. And while I look at them, I realise that all this is not about wanting to focus on Schebesta: I cut them out of the photographs because I cannot let your images stay in the pictured positions: ordered to stand in a row, hugged by the ethnographer, placed next to a dead gorilla, because Schebesta couldn’t resist visualising the monkey-black people trope that fuelled and still fuels colonial fantasies.


I collect your images, keep them together, waiting for the day when I will be able to arrange a different context for you, a place that could be less violent, a surrounding that could become home.


You used a Piki-Piki whistle against Schebesta. He recalls the episode of finding it in one of the huts he goes to in order to collect things, objects that later ended up in Western museums and collections.


Filled with the belongings of an enemy,

the Piki-Piki whistle shields from possible violence.

But lacking self-awareness, Schebesta doesn’t even think about the fact that you saw the necessity of protecting yourself.


I concentrate on the haunting.

On what makes me come back to these pictures,

the immediacy of the colonial flashback,

the restaging of othering processes in the present.


I call on you.

You guide me while trying to find oppositional ways of looking, of transmitting your oppositional gaze.

I need your presence. While researching

I become part of your army of ghosts haunting.



Stills aus Unearthing. In Conversation, Videoloop, 15’

Performance, Konzept, Schnitt: Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński

Kamera, Schnitt: Sunanda Mesquita

Sound, Licht, Schnitt: Nick Prokesch

Produktion, Regieassistenz: Liesa Kovacs

Bearbeitung und Übersetzung des Textes: Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński


Beitrag aus: Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński, Unearthing in Conversation (2017) In: Natalie Bayer, Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński und Nora Sternfeld: Kuratieren als antirassistische Praxis. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter Layout, Covergestaltung und Satz: Renate Höllwarth, Seite 73-87.

Herzlichen Dank an Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński und Renate Höllwarth.

Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński is an artist and writer living in Vienna, Austria. Rooted in Black feminist theory, she has developed a research-based and process-oriented investigative practice that often deals with archives, specifically with the gaps and blanks in public archives and collections. Interlacing the documentary with the fictional, her works dissect the present of an everlasting colonial past: a past without closure.