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Talk Back (and Forth)

backtalk's picture

Thoughts, comments, questions, conversations welcome!


alesnick's picture

I am looking forward to the ideas that will grow through this forum. I will play the role of moderator and faclitator.  If writers wish to communicate with me outside of this space, feel free to email: Alice Lesnick, Thanks!

jccohen's picture

thanks for the backtalk exhibit and forum - great to have these works of art and responses/cataloguing/commentaries out there.  for me, this was a first exposure to much of the art.  i was struck by wanting to touch and hold some of these objects, to play with them, e.g. instruments, the wonderful bike toy, the mysterious carving at the center.  and i really enjoyed the kinds of questions raised about our relationship with these objects, which made me more aware and questioning of some of my wantings and also how these things might've been in the worlds of other people...

alesnick's picture

Mystery was a theme in the creative workshop we did Saturday, too. How to come closer yet respectful/mindful of all the separations, innate and circumstantial, historical?  Also want to think more about "first exposures:" what do these timelines mean, what do they do?  What does it mean that these objects stay behind closed doors and then, periodically, partially, be "shown?"

Anne Dalke's picture

I also very much enjoyed the opening--and shared some of Jody's desire to "get behind" the glass and handle the objects: they seemed so closed off and far-away, so, well, "displayed." I was particularly struck by the question printed on the corner of the exhibition--"Where does object end and context begin?" This put me in mind of a wonderful essay (recommended to me by John Muse, who teaches a course @ Haverford on the theory and practice of exhibition and display, in which students learn about "making arguments" with objects, images, texts, and events). In this essay, Resonance and Wonder, Stephen Greenblatt juxtaposes “wonder”-- the power of an object to stop us in our tracks—with “resonance”—its power to reach out beyond its formal boundaries, to evoke a larger world.

Greenblatt uses the comparison to talk  about museum display, and to critique his own work as a new historicist, who looks always @ the  larger picture, and so neglects the “masterpiece” @ its center. I'm using the essay in a course on Ecological Imagining this semester to encourage my students to attend both to what is wondrous, here-and-now, while also asking how these objects reach beyond, invite us to reflect on the world they emerge from and stand in for....

A slightly different angle on "back-and-forthing" "close up" can we get to these "masterpieces," how far extend their reach into our own lives, and/or into the worlds from which they arose?

alesnick's picture

Thanks for these intriguing connections and questions!  I'd like to think more about the idea that objects hold power and how this relates to knowledge -- knowledge of their character, use, history.  For me part of the purpose of Backtalk is to spotlight how little institutional knowledge is held about many of these objects, and to catalyze the search for more.

bwallace's picture

Great to see these comments here kicking off what I think will be a great ongoing discussion. One strand of thinking behind the exhibition is the now-historical form of art/museum practice known as institutional critique. We gesture to it in the nod to Fred Wilson's (and curator Lisa Corrin's) Mining the Museum project, but (and I'll figure out how to join the 21st century and embed hyperlinks soon) a quick quick primer would also include projects and/or artists such as these:

This is just a quick intro (to material that may already be familiar) but I hope it's of interest -- and I hope it sparks questions and comments about the exhibition and the thinking behind it.

I'm GLAD that the show felt a little airless and/or even frustrating: we meant to ratchet up the rhetorics and strategies (relentless signage, frontal presentation, uniform color, until they (and our awareness of them) became impossible to ignore.

Grace Pusey's picture

Thank you so much to Alice and Whitney for facilitating Saturday's Creative Workshop engaging "Backtalk" via writing, visual media, and performance. As promised, I wrote a post about it for the Black at Bryn Mawr blog:

For those who may be unaware, Black at Bryn Mawr is a collaborative project between me and Emma Kioko '15 using archived documents both within and outside the College to bring to light the experiences of Black students, faculty, and staff at Bryn Mawr. The purpose of the project is to build institutional memory of Bryn Mawr's engagement with racism, enabling future students to hold both themselves and the College community to higher standards of awareness and accountability to racial power dynamics inside and outside the classroom. Aside from the Wordpress blog, we also have a Tumblr ( There will be multiple opportunities to engage the project at the Community Day of Learning (March 18, 2015) and to join us for the Black at Bryn Mawr campus walking tour in April.

As I wrote in my reflective post, it has been all too easy to get "buried in the archives" and not pay attention to spaces on campus where Black students, faculty, staff, and their allies are already questioning Bryn Mawr's representation of its history, challenging its master narratives, and speaking truth to power. The "Backtalk" exhibit is immensely powerful and I truly hope it inspires long-term institutional and community change.

alesnick's picture

Dear Grace,

Thank you for the beautiful essay you wrote after our workshop.I will not forget the way you work from the spontaneous unearthing of a childhood story of your mother's teaching you not to pick flowers  as a lens on the way in which museums are cemetaries holding once-living things.  The question of the violent dislocations and deaths of these objects is key to Backtalk and the tracing you do from an American childhood scene seemingly completely other than the issues it raises is powerful.  And then there's this:

"In retrospect, my symbolic choice of flowers was apt. The concept of indigeneity, at least in a Western context, arose in early modern Europe amongst botanists, apothecaries, and natural scientists to defend the utility of local plants and medicines against the influx of foreign ones from royally sponsored expeditions abroad.8 They believed God blessed all people with the natural resources they needed to survive, and that to seek resources beyond those immediately available to them was tantamount to questioning God’s providence. Moreover, curio cabinets — the forerunner to museum display cases — were created originally to display natural objects, but came to house “curiosities” (hence “curio”) as commissioned privateers returned from voyages with souvenirs from their cross-cultural encounters. "

The braiding of "nature" and "culture" here, medicine and religion, is a powerful teaching.  Also important here is the question that emerged centrally during Wednesday's panel discussion, of Western denial of the very possibility of indigenous knowledge.


Anisa Salat's picture

I would like to share below a poem that I wrote as a reaction to one of the objects in the exhibition: the door. This door caught my attention mainly because of the human forms carved on the door. These people were connected in one way or the other by touch. I also wondered what this door meant to the creator, was it functional or was it meant to be put on display? I tried to capture my thoughts in the poem below:

Isn't it amazing
how rich and mesmerizing
our cultures are
yet hidden they are
and ignored or misunderstood
who knows, what this door shows
but it tells, a beautiful tale
of affection and connection
of synchrony and creativity
of mystery

Thank you for reading,

Grace Pusey's picture

I love this, Anisa. In my family we always paint the front door red for luck. In a way, you could say the door itself blesses the home and the people in it. Other people hang crosses above the door, or place "welcome" mats outside, or hang wreaths, etc. It seems universal to invite goodness, love, and generosity into our lives via doors and doorways. We can think of doors as gateways welcoming others into the most private, intimate realms of our lives, our families, our cultures -- and yet doors also function as obstacles, barriers, keepers of mystery (e.g., a locked door.) The idea of the door in the collection being "unhinged," dislocated, dislodged, leaving vacant space and making vulnerable the space it once protected...what does it mean for this door to now sit in a museum display case? What are we ignoring or misunderstanding; what do we think we know or understand? How *can* we know? Or, as you put it more eloquently, "Who knows what this door shows?"

alesnick's picture

I too greatly appreciate this poem.  It helps me think about the mystery of the door as it suggests that in addition to ignorance and misunderstanding, the mystery of this door can connect to strategies of concealment and narrative: ". . it tells, a beautiful tale . . . of mystery.

Anisa and Grace, I am happy to share this poem here, which was inspired by each of your words during our workshop.  Readers will see the traces in what you have written in this forum.  Thank you!

In the Museum

  • A cemetery for stolen flowers
  • Cool smells warm hands
  • Mechanized betrayal pumping viscous rumors
  • The weakness of one place
  • The strength of another place
  • In the library of stolen things, history
  • Breaks against the radio waves
  • Power on


bwallace's picture

I've neglected this thread but just now gave myself the gift of a read -- and want to warmly thank the contributors. As a token of gratitude, here are links to some current, complicated, pertinent issues confronting those of us who would presume to preserve and interpret objects...who would use such power as we have to manipulate embodied symbols:

Powerfully analytical visual thinking -- the last image is a REAL kicker -- about preservation and destruction in the wake of the much-commented-upon destruction of objects in a middle-eastern museum:

A museum creates an elegant intervention into its collection and the ways we categorize and view objects:

And, finally, let's look forward to THIS project at the Barnes Foundation featuring artists Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff, and Fred Wilson:




Anne Dalke's picture

I’ve been mulling over what I saw, heard and learned at the Feb. 18th panel discussion on “evolving methods for talking back.” I was captured, for starters, by Whitney’s description of her intention to use the concept of “backtalk” (which “goes against the norms,” and so is “often seen as rude”) to challenge the ways in which African art has been exhibited and categorized. What I kept noticing, throughout the panel, was a tension -- really, this seemed to me a profound encounter -- between the aspirations of backtalk and those of the sacred.

I was struck first by the ways in which the “backtalk” panel had been set up in accord with the usual protocols of academic conversations: a series of questions, responded to in sequence by a series of experts in the field, an art historian and two Africanists. The event really wasn’t structured, in other words, to invite “backtalk,” or pushing back by those of us not trained in these discourses. I noted similar tensions again later in the evening, in the movement between challenging, and showing respect for, our keynote speaker, Nontombi Naomi Tutu, and also saw such contradictions at play throughout the panel.

I was struck, for instance, by the repeated use of language of the sacred: the description of ritual objects, not originally made for museums, that had been re-placed in aesthetic and cultural contexts that did not value their unique provenance. When it was asserted that “something can not lose its status as a sacred object,” its qualities of “awesomeness” and “awe-full-ness,” to “become ‘just’ art,” it seemed as though the claim to, and category of, the sacred was being used to fend off profane questions, including the impertinent backtalking ones this exhibit had been designed to showcase.

Although one of the panelists described museums, in her own childhood experience, as “great equalizers,” “places to wander with friends,” they have of course been experienced quite differently by others; Brian linked above to an article asking us to remember “how exclusive and exclusionary the institutions of archaeology and the museum have been for most of the modern period.” One of my students also testified to her family’s felt sense of exclusion: in their experience, museums’ obligations to preserve their collections had trumped any obligation to make art available to the public.

One of the panelists similarly identified the “ethical obligation” of museums to “safeguard objects”--to maintain their status as sacred. Not perhaps in the sense they were first understood and used, but in the sense of being preserved, untouched, in the church of art (from Brian’s article again: “The sacred value of holy objects in the pre-modern period was understood to be particular…But those who hold museum objects to be sacred…insist that a museum artifact's sacred value is universal”).

So I’m wondering now whether safety must always come first, in such practices? (Later in the week, I heard current Friends in Residence @ Haverford speak about their concept of “safety fourth,” which they placed after a range of other values, such as creativity….) And I’m wondering, too, how protocols of safety are related to rituals of the sacred. I left the panel with a clear sense of the contradictions—really, it was such a deep encounter!-- between “talking back” and “keeping safe/keeping sacred.”

Thanks, to all, for all of this.