Saturday, 12 November 2016

ROM reaches reconciliation with the Coalition for the Truth about Africa

ROM reaches reconciliation with the Coalition for the Truth about Africa
By Neil Armstrong

It took 27 years but finally the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) has officially apologized to the Coalition for the Truth about Africa (CFTA), and its apology has been accepted.

At an event held at the museum in Toronto on November 9, opened by Nunmo Nii Akrong, Chief Priest of Ga Dangme, offering libation, the ROM delivered a statement of reconciliation saying it produced the exhibition, Into the Heart of Africa, which opened there in November 1989.

It said the exhibition was intended to critically examine the colonial relationships and premises through which collections from African societies had entered museums.

“The exhibition displayed images and words that showed the fundamentally racist ideas and attitudes of early collectors and, in doing so, unintentionally reproduced the colonial, racist and Eurocentric premises through which these collections had been acquired. Thus, Into the Heart of Africa perpetuated an atmosphere of racism and the effect of the exhibition itself was racist. The ROM expresses its deep regret for having contributed to anti-African racism. The ROM also officially apologizes for the suffering endured by members of the African-Canadian community as a result of Into the Heart of Africa," said Dr. Mark Engstrom, the museum's Deputy Director, Collections and Research, who read the statement and was the person guiding the reconciliation process for the ROM over the past two years.

The CFTA came into being in the fall of 1989 after a number of individuals had seen the exhibition, Into the Heart of Africa, and concluded that it was racist, deciding to do something about it.

Initially an ad hoc group, it later consolidated as a broad-based coalition consisting of nearly one hundred groups from across Canada.

Many CFTA members had been, and some are still vilified and hurt by this experience.

Josh Basseches, Director and CEO of the ROM, said the reconciliation event marked an extremely important milestone for both the CFTA and the ROM.

He said the ROM had evolved significantly from the museum it was in 1989 and today collaborates and engages with diverse communities on exhibitions, events, and programming.

Martha Durdin, Chair of its Board of trustees, said the board is committed to ensuring that the museum is a welcoming place for all communities.

Rostant Ras Rico John, who accepted the apology on behalf of the CFTA and the African community in Canada, expressed pride in having reached this point of reconciliation after twenty-seven years.

“It took a long time to get to that point but the ROM understood its responsibility and moved forward and invited us in 2014 to get together with them to work out some form of getting together to bring respect and dignity back to the African community in Canada here,” he said.

He said the ROM’s team worked diligently and honestly with CAFTA and though there were “little problems, little bumps’ to overcome, they did so.

“We worked out many very good plans and those plans will benefit the African community here in Canada. When a wrong has been done it has to be righted and the efforts that were put down have made it right,” he said, acknowledging the collective work of his CAFTA colleagues: Yaw Akyeaw, Ajamu Nangwaya, Afua Cooper and Geraldine Moriba.

The ROM’s negotiating team included Basseches, who became CEO in 2015, Dr. Engstrom, Cheryl Blackman and Dr. Silvia Forni.

“We want our community to know that the ROM did not slip or slide, nor hide. They came forward, showed themselves, and they worked with us. We think that we worked very diligently on behalf of our community, the African community in Canada, and we think that where we have reached is where the community would like us to be.”

He said in addition to the apology, which was one of the introductions to the affirmative action that will be taken, the ROM itself initiated some that CFTA did not ask for and also agreed with a lot of those they wanted.

“There will be a lot of good works in the future coming out through the ROM and through the efforts of the CFTA,” said John.

The ROM announced a number of steps it will take in the coming years to continue to strengthen collaboration with African-Canadian communities and help shape the museum of the future.

These include enhanced partnerships with Black educational networks, opportunities for training Black youth interested in museums, and continued support of events and lectures that address the history and cultures of Africa and the Diaspora.

Working with the CFTA and other community partners, the ROM is committed to sustained and meaningful programming, and acknowledges the importance of dialogue and collaboration toward enhancing its collection and public events.

Cooper thanked the ROM for “opening its compassionate heart so we could work together to do this,” and also curators, Julie Crooks and Dominque Fontaine.

She said the present administrative structure of the museum is different from that of 1989 and she feels that it is genuine and sincere.

Cooper thanked Ras Rico for taking the leadership on the matter for the CFTA as well as the African Canadian community.

“When these discussions started in 2014 we said Rico you do this. You have been such a committed speaker throughout in the first dispensation and now in the second dispensation when we had the conference in October 2014 it was such a tremendous effort we wanted you to continue that leadership role,” she said.

Cooper said she felt like she was in a twilight zone because she remembered marching outside the ROM in 1989/1990 and it is now 27 years.

“No one would have thought that we would, tonight, be receiving an apology,” she said, noting that her son, Akil, who was little at the time, used to march with her outside the museum.

“Many of us suffered as a result of our taking the ROM to task during those years. People lost their jobs, people had to flee the city of Toronto, people were harassed by the police, people had difficulty crossing the borders, people were jailed, and even one person, Adisa Oji, was incarcerated in a prison in Windsor, Ontario and was not able to practice his craft as a teacher. And so we remember Oji tonight as we stand here.”

Cooper said through art, through culture “we can claim ourselves, we can claim our spirit, we can envision a life of beauty, a life of passion, a life of compassion” and the museum is a crucial place in society.

She said the museum has a significant role to play in society because the museum can do all these things.

“So the museum, art and culture, can create all of those things for us so why should we not as an African community  participate in these events, in these exhibits. Why should we not bring our children, bring our grandparents, bring our parents, bring ourselves, bring our families, bring our friends to these spaces and engage the art, engage the back and forthing, engage the dialogue that happens when you honour, when you – the body – reflect on a piece of art. That’s what we want for our community in a big way.”

She said Canada is now dealing with the truth and reconciliation tribunal with regard to indigenous people “and today, this evening at the ROM we are engaging in another significant reconciliation, this time in regard to the African community.”

“We’re beginning to flesh our reconciliation. We accept the apology but we also say that an apology cannot be empty. It’s not enough to say we apologize but we go the extra step of reconciling and as we reconcile we flesh out what it means for everybody. The reconciliation cannot really have meat or vegetable, I’m a vegetarian, until we recognize the full humanity of the party that has been wronged.”

She said earlier that evening when one of her colleagues, Wesley Crichlow, came, he saw her and said, “we need our own museum, are you going to talk about that.”

“We need to start the African Canadian museum. We need money to start it and the ROM should help us start it,” she said, noting that it is an idea that has been around for the past twenty-five years.

She said Toronto is the only major North American city that does not have an African museum.

Akyeaw said there was no doubt that Into the Heart of Africa was racist and that the arrests were racist and illegal because it was mainly black protesters who were detained. The white people who were arrested were released that day.

“It was a racist situation but we’re here to heal,” he said.

He said in Ghanaian culture a person apologizes to cool the heart.

“If that’s all the ROM did I would have been disappointed but they took steps, they took action,” he said, noting that the museum made substantial changes on their own to make the African Canadian know that it is important and part of the fabric of Canada.

Dr. Engstrom noted the ROM is organizing a major exhibition curated by Forni in 2018 which addresses the exclusion of blackness from mainstream Canadian historical narrative through the work of seven contemporary Black Canadian artists.
Left-right: Ajamu Nangwaya, Josh Basseches, Rostant Ras Rio John, Dr. Mark Engstrom, Dr. Afua Cooper, Cheryl Blackman, Martha Durdin, Geraldine Moriba, Dr. Silvia Forni and Yaw Akyeaw at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto on Nov. 9, 2016.

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