Voices from an Archived silence

A research exhibition on Basel’s colonial entanglements

Although Switzerland did not have its own colonies, it was nevertheless involved in colonialism. University research in particular benefited from the imperial endeavours of the European colonial powers. In the service of science, the two Basel naturalists Fritz and Paul Sarasin brought exotic animals and plants, ethnological and archaeological objects as well as skulls and skeletons to Basel. The foundation was laid for one of the largest ethnological collections in German-speaking Europe.
Vera Ryser and Sally Schonfeldt, based on Bernhard Schär‘s “Tropenliebe” study, searched the Basel archives for the legacy of the two naturalists and invited artists from Sri Lanka and Indonesia to examine the archive material from their perspective. The result is various independent artistic works, all of which activate voices that were not previously available in the archives. Deneth Piumakshi traveled to Sri Lanka after doing research in the Basel Archives and interviewed people in the villages where the Sarasins had researched over 136 years ago. Rahmat Arham, Julia Sarisetiati, Jimged Ary Sendy Trisdiarto and Angela Wittwer deal with resistance stories during the Indonesian colonial period. The duo Ryser+Schonfeldt asked themselves what the objects from Sri Lanka and Indonesia in the Basel collections convey about themselves and the different colonial contexts in which they are involved, if they could tell us their own story. Together, the total of ten artistic works create a visual world that shows the colonial connections between Sri Lanka, Switzerland and Indonesia around 1900 and negotiate in a contemporary way.
The content of the exhibition corresponded to the premiere of the theatre Play „Wiederauferstehung der Vögel“ (Resurrection of the Birds) by the in-house author Thiemo Strutzenberger and was shown in parallel to the exhibition in Basel Theater. In addition, a public programme consisting of discussions with experts, artists and scientists examined the possibilities for dealing responsibly with the past from our present, focused specifically on Switzerland.