If photography and texts transmit the self-serving accounts of historical facts, then artworks also allow us to reveal the imperialist vision hidden in the display cabinets of our museums. Thus, in her film Un-documented. Undoing Imperial Plunder (2019), Ariella Aïsha Azoulay sets the care with which cultural objects are preserved in the exhibition spaces of the old metropolises against the treatment given to the asylum applications of people living in the former colonies. Two types of hospitality for two types of migration, and one paradox: while cultural objects are documented, those who have been displaced are often refused documents.
Azoulay’s film has as its point of departure an assertion by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais from their 1953 documentary Les statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die) in which the film-makers condemned French colonialism through the way African art and Western art are treated differently. “When men die, they become history. Once statues die, they enter art”, recites the voice that opens Marker and Resnais’s film to explain how culture is built on death. Azoulay is not entirely in agreement and defends the immortality of these plundered objects, classified on racial or ethnocentric grounds in colonial museums. These living statues would contain the rights of the people who had their culture expropriated, rights which, according to the artist in this exercise of narrative speculation, could be reactivated in the present. Across three chapters —El derecho a vivir cerca de los objetos de uno (The Right to Live Close to One’s Objects), Rechazo incondicional (Unconditional Rejection) and El regalo (The Gift) — Azoulay puts into practice her concept of “potential history”, the possibilities of a history that has never happened.
In its multiple layers of meaning, Un-Documented. Undoing Imperial Plunder prompts not only an examination of the problem of contemporary migration, but also a consideration of the debate on the restitution of plundered artworks, a gesture of repair which, despite helping to overcome the centuries-long logic of colonial domination being dragged behind, runs the risk becoming paternalistic and incomplete. The artist explores the dispossession which, for some peoples, means the expropriation of knowledge and the reduction that major cities carry out on rich cultural objects when they are considered art.