Narcissus in the Colonies. Another journey through Ethiopia - by Vincenzo Latronico and Armin Linke
Armin Linke, Colonial fascist sculpture, with the Ethopian Lion of Judah. Ethnographic Museum, Addis Ababa Ethiopia, 2012.
(c) Armin Linke
The following is a translation of an extract from Vincenzo Latronico's and
Armin Linke's book “Narcissus in the Colonies. Another journey through Ethiopia” originally published in Italian by Quodlibet Humboldt with the title “Narciso Nelle Colonie. Un altro viaggio in Etiopia” (2012). The book is a contemporary and critical take on the travelogue genre, a collaborative work between a writer (Latronico) and an artist/photographer (Linke). It also contains texts by Angelo del Boca, Simone Bertuzzi / Palm Wine and Graziano Savà.
It is available, in Italian, here.
It could be wrong to set out on a journey searching for something (the story of my family around the railway), but in our intention, this was a way to avoid wandering in idleness, collecting panoramas: in any case, I left looking for something, and I did not find it. I boarded the plane to Djibouti with a bag full of photographs, memories, notes, old documents and letterheads - threads that, if uninterrupted, would have allowed me to time travel through space and recover something that I believed to be mine. But the threads were interrupted, or time was less porous, or that thing did not belong to me. Save for a couple of sentences whispered by Butaëff - wrapped tightly in the myriad layers of his white-linen shamma - I have not found any trace of what I was looking for. According to what I saw there, the whole story of my family in Ethiopia could even have been invented.
However, that story was not invented. What had happened, instead, is that it was not preserved: its traces were not retained as it continued elsewhere. I arrived here projecting an archival mindset onto Ethiopia: namely, the idea that each document is a historical document that, as such, needs to be conserved (bills, school report cards, medical files, old contracts). This mindset is all but neutral, since it derives from a conception of history as a transitive and divisible entity: a macro-history, the so-called History with a capital H, composed by “small” events, that is, micro-histories. Brought forward in some respects by ecclesiastic institutions, but only formalized by a certain philosophy of history pertaining to the last century, this conception cannot in any way be taken for granted. The fact that “history” is attributed a value, in a somewhat noble and broad meaning of the term, does not imply that such value trickles down onto each and every history: in the absence of significant facts, it can seem inappropriate, or even presumptuous, to persist to conserve the traces of ordinary lives, as if they were the lives of illustrious people.
This has been particularly evident in the case of the Djibuti-Addis Ababa railway. Given the antiquity of the project and its relevance to the modernization of Ethiopia, we expected to find an archive, a documentation department, even just a photographic collection: but there was nothing of this kind. And that's not all: our questions on this matter were met with a specific mix of incomprehension and amusement. The same amusement that I will have found, later on, in Addis Ababa. Obviously, we did find old documents – there were even some original plans dating back to the beginning of the twentieth century – but they were kept only because they were still being updated: they were old but still in use. Once supplanted (because no longer updated, as in the case of a revised project, or because of their short lifespan, as in the case of budgets) the idea of conserving these obsolete charts or manuals appeared as a joke. To the eyes of our interlocutors, the archive that we were looking for was a sort of cemetery, a place designated uniquely to catalogue papers once they had become useless.
Armin Linke, Harar Museum, Harar Ethiopia, 2012.
(c) Armin Linke
When, in the attempt to find the location of my family home, I visited the national telephone company asking if somewhere – in a library, in an old office – they had a phone book from the Sixties, all of the employees started laughing: not because they believed that it was impossible that such a document would have survived or that it could be easily found (as perhaps would have thought one of their Italian colleagues): but because they found it useless. “For what purpose?” asked a man that I talked with. “There's a new one; it's on DVD”.
This is probably a corollary of the complex and strong relationship that Ethiopia has with the idea of progress, which has been at play since the days of Hailé Selassié – renowned for the theorization of an “Ethiopian way” to modernization, at a slow but constant pace – a relationship that has been further complicated by the positive exhortations of the Derg, and by the globalization anxiety that has followed. The low-key past, that which is not immediately relevant nor so colossal to result inescapable, is not of interest: if it still makes sense, then it is still used and present, otherwise it might as well rot in some basement, turning into a dusty pile within a storage room. The story of Sharif and of his 'civic museum' in Harar, in this sense, is emblematic: not so much for what he created, but rather because it is a unique, isolated case supported by foreign institutions instead of its own country – which, without Sharif, would have easily done without the museum. A past that has no image or use value easily triggers a feeling of shame; five regimes changes in one single lifespan have instilled the habit of erasing and rewriting. Each new layer encourages to forget the previous one, because it is based on the principle of uselessness, on the convenience and need of “leaving behind”. Yet, surely, nothing stays behind.
In other words: I left for my journey looking for something that I have not found; and yet perhaps
Once again I stop, as I did at the beginning. I stop because I already know what could follow that “and yet perhaps”: a consolatory sigh announcing that, even tough I did not find what I was looking for, I still brought something back with me in the end. In all likelihood it would have amounted to some sort of awareness related to either the reasons why I did not find what I was searching for, or to the preconceptions that led me to expect to find it.
I also already know the meaning of this “awareness”, and of the final paragraph that I was about to devote to it: the implication that the journey was not in vain, and neither, as a result, the drafting of this text. That paragraph would thus have been deeply rooted in the same terrain from which the first pages of this book stemmed, that is the fear of putting forward certain issues.
Which issues? That I do not know how we are capable to write about a place that we have crossed for three weeks. That surely it is possible, and perhaps reasonable, to synthesize such an experience but that, on the other hand, I doubt that this synthesis will reveal any significant knowledge about a country as big as half Europe, aside from sharing a few anecdotes, three picturesque scenes and a couple of panoramic views. That when I question the consolatory aspect of this experience, I fall back into the commonsensical cliché of the “and yet perhaps this apparent failure has taught me something” because, as a matter of fact, I do not know what to say.
Armin Linke, Railway Station, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2012.
(c) Armin Linke
It is true: I do not know what to say. The nineteenth century travelogue – amateurish and 'sensitive' by nature; cultured, attentive and way too quick at jumping to conclusions – was predominantly founded on the postulation of the virginity of the explored territory. When faced with an unknown place, a partial, hasty and brief account is preferable to the silence which has preceded it. Yet, in one and a half centuries, this silence has become a babylon-like choir: on the internet one can find reviews of restaurants in Dire Dawa and panoramic pictures of Awash, dramatic descriptions of Lac Abhe and desert maps with trajectories and satellite coordinates. What can we - myself and Armin – achieve with a printed, paper book? What can we possibly add? This is the question that I wanted to elude, through dramatic twists and turns, adjectives and “and yet perhaps”.
In the end, we started our journey moved by the most colonial of spirits: we went to Ethiopia as Europeans looking for an image of themselves. I have followed my family's history through a hypothetical, ghost-like archive typical of a European mindset; Armin wanted to photograph some examples of a type of architecture that is characterised by the (European) notion of its absolute independence from the context: we wanted to document a railway made by Europeans for European businesses; we compared what we saw to Switzerland, Tuscany, Wall Street, and Südtirol; we wanted to follow a French poet and an adventurous British explorer. We started our journey as Narcissus in the colonies, convinced, in a nutshell, to be dealing with a mirror and to know already which image it would have reflected. But it was, instead, a prism: and I have no idea what I brought back with me. Still, it is not a specimen of travelogue, indeed.
The history of Europe and of the worldwide web denies me the ingenuity on which that type of narrative is based: we know too well how many mines lay dormant under this soil. Yet, the sun really rises on a purple desert, surrounded by the horizon, all jagged by chimneys, pink flamingoes, and a procession of dromedaries, the warm fumes of the sulphur springs darkened by the shadows of gazelles.
Vincenzo Latronico is a writer and translator based in Turin. His novels are published in Italy by Bompiani and
in Germany by Secession. His writing has appeared on Corriere della Sera, frieze, Domus and Rolling Stone.
Armin Linke was born in Milan in 1966 and lives and works in Berlin. He has taken part in important international exhibitions, among which: the Venice Architecture Biennale (2000, 2004, 2006, 2012, 2014); Sogni e Conflitti, 50th Venice Art Biennale (2003); 6th Gwangju Biennale, Gwangju, South Korea (2004); 28th Bienal de São Paulo (2008) and Berlin Biennale (1998). Solo shows in international institutions: Armin Linke/Alpi, Voralberger Architektur Institut, Dornbirn (Austria) (2013); Il Corpo dello Stato, MAXXI - Museo delle Arti del XXI secolo, Rome (2010); Armin Linke, Heidelberger Kunstverein, Heidelberg, Germany (2009); Future Archaeologies, Klosterfelde, Berlin (2009); Prospectif Cinéma, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (2005). His work has been included in such group shows as: Hollein, MAK – Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art, Vienna (2014); Alvar Aalto – Second Nature, Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein (2014); #3 Down to Earth – Third Episode of the Anthropocene Observatory, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin (2014); Carlo Mollino, Maniera Moderna, Haus der Kunst, Munich (2011).
Translation by Alessandra Ferrini