Black Atlas
The Julius Koller Society / BRATISLAVA (Slovakia)
25.10.2019 – 08.12.2019

Ethnographic museums and museums of world cultures have often centred their narratives around famous European ethnographers, anthropologists, and explorers, but seldom questioned the logistics of transporting artefacts from their places of origin to the museum collections. Black Atlas, an exhibition by Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn, turns the ethnographic gaze onto the museum itself in order to acknowledge the administration of racialized labour which was necessary for transporting crates with material culture from faraway places to European museums.
Based on archival research in the photographic archives of the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm, Black Atlas shifts the viewer’s attention from singular white European explorers to the deployment of anonymised native porters and caravan workers. Collecting practices are thus exposed as large logistical operations choreographed in the interests of sustaining the division between the cognitive labour of the European scientists and the manual labour of the natives who were often forced by the colonial administration to work for the expeditions for free. Like the mythological figure of Atlas — carrying the weight of the world or the sky on his back — these porters carried the burdens of the European scientists, sometimes even the scientists themselves. Black, as used in the exhibition’s title, is a reference to political blackness, rooted in the anti-racist movement of people of colour in 1970s Britain, where different ethnic groups banded together as Black to fight racial discrimination, although this later proved to flatten their differences.
A selection of archival photographs and documents in Black Atlas reveals the racialised infrastructure behind the accumulation of artefacts and the required labour for bringing them to the vitrines, or more often storages, of the newly established ethnographic museums in Europe. While the exhibition features material of prominent Swedish explorers, their figures could be interchanged for numerous other European travellers and collectors, including those from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Czechoslovakia.

Curated by Rado Ištok

All images copyright and courtesy of the artist and The Július Koller Society