Why decolonial cities matter?

Curated by Eva Maria Bertschy, Lorenzo Marsili, Niccolo Milanese and Patrizia Pozzo

In recent years, often with an impetus coming from the cultural sector, discussions on how to deal with colonial heritage have gained momentum. In almost all European cities, broad movements have emerged demanding the decolonisation of urban space and museums. At the national level, European governments began to address national colonial history, for instance with the groundbreaking Sarr-Savoy report and a series of physical restitutions of cultural artifacts. High-Level discussions of the relations between the EU and Africa in a context of geopolitical risk and change have accelerated and are opening up questions of the equality of these relations, and the inescapable weight of the colonial past on the present. In parallel, municipal administrations began to respond with various initiatives to the growing historical awareness of the urban population, which is due to the long-standing and persistent work of civil society organisations and cultural institutions as well as the growing presence of migrant and second-generation communities. We believe that city to city relationships are crucially important to transform the social relations of people. We see cities as places of democratic invention and where citizens work together to find solutions to common problems: this invention and solidarity should extend across borders. With this Charter, we propose an innovative strategy for municipalities to tackle the theme of Europe’s colonial heritage and the valorisation of the multiple communities that, partly as a result of it, make up our cities.

In recent years the way cultural artefacts were brought to Europe during the colonial periods and the knowledge that has been produced around them is being reassessed: the consequences of ethnographic expeditions, violent looting and the purchase of heritage continue to underly the disparities in access to culture, education and self-understanding of people across Europe and Africa, with consequences for everyone. Ethnographic, anthropological and cultural research was marked by a lack of understanding and knowledge, their division between primitive and civilised cultures were part of the colonial system of oppression and they contributed to the denial and minimisation of colonial violence as well as the appropriation of knowledge from colonized subjects. The public space is itself a space of memory, and museums are part of this space. To this day, streets in Europe cities are named after those responsible for colonial exploitation, and monuments commemorate their achievements. For people from migrant communities, these monuments and street names, ethnographic museums with discriminatory narratives and objects acquired under violent conditions, are a continuation of violent relations. For a reassessment of a shared history, the experiences of migrant communities in the cities and the voices from the former colonies must be brought into focus, and the professional careers and competences of people from migration backgrounds working in institutions of memory and culture must be prioritiesed. In order to accelerate the transformation of public space and museums, artistic interventions and academic research need to be promoted, consulting and training for the museums implemented, schools provided with updated pedagogical material. In a joint process, places of remembrance must be created in the city to replace the monuments of colonial history.

In most European cities, there are broad civil society movements claiming the decolonisation of urban space. Many civil society and migrant organisations have been working for several years to address the colonial history of their cities and the countless colonial entanglements with the former colonies and for some of them their countries of origin. They also focus on the consequences of colonial history, today experiences of discrimination, current economic imbalances and neo-colonial economic practices. They are mainly active in the fields of schools and education, the arts, science and politics, but their most valuable work often receives insufficient attention and funding, and insufficient integration and prioritisation in mobility programs such as Erasmus. In order to promote the decolonisation of cities, the work of these civil society organisations must be fostered, the coordination of the different initiatives supported, the dialogue with the municipal authorities structured, and funding prioritized for this transversal topic.

The colonial system was based on negating the knowledge and culture of the colonised societies. To this day, the voices from the former colonies receive too little attention when it comes to narrating a common history. There is not a ‘level telling field’ for narratives to be told across colonial divides. Current forms of cooperation are marked by inequalities of both an economic and symbolic nature. For the wellbeing of our socieities, we must avoid that in projects with the good intentions of addressing historical injustice we reproduce systemic inequalities, dependencies and trauma. It is not uncommon for academics and NGO workers to travel to the South as experts while lacking an understanding of the realities on the ground. In order to understand a shared transnational history and the current relations between European and African cities, the knowledge and epistemologies of the people in the former colonies and especially of the peoples oppressed by the colonial system need to be listened to with open ears and humility in Europe. New forms of transnational cooperation need to be designed with the aim of levelling economic and symbolic inequalities. For this, cities need to promote transnational cooperation with African partner cities on academic, cultural and civil society levels. The various migrant communities in European cities should be play a central mediating and translation role in this, and the engagement of civil society is all the more important to hold official processes between cities and between states accountable and ensure they are serving transformative change.

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