Forging Identity: The Naga Exhibition at the Humboldt Forum

20.06.2019Forging Identity: The Naga Exhibition at the Humboldt Forum

Zubeni Lotha is one of the Naga, an ethnic group of more than 4 million people who live in north-east India. Along with other Nagas, Lotha is designing a concept for presenting the Berlin Naga collection in the Humboldt Forum.

Friederike Schmidt conducted the interview.

Zubeni Lotha is designing a concept for presenting the Berlin Naga collection in the Humboldt Forum
Zubeni Lotha is designing a concept for presenting the Berlin Naga collection in the Humboldt Forum © Christoph Mack

When did you first come in touch with the collection from the Ethnologisches Museum and what is your personal connection to the collection?

Zubeni Lotha: In 2014 Roland Platz, the curator for South and Southeast Asia at the Ethnologisches Museum, came to Nagaland for the Hornbill festival, during which an anthropological lecture, the “Hutton lectures,” took place. I presented my photo works during the Hudson lectures. He liked my photographs and we talked about the museum in general. 2015 he invited me over to Berlin to have a look at another exhibition that he was curating at the Dahlem Museum. That was the first time I came in touch with the collection and the museum. I don’t have a personal connection to the collection like an anthropologist would have, since I am a photographer. I came on board because Roland Platz and the team wanted to have someone from the source community and wanted also to involve a different perspective and not the perspective of an anthropologist.

Did you know about the collection before you came in touch with Roland Platz?

No. We have very limited knowledge of all the Naga collections around the world. In fact: The collection in Berlin was quite a surprise to me. I knew about the collections in Oxford, Cambridge and Zurich, but not about Berlin.

You have been part of the concept development of the presentation in the Humboldt Forum. How has the collaboration looked like so far?

I was on board with the team from the beginning, when the initial stages of the concept development took place. Working together was very interesting, because we all come from very different cultural backgrounds. Although I always try to say that you should not carry your cultural prejudices and your bias or your values, you still do, because apparently you are socialized by your environment to a great extent. It was very interesting to work out the concept with that kind of different cultural background and different opinions. It was also very challenging because I come from the “lived experience”. I tried to get my view across as somebody from the Naga community, trying to express my views, my opinions about the collection to the trained anthropologist and curators, who have been looking and working with these objects for many years. That was challenging but it was also very rewarding because I think we all learned a lot from each other and I still am learning a lot.

What different perspective can you bring into the presentation in the Humboldt Forum?

I am not trying to be offensive when I say that my views and my perspective will be very different from trained anthropologists, because they are trained to look at things and especially material culture in a very different way. I think I am forcing them to look and to think of the objects out of the box and not within the framework of how an anthropologist would think. So I think this part is my contribution to the team.

Zubeni Lotha at the storage spaces of the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin-Dahlem
Zubeni Lotha at the storage spaces of the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin-Dahlem © Christoph Mack

How is the concept of identity relevant in today’s Naga culture?

Initially, when we started, we looked at many things: culture, tradition, materials, the objects itself. But for me, being a Naga, identity became an important topic. Because the Naga identity is still being forged. We are today still trying to create Naga identity. So I think, when we talk about identity, when we mention identity, when we touch on identity, or when we look at identity as a team, it becomes very relevant, because these are the questions that a lot of the present day Naga people are actually asking. They are trying to define themselves; they are trying to find their identity. We therefore focus on the question of how the Naga identity is being forged. Are they looking at their past to do that? Are they looking at their tradition to do that? Is it religion that is defining it or is it politics? We will try to look at these questions in the exhibition.

What do you hope the visitors of the exhibition in the Humboldt Forum experience?

I would want the visitors to experience the world of the Nagas, a very diverse culture, which is completely different from their culture by coming to the museum, looking at these objects, the collection. I want them to get an idea of what the Nagas are because we live in a very diverse multicultural world today and it is always good to engage with other cultures so that you get a broader perspective of the world and you do not think that the world that you live in is it. There are different opinions, there are different values, and there are different cultures. If we try to understand and engage with those different cultures and different opinions, I think there is a way of improving the communicating with each other.

However, I would also like them to start asking questions about the colonial past, because we are a group of people that has been colonized. I would really like people to think about what colonization did to smaller communities.

Do you think that the presentation of the collection in the Humboldt Forum can give something back to the Naga people?

Absolutely! The biggest benefit would be if the Nagas became aware of this collection and they wanted to have access to the collection. The Nagas have lost a lot of knowledge of their past or most of their past is sitting in museums like Berlin or in the UK or in different parts of the world. It will be very beneficial for the Naga people to actually be able to access this. I do not know how this will come about, but I hope that one day it will be possible. I also hope that they will be looking at the past but also connecting it to the present much more than I can do now.

More Articles of this Dossier