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Enchantment / Beauty Parlour / Project Description

Narrative Spaces in Museum Pedagogy

by Paola Ivanov und Andrea Rostásy

The aesthetics of the Muslim coastal societies of East Africa (“Swahili”) combine all senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste, kinesthetic sense – while also addressing the spirit. These aesthetics are particularly apparent in the female sphere of Swahili culture, in which the internal and external, spiritual and physical beauty and purity are realized in the production and presentation of the bride’s aesthetic perfection.

As a prototype for a section of the future Africa exhibition area in the Humboldt-Forum, the project “Enchantment / Beauty Parlour” focused on how aesthetic principles and practices – in the context of which the artifacts of the East African Swahili Coast were and are embedded – can be made more perceptible for museum visitors. How, in this process, can one critically reflect on the theoretical fundaments of representation of non-European worlds of experience in European ethnological museums and on the associated problems with such a translation? And: Is it possible to experience, through the immersion in scent, music, color, shine, haptics and movement, this enchantment as it is described in Mombasa, Lamu and Zanzibar as an effect of beauty?

The concept and goal of “Enchantment / Beauty Parlour” was to create a situation of reception that appealed synesthetically to all the senses and facilitate an unmediated visitor experience. The director and scenographer Dominic Huber, who was in charge of the project’s conception and realization, transferred a familiar theatrical concept, so-called “narrative spaces,” to the museum. He developed an experimental installation, which would immerse the visitors in a subjective narrative, and his team constructed a hyper-realistic, fully-equipped beauty parlor, which resembled something between a private ambiance and a beauty salon on the street. Advised and assisted by Paola Ivanov, curator of the Africa collection at the Ethnologisches Museum and project organizer, and by Jasmin Mahazi, a specialist in Swahili culture and literature, fabrics, materials, utensils, colors and scents, songs and poems were selected. Dominic Huber developed the narrative – initially in written interviews – together with beautician Maimuna Abdalla Said Difini, who is from the Swahili coast. These interviews formed the basis for film recordings made directly in the beauty parlor in the museum during a second production phase. Via a sensor, the film, lights, sound and scent were set in a sequence of events triggered by the visitors.

Enchantment on Demand

“Enchantment / Beauty Parlour” was a free-standing installation, which, with its clearly recognizable exterior wooden construction and transparent covering, rendered it both sculptural and set-like. Singing, street noise, birdsong and the sound of ocean waves could be heard issuing from within. Walking around the structure, you could discover a concealed entrance, with the words “Beauty Salon” written on the door. A lamp signaled if the room was vacant or occupied. An icon indicated that taking pictures was prohibited. Anyone – which is unusual in a museum – who wished to individually engage in a seven-minute exploration of the work, separated the curtain in the doorway and stepped into a waiting room, which was furnished with a stool, pictures, a mirror and a wooden sign with the Swahili greeting “karibu” (welcome). On a small shelf there was a radio, from which a woman’s voice greeted the visitor, whom she instructed to select a language via a switch on the wall and to enter the salon, which looked to be in business, but just happened to be empty. Maimuna’s voice then commanded the visitor to sit down in the styling chair. In the meantime, a look around revealed a paper rosette made of bills, a pack of gold masks and flower adornments. The room suddenly came to life. The light changed and became colorful, scenes of a Swahili wedding appeared on the TV, a fan began turning, a woman sang an old song and the smell of perfume filled the air. On the large, semi-transparent mirror screen above the styling tables a projection of Maimuna appeared. Next to her emerged the silhouette of a woman, who seemed to be sitting in the same salon chair as the guest, and whose image seemed to melt into the visitor’s own mirror image. The beautification process began.

With Maimuna and the stories she told during the treatment, the guest was able to immerse him or herself in an environment that is unfamiliar to most: the beauty practices and wedding rituals of the Swahili coast of East Africa. Maimuna told of her childhood, of her decision to become a beautician and of the meaning of a song that could be heard playing in the room. After just seven minutes, the enchantment – Maimuna’s gift to the foreign guests – was over. With her final words echoing in one’s head, “May you succeed in everything and take care of your marriage,” the visitor left the room through another door and found him/herself in a kind of vestibule between the salon’s wooden exterior wall and the transparent covering. In six display cases inserted into the wooden structure, objects were presented as in a dresser or a drawer. They needed no auratization, because they were displayed in their context of use, and thus conveyed their cultural context as well. Some objects for beautification, such as ankle bracelets and sandals made of silver or combs made of ebony, came from the collection, while other things, such as kanga wraps or lush rhinestone jewelry, had been recently acquired in Lamu or Mombasa. At the end of the curved corridor, the visitor re-entered the normal museum space and looked out onto the terrace in the garden outside.

Non-stop Participation and Interpretation

“Enchantment / Beauty Parlour” demonstrated that the “narrative spaces” format has great potential for the mediation of cultural practices. The salon was a sculpture, set and seduction; it irritated and it addressed all the senses. Those who dared enter allowed themselves to be engaged for seven minutes. That this time period could be condensed into an intense experience was thanks not only to the richly detailed salon fittings and the virtual appearance of Maimuna, but also because the visitor was directly addressed as a guest and as Maimuna’s customer for beautification. These media-driven interactions, which included scent, light and sound, enchanted many visitors.

The intensity and reflexivity of the exclusive, individual visits were based on the fact that visitors were offered a deliberately subjective presentation and experience rather than a museum-typical (pseudo) objectivity. Whether the intimate dimension of beautification or its spiritual significance was well received by all guests cannot be answered. It was apparent from the audience’s reaction, however, that the presentation did not clearly enough relay the fact that the herein privileged insight into the culture of Swahili was a valuable “gift of beauty.” In museums – in contrast to more theatrically oriented narrative spaces – actors are not present to interact with the visitors and direct the staged experience along clear lines. In this context, during the development of the project it was discussed whether the inside of the beauty parlor should only be accessible to women, as is usual on the Swahili coast. Ultimately the decision was made to conform to the museum context and make the installation accessible to all visitors.
With its move into Humboldt-Forum and, thus, its permanent presentation, “Beauty Parlour” will have to reconsider these aspects, as well as the demands of accessibility for a greater number of visitors, which conflicts with the one-person mode of presentation. However, it certainly already represents an enrichment and expansion of exhibition practice.

Dr. Paola Ivanov has been the curator of the Africa collection in the Ethnologisches Museum since 2012. Andrea Rostásy is a visual artist and media curator.

You can find further reading on this project here.