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Headhunters’ Paradise / Project Description

Dealing with an Unusual Heritage

by Roland Platz and Andrea Rostásy

Over a century ago the Nagas attained great notoriety as headhunters and were stylized by the West into wild warriors. A head captured as trophy was proof of having been a successful warrior and was celebrated with a festive ritual. As late as the 1990s there were still isolated cases of headhunting being documented. Today the Nagas are a multifaceted and in part modern urban people who live mainly in the Indian state of Nagaland. But traces of the former warrior society are still visible to this day. Headhunting is not a taboo topic and among many Nagas there is still a residual pride when they talk about their past as fearsome warriors. Every year in the capital city of Kohima, they celebrate the Hornbill Festival, the largest cultural festival of the Nagas, in which memories of old traditions are recalled.

The Ethnologisches Museum is home to around 1500 Naga artifacts of excellent quality, dating back quite far; rarely are comparable artifacts to be found in Northern India. Especially Naga anthropologists value this legacy of their people, preserved in the museums. In future, looking at methods as to how the collections can be opened up for interested Nagas, and finding a basis for cooperation, are key. Within the framework of the module about ethnic minorities from South East Asia the Nagas will also be topic at the Humboldt-Forum.

How can this unusual heritage be presented in the museum? The project “Headhunters’ Paradise”1 examines how the cultural phenomenon of headhunting can be curated and communicated without falling into the exoticism trap, without trivialization and without a narrowing of perspective. The central approach in the preliminary planning was to ensure that present day Nagas would have their say and be able to express their own perceptions within the exhibition. How do they talk about their past as fearsome headhunters? What significance does that have for them today? And why were the skull trophies so important to their forebears?

The aim was to create an approach that allowed for different voices and witnesses of the Nagas to be presented along side one another, widening the range of perspectives. Could the visitors access the phenomenon of headhunting in a more differentiated, less prejudiced or exoticized way through the communicated knowledge and the views presented by the Nagas themselves?

A Differentiated Approach in Material Production and Arrangement

The curator Roland Platz visited Nagaland as part of the project, and carried out numerous audio and video interviews. Farmers were represented alongside scientists, teachers and pastors. It was clear from the start that the material created should be used in the exhibition in combination with the museum’s existing historic and contemporary documentary materials. Roland Platz received invaluable professional advice from Vibha Joshi Parkin, anthropologist and seasoned Naga researcher, from Oxford University, currently a guest lecturer for social anthropology at the Universität Tübingen, who also furnished him with numerous contacts in Nagaland, amongst them to the Kohima Institute. In Nagaland itself Platz was accompanied by Pangernungba Kechu, associate professor at the Institute for Oriental Theology in Dimapur, Nagaland, who also interpreted during most of the interviews. The photographer Edward Moon-Little documented many of the encounters and meetings.

The agency Luxoom Medienprojekte was selected from a number of agencies to create a spatial walk-in installation based on the material created during the trip as well as on the preexisting material and selected artifacts. To this end they developed a content structure in which films, photographs, audio recordings, texts and artifacts represented different contemporary as well as historical perspectives on headhunting.

Complexity in Space

Those who had passed through the designated entrance space found themselves in a room that was not immediately decipherable. From an intersecting horizontally strung wire and hemp rope system three meters from the ground, the entirety of photos, text panels, screens and headphones as well as mirrors were hung from red threads. In this way a kind of collage in space was created with many crisscrossing lines – the ropes, as well as the insights and vistas, created with the layered material. The complex hanging system invited the visitors to move and create their own perspectives in which the images and quotes interconnected with the mirroring of oneself and the objects in the display cabinets. Depending on the visitor’s positioning, the materials create different constellations, overlaps and insights.

At its center a large projection caught the eye, showing a five-minute interview with an old Naga headhunter and his wife. They spoke as eyewitnesses and their narrative was audible throughout the whole space. To the left and right of the screen daos (swords) and panji baskets (warrior baskets) shone in the vitrines – objects used for headhunting. The path led the visitor on a circular tour around the display cabinets, past two audio stations, where short excerpts of interviews with a teacher at a Christian school and a youth pastor could be heard. At the front of the room a complex arrangement of numerous layered photographs were hung from the rope system, showing historical and contemporary images from Nagaland. In the mirrors integrated into the arrangement, visitors repeatedly caught glimpses of themselves surrounded by the other material. White and red lights set accents on the taut ropes and photographs in the room, whose otherwise only source of light was from the films and display lighting. On the farthest layer of the arrangement a second large projection of historical quotes could be seen, in combination with excerpts of the current interviews as text, thereby opening a further point of access. Having left the arrangement of photos behind, the visitor came across a small screen with passages from several video interviews as well as a video of the Hornbill Festival. Due to the brevity of the material, cut into a loop, the film sequences could almost be viewed in passing. The path along the longer side of the room finally led to a third projection, shots of a celebration, with elements of headhunting dances, from 1936/37. There the path ended, or rather, the circle returned to the beginning – rounded off by an information panel on the collection history of the Naga objects in the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin – and discharged the visitors toward the entrance back to the spacious rooms of the museum.

Experiencing Perspectives in Movement

Thanks to the light and temporary feel of the hanging and the designated movement of the visitors through the room the installation allowed a perception of a simultaneity of voices that did not judge and permitted space for thought. In this way an openness of perspectives was facilitated, placing the dramaturgically intentional central narrative of the old headhunter and his wife into a relationship with the entire material arrangements and not least to the contemporary voices of the Nagas. This approach, anchored in the concept, was precisely visualized in advance and served as the basis for the ambitious implementation.

Upon invitation of the Humboldt Lab and Roland Platz, Zubeni Lotha, a photographer, artist and researcher, Pangernungba Kechu and Vibha Joshi Parkin as well as Edward Moon-Little were invited to visit the exhibition “Headhunters’ Paradise” in September 2015 and also to view the Naga collection in the depot of the Ethnologisches Museum. To integrate the views and the reflections of present day members of the source culture is an important step in the further development of the project for the Humboldt-Forum.

Already during the setup of the installation it became clear that it would be worthwhile to take the potential created here for a permanent exhibition. The hanging principle could for example be further developed so that the materials would be easy to rearrange in a flexible manner. In this way a communication would be facilitated allowing for thematic placement and involving the visitors. Also the intentional lack of hierarchy in terms of image, audio and text material, offering content on several layers of access, could be further developed under the specifications of “design for all” (topic of inclusion and accessibility). For the development of the presentation of the topic “Headhunting among the Naga” in the Humboldt-Forum, the project in its current form can certainly serve as inspiration, in terms of content as well as design, perhaps even serving as a starting point.

1 With the exhibition title a term coined from a Christian perspective is picked up on: A memorial stone in the village of Molung Kimong is a reminder of Christian missionaries who opened “The First Gospel Gate into the Headhunter’s Paradise.” in the 1870s.

Dr. Roland Platz has been working as curator for South and Southeast Asia at the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin since 2009. He studied ethnology and sociology in Freiburg, and carried out extensive fieldwork in Northern Thailand. Many years of freelance work as a university lecturer, coach and journalist followed. His special focus is on the minorities of Southeast Asia and questions of identity.

Andrea Rostásy is a visual artist and media curator. Since 1995 she has been working in concept development and realization of spatial media installations for commercial projects and exhibitions worldwide. Since 2013 she has been contributing to projects for the Humboldt Lab Dahlem, for example, in the project management for “Travelogue” and “Enchantment / Beauty Parlour.”

You can find further reading on this project here.