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Leuven anthropologist curates 'Home Call' exhibition at the MAS

The recently opened Museum aan de Stroom – MAS (Museum at the Waterside) in Antwerp actually houses several museum collections. One such collection is that of the ethnographic museum, and Leuven anthropologist Ann Cassiman (pictured left) was invited to curate the exhibition Home Call as part of the opening celebrations and exhibits. The exhibition is a comprehensive experience with beautiful photos and films that introduce us to the cycle of life and death of the Kasena, the population of northern Ghana.

The recently opened Museum aan de Stroom – MAS (Museum at the Waterside) in Antwerp actually houses several museum collections. One such collection is that of the ethnographic museum, and Leuven anthropologist Ann Cassiman (pictured left) was invited to curate the exhibition Home Call as part of the opening celebrations and exhibits. The exhibition is a comprehensive experience with beautiful photos and films that introduce us to the cycle of life and death of the Kasena, the population of northern Ghana.

 Professor Ann Cassiman (Institute for Anthropology in Africa): “I had been looking for a way to present my anthropological research among the population of northern Ghana to a broader audience for some time. Over the course of my doctorate, I collected an enormous quantity of photographic and video material there, and afterwards I went back to visit the Kasena once or twice a year, occasionally accompanied by my husband, who is a photographer. Last year I used the material to organise an exhibition in Berg-en-Dal in the Netherlands. Home Call at the MAS grew from there.”

 
In the first instance, the MAS is an Antwerp-oriented museum. How come it is also hosting an exhibition about Ghana? Cassiman: “The Ghanaian community in Antwerp is surprisingly large, comprising about one thousand people. It is the city’s second biggest African population after the Moroccan community. For Home Call, I have juxtaposed family homes in Ghana with the lives of Ghanaians in Antwerp. I asked Ghanaians in Antwerp what ‘home’ means to them. The most common response was that it is their family home in Ghana.”
Called home
homecallmat.jpgThe exhibition is constructed based on the fine metaphor of the ‘home call’. Ann Cassiman: “That is what people call someone’s death in Ghana. When somebody dies, the Kasena say that he or she has ‘gone home’, to the world of their ancestors, the ‘final home’ to which they have been called back. In the past, children were sent around to announce the death, but nowadays they post the announcement on posters. Such posters with the ‘home call’ are not only circulated in Ghana, you can also find them in Antwerp. The funeral is the most important ritual in Ghana, and a lot of time and money are invested in it. When they have the chance, emigrated family members return to the family home to say goodbye to the deceased loved one.”
 
“We designed the exhibition as a ‘songo’, a large Kasena house. Between forty and eighty close relatives live together in such songos: a husband with his wives, his brothers, sons and their wives. The family home, made of earth, is a succession of small rooms connected to a courtyard, the corral. When you enter a songo via the only entrance, a small door called the ‘mouth’, you do not see anything, but you hear noises from all sides – the sound of women talking and working.”
 
The dead on roofs
homecall.jpgIn ‘Home Call’, the life of the Kasena is evoked by the meticulous scenography of Peter Missotten. You enter the exhibition through the ‘mouth’, which emphasises the social cohesion of the home. There is a small table with portraits at the entrance: the family shrine, and a reference to the old men who guard the house at the entrance. Six video screens are turned away from the visitor – you only hear the songs the women sing while decorating and plastering the walls and roofs. In fact, the women do most of the renovation and housework, while the men work outside the house.
 
Large light boxes float above the heads of the visitors featuring photos of sleeping Kasena. Ann Cassiman: “The Kasena sleep on the roofs of their houses, rolled in traditional mats made of woven grass. They also believe that the deceased members of their family continue to live above the roofs of their houses. For example, the Kasena do not clean away leftover food after a meal, they leave it for the deceased. The sleeping mats are the symbol of the deceased; they contain their dirt because the deceased lie in wake in them. In fact, the association between the traditional mats and death is so great that young people no longer dare to sleep on them – they sleep on synthetic mats.”
 
At the end of the exhibition, there is an interactive carrousel that shows the life cycle of the Kasena. Cassiman: “The carrousel refers to the twin room, which is the double room that forms the pelvis – or the womb – of the house. It is the furthest, most intimate room in the house. The wife keeps her polished pots there, but she also gives birth in the room and it where the dead lie in wake before the funeral. Life and death come together there – it comprises the whole lifecycle of the Kasena.”
 
Made in China
Ann Cassiman also wanted to present the influence of migration on the culture of the Kasena in ‘Home call’. “Nowadays, many young men and women migrate to cities, where they come into contact with the Western world. And yet, they still build their own rooms onto the family home, to stay connected to the household. These buildings are far more modern, and built of concrete and corrugated iron. But they do not differ from local architecture. These new elements are integrated into the old architecture very dynamically.”
 
“The double rooms are maintained, for example, the women stack their pots in the traditional manner, even though these pots are still often made in China. Things are not just copied rashly. Globalisation is not necessarily inundation, it does not always have negative consequences for local culture, as the cliché too often has it.”
 
The exhibition ‘Home Call’ runs until April 2013 at the MAS, and is open from Tuesday until Sunday at the MAS, Hanzestedenplaats, Antwerp