Spill Writing

Terra Nullius (Shabnam Shabazi)

I could hear the sound of a party before I entered the museum gallery. Two men, wearing Red T-Shirts with the words Terra Nullius printed on them were playing the steel drums, which, along with the after-hours context of the museum, gave an enlivening affect that traveled through the museum galleries, interrupting how I would normally be invited to navigate the linear chronology and choreography of it’s space.


It became clear that there were more Terra Nullius ‘late night museum workers’, or perhaps guerilla artists, reclaiming the space, a band of them facilitating my access to pop-up art works, spinning poetry and transversing across the divided frames of official histories between gallery spaces. The music infused new life into the taxidermied animals igniting a sense of animism. I felt the potentiality of crossing narratives as spoken word poetry made me linger between gallery walls, before I encountered the histories of old remains displayed in boxes. I noticed a collection of glass cases laid on a table filled with items not usually displayed in a museum.


Someone’s Dildos, displayed with care on colored thongs doubling as a cushion base. Boxes with scores of keys, hundreds of matches, cigarette butts, and a make up collection. Each box imbued with a sense of being lovingly placed and chosen, someone’s lived belongings. Looking at the keys, of different shapes and sizes, I am reminded of my own collection of keys, (all the keys I had ever owned to different times and places). These forgotten and used items, gaining a new reverence and a place of history amongst the valued items in glass cases picked and chosen for the archive.

As I turn a corner, I see two people in lab coats and blue gloves, performing the task of photographing and labeling an object, adding it to their official records and placing it within a narrative of history. I come across an installation that interrupts one of these narratives.  A plaster cast of a woman with an open mouth and her arms held out in front of her, seeming to call out. A woman’s voice sings a gentle lament, and family photos, writings, poetry and thoughts are projected, distorting against the plaster sculpture.  This is juxtaposed against a museum display of African artifacts with writing on the wall, often seen in museums, explaining their context and history.


These two differing propositions, one an intimate, personal archive and the other an official history, made me look again. I am confronted with the violence of writing history, the objects displayed denying their history of colonization- what are these objects lives and histories and how did they end up here in the museum?