I joined this adventure in June 2018, when Roberto Gotti gave me a phone call and said: let’s do an exhibition. Since then, we have been running against the clock, soon reinforced by Iason-Eleftherios Tzouriadis. Our triumvirat then included the different strengths, backgrounds and experiences of a private collector, arms and armour scholars and museum professionals. What was/is more important though, is passion and dedication, and even more importantly, the fact that we are all three martial artists/researchers. Without these sensibilities, the exhibition would not have been the same.
The goal was straightforward since the beginning: displaying Historical European Martial Arts in the context of the cultural program of 2nd European Games Minsk 2019, with a large exhibition, academic conferences and an invitational gala tournament. The way to reach the goal, however, was less evident. I was only involved in the leg of the journey encompassing the exhibition and the conferences. Let me share some personal thoughts and insights about this adventure here. If you are interested in details and pictures about the mounting of the exhibition, you will find them on our website, with our series of blogposts “behind the scenes”.
In certain circles, being pioneers matters. As an historian, I’m happy to say that we are only dwarves on shoulders of giants. And, it is not a question of humility. There have been exhibitions showcasing fight books and weapons before ours. Some of those also aimed at displaying martial arts. The curious reader may find my article reviewing exhibitions between 1968 and 2017. What is special, or extraordinary, about our exhibition is certainly its size and the care put into its displays of martial arts, which integrate objects, weapons, books and video material. Recently, two colleagues and friends also managed to set up exhibitions about HEMA in connection with conferences and demonstrations (see my reviews here and here). Our exhibition is then different not only because the size and the scope, but also because its context (the cultural program of the 2nd European Games) and the big invitational gala tournament in June.
HEMA or EMA?
Some of my readers/followers started to ask why we chose EMA (European Martial Arts) and not HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) in the title of the exhibition and its catalogue. That is an interesting matter for debate and comes from careful thought while writing scientific contributions in the field of Martial Arts studies. Of course, “HEMA” is now a label, it was probably since the start of the idea of having an informal organisation in 2001-3, when the communities of practitioners met three times a year in Dijon (HEMAG), Vienna (Dreynevent) and London, now in Balsall Common (Fightcamp). Then “HEMAC” (Historical European Martial Arts Coalition) was born, as an email list, then a forum, and now a Facebook group. This organisation was never led by any form of executive body and achieved little else than connecting people (its first goal). But its image was/is praised and it was a flag behind which a large majority of the communities rallied. In 2013, when we wrote the statutes of the International Federation for Historical European Martial Arts (I was then the chairman), we had to face relevant questions such as what “European” means? Or more importantly what “Historical” stands for. In other words, when and where are “HEMA”’s limits? Does it include exported martial arts traditions outside of Europe? Does it include martial arts practices from Antiquity or “Viking” times, when there are no fight books available for study? Does it include pre-World Wars martial arts practices, or modern combat sports such as Alpine wrestling or Jogo de Pau for example? I know that a lot of ink and digital ink has been spent on these matters. For our exhibition, we decided to remove the “H” from the title, because (1) it doesn’t stand academic discourses about martial arts’ practices (I mean, how do you critically define “historical”? Also any martial art practice is re-invented even if it claims a connection with the past); (2) because removing it allows the proximity with modern combat sports and traditional martial arts in the context of the European Games. However, we kept the “H” for the invitational gala tournament, since it is a label. So, for those who know me, another example of my (in)famous Swiss compromises.
An exhibition catalogue heavier than any weapon on display
What stays after an exhibition is its catalogue. And, as for the exhibition design, we had to confront our ideas, ideals and skills in its making. Battles were fought, won and lost. The result is outstanding in many ways. The eye of the photographer, the mind of the graphic designer, the beauty of the objects, the printing and binding (Italian book makers are renowned, right?) make this exhibition catalogue a very special book. While first unpacking the result of our endeavours, Iason said: “Heavier than any weapon on display”. I then outlined: “it doesn’t fit in the backpack”. A giant book with a lot more in it than beautiful images: the short texts are full of treasures and scholarly work, and you’ll have access to the video material of the exhibition as well. It doesn’t have all the expected features of a standard exhibition catalogue (footnotes, essays, bibliography), but it offers other things and you will work your way through the 432 pages with the index. We allowed ourselves to walk outside of the standard boxes, because we’re pioneering in many ways. I hope those of you who can afford it, will cherish it as much as I do.
Heartfelt thanks to Roberto Gotti and Iason Eleftherios Tzouriadis for this elevating experience!
The second conference and the tournaments are still to happen. Follow us and come to Minsk, if you have the chance, for the official opening of the Games on the 21st June, but most of all, to see the exhibition, listen to the conference (21) or watch the tournament (22-23).