Decolonial Documents: Part One
Artists, curators and writers discuss the projects that have informed their thinking around decolonizing culture
Artists, curators and writers discuss the projects that have informed their thinking around decolonizing culture
In the first of a six-part series, timed with the specially-themed November-December issue of frieze, we asked five artists, curators and writers, whose work has been involved with the challenges of decolonizing culture, to discuss the projects that have informed their thinking – from exhibitions and publications to more intangible and transient networks, whose effects are often more felt than documented, though no less significant.
Click on the artist’s name to jump to their entry.
Born in Mozambique, Ângela Ferreira grew up in South Africa. She lives and works in Lisbon, Portugal, where she teaches Fine Art at Lisbon University. This year, she has had solo presentations at MAAT, Lisbon, Galeria João Esteves de Oliveira, Lisbon, and Museu Internacional de Escultura Contemporânea, Santo Tirso, Portugal, and her work has been included in group exhibitions at Museu Coleção de Serralves, Porto, Portugal, and Stevenson, Cape Town, South Africa. Her work is on show as part of the 12th Gwangju Biennale, South Korea, until 11 November.
Incisive criticality of the West existed on the streets of colonial cities like Cape Town long before, and despite, the onset of postcolonial discourse. My practice is rooted in this grounded criticality.
The struggle against apartheid was also a struggle of representation: apartheid was clearly based on a Western model, so imagining different African futures often involved distrust of Western tenets. Today, issues of representation and identity have found broader traction because we are not yet living and working in fully inclusive contexts – whether continents and countries, or museums and exhibitions. The contours of the concepts have naturally shifted, but their pertinence has not waned.
My training as an artist at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in the 1980s followed the British art-school model, focusing on specialized knowledge of Western modern and contemporary art. Luckily, I was surrounded by some intelligent youth (mostly white, although the university did admit a small number of black students) who contested the political system and were dissatisfied with the course’s lack of relevance to our deeply unjust society. We wanted to make art that addressed the context and its traumatic history, and which would contribute to the struggle. We fostered friendships with black artists of our own age, who were generous enough to include us in their conversations and activities; joined multiracial community art spaces, like the Community Arts Project (CAP); formed co-operatives, like the Gardens Media Group and the CAP Muralist Group; worked on poster designs for unions and political organizations; and set up a women’s group making collaborative ceramic projects. These were the loose formations that fostered my inclusive education.
Our discussions were intense; sometimes, a shocking socialization. The venues included community halls, funerals and political gatherings. We watched and analyzed the first theoretical postcolonial shifts and questioned exhibitions like ‘Magiciens de la Terre’, which took place at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1989. Seen from a distance, in the context of the cultural boycott of South Africa, we suspected the exhibition constituted a new form of exoticism and neo-colonial museological practice. Questions like ‘who represents whom?’ were hotly debated as we tried not to lose control of our own agency. Despite maintaing a certain respect for his work, we were critical of artists such as Anthony Caro, who broke the boycott to visit UCT in 1980. We rejected art events that we felt were co-opted by the state or by big business, and we studied the practices of Russian constructivists, Mexican muralists and individual artists including Hans Haacke and David Hlongwane. Our drive to forge new futures was captured in the title of one of the exhibitions, ‘About Time: Images of South Africa’ (1987), which was shut down soon after its opening.
Hou Hanru is a critic and curator based between Paris, France, San Francisco, USA, and Rome, Italy, where he is artistic director of MAXXI, National Museum of 21st Century Arts. Over the past two decades, he has curated or co-curated more than 100 exhibitions at institutions and events around the world.
The emergence, since the mid-1980s, of biennials in cities from Havana (1984) to Istanbul (1987) to Gwangju (1995) attests to the huge desire in what we today term the Global South to embed international exhibitions in specific contexts and locations. Today, many of the most innovative biennials are happening outside of the West. The first outstanding example of these initiatives is the Havana Biennale. Founded in 1984, in the midst of the cold war, it was set up by a group of Cuban curators to provide a platform for contemporary artists from what was then known as the Third World. Like many of the biennials that have followed, it aimed for a kind of grassroots connection to the local context. In response to geopolitical realities, such initiatives have often adopted flexible approaches, which have, in turn, influenced the ‘North’, both in terms of discourses and models of curating (Manifesta, Emergency Biennale in Chechnya and documenta 14, for example).
On the one hand, this global proliferation of biennials represents a new geography of innovative institutions; however, many have come to question whether this is, in fact, reducing the diversity of cultural production. At the same time, driven by increasingly potent market forces, art fairs, too, are ‘going global’. Viewed by some as a substitute for biennials, in terms of public influence, this presents a critical challenge. Can we consider the expansion of the art-fair model as a new form of cultural colonialism?
Natasha Ginwala is a curator and writer based in Berlin, Germany, and Colombo, Sri Lanka. She is festival curator of the 2019 edition of COLOMBOSCOPE and associate curator at Gropius Bau, Berlin. Earlier this year, she was a curator of ‘Hello World. Revising a Collection’ at Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin.
When exhibiting works of South Asian modernism in recent years, I have often been reminded of the literary corpus that surrounded artistic production. Many of the artists from the 1940s to the ’70s were writers, playwrights and poets who considered literary output a component of practice that was dialogical, communally oriented and a way of entering into debate as part of post-independence civil society. Some leading examples from the Indian context include the monthly magazine Vrishchik (meaning Scorpion), founded by Gulammohammed Sheikh and Bhupen Khakhar in 1969 in Baroda and edited with contributions from peers such as Jyoti Bhatt, Geeta Kapur, Gieve Patel and Jeram Patel. A recent find for me was the shortlived magazine CONTRA’66 (1966–67), edited from Delhi by the artist and writer J. Swaminathan, who was also the co-founder of Group 1890 and seminal to the formation of the Bharat Bhavan art complex in central India and its collection of folk and indigenous arts. For documenta 14, while researching the pedagogic model of Rabindranath Tagore’s experimental school at Santiniketan, I turned to the news bulletins and quarterlies produced there, Visva Bharati News and Visva Bharati Quarterly, to find Tagore’s poetry and letters, curriculum announcements, visits from international artists, historians and agronomists, as well as rare folios of printed works that became a micro-history of teacher-student relations.
Shanay Jhaveri is assistant curator, Modern and Contemporary Art, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA, and a contributing editor to frieze.
The artist K.G. Subramanyan, who died in 2016, straddled two of India’s defining art institutions of the 20th century. He trained in the 1940s in Santiniketan, at the experimental art school established by Rabindranath Tagore, and subsequently taught at the famous Faculty of Fine Arts at M.S. University in Baroda (first as a lecturer, between 1951 and 1959, and then as the dean from 1968 to 1974). Subramanyan took with him to Baroda a rejection of colonial art practices underscored by Tagore, who advanced a more located and ecologically minded pedagogy, where a communion with nature was crucial. In a series of little-known essays, Subramanyan went on to articulate his own critical proposal for how a cultural negotiation with modernity could be staged by the postcolonial Indian artist. In one of these, titled ‘The Image of Indian Art Tradition’ (1971), he declares:
‘Our art tradition has few parallels in the world for its depth, breadth, antiquity, diversity and unbroken hierarchy [...] It has a spectrum of expression that extends from pure signatory abstraction to involved metaphor […] Its concepts are different, its visual ingredients are different […] A fruitful relationship with this stupendous art panorama will come easily to an artist today, if the range of his terms is equally large.’
Unequivocally, Subramanyan is calling for an integrated approach to art-making, encouraging a necessary engagement with what he would later term India’s ‘living traditions’. Modernist forms are not to be forsaken, but approached from a situated context. His pedagogy had a significant impact on a subsequent generation of artists, including Sheela Gowda, Mrinalini Mukherjee and Nilima Sheikh. For Subramanyan, arriving at the future could only be achieved by returning to the past.
Omar Berrada is a writer, curator and director of the Dar al-Ma’mûn library and residency in Marrakech, Morocco. He currently lives in New York, USA, and is working on the first edition of Ahmed Bouanani’s The Seventh Gate.
Decolonial work is constant time travel. In 1966, ten years after Morocco gained independence, a group of young writers and artists, led by Abdellatif Laâbi, founded the journal Souffles (Breaths). Through essays, manifestos, poems, reviews and translations, Souffles articulated a horizon of postcolonial liberation and tricontinental solidarity. By focusing on art-making and knowledge production, it argued for a ‘cultural decolonization’ without which political independence would remain moot. Souffles was banned in 1972 by the authorities of King Hassan II and subsequently erased from cultural memory.
Ahmed Bouanani’s name recurs through early issues of the journal. Among his contributions were two landmark essays on popular arts and oral poetry. A film editor by training, Bouanani advocated a cultural renewal premised on reassembling the remaining scraps of a dismembered tradition. In the 1980s, he wrote a history of Moroccan film, The Seventh Gate, which was less a record of national achievements than an attempt to ‘decolonize the screen’. For him, this endeavour was not a choice but a necessary step for a generation of filmmakers to build images in which they could recognize themselves. It acknowledged the difficulty of redirecting the gaze and exiting the long colonial night. For 30 years, the manuscript, like much of Bouanani’s work, remained unpublished: another symbol of our held-up modernity. But things are changing. Souffles was recently re-issued in full by a Moroccan publisher. English translations of two of Bouanani’s literary works, The Hospital (1989) and The Shutters (1980), were recently released. His films, including The Mirage (1979) and Mémoire 14 (Memory 14, 1971), are being screened again. To decolonize is to believe in the future.
Main image: Text overlaid over Teresa Burga, Compsición (Composition), undated, collage, 20x 28 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Barbara Thumm, Berlin
Published in frieze, issue 199, November/December 2018, with the title ‘Decolonial Documents: A Partial History’.