In the third of a 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.
Devika Singh is an art historian and curator based in Paris, France. She recently curated ‘Planetary Planning’ at the Dhaka Art Summit, Bangladesh (2018), and co-curated ‘Gedney in India’ (CSMVS, Mumbai, India, 2017 and Duke University, Durham, USA, 2018). Her book on art in India in a global context will be published by Reaktion Books.
Christian Kravagna’s recently published Transmoderne: Eine Kunstgeschichte des Kontakts (Transmodern: An Art History of Contact, b_books, 2017) is an incisive contribution to the decentering of art history.
While we are witnessing the much-needed recognition of extra-European modernisms (be they, for example, South Asian or Latin American), one of the most pressing issues today, for both museums and the academy, is how to articulate different histories of art within a narrative that is truly connected and multi-centred. The book focuses on productive moments of transcultural contact, understood not only as geographically diverse forms of modernism, but as the way art has engaged with different political positions. Kravagna favours a history of contact – articulated around the in-depth analysis of case studies pertaining to African American art and, in one instance, Indian modernism – over an overarching ‘global’ approach. The publication tracks a complex history of linkages between race and culture in the 20th century. It aims to rethink these categories and their connections from the perspective of artists and pioneering thinkers of transmodernism who have long been marginalized in dominant Euro-American discourses. It does so by giving voice to a constellation of historical agents that brought art into dialogue with anti-colonialism, pan-Africanism and the American civil rights movement. The book opens new ways of re-envisioning existing histories of European and North American art and provides a much-needed corrective to studies that foreground an overly presentist approach to the global.
Kapwani Kiwanga is an artist based in Paris, France. In 2018, she exhibited at Esker Foundation, Calgary, Canada, ArtPace, San Antonio, USA, and as part of Glasgow International, UK. Her work will be included in forthcoming exhibitions at Whitechapel Gallery, London, UK, Albertinum Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Desden, Germany, and a solo show at MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, USA, opens in February 2019.
In the work of Jeneen Frei Njootli legibility is thwarted. The artist’s varied practice incorporates performance, installation and sound, often produced, with the help of contact microphones, using varied materials such as caribou antler and steel. On occasion; Frei Njootli’s voice, sometimes speaking or singing in Gwich’in, escapes readability as it travels through matter – in low-frequency layers amplified through bodies, materials, space and delayed time. In Frei Njootli’s work nothing is given, yet it is generous, at times intimate, for those willing to do the work of pulling knowledge through their own bodies.
Frei Njootli’s affirms a presence while evading possession. The artist offers dust, and imprints in lieu of objects in a branch of work that could be described as residual imagery. An object, a body, an action, is not held in an exhibition space, yet it is present in the form of a placeholder that allows it to exist sovereignly elsewhere.
Presence through absence; existence through refusal: the artist undermines the comfortable triangulation of seeing<>understanding<>possessing by asserting an autonomous zone in colonized territory.
Naima J. Keith
Naima J. Keith is the Deputy Director and Chief Curator at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, USA. She is also the co-Artistic Director, with Diana Nawi, of Prospect New Orleans, USA, opening fall 2020.
When ‘Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power’ opened Tate Modern in 2017, I knew it would be a gamechanger. Including works by more than sixty African American artists spanning 1963 to the early 1980s, the ambitious exhibition gives important historical and critical perspective on a broad spectrum of revolutionary – and often overlooked – black artistic practice of the last fifty years. Curated by Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley, the show is organized by artistic approaches and affinities, creating links across geographical regions and decades. ‘Soul of a Nation’ not only gives crucial context to artists such as Sam Gilliam and Barkley L. Hendricks (who only late in life have received the attention their work merits), but also introduces lesser known names who likewise worked toward social change through their art. Other surprises include Frank Bowling, born in Guyana and generally viewed within the field of postcolonial British art: Bowling lived in New York from 1966 into the 1970s, where he was a contributing editor to Arts magazine and was mentored by the influential art critic Clement Greenberg, making him a pivotal figure in understanding the full narrative of gestural and colour field painting. ‘Soul of a Nation’ aims at nothing less than transforming the canon of postwar American art as we know it – and, in the process, exposing its inherent racial biases. Long overdue, its effects will be far-reaching as it thankfully travels to several institutions across the US at a moment when amplifying the voices and political inroads of black creators could not be more necessary.
Raqs Media Collective
Raqs Media Collective (founded 1992) are artists based in Delhi, India. In 2018, they have had solo exhibitions at K21 Kunstsammlung, Düsseldorf, Germany and Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, UK. Not Yet At Ease, commissioned by 14–18 Now, is on show at FirstSite, Colchester, UK, until 20 January 2019. ‘In the Open or in Stealth: The Unruly Presence of an Intimate Future’ runs at MACBA, Barcelona, Spain, until on 17th March 2019.
One of the ways in which the colonial legacy deprives people everywhere (not just in ex-colonies) is through a conscious and unconscious limitation on the kind of ‘sources’ that can be accessed in the course of a contemporary practice or conversation. Our intellectual formations and day-to-day exchanges make it possible to ‘naturalize’ a default universalization of Euro-American ‘sources’. ‘Sources’ from other histories and locations remain consigned to particularity. A counter-move would require the dismantling of the vocabulary of eminence and marginality, of metropolis and periphery, and the launching of a poly-axial play of sources.
In the Open or in Stealth’, the exhibition that we are curating at MACBA, Barcelona, works with a constellation of sources. They range from an erotic print from Japan where the embrace of an octopus is also the blurring of the human boundary, to a juggler’s ability to keep things fluid in India, to the laws of courtly love in early medieval Europe, the suicidal tendencies in robots, a mathematical equation for forms of anacoustic reasons and a notion of infinity in the performance of a raga, in Hindustani classical music.
These sources bring different trajectories to and from the present moment – to unearth tendencies, to anticipate futures, to resurrect what may be haunting us, even unconsciously. They locate an archipelago of conditions, where no singular history, cultural matrix or even value system is central. This – we argue – displaces what colonizes us all.
Zoe Butt is a curator and writer, currently the Artistic Director of The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; and contributing curator, Sharjah Biennial 14, 2019.
There is a boy who stands often on the corner. Always with the same blue shirt, and vacant gaze. It matches the absent look on the lady who sits on her plastic chair at the bottom of my stairwell. His feet are cracked, nails black. Her floral pantaloons are tired. Both their bodies hang like garments on clothes racks. Like the paintings that hang as if a moulding blemish on the city’s museum walls. The shell of life is more telling than the substance here. The dominant architecture, the peeling colonial facades, the irony of neon, impressionable with its kitsch and decay. The reason for existence here is overlooked by the need to appear. ‘Oh, but you must be wary of the art that is imitative of a Western style.’ But did you not bring your Western institutions here? Did you not alter our schools, our traditions and replace them with your forms of thinking? Did you not tell me that my own was backward and that I should adapt to yours? So why do you now tell me that my style is not worthy? Why can you not feel how I have turned what you proffered me into mine? No wonder my globe feels caught in limbo. Here there is little space for our ideas to be validated; we are the chaos, the ‘developing’ agents, the parasites feeding and festering in authoritarian desire for capital. Where is the city for misfits, for a history of morphisms?