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Finding the Right Words to Decolonize Art’s Mores, Canons and Practices

A conference at the Salzburg Summer Academy demonstrated the contentious issues at stake when dealing with the legacy of colonialism – and possible ways forward

By Chloe Stead
A conference at the Salzburg Summer Academy demonstrated the contentious issues at stake when dealing with the legacy of colonialism – and possible ways forward

‘Europe looked in the mirror and saw the world. Beyond that lay nothing.’ This quote, from the short story Euroeverything (2009), by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, came early on in the first day of Global Academy II, the second conference in a long-term series dedicated to trans-cultural exchange. Intended as critique of Europe’s lack of recognition of its own history, it was a metaphor, used here by Charles Esche, that was evoked again and again throughout the weekend to highlight the myriad of ways in which the West is still steeped in the legacy of its 500-years of colonialism.

How can art decolonize its Western-centric mores, canons and practices? Which models allow new modes of transcultural artistic exchange? Hosted by the Salzburg International Summer Academy of Fine Arts (where I’m currently writer-in-residence), this year’s iteration of the Global Academy comprised of 25 speakers from across the world – eight of these participants were chosen through an open call – and which focused on defeating binaries of North/South, East/West, as well as speculating on the possibility of a ‘radical solidarity’ between nations without the need for Western ‘mediation’.

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Raqs Media Collective, Corrections to the First Draft of History, 2014. Courtesy: the artist

Raqs Media Collective, Corrections to the First Draft of History, 2014, photograph. Courtesy: the artist

A number of presentations emphasized the way in which these themes are already being addressed: Editors Stephanie Bailey and Will Calderón Furtado, for instance, discussed Ibraaz and Contemporary & – publications that focus on fostering links within, respectively, North Africa and the Middle East, and Africa and the African diaspora, through critical writing and workshops. Similarly, the Nigerian photographer Emeka Okereke’s project Invisible Borders, founded in 2009, which takes artists and photographers on a road trip through Africa, isn’t focused on the Western perspective of the continent, but rather on cross-cultural alliances within it.

When Europe was the focus of presentations it was often to discuss the work of decolonizing the continent’s institutions.  Esche spoke of the importance of first recognizing that the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, where he is director, is as much an East Indian and Indonesian museum as it is a Dutch one, due to the fact that it was founded by a tobacco industrialist who made his money from those regions. Curator Clémentine Deliss read a provocative manifesto arguing that – at least until adequate restitutions can be made – everyone should have access to colonial collections currently sequestered in Western Europe. Western art publications, as well as newspapers such as The New York Times, also came under scrutiny for what was perceived as their unbalanced or inaccurate reporting on non-Western artists and cultural events. For curator and researcher Natasha Ginwala, the fact that these misunderstandings and misrecognitions still happen ‘despite the belated efforts of large-scale museum exhibitions as well as these academic frameworks,’ shows that, ‘the effort has to be ceaseless and repetitive… what I’m calling the imploding of the canon has to happen from the inside as a constant gesture.’

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Emeka Okereke, Dilemma of a New Age II, 2016, photograph. Courtesy: the artist

Emeka Okereke, Dilemma of a New Age II, 2016, photograph. Courtesy: the artist

At times, the importance of the terminology we use to describe the work of decolonization – as well as each other – became the conference’s unofficial theme. It was widely agreed that to use the term ‘postcolonial’ is to ignore the ways in which, politically, we are still living within colonial structures. Media theorist Paul Feigelfeld calling the prefix ‘counter-productive’ in his presentation on occupation and technology, which referenced a 2013 World Bank feasibility study on setting up a digital microtask industry (also known as ‘mechanical turk’ work – an industry created by Amazon) in the occupied Palestinian territories.

That’s not to say that everyone was always in agreement. Feigelfeld’s introduction to the open-source project, Refugee Phrasebook – a collection of useful phrases in German, English, Arabic and Farsi, begun in 2015 – drew criticism for its title, which some claimed reinforced the differences it aimed to overcome. This, along with another participant’s accidental use of the word ‘history’ instead of ‘histories’ (the assumption being that the singular ‘history’ is always from the Western perspective) showed just how fraught and explosive debate about the subject can be.

It is unusual for arts professionals to express unpopular opinions or risk going after anyone but the easiest targets, so it was refreshing to see, at this event, and in the wider discourse on the subject, that contention and conflict can be productive. Yet well-meaning attempts still have their missteps and throw out questionable optics. As Clémentine Deliss put it, in a wider point about what she perceived as a ‘horror vacui’ when it came to monographic exhibitions of still-living artists: why were artists from the African continent ‘thrown out like marbles’ at documenta 14? 

The term ‘Universality’ was the end point for the discussion and perhaps a starting point to think a way forward from the historical analysis. Is it a word that we should use to combat nationalism and address our shared planetary concerns (such as global warming, income equality and the question of who owns our data), or is too marred in its historical bias towards certain swathes of the planet?

Quibbling over semantics can be tedious and unproductive, but if I learnt anything from the Global Academy it’s that the debate about which words to use is based in a belief that together we can reimagine the world outside of a Euro or Anglo-American perspective, in a way that could (and should) benefit everyone. If that comes as a result of taking care with terminology then it seems worth the effort. As a white European myself, I’m aware that now it’s perhaps my turn to listen rather than to speak.

Organized by Kimberly Bradley and Hildegund Amanshauser, Global Academy II took place 11-12 August at The Salzburg International Summer Academy of Fine Arts, 16 July – 25 August. 

Main image: Bouchra Khalili, The Tempest Society, 2017, film still. Courtesy: the artist

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