Global Arts and Cultures

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Art History, Postcolonialism, and the Global Turn | Part I

Virtual Symposia

Friday, September 25, 2020

As attention turns increasingly toward the “global” in art history, has postcolonialism fallen into obsolescence? Although touted as liberating, does the new “global” dispensation mark a rupture with history? What shall become of the generative critical theory that emerged in the 1980s and ‘90s, which partly grew out of reflections on anticolonial movements and post-independence nation-building? At best, global art history signals a germane awareness of “post-postcolonial” conditions precipitated by the accelerating globalization of finance capitalism. But would proponents of global contemporary art rather applaud putatively post-national freedoms than reckon with globalization’s deep disadvantages, while jettisoning the postcolonial as an allegedly outmoded product of elite theory?

This symposium asks whether, or to what degree, postcolonial discourses stand to be recuperated and revised in 21st-century art history, architectural history, visual studies, and art criticism. In cases where political alliances have frayed and nascent national governments foundered, radical politics have sometimes given way to disillusionment, while transnationalism, hybridity, and self-fashioning settle in as new norms. For some in the Global South, “postcolonial” may indeed appear misleading as an overall designation. Nevertheless, what could be the implications of moving past postcolonialism as we arguably celebrate a cosmopolitan world that has yet to be fully realized? With neoliberalism giving rise to what art historian Anthony Gardner has called “a resurgent focus on North Atlantic relations,” what would be the cost of letting the postcolonial slip away?

In other words, what does the early 21st-century—so distant from the heyday of anticolonialism associated with Third World independence and liberation movements—hold for the practices and ambitions of artists, scholars, and critics? How have contemporary artists accommodated and/or resisted the demands of the global art world? What have the recent shifts in discourse meant—or what could they mean—for scholarly and curatorial (re)readings of chronologically staggered periods of culture clash and decolonization, including the possibilities, and failures of each moment? How might an ongoing or renewed “postcolonial” artistic output exceed the confines of galleries, biennials, art fairs, and museums? Do new interests in the “global” inevitably come at the expense of the postcolonial? Are the phenomena in question truly taking place on a global scale? Have scholars and artists from the Global South explored different terms and frameworks to structure their pursuits? To what extent are political limitations determined by working relationships with art institutions and their particular forms of patronage?

This conference invites artists, critics, curators, and scholars to query the state of postcolonialism in modern and contemporary art. Does (or should) the postcolonial retain relevance? Or how might it regain relevance? In what ways must new projects challenge the orthodoxies, binaries, and narratives of earlier discourses?


Tammer El-Sheikh (York University) What Does Art History Have to Say about a Lebanese Sasquatch?: Form, Value and Negation in the Decolonial Work of Edward Said and Amanda Boulos

Two books on the state of art history appeared this past year. Christopher S. Wood’s A History of Art History and a first English translation of Eric Michaud’s Barbarian Invasions both respond to pressures felt by art historians to account for a relativistic and ahistorical global contemporary art scene. The challenge for both is to show how global contemporary art with its dizzying range of practices, mediums, and sites of emergence can be meaningfully related to a discipline that was established on the basis of contrasts between, for Michaud the “barbarism” of 4th century Germanic tribes and the classical traditions of Rome, or for Wood ethnically distinct “biographies of form” in Riegl and Wölfflin’s work. In her double review Rachel Wetzler formulates the crisis resulting from these incongruities between art history’s past and present succinctly: “In both books the main narrative ends around 1960; when the story jumps to the present, it focuses not on new ways of understanding the past but solely on contemporary art—whose mode, we are told is amnesia.” While this decade marks the beginning of contemporary art as a period, it also saw the collapse of colonies in Africa, the MENA region and Asia. In this paper I will explore the resources for a decolonial, global and cosmopolitan contemporary art history in the published and unpublished work of Edward Said. Taking Palestinian- Canadian artist Amanda Boulos’s work as a case study I argue that, what strikes Michaud and Wood as a kind of amnesia in contemporary art might also be viewed as a strategic forgetting of the discipline’s Eurocentrism in service of ongoing struggles for decolonization.

Sonai Khullar (University of Pennsylvania) In the Light of Octavio Paz

For Octavio Paz (1914-1998), India was Mexico’s intimate other. He wrote of his first visit there in 1951: “From the beginning everything I saw inadvertently evoked forgotten images of Mexico. The strangeness of India brought to mind that other strangeness: my own country.” In Paz’s poetry and prose, which abound in comparisons between India and Mexico and their experiences of European colonialism, strangeness is the basis for affinity, identity, and community. While Paz’s Essays on Mexican Art (1993) is a celebrated example of art criticism, his less well-known memoir In Light of India (in Spanish, Vislumbres de la India, 1995) is a singular meditation on South-South relations and models what I have elsewhere called postcolonial worldliness. Drawing on In Light of India, this paper offers methodological and historiographical reflections on the discipline of art history. Rather than locating Paz’s comparative method and postcolonial worldliness in the past—belonging to or associated with historical movements such as modernism, liberalism, internationalism, and decolonization—I consider its implications for the present. Paz’s writing illuminates the juxtaposition of the work of Indian painter Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941) and American filmmaker Maya Deren (1917- 1961) at documenta 14 (2017), which highlighted affiliations in their feminism, primitivism, and cosmopolitanism. The intimate estrangements on view in Kassel’s Neue Galerie link Tahiti and Haiti as art-historical and world-historical projects, and establish them as foundational rather than exceptional to our thinking of art history, postcolonialism, and the global turn.

For more information and to register, please visit the event's website