This issue compiles the outcome of the symposium at the Kunstmuseum Basel and a summer academy at the Zurich University of the Arts, concerning one of the most urgent topics of our times. You will find contributions by the guests of the symposium and additional articles by scholars and practitioners connected to this topic.
We also invited artists for a related exhibition at the OnCurating Project space—which came together as a shared project curated and organised with students of the Postgraduate Programme in Curating—because our aim was to make a multiplicity of voices from the arts accessible. The outcome is shown in an additional publication “Decolonizing Art Institution. A shared exhibition”, with a report on the Summer Academy by Giovanna Fachini Bragagli.[i]
Colonial Pasts and its Present
We find the traces of colonialism everywhere, as Walter Mignolo pointed out in his famous publication that modernity’s “darker side” is coloniality.[ii] The achievements of the Renaissance for European countries could not have happened without the exploitation of other countries and people. In his publication, Mignolo has chosen the Louvre as an example of the museum’s function to separate ethnographic museum objects (which were basically looted from other countries) from the art museum. We would also like to call to mind the history of the first public museum, the Fridericianum in Kassel. It was (and we quote from the website) “designed in the spirit of the Enlightenment and built by Huguenot architect Simon Louis du Ry, Fridericianum opened its doors in 1779 as the world’s very first purpose-built public museum.” [iii]
But one has to know that the Landgrave Friedrich II sold soldiers to the British to finance this museum. Many of these soldiers were captured against their will and shipped over, either to the UK or directly to North America to fight against the rebellion for independence in the British colonies. So, from the beginning there have been class struggles, colonial ideology, and colonial battles involved in the relations between museums and their financial foundation. From this perspective, issues of so-called “race,” class, and gender are always intertwined in aesthetics, in the arts, in art institutions, and their ideologies, and should therefore also be considered together in rethinking a decolonial horizon. In 2011, Andrea Fraser argued that the art market is strongest in countries with the biggest gap in income between the super rich and the very poor. (Fraser explores this matter using the GIINI Index of Income Disparity since World War II in many different countries.)[iv] This is another reason why we are sceptical about relocating traditional Western paradigms and traditional Western formats of fine arts one–to-one in other contexts, as they might end up just as a means of distinction. To merge cultural artefacts and backgrounds, to question them, to go along with the actual needs of actual people living in the context of institutions, to follow and archive specific cultural artefacts and everyday cultural objects would be of keen interest for us.
Seen from this perspective, the effort to open up the cultural sphere in museum practices without changing other paradigms is part of neoliberal capitalism, which acts in many ways across borders. Therefore, we have to scrutinize in detail precisely in which way this opening/globalization in art institutions is performed and instituted.
The contribution Thoughts on Curatorial Practices in the Decolonial Turn by Ivan Muñiz-Reed for example discusses the decolonial term provided by Walter Mignolo and other “non-Western” scholars in the context of curatorial practice. Against this background, he examines key exhibitions with decolonial strategies like Altermodern by Nicolas Bourriaud, Tate Britain, 2009, or Magiciens de la terre by Jean-Hubert Martin, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1989.
Claire Wintle researches UK museum practice with world cultures collections between 1945 and 1980. The collection process in this phase was deliberately unaware of political contexts, but it made possible "decolonized" museum practice, and even was sometimes a "mask for progressive political change" as she claims. British museums helped to establish museums in postcolonial countries, and they were also in return influenced by them. The intertwinedness of the coming together of these collections with mostly private donors has made it "a shared collecting practice based on a changing, more equitable political relationship, and the self-confident global status of these new countries."
The Global West/ the Mondiale Other?
The contemporary globally active art world proves to be an extremely contradictory field. Nowadays, it cultivates an exchange that transcends the boundaries between cultures and continents through so-called global museums or globally operating art biennials and festivals, at least for a certain audience able to travel around the globe.
Yet, this should not blind us to the fact that in the end a certain perspective of the Western history of art and culture claims primacy over global contemporary art and especially its markets. Traditional Western genres such as sculpture and painting are just more marketable. Museums and art institutions all over the world therefore tend to have a uniform appearance. In format and content alike, they cater to and follow "Western" examples. Contemporary art is, as such, a Western concept, as Peter Weibel once remarked. This is now in the process of negotiation.
In what way the Western art world tries to rewrite art history into a more inclusive story is questioned in the article by Claire Joan Farago.
Understanding only marginal moments of a society during our travels, it felt strange to visit an art opening in Cape Town, where everybody was white (including us) except the artist and the waiters – or seeing white cube exhibitions in extremely impoverished surroundings, where the population had no access to unpolluted water as in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Recognising us as part of the international art world in this picture made us feel extremely uneasy. Which artistic and curatorial practices would be able to make a difference or indicate social change in this surrounding? Which practices would be inclusive in Western countries and give access to art to different groups in the multiple diverse societies of today? These questions are taken up by Dorothee Richter in her contribution.
Or another example, we learnt that in Cape town the biggest museum of African Art was to be built and has recently opened, a project initiated and financed by the German former PUMA boss, Jochen Zeitz and it is he and his museum director Mark Coetzee, who are now in the position to define what African art is. Cape Town's Zeitz MOCAA is developed together with other tourist attractions and shops in the harbour area of Capetown. The famous quote by Edouard Glissant “The West is not in the West. It is a project, not a place,”[v] comes immediately to mind.
From our perspective, it would be so much more interesting to consult the many curators and art historians in South Africa with a discursive and research based practice to think about what an African museum could mean, and open up formats and contents, and to think profoundly of an archive, or how to exhibit with a travelling performance festival or something else. One could mention some of the curators from South Africa who would be worth consulting, for example, Nkule Mabaso, curator of the University Gallery in Cape Town, who is in the process of organising a connected conference on decolonizing art institutions in Cape Town; Gabi Ngcobo, who will curate the next Berlin Biennale, Khwezi Gule, the director of the Soweto Museums, Same Sizakele Mdluli, art historian from the Wits University in Johannesburg, or Ntone Edjabe from Chimurenga, a magazine that is engaged to open up a cultural sphere between music and fine arts, between politics and policies. One of the problems with contemporary museums is that they have an agenda embedded in their scopic regimes.
In her essay, On Blackwomen’s Creativity and the Future Imperfect: Thoughts, Propositions, Issues, Nkule Mabaso scrutinizes the situations in which black female artists find themselves in South Africa. On the one hand, they are not recognized by art history’s still colonially shaped canon, on the other hand they often are marked in stereotypical roles. With Nontobeko Ntombela’s curated exhibition Contact (as a restaging of the first commercial exhibition of artist Gladys Mgudlandlu) and Gabi Ngcobo’s exhibition PASS-AGES: references & footnotes, she names two examples that are to break with this (non-)representation of black women artists.
Same Mdluli depicts in her contribution, Chasing Colonial Ghosts: Decolonizing Art Institutions in “Post-Apartheid” South Africa, the current situation of exclusion in art institutions in South Africa. Up until now, a great deal of black artists have still not been recognized by museums. She points out that museums have the power to “mark” history by incorporating art into a representational mode, but they can also “make” history by engaging the audience on a different level in terms of that representation.
Questioning the role of art institutions
This means, in our context, that a traditional exhibition setting also produces specific subjectivities. In a traditional Western paradigm, this would mean a subject in the white cube, in the glass cave, who imagines being seen from all sides and who would therefore start to control him/herself. The bourgeois subject, as Tony Bennett claims, is an ideal citizen who controls him/herself. Following this thought, decolonizing would mean another sort of museum or art institution, another format, another public, another production and distribution.
In that regard, the contributions by Michelle Wong, Binna Choi, and Sophie Williamsons can be mentioned: Michelle Wong portrays the making of an Biennale – she was an Assistant Curator of the 11th edition of Gwangju Biennale, South Korea 2016 titled The Eight Climate (What Does Art Do?) – in light of Train to Busan, a 2016 summer zombie movie. She looks at labour situations of the making of a Biennale and the curator as someone manovering such large scale exhibitions in global context from the perspective of production.
Binna Choi reads two films – Nothing but Goodness in the Colony: The Dutch Indies in Pictures, 1912–1942 and Ousmane Sembene’s Camp de Thiaroye (1988) – in light of colonial and decolonial thinking through the sense of labour and wage and draws relations to Annette Kraus developed project Site for Unlearning (Art Organization) at Casco, Utrecht, where the relation to an art institution and its own structure of labour is questioned.
Sophie Williamson’s article, On Cultural Translation, tries to reach out beyond categorization of “the other” from a language-based perspective. She describes the actual political situation of polarization, which might be overcome by artistic modes of living and practices.
“De-Colonizing Art Institutions”
What we would like to undertake here and now is to share some ideas with you, in some very specific contexts, about how one could think about revealing and changing patterns and power structures. Walter Mignolo mentions that colonization was a global project, so de-colonizing art institutions would as well be a global (or mondial) concept, but this means that it would be different, it would react to each context, it would react to a historical moment, it would react to the local specificities. We see this as an ongoing project, one that will need many different protagonists, colleagues, cultural producers of all sorts, and political activists.
The contributions by Woon Tien Wei, and Eyal Danon share ideas on specific art practices rooted in a local agenda.
Woon Tien Wei (Post-Museum) explores in his contribution, Still Here Somehow: Artists and Cultural Activism in Singapore's Renaissance, the shift of artistic practices in Singapore from community-based cultural activism to a professionalized state-driven and spectacle-seeking form of fine art production, with the help of artist Koh Nguang How.
The director of the Center for Digital Art (CDA) in Holon, Israel, Eyal Danon follows the transformation of the Center from an art institution for the art community in the first place to a community-based and activist-driven art center in a deeply rooted exchange with the neighbourhood of Jessy Cohen.
De-colonizing is thought to be a horizon, in the way Derrida spoke about a democracy to come. De-colonizing Art Institutions can only be a shared project, with different tasks in each geopolitical and social context. It will mean something different in Switzerland or Germany than in India, China, or South Africa. It will mean something else if we speak about art academies, art museums, or “Off” spaces. And, of course, we cannot provide any clear solutions. What we want to achieve is to form bonds of shared interests, to develop a platform for exchange, and there is a certain urgency behind this. As Adam Szymczyk describes the ongoing severe changes between 2013 and 2017 in The documenta 14 Reader: “We have witnessed—both locally and globally—the implementation of debt as political measure, the gradual destruction of what remained of the welfare state, wars waged for resources and the market, and the resulting multiple and never-ending humanitarian catastrophes. This darkening global situation has leaned heavily upon our daily (and nightly) thinking about, and acting on and for, documenta 14.”[vi]
Against the uncanny background of post-democratic societies, populist megalomania, and alternative truth scenarios—and with all that a strengthening of the nation state—, it is urgent once again to open vistas of new global public spheres, of finding new perspectives in international solidarities beyond "race," class, gender, and social political differences.
Nikos Papastergiadis reminds us in Cosmopolitanism and Culture that, “The discursive turn in artistic and curatorial practice, with its wild embrace of hybrid identities and its committed efforts to hijack capital, was also aligned with a desire to build a new global public sphere,”[vii] Our efforts are linked to this idea of a global public sphere, be that through new formats in exhibition-making or through publications.
New practices are developed and presented in inspiring ways by Sabih Ahmed (at the Asia Art Archive), by Jeebesh Bagchi (as a member of Raqs Media Collective), and by Shwetal A. Patel (Kochi-Muziris Biennale).
In Raqs Media Collective’s associative contribution, Sources, Itineraries, and the Making of a Thicket, the concept of origin is questioned by describing different projects on which Raqs Media Collective worked. The term “sources” is used as a metaphor—in personal life as predecessors, or on a geographical and political level—and can be chosen individually on a global scale without being restricted to state borders or local history patterns.
In What Does the Revolt of Sediments Look Like? Notes on the Archive, Sabih Ahmed draws a line from the concepts of memory and geography understood from a pre-digital time in colonial roots (uttered by Edward Said in 1998)[viii] to archiving and map-making in the contemporary digital age, where archives are more likely to be organized individually and accessible globally. He also spoke about his involvement in the Infra-curatorial project “Striated Light” at the 11th Shanghai Biennale. Titled Why Not Ask Again?, it exemplifies his thoughts in relation to the renowned archive of artist Ha Bik Chuen.
Shwetal A. Patel reports on three large-scale group exhibitions in Gwangju (South Korea), Suzhou (China), and Yinchuan (China) in 2016 and researches their different settings for “alluding to future potentialities, and the inherent pitfalls, of this vastly popular genre of exhibition-making and critical thinking.”
Shwetal A. Patel also interviews Shaheen Merali on the Panchayat Collection, an archive with the focus of documenting “interactions within a globalising artworld of Black and Asian artists, as well as documenting their commitment to the intersection between race, class, gender, policed sexualities, and (dis)ability.”
But let’s turn around and have a look at our own context here and now: the structural racism of European universities and further education, art institutions, and the xenophobia of European societies. Or to say it in the words of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: “So capital is in fact borderless; that's the problem. On the other hand capital has to keep borders alive in order for this kind of cross-border trade to happen. So therefore the idea of borderlessness has a performative contradiction within it which has to be kept alive.”[ix] This acknowledges the danger for art institutions to be stuck in a performative gesture of inclusion, which may not change a lot, again: symbolic politics are nothing without real politics. Some insights into the contradictions and struggles here in Switzerland were developed by Sophie Vögele from the research project Art School Differences, as well as by the anthropologist Rohit Jain (ISEK - Institut für Sozialanthropologie und Empirische Kulturwissenschaft, Uni Zürich). and Dr. Marie-laure Allain Bonilla (University of Basel) looks into the collections of Western Museum in her article “Some Theoretical and Empirical Aspects on the Decolonization of Western Collections”
Rohit Jain describes in his article, How to Be Affected in Postcolonial Public Spaces? Ethnographic Remarks on a Multifocal World in the Making…, how “other” subjects foremost with colonial backgrounds are seen and treated in Switzerland in everyday life. From this embeddedness in daily routine he argues, with Hamid Dabashi’s recent essay “Can Europeans Read?”, that the hegemonic power balance of “East” and “West” has clearly shifted. He goes on to explore possibilities of real encounters by presenting various projects that have taken place in Switzerland in recent years.
Sophie Vögele and Philippe Saner question the self-given imaginary of Switzerland as a neutral state of humanitarian tradition presumably dissociated as a nation from the colonial processes in the past. Their research project, Art.School.Differences. Researching Inequalities and Normativities in the Field of Higher Art, scrutinizes Swiss universities’ imagined diversity policy and the colonial power relations still in place.
As a closing remark, we would like to return to the notion of a “democracy to come.” In the following, we rely on a rereading of Derrida by Daniel Matthews; in the notion of a democracy to come, there are certain impossibilities or contradictions embedded in it, and the first one is the contradiction between democracy and sovereignty:
Democracy, on this reading, is always at war with itself, never capable of resolving its inner tensions and contradictions. To put it in terms that echo Derrida’s earliest concerns with metaphysics of presence, we could say that democracy is never present but is always deferred. In its claim to presence (“this is democracy here-and-now”) democracy evokes the sovereignty that calls forth its destruction. Democracy is, then, never fully present in the (sovereign) claim that democracy has arrived or been achieved. It is in this sense that democracy is always ‘to come.’ Significantly, the ‘to come’ here is not the positing of some horizon of possibility for democracy, as if it were just an Idea (in a Platonic or regulative, Kantian, sense) that we must move towards. Rather the ‘to come’ expresses the dislocation that structures the very possibility of democracy from within. The futural inference of the “to come” (à venir) is, however, significant. Derrida distinguishes between “the future” — thought of as a future-present, predictable and programmable — and the à venir which names an unforeseeable coming of the event, a rupture or disturbance that is unpredictable and open, without telos or knowable destination. The ‘to come’ in Derrida’s formulation, then, points to a transformative and disruptive potential at the heart of democracy, it points to a promise of change in the here and now.[x]
Throughout the contributions, concern is uttered as to whether processes of decolonizing (or de-colonizing) reiterate power structures in favour of the global power players in the end, insofar as decolonizing has to be closely related to social and political changes and to social and political non-governmental initiatives in order to be relevant in the given contexts.
Dorothee Richter is Professor in Contemporary Curating at the University of Reading, UK, and head of the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, CAS/ MAS Curating at the Zurich University of the Arts, Switzerland; She is co-director with Susanne Clausen of the PhD in Practice in Curating Programme, a cooperation of the Zurich University of the Arts and the University of Reading, as well as the publisher of the web journal OnCurating.org; Richter has worked extensively as a curator: she was initiator of Curating Degree Zero Archive, which travelled to 18 venues in Europe; Curator of Kuenstlerhaus Bremen, at which she curated different symposia on feminist issues in contemporary arts and an archive on feminist practices, Materialien/Materials; recently she directed, together with Ronald Kolb, a film on Fluxus: Flux Us Now, Fluxus Explored with a Camera (Staatsgalerie Stuttgart 2013, Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Wien, 2014, Kunsthochschule Hamburg 2014, Gesellschaft für Aktuelle Kunst, Bremen, 2014, Kunstverein Wiesbaden 2014, University of Reading 2013, Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zürich, 2013; Kunsthalle Sao Paolo, 2014; Ostwall Museum Dortmund, 2015, Kibbutz College Tel Aviv, 2015; Universität Lüneburg; 2015; Museum Tinguely in Basel, 2015, Lentos Museum in Linz, 2016), and she is working at the moment on a video archive on curatorial practices together with Ronald Kolb, with 100 interviews of contemporary curators and curatorial groups.
Ronald Kolb (b. 1978) studied Visual Communications with an MA degree at Merz Akademie, University of Applied Arts, Design and Media, Stuttgart, Germany and runs a design studio (together with Volker Schartner »Biotop 3000«, www.biotop3000.de) with an emphasis on publications and web design i.e. for Kunststiftung Baden-Württemberg, ifa (Institut for Foreign Affairs, Germany), Donaueschinger Musiktage, Badischer Kunstverein, ZKM, and so forth. He was an Associate Professor at Merz Akademie Stuttgart, University of Applied Arts, Design and Media from 2009–2015 and is now the scientific researcher at the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, ZHdK with Dorothee Richter. He works as a filmmaker and editor (i.e. Flux Us Now. Fluxus explored with a camera, www.fluxusnow.net) from 2014 working on a long-term project on curatorial practices together with Dorothee Richter and is an honorary vice chairman of Künstlerhaus Stuttgart since 2014.
i This issue arose from the symposium “De-colonizing Art Institutions” at Kunstmuseum Basel Process, June 21 and 22, 2017, with the speakers Sabih Ahmed (Asia Art Archive), Jeebesh Bagchi (Raqs Media Collective), Binna Choi (Casco), Eyal Danon (Holon Digital Art Archive), Catherine David (Centre Pompidou), Kadiatou Diallo (SPARCK), Same Sizakele Mdluli (Lecturer, Wits University), Rohit Jain (ISEK, Uni Zürich), Shwetal A. Patel (Kochi-Muziris Biennale), Dorothee Richter (Postgraduate Programme in Curating, ZHdK), and Peter Weibel, (ZKM, Centre for Art and Media).
The symposium was accompanied by a Summer Academy in Zurich held by the Further Education, Postgraduate Programme in Curating, Zurich University of the Arts from June 13–24 and an exhibition with the same name at the OnCurating Project Space in Zurich.
ii Walter D. Mignolo, “Coloniality: The Darker Side of Modernity,” in Sabine Breitwieser, Cornelia Klinger, Walter D. Mignolo, eds., Modernologies. Contemporary Artists Researching Modernity and Modernism, MACBA, Barcelona, 2009.
iii See Fridericianum website. Accessed June 4, 2017. http://www.fridericianum.org/about/fridericianum.
v Edouard Glissant, see http://www.azquotes.com/quote/641419.
ix Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, see http://www.azquotes.com/author/43070-Gayatri_Chakravorty_Spivak.
x Daniel Matthews, “The Democracy To Come: Notes on the Thought of Jacques Derrida,” in Critical Legal Thinking, Law and the Political, April 2013. Accessed June 4, 2017. http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/04/16/the-democracy-to-come-notes-on-the-thought-of-jacques-derrida/.