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DECOLONIZING FAR AND NEAR NO.5

We've decided to make these newsletters monthly instead of biweekly, in order to give more time to contributors and ourselves to properly research, form and edit the letters. For any timely topics we may add a few in between as well. Thanks for reading!

As part of an extension to our last newsletter, Ariana interviewed artist Chiraag Bhakta on institutional racism in the arts. This is an extremely large and extensive topic so we decided to extend the topic to a separate newsletter. Even still, we are aware we cannot cover everything in this one newsletter. We hope to provide enough links and a starting point to help you begin (or continue) to explore the concentrated power that institutions hold and leverage, and highlight some of the people who are working to change these imperialistic traditions.

ART INSTITUTIONS,
CAN WE TAKE THE MASTER
OUT OF MASTERPIECES?
September 30, 2020 · Curated by Lulu Yao Gioiello, edited by Ariana King

Despite growing up and being educated in a city as "liberal" as New York, I was taught very little beyond the textbook narrative. What I and many others learned about in social studies and art history were the cultural successes — the winners who were recognized by institutions and memorialized in history. These successes were selected. Once I realized there was a political and very human power that decides who is important and who is not, my world changed. 

It doesn't stop at education. The master exists everywhere. As Kerry James Marshall said in an interview for the Chicago Art Museum on his retrospective, "Mastry,"
"If you look at the historical narrative of art, we do have to contend with this idea of 'Old Masters.' In that pantheon of old masters, there are no Black masters."

In an Asia Art Archive article, "The International Student as a Term of Art," David Xu Borgonjon claims that "'Western' racial politics cannot easily be separated from 'Non-Western' art production." By this he means that institutionalized racism is found in Western and non-Western art practices alike. In many cases, non-Western nations and individuals have shaped their ideas either to combat or compete in Western established markets. Who defines what "Oriental" art is and why is it separated from Western art? Why do museums and galleries across the world largely use the same formula and format as the main institutions in England and the U.S.?

Pictured above is the floor plan for the first and ground floor of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. In institutions across the globe, the way artists are categorized is a testament to the colonizing mindset of institutional leadership. In The Met, the American and European art collections are massive, showcasing across multiple wings and categorized by time period, while Asian, African, Arabic and Indigenous art, spanning thousands of years, are lumped into one section of the building. What would it look like if influential institutions were to categorize art by time instead of geographical and political borders? How does the current categorization implicitly legitimize Western art over its non-Western contemporaries? This is just one example. Rasheed Araeen, a Karachi born, London-based conceptual artist, member of the British Black Panthers and founder of the art journal Third Text, spoke about the London art scene in an open letter in Third Text titled "Ethnic Minorities, Multi-culturalism and the Celebration of the Postcolonial Other." 

"As I began to probe further into the situation and look into the past when black artists were successful, a disturbing picture began to emerge. Although some of them had been highly successful there was something wrong with the way they were received and appreciated. Despite the fact that they produced work as a response to and engagement with modernism in postwar Britain, their work was legitimised differently from that of their white contemporaries. And yet, there was no apparent difference between them: they all showed in the same galleries and were written about in the same magazines and newspapers. They moved in the same social circles and had the same supporters and clientele. But when one looked at the nature of the writing about their work, it was disturbingly different. Artists were differentiated on the basis of their racial differences and cultural backgrounds. Although these writings were often supportive, admiration or appreciation was underpinned by a gaze that turned these artists of African or Asian origins into primitive or oriental Others. This was not very different from how black people were in general being treated. Racial and cultural differences between white and black peoples were constantly invoked to determine their social status — both positive and negative — in British society."

He wrote about 1975, but when we look at the climate in art institutions today, we have to wonder — how much further have we really come? Here we are in 2020, and while things have changed, it hasn't changed not enough. In light of the strength and visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement, these last few months have seen artists and photographers generously giving back to their community through dozens of print sales and charitable donations of their work. Last month, The Whitney was caught in a slurry of bad press as it planned to organize an exhibition titled, "Collective Actions: Artist Interventions In a Time of Change." In theory, the exhibition could have been a monumental moment for BIPOC and up-and-coming artists to show their work via a very well-known platform. The museum, however, acquired a number of the works through benefits which were intended for charity, often discounted heavily and not directly printed or controlled by the artist. They also failed to ask permission of the artists to include their work, instead sending emails with the assumption that merely a "lifetime pass" to the museum would suffice as compensation. Even worse, the museum then decided to cancel the show as a response to the criticisms, leaving the artists without compensation. 

Back in June, curators released a collective open letter to the Guggenheim's leadership, criticizing racism, white supremacy, and other discriminatory practices at the museum. A New York Times article on the letter notes that "the Guggenheim, which attracts about 1.2 million visitors annually, has a $60 million budget and a $90 million endowment. Of the museum’s 276 full time staff members, 26 are black, 24 are Latino and 20 are Asian. Of the museum’s 25 trustees, 23 are white." At the center of the letter is the Guggenheim's handling of last year’s Basquiat exhibition and the show’s guest curator and art historian, Chaédria LaBouvier, who was controversially removed from much of the credit and panel discussions by the Chief Curator Nancy Specter.

Now individuals and institutions alike are asking: What actions can we take to really make a change? Is systemic racism so inherent to these institutions that attempts to level the playing field are futile? Vanity Fair gathered thoughts from curators, administrators, and artists on what the future of museums can be. Founded at the end of May 2019, Art + Museum Transparency is a workers' collective of arts and museum workers. The group has created an open, editable spreadsheet on Google Docs encouraging transparency and fairness by listing salaries from current and past positions.

In a response to Chen Kuan-hsing's "Asia as Method," Rasheed Araeen suggests at least three goals for effecting change within the system:

  1. To recover the suppressed or misrepresented knowledge from the history of West-centric discourse of (neo)imperialism
  2. To produce new knowledge which can take humanity towards real liberation and freedom
  3. These must not remain trapped within institutional ivory towers, but must enter the dynamics of ordinary people’s lives.

"Only when these people can speak for themselves, with the possession of knowledge and consciousness of their own creative power, will there be a revolution," Araeen wrote.

Quote, Think, Read, Listen

Kerry James Marshall: Mastry

Kerry James Marshall talks about his practice and the ideas driving it to accompany the retrospective "Kerry James Marshall: Mastry," which was co-organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. 

We highly recommend exploring his other talks and interviews as well.

Oscar Ho, an active curator in Hong Kong poses an important question in his essay, Hong Kong: A Curatorial Journey for an Identity:

"Is the planet developing a global culture, or are certain regions of the world once immune from the influence of the West just becoming more Western? Perhaps the issue is not globalization or local identity but the growing cultural domination of more powerful groups supported by economic and political might over others."

Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese

According to Korean-German philosopher Byung Chul Han,

"Shanzhai is a Chinese neologism that means "fake," originally coined to describe knock-off cell phones marketed under such names as Nokir and Samsing."

His book traces transformation and deconstruction throughout Chinese art: from constantly changing classical masterpieces to knock-off cell phones that improve upon the original, he argues that Far Eastern thought does not conflate ownership and originality with mastery of art.
 

Modern Art Histories in and across Africa, South and Southeast Asia


The Dhaka Art SummitInstitute for Comparative Modernities (ICM) at Cornell University and Asia Art Archive, with support from the Getty Foundation’s Connecting Art Histories initiative, launched a research project entitled Modern Art Histories in and across Africa, South and Southeast Asia in early 2019. The project brought together a team of leading international faculty and emerging scholars to investigate parallel and intersecting developments in the cultural histories of modern Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. AAA has offered recorded videos of this programming.

 
Reflections
  1. When you visit museum exhibitions and galleries, read the show's statement and the credits. Who are they and how much agency do they give to the artist?
  2. Who are some of your favorite artists throughout history? What are their views on culture and politics in art?
  3. Observe the categorization, grouping and descriptors of artists in museum wings and exhibitions. What is this based on?
  4. How do art universities and international student programs benefit and expand learning and opportunities for non-White individuals?

We are currently working to develop an online forum for discussion. In the meantime, we encourage you to share your responses to these questions, thoughts and feedback with info@far-near.media. We may request permission to post your response on social media.

A Little Joy – The Lesser Known Art History Relationship between Bengali and Japanese Artists
In the photograph above, Bengali Nobel poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore is pictured on a visit to Yokohama, Japan. From 1880 to 1940, Japanese and Indian art historians, intellectuals and artists developed a close relationship with each other, helping to evolve and create new forms of expression in light of growing Western cultural dominance. It's interesting to note that Nihonga, which directly translates to "Japanese painting" was established only as Japan opened its borders as means of maintaining cultural traditions and to combat Western notions of art mastery and technique. 

According to Shigemi Inaga, "Japan enjoyed independence during the first half of that century, while India endured colonial rule. However, the difference between politics did not prevent intellectuals from the two cultural spheres from engaging in intensive interactions."
 
Ganesh Janani, Abanindranath Tagore. 1908.
Painting, Yokoyama Taikan. 1903.

During this period of time, artist Yokoyama Taikan, Rabindranath and his nephew Abanindranath Tagore (also an artist), among others, traded philosophies and techniques, taking trips between Kolkata and Yokohama. The result is a beautiful mix of pan-Asian culture and identity that both absorbed and defied Western notions of dominance in the art world. 

You can read more about Rabindranath's relationship to Japan here
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