Imperatives to Reimagine
By HG Masters
“Are we nothing but postcolonial? As planetary destruction by human greed is upon us, the mindset change that is required must accommodate such questions and more.” Literary theorist and critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak began her keynote talk at Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF)’s March Meeting 2022 by issuing this challenge, before referring to the late Egyptian-French theorist Samir Amin’s call to “re-center ourselves to confront globalized neoliberalism, which is what turns nation-states into global capital managers while encouraging the nation-ization of identity in the name of anticolonialism.” Spivak then proposed: “We must look at classed-based collaboration. What was there before the colonies? Did all deployment of power relations start with the colonies?” She then quipped: “I speak from a country [India] with thousands of years of caste oppression—the colonies are the day before yesterday.”
With those fierce evocations, Spivak set in motion a conversation about “The Afterlives of the Postcolonial” that would expand over the course of the three days during the annual March Meeting (March 5–7) to cover topics of racism, settler colonialism, apartheid, new imperial wars, social movements including Black Lives Matter, Indigenous rights, climate change, and the restitution and repatriation of looted artifacts. The framework for these conversations was the yearlong lead up to Sharjah Biennial 15, “Thinking Historically in the Present,” conceived by the late Nigerian-born curator Okwui Enwezor and curated by SAF’s director, Hoor Al Qasimi. Scheduled to launch in February 2023, the exhibition promises to foreground Enwezor’s legacy in shaping the art and archives of the postcolonial era.
But what is the postcolonial now? Its condition, its textures, its urgencies, its locations, even? These were the questions that the many gathered speakers had come to explore, bearing the gravitas that comes from research and academic expertise, as well as the weight of the violence that courses through many of these subjects, from concepts of legal sovereignty and the repatriation of looted cultural objects, to the resonances among activists in the Global South fighting extractive capitalism. Spivak herself had framed the conversation in these two larger contexts—the climate crisis and the issue of class-based oppression—as she talked about her experience running four schools in northeastern India and the exigencies of teaching a global awareness to people from the Dalit caste whose planetary conception is limited by their lack of mobility, in physical and societal terms. Meanwhile, she noted, the effects of climate change have ravaged the region and threaten the livelihoods of whole communities. As with most of the speakers, for Spivak, the afterlives of the postcolonial are specific, local, and contextual, as much as they are also universal.
Finding new ways of overcoming postcolonial conditions was the subject of the first panel, “Persistent Structural Inequalities: Settler Colonialism, Segregation and Apartheid,” which featured human-rights attorney Noura Erakat; artist Khalil Rabah, whose exhibition “What is not” had opened at SAF; and South African history professor Premesh Lalu. While Erakat analyzed the exceptional legal framework that buttresses Israel’s real-world occupation of Palestine, Lalu looked at the legacy of petty apartheid and suggested that “only an aesthetic education attuned to a retraining of the senses can prepare us for a future beyond apartheid”—a linking of the conceptual and aesthetic that Rabah’s Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind (2003– ) project imagines by straddling physical reality and the parafictional space of art.
How art and politics might “articulate together,” however, was problematized by academic Zahid Chaudhary, who spoke in the session “Migrations to the North, Forced Repatriation and the New Middle Passage.” Casting a critical framework on the recent wave of exhibitions of art from the Global South, Chaudhary noted how “contemporary celebrations of multiculturalism, diversity, pluralism . . . are ways of acknowledging racial, cultural, and historical difference while actually denying the structural, material, and conflictual aspects of these very differences.” He cited Roderick Ferguson’s 2012 prediction that “liberal multiculturalism would signal the moment in which state and capital would use anti-racism to forestall the redistribution of resources to economic and racially disenfranchised communities,” to note that these events too are a form of hegemonic regulation. But even he found potential in the truth of art to disassociate itself from the truths the market generates, and noted the strategies of historical recovery, self-referentiality, and archival research that contemporary artists have used to reveal underlying structures of the present.
Many speakers extended Rabah’s reflections on the place of the museum in the colonial context, particularly during the panel “Persistent Structural Inequalities: Indigeneity and Sovereignty.” There, along with Indigenous colleagues Gerald McMaster, Jolene Rickard, and Megan Tamati-Quennell, artist Brook Andrew, who curated the First Nations-led Biennale of Sydney in 2020, described the museum as “a very strange . . . and often traumatic space,” recounting efforts in Australia to heal wounds caused to Indigenous communities by the destruction of trees and their relocation to colonial museums—a central topic of his play GABAN (2021). The pressing subject of repatriation was addressed in the session “Restitution and Repatriation of Looted Artworks and Artefacts” on the following day, with art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu speaking about the establishment of laws against the British Museum deaccessioning works in 1963, while, concurrently nations were decolonizing and declaring independence. Okeke-Agulu noted these laws were in fact strengthened by a recently passed “explain and retain” policy that he argued would be more accurately termed “detain and exploit,” as it connects to old arguments for the “global museum” or what he derided as “politics by other means.” Speaking from recent experience, Ngaire Blankenberg, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, recounted her initial efforts, in her first nine months in her new position, to decolonize the institution despite the resistance of “good intentions” and “professional identification,” beginning with her decision to remove from display bronzes looted from the royal court in Benin, which created a “major clash of values” within the institution.
Indigeneity and the climate catastrophe were the focuses of the session “The Environment, Climate and Global Warming, and the Anthropocene,” which featured artist Carolina Caycedo talking about the damage that the construction of the El Cercado dam in Colombia caused to Indigenous groups, connecting environmental impacts to Indigenous social relations. Art historian TJ Demos spoke about “thinking within and between these emergencies” about not a near-future climate catastrophe but instead “a climate catastrophe going back centuries where climate necessarily entangles the bio-geophysical with the sociopolitical, the technoeconomic, and cultural,” underscoring how too often our discourse fails “to recognize the long history of climate breakdown as a cause and consequence of racial and colonial capitalism.”
The “afterlives of the postcolonial” are troubled in many contexts, as Spivak herself discussed. Delving into more detail was activist and writer Meena Kandasamy in “New Social Movements, ‘Black Lives Matter’ and its Global Reverberations.” Kandasamy talked about the national protest movements in India of recent years and portrayed the neoliberal Hindutva movement embodied in prime minister Narendra Modi’s political party as “a kind of East India Company 2.0,” noting the extractive colonial structures of the economy, along with the use of colonial-era sedition laws against pro-democracy student protesters, journalists, and human-rights activists. “What does decolonialism mean in India today when you name an oppressor who shares your passport and your skin color, practices all the horrors of colonialism but speaks the language of diversity and decolonialism?” she asked. The temporal as well as geographic persistence of caste structures was ruminated upon by academic Tina Campt, who spoke in “New Concepts and Theoretical Imperatives: Intersectionality, Feminism and Gendered Identities” on the idea of the “durational destruction of Black life” through the temporalities imagined by the terms “postcolonial” and “afterlife,” to the “extended temporality of presence” of the term “half-life.” Borrowing Christina Sharpe’s concept of “wake work” to generate “strategies for living in the wake of slavery and open[ing] a space for living otherwise,” she noted that “reparation and restitution is not the reclamation of a stolen past: it is the value on which capital still lives, the value that it extracts and exploits, which continues to sustain it.”
March Meeting’s second keynote, on the beginning of the third day, was a conversation between Angela Davis and writer, filmmaker, and theorist Manthia Diawara. An iconic activist, Davis emphasized that we need an understanding of freedom as a communal value rather than an individual one to abolish all violent institutions and give the concept of freedom a proper universality. Bringing together many of the speaker’s articulated concerns, in the subsequent discussion, “New Concepts and Theoretical Imperatives: ‘Coloniality,’ ‘Decoloniality’ and their Aftermath,” academic Françoise Vergès asked “how then do we unlearn the ways we see so that we learn again; how do we retrain our senses so that we see and listen with care?”—connecting the dying of the Earth with the threats to half the world’s vulnerable people.
How the art of the postcolonial era addresses these concerns, offers restorative treatments while wrestling with the conditions of a compromised decolonization and the climate crisis, will be the challenges and necessities of Sharjah Biennial 15, a testing ground within the supportive institutional framework of Sharjah Art Foundation for art’s potentials to extend beyond the postcolonial.
HG Masters is ArtAsiaPacific’s deputy editor and deputy publisher.