In the fourth instalment of a special series timed with the specially-themed November-December issue of frieze, we asked four curators whose work has been involved with the challenges of decolonizing culture, to discuss the projects that have informed their thinking.
Click on the artist’s name to jump to their entry.
Clémentine Deliss is a curator, researcher and publisher. In 1996 she founded the itinerant Metronome magazine which expanded in 2005 to become experimental publishing house Metronome Press.
In March 1992, I met the artists and activists El Hadji Sy and Issa Samb in a studio-courtyard in the city centre of Dakar. This space, which was destroyed following Samb’s passing in 2017, functioned as the headquarters of the Laboratoire Agit’Art, an interdisciplinary group of philosophers, theatre directors, visual artists and actors established in the late 1970s. The place was overflowing with strange props made from weathered wood and basketry, oxidised metals, faded photographs, handwritten notes and blackboards scrawled with manifestos. Neither El Hadji Sy nor Samb were worried about the conservation of these objects of performance and felt no desire to speculate on future sales. Dust and leaves would cover the discarded elements, and cats in the courtyard swung from the frayed tatters of paintings. I was thrown back to my earlier research on the history of looting that had underpinned the constitution of European ethnographic collections. But this site with all its performative traces contradicted the colonial museum’s focus on permanence, on salvage anthropology and preservation.
Around the same time, I read the works of Hubert Fichte, in particular his 1980 book Psyche – On Psychiatric Treatment in Senegal in which he transcribes conversations he has with psychiatrists at the university clinic in Dakar. Although they never met Fichte, members of the Laboratoire Agit’Art conducted workshops at the clinic with remarkable titles such as ‘Premature Deviance and Loss of Consciousness’. For over twenty years, foreign curators and museums have sought to locate the archives of the Laboratoire Agit’Art, but in vain. No doubt someone will have removed Samb’s belongings before the bulldozers moved in... Yet, to speculate on his past, or that of his colleagues, is to forget the very meanings that the Laboratoire Agit’Art sought to convey: that the psyche of objects is more crucial than their physical perennity. For, as Samb liked to repeat to me, ‘who is to tell us that the leaf that falls from the tree is not our sister?’
Matariki Williams (Tūhoe, Ngāti Hauiti, Taranaki, Ngāti Whakaue) is a Curator Mātauranga Māori at Te Papa. She is also Editor - Kaupapa Māori at the Pantograph Punch, and has guest edited at Radio New Zealand’s The Wireless. Her writing has appeared in various print and online publications including The Spinoff, The Wireless, Pantograph Punch, Counterfutures Journal, New Zealand Books, The Sapling and PhotoForum. She is a Kāhui Kaitiaki representative on the Museums Aotearoa Board, and Kaihautū Māori on the board of the National Digital Forum.
Within the curatorial team at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, I am the only curator that has ‘Mātauranga Māori’ as my title. Translated simply as ‘Māori knowledge systems’, my perspective on the term is that it is boundless, that Māori cannot be constrained by any external understandings of what our worldview is and can be. It is within this understanding that I see how my predecessors have forced museum practice to evolve; that they brought our tikanga practices into the museum and pushed the museum to react, absorb and adapt. These practices are now embedded in the museum and are advocated for by all staff.
Bringing tikanga Māori into the museum – to ‘keep our taonga warm’, as the late Mina McKenzie would say – is not an act of decolonizing. It is indigenising, Māori-fying. The impetus to involve tikanga in museum and gallery spaces comes from the need to ensure that our taonga are surrounded by our language and our people, working in a way that respects them and their mana. We practice as such because it is what is right for our taonga. To speak of decolonizing is to speak of something entirely different, as it requires a comprehensive disestablishment of a structure that is not of, or by, Māori. Should that be our burden to bear?
Māori in museums are still in a mode of reclamation as we work to be represented in institutions in the first place. To decolonize, to undo 250 years of being collected and catalogued without agency, is a massive ask and we’re busy. We’re making these spaces ours, on our terms.
Megan Tamati-Quennell is Curator of Modern & Contemporary Māori & Indigenous Art at the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, New Zealand.
Described by artist Michael Parekowhai as the ‘beating heart’ of his 2011 Venice Biennale exhibition, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’, He Korero Purakau mo Te Awanui o Te Motu: Story of a New Zealand River (2011) is a ‘magnificent riddling object’; a clever interplay between old worlds and new. From its Maori/English title to the collaboration between Parekowhai and others during the making process to the players and audience members required to complete the work, this dazzling virtuoso, a carved, fully playable Steinway concert grand, is at once a Maori artwork and a European one.
Eternally the art trickster, Parekowhai wanted to take something to the Venice Biennale that was known and familiar, but which he could reimagine, recode and return to Italy as something other, as something he could create ‘as a stage for moments to happen’. He chose the piano, invented in Padua in 1655 and ‘an emphatically European’ object, as curator Justin Paton wrote in the exhibition catalogue.
A made-over readymade, He Korero Purakau is described by Parekowhai as an ‘authentic fake’, carved at his direction by a single non-Maori carver. Shiny red with an immaculate finish and enfolded in detail, it is an artwork that is determinedly individual but which is also informed by its cultural context. It explores concepts of the local and the global, but does not make a distinction between the two, instead appearing simultaneously as being from New Zealand and evocative of the many histories that come together within it, while also seeming extremely foreign.
The word ‘Purakau’ in the artwork’s title translates as ‘story’. But Parekowhai’s piano is not only a story of the eponymous river, that which connects New Zealand’s waterways with the canals of Venice. It is also a story of art, empire, culture, history and family; of colonization, adoption, adaption and transformation; of distance, centrality and perception.
He Korero Purakau speaks back to ideas of empire and the notion of Europe as the ‘centre of culture’. Parekowhai’s piano asserts our agency, reverses that narrative and proposes that New Zealand is, in fact, the cultural source. Through He Korero Purakau, the piano is celebrated as ‘an object that belongs to us as much as any European centre.’
Rolando Vázquez teaches sociology at UCR University of Utrecht, The Netherlands. In 2017, he curated the workshop ‘Staging the End of the Contemporary’ for MaerzMusik at the Berliner Festspiele. With Walter Mignolo, he coordinates the Middelburg Decolonial Summer School, The Netherlands.
Curated by Alanna Lockward, ‘Be.Bop – Black Europe Body Politics’ has been at the center of discussions on decolonial aesthesis. ‘Be.Bop’ brings together artists and thinkers including the project’s main advisor Walter Mignolo, who coined the term decolonial aesthesis.
‘Be.Bop’ has been hosted by various institutions including Berlin’s Volksbühne, Copenhagen’s Trampoline House and London’s Autograph ABP – but started as, and remains, primarily a non-institutional space. ‘Be.Bop’ has attained an understanding of itself as a maroon space, a sort of fugitivity in the interior of Europe, where diasporic trajectories and their enfleshed experiences of coloniality have come together to orchestrate and celebrate their dignity, healing power and love for freedom.
We came to understand ‘Be.Bop’ as a place of encounter generated in the confluence of spoken, visual and embodied languages, between theory and performance, memories and bodies. In the various editions of ‘Be.Bop’, artists such as Jeannette Ehlers, Mwangi Hutter, Patricia Kaersenhout, Raul Moarquech Ferrera-Balanquet, Teresa María Díaz Nerio, among others gave bodily reality to decoloniality: an experiential certainty, a solace. At the same time, the work of political activists and decolonial thinkers became for artists a mirror in which they found the words that they awaited for, the words that they already knew. Decolonial thought provided a vocabulary, an epistemic ground for what they have always already been doing.
Modernity, the western project of civilization, has established itself as the dominion over enunciation and the field of representation. Through its epistemology and aesthetics, political economy and institutions, it has monopolized the realm of experience and representation. But we know all too well that its monopoly over world-historical reality is appended to the exclusion and subjugation of other worlds of meaning. Coloniality has meant the destitution, erasure and silencing of other worlds. At the other side of modernity’s monopoly over the real is coloniality’s erasure. Decolonial aesthesis challenges the modern/colonial divide, contests the monopoly of modern aesthetics, the erasure of coloniality and the dominion of contemporaneity. It calls for ‘the end of the contemporary’.
Where can the histories, memories, voices that have been erased and silenced under the modern/colonial order take place? Where can the relational temporalities that have been subsumed under the now of contemporaneity flourish? Decolonial aesthesis is as much a critique of the modern/colonial order as it is a response to go beyond it, to bring to their proper place those worlds and experiences that have been rendered out of place by coloniality. ‘Be.Bop’ is an example that shows that it is possible for the voices, the memories, the aesthesis that have been rendered out of place, to take place.