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Rewriting Memories and Denouncing History: Postcolonial Art
Feminisms and Other Engagements
24.07.2020 | Nina Meisel

Pushpamala N., The arrival of Vasco de Gama, 2014, Giclee print on canvas, concept, production and direction: Pushpamala N., © Photo: Clay Kelton, 152.4 x 213.3 cm, © Pushpamala N.

Ideological and political struggles and art often converge and fuel one another, offering each visibility and expressive power. Born in the second half of the twentieth century, postcolonial studies are a critical reaction to the legacy of Western hegemony. They propose historical re-readings of the ways of life and traditions of civilisations that existed before this imperialism. In this context, artists have found the key to these readings and give rise to new ideas, while allowing new figures to emerge.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the black activist and female artist Augusta Savage (1892-1962) sculpted the faces of her comrades in clay and became an emblem of the Harlem Renaissance, a movement to restore African-American culture during the interwar period. During the 1960s Gazbia Sirry (born in 1925) made her work a bias of critical observation of the political universe of contemporary Egypt. Today, Rebecca Belmore (born in 1960), renews postcolonial demands. She denounces the perpetuation of racialised stereotypes motivated by the tourism industry in Canada by highlighting the violence of these clichés and questioning the alienation of one culture by another. Archives, a tool of the historian, invite themselves into creations as a guarantee of authenticity, but also as a witness to the violence of the past. To speak about the narrative of white domination and to shed light on the present, Berry Bickle (born in 1959), a white Zimbabwean artist, uses these traces of the past in connection with a symbolist dialectic to address the suffering and the prospects for liberation in her country. Others appropriate documents to change their destination and perception. From the 1990s in India, Pushpamala N. (born in 1956) has staged cultural prejudices to denounce and deride them in her photographs, which resemble exotic and folkloric images that could be found on postcards at the beginning of the twentieth century. Malala Andrialavidrazana (born in 1971) focuses her work on memory, which she documents by meeting the inhabitants of the Indian Ocean. Thus, by writing her own history, she seeks to rediscover the ancestral traditions that have not given way to Western imperialism offering keys to a sociological reading of these territories.

For some, creation is a means of asserting new identities, a quest that already existed at the beginning of the 20th century. After the Mexican revolution, María Izquierdo (1902-1955) worked for a time with the muralists who created didactic frescoes. The painter began a reflection with them on art and the enhancement of their cultural identity. Irma Stern (1894-1966), a white South African creator, documented in her notebooks the daily essence of African life, which she deplored as a victim of colonisation, urbanisation and capitalism. Lubaina Himid (born in 1954) questions the marginalization of the African diaspora in society and in contemporary art and actively participates in the recognition of black women within British Black Art. Today, Pélagie Gbaguidi (born in 1965), works on memory transmission that links the past, present and future in which she projects bodies washed of all social norms, gender, race. This representation of being, aberrant for our societies, makes the present universal and restorative. It is through the re-appropriation of traditional rituals and ceremonies that Australian Phyllis Thomas Booljoongali (1940-2018) reaffirms her Aboriginal identity.

Postcolonial considerations, like those on gender, permeate all strata of the art world and push institutions to join in as well. This gives rise to events such as the symposium “What is a Post-Colonial Exhibition?” which took place on 25 May 2012 at the Framer Framed in Amsterdam. Another example is Okwui Enwezor’s The Postcolonial Constellation: Contemporary Art in a State of Permanent Transition, published in 2003.

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