30.10.2020

Decolonizing the Museum is Not a Performance, Nor a Metaphor

What are the implications of decolonization in the cultural field, if what we mean by “culture” was constructed as an incubator of deeply colonial dynamics and structures?

Fabián Villegas: In light of the anticolonial holiday of October 12, and the antiracist movements that have surged this year as a response to police violence and civil genocide experienced by racialized populations in the United States, Colombia, Nigeria, South Africa, and Mexico, multiple conversations arose around cultural decolonization strategies that touched on subjects such as ancestry, historical memory, land rights, collective trauma, and colonial narratives. 

In the face of a multi-heterogeneous crisis, it is fundamental to articulate a civilizing South-South dialogue that is able to overcome the outdated, nineteenth-century model that administers and legislates culture, acting as an arts ministry. A model that ends up silencing, invisibilizing and residualizing the entire cultural ecosystem and epistemic racialized experiences that do not fit within colonial paradigms. 

Gilberto Gil, musician and ex-Minister of Culture of Brazil, argued for a counter-anthropology of culture, which he understood, metaphorically, as an organic body wherein each organ is constituent and dependent on one another, vital for the functioning of the entire body regardless of size. This thesis is relevant as it allows us to think of cultural experiences, epistemes, and ways of knowing that stem from untraditional gnoseological[1] spaces, from everyday life, from sites of struggle, from the anticolonial legacies of resistance. 

Just as Amílcar Cabral (1973) understood culture in the Global South: as the entire collection of practices that are a result of the organizing processes of resistance. With resistance, we refer not to that colonized narrative that is described as a practice of civil disobedience, but rather to the entire collection of practices that have been framed as spaces for the defense of life, the reconstruction of communal life, spaces of memory. This could be accomplished through dance, food, humor, oral practices, aesthetics, or the relationship to the land. 

I do not like to talk about the civil crisis in the singular, as that ascribes to a colonial sense of temporality and narration. In the face of these civil crises and the role which culture plays within them, how can we envision a cultural policies that emerges from the experiences of antiracist movements and anti-colonial struggles? 

Cindy Sissokho: Internationally, cultural institutions have demonstrated their lack of relevance through their performative reactionary statements shared in response to this year’s events. What we witnessed was the commodification of anticolonial and antiracist movements. In spite of the responses and criticism from racialized creative practitioners, most institutions are still to act upon it.

Institutions hold and produce culture and knowledge which leads to hegemonic discourses, canons, and representations. From an anticolonial and antiracist perspective, this is a key focus in dismantling the colonial narratives that survive within culture. How do we move beyond a simulated vision of culture produced from colonial historical narratives in order to focus on denouncing and dismantling colonial narratives and imaginaries? In a sense, it is important to identify the logic and processes in which culture and cultural policies operate today.

Anticolonial movements have discarded and played a key role in counteracting the culture implemented in the process of colonization through ethnographic photography or colonial literature.[2] For example, during the colonization of Algeria in 1830, France joined its military action with a defined cultural policy that would reach the objectives of sustainable colonization. During the first 40 years, France implemented policies of francization through the arts, architecture, and urbanism (such as monuments and street names), as well as heritage material (such as teaching Latin in school). Immaterial heritage and the Arabic language were invisibilized for the benefit of French culture and presence in the country. Popular culture was also reduced to folklore.

A strategy of cultural and geopolitical expansion of European cultures from the metropolises to the former colonies is present through institutions such as the French Institute, the Goethe Institute (Germany), and the Spanish Cultural Centers present throughout Latin America. Art and culture have been sought as the core of intellectual, sociopolitical, and economic domination and, later on, as the core of development, which continues to apply within these cultural centers across the world.

In the context of the 1980’s Europe, in the wake of cultural policies meaning to democratize cultural access and production, specific strands and means of culture remain validated and valued over others in its investment through financial and distributive means. Creating disparity between context and structure, cultural policies—and, consequently institutions—remain spaces of exclusion multiplying within the urban, the rural, and the periphery.

FV: Said paradigm on culture understood as a tool for the imposition of a civilizatory model extends not just to colonial administrations, but also to the configuration of independent nation-states, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean. 

Those of us who work directly or indirectly in the cultural sphere have always seen culture as a potential space for utopian horizons, emancipatory narratives, and processes of radical democratization, without rigorously identifying the role of “culture,” since the beginning of the twentieth century, it was instrumentalized primarily as a policy of miscegenation, of disidentification with the Black, Indigenous, & Brown experience. As a tool for the incubation of colonial structures, logics, and narratives in which whiteness was permanently ratified as a metaphor for sophistication, development, and modernity. 

Just as you mention, this made way for colonial hierarchization: between national cultures and cultural regionalisms, between the “cultural contemporaneity” of capital cities, of white metropoles, and folklore as a colonial narrative of cultural interiorization in spaces that are un-urban, rural, peripheral, un-metropolitan or metropolitan spaces impacted by markers of racial inequality. Any cultural ecosystem harbors an inherent relationship to space and land. It is the State which, in its colonial and juridic administration of space and the land, historically constructed the systems of cultural inferiorization and hierarchization. Due to this, it is impossible to hold this conversation without relating cultural rights and land rights in the context of anti-colonial struggles, and the politics of racial justice. 

There are reasons to distrust the cultural policy of the State, antiracist, or anti-colonial, which is marked by the instruments and mechanisms of national representation. There have existed fundamental initiatives that have had an impact on the cultural ecosystem, such as the modification of article 230 of the Federal Law of Telecommunications and Broadcasting that made space for indigenous languages in the Mexican context. Nonetheless, public policies do not exist in a power vacuum, that is to say, for it to have an impact it needs a transversal effort wherein multiple institutions, actors, and instances collaborate in the context of a single administration or political system. There are no anti-colonial cultural policies under colonial, capitalist, or neoliberal regimes and models. Anti-colonial cultural policies pierce structural and multisectoral inequalities, and can only be successful from an intersectional and transversal front—as it happened in the agenda of certain cultural policies during the regional progressive cycle experimented in Bolivia, Venezuela, and Brazil, or in the case of Ben Bella’s administration as the first decolonization government in Algeria. 

I agree with what you mention about the call for the decolonization of the museum. What exactly do we understand as decolonization? In what moment was the anti-colonial struggle separated from the redistribution of social materiality? In what moment was its emancipatory and revolutionary potential reduced to a metaphor? When was it that it became convenient to simulate supporting anti-colonial narratives and discourses within institutions, organizations, movements, and spaces built upon colonial structures of asymmetry and racial inequality? 

Alongside Sergio Mosquera, founder of the Muntú Bantu Memory Space in Chocó, Colombia, we ask ourselves: what meaning does the decolonization of the museum have for Colombia’s palenquera and racial communities, for the Brazilian quilombola communities, for the banlieues and the racialized peripheries? Possibly nothing, possibly something. In a political thought experiment, it is necessary to consider the management of the cultural ecosystem as existing at the margins of the traditional model for the management of cultural policies. It is necessary to think of tools for disruption, counter-hegemonic languages at the margins of avant-garde narratives, and their false illusion of contemporaneity. It would seem that the decolonization of the museum, more than a counter-hegemonic movement marked by the legacies of antiracist and anticolonial struggles, is an avant-garde statement or a trend within critical museology and liberal narratives. Who reclaims the decolonization of the museum? 

This issue lies in the material dimension, one of asymmetry and racial inequality, upon which “the performative practices and spaces for the enunciation of these so-called anti-colonial logics” are suspended. The toppling of colonial monuments starts conversations on collective trauma, the recuperation of historical memory, ancestry, afro-reparations, and colonial narratives. It is worth it to inquire whether the decolonial agendas of the Prado Museum, NYC’s Museo del Barrio, or the ultra-white avant-garde galleries of Mexico City truly intersect with communal dimensions in order to function as true spaces of memory, of radical imagination, as activators for repatriative and redistributive processes with and for the community.[3]

CS: Culture, specifically the arts, is defined as a space of possibilities. This is key in the articulation of decoloniality, and it is the mainframe and vision within my curatorial work. Through this, we have found a space for self and collective expression that isn’t possible or given within political life, and where the censor of our voices and actions is lesser than if you were a political actor—a process of depoliticization, unless coming from a white gaze. No need to mention that there is also a tokenistic and instrumental approach to this work that needs addressing in parallel to its production, which is inherently present when doing the institutional work, for example. This avenue for the ‘decolonizing’ dialogue is by implementing forgotten narratives through the means of cultural production.

It is then very much about creating the spaces that transnationally resonate and dialogue with one another, allowing for platforms for collaborations from South to South constituencies: spaces, people, and narratives that navigate on the same decolonial resonances, animate and relate through our contemporaneity and colonial subjectivities.

When we focus on the words: decolonial, decolonizing, decolonization, they do not mean the same for all. When we work towards it, in this process, where does the political imaginary sit? One cannot assume it for another as we only reproduce models of domination.

You are drawing a very fundamental parallel between global peripheral spaces. I was born in the banlieues of Paris, these ‘lost territories of the French Republic’ and, to refer to Michel Foucault, those ‘spaces of deviation’, where another hetero(u)topias and realities are articulated in the margins. Spaces where the internal utopia of the peripheral racialized body and collectives are very much part of a transnational struggle and identity. Decoloniality plays a big part in every day, as a way for resilience and coping mechanisms, that is mostly done through creativity and community.

What is the place of racialized epistemes in contemporaneity? What is their place in regard to the civil crisis? In regard to the new discussions of imaginary, symbolics, narratives, or the creation of new ways of political imagination? 

This is a central element that institutions do not give enough space and justice to. They are constantly refusing to bridge the two and create common points through lateral dialogue and ownership from both entities. A pattern that currently happens is the implementation of cultural policies and, therefore, initiatives, that push neoliberal institutions to deliver the ‘black and brown’, ‘queer community’ program that plays in the performative act of decolonizing their spaces, tokenistically showcasing ‘diversity’ of works and people without getting to grip with who they talking to, trying to reach and obviously a myopic vision of what they think a decolonized institution looks like. There are many points of divergence and reference to analyze, whether it is the funding bodies, the pyramidal management, the staff structure, and the ways of programming, promoting, and the audience that influence it all.

Something that is deeply valuable is that, whether in places such as Casablanca or Bamako, there is a point of connection with what decoloniality feels like that I have never managed to fully articulate. A feeling of common understanding coming from a reciprocal way of being and communicating without naming the process. This is an experience. An experience of trusting the work, its longevity, sustainability and the resistance movement that is being built around it.

However, in the context of working in the UK, the need for collective learning and discussions is one that I value entirely in my work; so in a way, the simple act of being present and making together is incomparable in its impact. It leads to the forging of new spaces and entities that rules out hegemony. I think it is about the political imaginary that comes from racialized bodies in the articulation of what we understand as a common future. I believe that the spaces, platforms, individuals, and institutions that allow for this are partly engaging with a shift that we can understand as a ‘decolonial’ framework.

FV: That is a key point in the cultural discussion. The critical responses to 2020 have been overwhelmingly ideological, dehumanizing in their ability to mask material conditions and structural reality. A certain anti-colonial field remained stuck in a fantasy, in an ethical and aesthetic compromise with the impossible, fascinated with a political desire mobilized by the metaphors of a lackluster, circular, and stationary radical imagination. As you mention, depoliticization, decontextualization and the extractive use of categories such as community have been central to understanding the deceitful management of certain institutional and extra-institutional initiatives in the cultural, artistic, and political sphere. They have allowed for simulation and the false illusion of South-South dialogues praised for developing from within southern geographies, without considering the structures of racial inequality and the very whiteness of the cultural agents upon these spaces for annunciation are inscribed. The spaces for cultural knowledge and production must be radically democratized, decolonized, and decentralized. To break with the colonial and pigmentocentric mandates of who produces knowledge, where knowledge is produced, what is “curated” as knowledge, who receives knowledge, and through which channels knowledge is socialized and reproduced. To think of cultural policies from an anti-colonial and antiracist perspective cannot be divorced from asking: what is the place of racialized epistemes in contemporaneity? What is their place in regard to the civil crisis? In regard to the new discussions of imaginary, symbolics, narratives, or the creation of new ways of political imagination? 

From the CCCADI in NY, to Kalulu Danza in the Dominic Republic, from Muntú Bantú in Colombia, to Fora de Eixo in Brazil, from Quilomboarte in Mexico, to the Tzikin network in Guatemala, from La Colonie in France to Tiuna el Fuerte in Venezuela, to name only a few; there are cultural practices—models for decentralized cultural management centered in antiracist and anti-colonial movements—that articulate counterhegemonic struggles, collective rights, land rights and defense, judicial pluralism, economic solidarity, free communication, anti-colonial linguistic policies, living community culture, self-management, pedagogical perspective, memory spaces, food sovereignty, and radical imaginings of cultural ecosystems. 

In the face of these civil crises, cultural discussions must elaborate upon the reflection on radical visualizations of the future that fracture the false illusion of modernity. Just like the theses of Paul Gilroy, Sylvia Wynter, Cheikh Anta Diop, Felwine Sarr, Sarah Maldoror, and Ifi Amadiume, we need transitive temporalities that allow us to build radical future metaphors through exercises of recuperation of historical memory that, alongside the relief of colonial trauma, open the possibility to build cultural ecosystems based in a deep sense of pre-colonial futurism. 

CS: We also need to readjust our own internalization of coloniality and to (remaining and influencing) political consciousness, critical methodology, and epistemologies that revive a sense of agency which inhabits the realm of the idea of ‘community’ in the way that we define it away from neoliberal, neo-colonial and racist institutions fantasies.

This would firstly include political imagination and transformation in the means of active pedagogical platforms and initiatives, such as the nomadic Àsìkò Art School in Lagos created by Bisi Silva (1962-2019) or the Center for Art, Knowledge, and Society, RAW Material Company in Dakar. These are spaces producing knowledge within their localities but that also play the roles of portals moving through other contexts, to the diaspora and beyond.

Secondly, as an active need to create, study and reimagine the relations, circulations, and intersections in order for new cartography to emerge questioning Eurocentric systems, as well as rethinking the regional and the global away from a North/South logic.[4]

We should not only address the space that Global South epistemologies are occupying but the space that we are ready to take up by way of new forms of resistance, anti-colonial and antiracist utopias as a standard that would create parallel ecologies, chronologies, cartographies, and redefining centers of knowledge from what we presently know as occupying the margins.

A redefinition of ‘civilization’ through the prism of creativity as culture, as what matters the most, and consequently the re-articulation of the grounded idea of citizenship and nations. A space of conversations and collective building constructed upon the memory of the contemporary that would no longer subsist.

Notes

  1. Relating to the field of gnoseology, a branch of philosophy that studies the nature, origin and scope of knowledge.

  2. In counterpoint, joining the mention of Amílcar Cabral, it is important to recognize the PAIGC schools and their revolutionary and decolonial teaching installed in Guinea Bissau from which we can learn today. Or, as another example, the film production of Sarah Maldoror and Sara Gomez in Cuba. The processes that have allowed the creation and production of this archive are extremely inspiring, leaving a legacy that still resonates with the current situation in the work of denunciation and when producing counter-perspectives.

  3. By community I do not mean communities of dialogue in social networks, but rather fabrics of historical memory, political identification and communal organization.

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