Global Art History and the Imbalance of Power

Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll, Barber Institute of Fine Art, University of Birmingham,

Stacey Kennedy, Department of African Studies and Anthropology, University of Birmingham,

Azadeh Sarjoughian, Barber Institute of Fine Art, University of Birmingham,

Global Art History amplifies a polyphonous texture of voices that have not yet been heard. Only when a multiplicity of perspectives exist in dialogue can we talk of art history becoming globalised as a discipline. Our panel addresses this provocation and argues not simply for the extended coverage of global art in art-historical literature, but to decentre existing hegemonies and respond to global power imbalances with art-historical tools. In dialogic formats where the art historian is the mediator, we shift from only speaking to also listening to our subjects of contemporary art from around the world. We experiment with conversations between artists and art historians. Screening artists’ work in the breaks, we conclude our session with a roundtable on the possibilities and limitations of a decolonised approach to art history, led by Dorothy Price. Through specific case studies, the panel will bring to prominence marginalised perspectives and aesthetic approaches from beyond the Euro-American canon, which are often difficult to access even when on exhibit. Making the most of the online format that allows us both to be together in a global digital space and yet also to keep a vibrant sense of presence despite distance, this session features papers delivered live from Benin, Australia, various parts of Europe, the US, UK and South Africa.

Speakers & Abstracts

The Abbey as an Artist Colony

Rex Butler (Monash University, Melbourne)
A.D.S. Donaldson (National Art School, Sydney)

One of the new models for thinking about the production of art in a new decolonialised art history might be the artist colony. Certainly, in Australia, one of the revolutions Aboriginal art has brought about is the way it takes place in a series of artist colonies: self-identifying and self-regulating cultural centres that have little or nothing to do with any imagined national art. Australian artists have been involved with artist colonies throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, not only in Australia but around the world. This paper will address one of them: the Abbey Art Centre in New Barnet, just outside of London. Owned by gallerist and ethnographic art collector William Ohly, the complex of studios operated until the late 1950s as the base for a generation of Australian artists and art historians, who enjoyed an entrée into the English art scene offered to no others either before or after. In particular, we examine the social and artistic triangle formed between 1947 and 1949 by the Sydney artists Robert Klippel, James Gleeson and Mary Webb, the first Australians to arrive at the Abbey and the first to leave. Later with the arrival of the art historian Bernard Smith and a number of Melbourne artists, the Abbey could be seen to take on a more ‘nationalist’ character and become part of the wider story of Australian art, but in this paper we focus on an earlier moment in which these Sydney artists are as much as anything part of English, or more accurately London, art.

Peripheral Visiting: Gathering through the image 

Astrid Nicole Korporaal (Kingston University, London) in conversation with Elizabeth Povinelli (Columbia University, New York) and The Karrabing Film Collective

Decolonial perspectives on art history have elaborated the ways visual representation and documentation have been intertwined with the colonial project, through the extraction of images, the erasure of cultural contexts, the display of cultural objects in Western museums, and extensive systems of visual classification, abstraction and appropriation. The visual regime has become associated with the coloniser’s Eurocentric, objectifying and territorialising gaze. Can the visual still play a part in the healing of what Mignolo and Vázquez call colonial wounds? A community engaging with these questions is The Karrabing Film Collective, a grassroots Indigenous-based group formed by members of an extended Aboriginal family living in the Northern Territory of Australia and North American anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli. In conversation with their creative practice, I explore the concept of ‘peripheral vision’, as a creative way of seeing and showing that attends to the gaps and glitches in transcultural imaginations of the world. Using Donna Haraway’s metaphor of visiting as a mode of ethical attention, I posit that these works de-focus Western understandings of creative participation or collaboration towards a single vision. Instead, I explore how they move with and through images as multi-perspectival zones, stimulating ongoing and transformative dialogues beyond the framed space of the cinema screen.

Screening during break:

The Mermaids, or Aiden in Wonderland
Karrabing Film Collective, Australia 2018. Aboriginal English, English. 27’, Colour

In the not-so-distant future, Europeans will no longer be able to survive for long periods outdoors in a land and seascape poisoned by capitalism, but Indigenous people seem able to. A young Indigenous man, Aiden, taken away when he was just a baby to be a part of a medical experiment to ‘save the white “race”’, is released into the world of his family. As he travels with his father and brother across the landscape, he confronts two possible futures and pasts. The film is a powerful intervention in contemporary debates about the future present of climate change, extractive capitalism and industrial toxicity from the point of view of Indigenous worlds. The Karrabing Film Collective is an Indigenous media group formed by approximately 30 members, most of whom are based in the Northern Territory of Australia. Initiated in 2008 as a form of grassroots activism, they approach filmmaking as a mode of self-organisation and a means of investigating contemporary social conditions of inequality. With their films and installations, the collective exposes the long shadow and different shapes cast by colonial power.

The Early Black Printmakers in South Africa

Pfunzo Sidogi (Tshwane University of Technology, South Africa)

Art historians have traced the history of printmaking as a creative endeavour amongst black artists in South Africa to the mid-20th century. Whilst these genealogies are valuable, they exclude and are silent on the deep history of printing as both an artistic and trade skill within the black press. In this paper, I demonstrate how the history of printmaking among black creatives predates white-run schools such as the Polly Street Art Centre (est. 1949), the Ndaleni Art School (est. 1952) and Rorke’s Drift (est. 1962). By analysing images published in the Ilanga Lase Natal newspaper (est. 1903), which ran its own press from late 1903, I argue for the recalibration and re-canonisation of the legacies of printmaking as a creative endeavour among black people during the 20th century. There is substantive evidence showing that black printmakers existed and flourished within the publishing domain from as early as the 1900s. The establishment of black-run newspapers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries enabled the emergence of black printmakers who etched images that were inserted in the papers, pamphlets and books published by these black-owned presses.

Unfortunately, the rapid advancements in the mass reproduction of photographic images within the newspaper publishing industry in the years that followed rendered the antiquated processes used by these early black printmakers obsolete, which resulted in the disappearance of their artistic legacy as the earliest black printmakers. This paper is a contribution to alternate art histories that advance hidden and forgotten creative legacies of black artists from the global South.

Techno-Utopias as Method: Nat Muller in conversation with Heba Y. Amin

Nat Muller (Curator/Birmingham City University)
Heba Y. Amin (BGSMCS, Freie Universität, Berlin)

This paper takes the form of a conversation with artist Heba Y. Amin. Its point of departure is an inquiry in how techno-utopias, historical and speculative, inform the artist’s work. In this conversation, we explore how notions of world-building that use technologies of imaging and territorial control can be addressed through artistic practice to interrogate colonial and masculine gazes. Windows on the West (2019) looks to the earliest documented photographs as technological tools of political propaganda; Operation Sunken Sea (2018) investigates various geo-engineering proposals to relocate the Mediterranean Sea; As Birds Flying (2016) and The General’s Stork (2016) consider avian and aviation military technologies of surveillance and warfare; and The Earth is an Imperfect Ellipsoid (2016) interrogates land-measuring instruments and representations of geographies through power dynamics of technology. Amin’s works speak to the entanglement between technologies and ideologies and the ways in which imagery and imaginary are connected. The discussion will address Amin’s artistic methodologies aimed at decolonising and de-orientalising research and praxis and how techno-utopian imaginaries can be used as a tool to drive democratising and emancipatory alternatives that are inclusive and speak to social justice.

Screenings during break:

Heba Y. Amin, As Birds Flying, 2016, 7’ 11’’

In 2013, news stories circulated of a migratory stork fitted with an electronic device. The animal was apprehended by the Egyptian authorities on suspicion of espionage. The would-be ‘spying device’ on the stork was later shown to be a scientific tracking device used by Hungarian scientists to follow the stork’s migratory patterns. Heba Y. Amin’s film As Birds Flying (2016) responds to the absurdity of such accusations, which occur in moments of political strain. The short, allegorical film is constructed out of found drone footage of aerial views of savannas and wetlands, including settlements in the Galilee – sweeping views that seem to be taken by the ‘spy’ stork in the above story. ‘Seeing the country from the top is better than seeing it from below’, the soundtrack says, with footage of a bird soaring in the air. Funny, absurd and disconcerting, the video’s suspenseful cinematic soundtrack contains the reconstructed audio sequences of dialogue from Adel Imam’s film Birds of Darkness. In that 1995 film – which tells the story of religious and secular political candidates in Egypt – a toxic mixture of political corruption and religious radicalism is shown to have deleterious effects on society. In the reconstructed dialogue, the characters discuss political sectarianism, censorship, democracy and surveillance. In its footage of birds flocking or perched alone, the film resonates with contemporary political tensions between individualism and the collective, and questions whether birds of a feather really do flock together.


ZEFAK, Manifesto: Calling the Future, 2020

Aria Farajnezhad; Elard Lukaczik; Zainab Haidary (University of Arts Bremen)

ZEFAK as a collective body is currently doing a one-year residency scholarship (April 2020–April 2021) at künstlerhäuser Worpswede and committing itself fully to the idea of sharing resources and knowledge as opposed to taking ownership over the institutional privilege.

We are working on Future Archives, a project which tends to provide a discursive platform to discuss the possibility of emancipating the present from dominating future scenarios. The capitalist and colonial regimes are realising themselves by not only anticipating but also enforcing certain future plans into the present moment; the ones which are mainly the repetition of the exclusion and exploitation, thereby limiting spaces for the alternative future to occur.

In August 2020, we put together a Manifesto which then became the ground to organise Calling the Future, an interdisciplinary symposium that brought together local artists, scientists and activists to reframe local and global struggles. Calling the Future was the first try within the project Future Archives to facilitate the conversations on topics, such as gas extraction and earthquakes, property and the European notion of human rights, deep sea mining and decolonisation from a queer perspective via a constant negotiation between local and universal positions. ZEFAK attempts to respond to the conflict of local/universal by taking the local seriously and not overlooking the specificities and ways of resistance that help different groups to survive on a smaller scale, an understanding which goes beyond identity politics. This video is an attempt to activate and animate the Manifesto rather than offering a documentation of ZEFAK’s activities.


Deniz Soezen, Surya Namaz, HD video

The experimental video ‘Surya Namaz’ explores the practices of yoga and namaz, the Muslim prayer ritual, through a personal and multilingual narrative, destabilising fixed notions of belonging and identity through opacity and transcultural embodiment.

The main protagonists are my aunt Ümit Sözen, a devout Muslim woman who lives in Konya, Turkey and my New York-born Nigerian-Puerto-Rican yoga teacher Marisol Figueroa Reitze who is currently based in Solothurn, Switzerland. Alongside the multilingual voice-over (English, German, Turkish, Arabic and Sanskrit), filmic and sonic techniques, such as superimposition and partial translation are used to articulate the complexities of these transcultural encounters. Through putting the culturally distinct practices of yoga, namaz and Catholic Church rituals into relation with each other, the video simultaneously hybridises these ritualistic practices and interconnects them in rhizomatic ways, challenging dualistic thinking and assumptions of a singular root, by promoting a philosophy of multiple belongings.


Deniz Sözen studied Fine Art at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna and at Goldsmiths in London. She recently completed a practice-based PhD at CREAM (Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media), University of Westminster. Her works have been shown in various contexts internationally. She is currently an associate lecturer at Central Saint Martins, UAL.

Kent Monkman, Casualties of Modernity, high-definition digital video
The video forms part of a multimedia installation commissioned for the BMO Project Room (January–November 2015), now part of the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. It is described by Monkman as an episode from the popular syndicated soap opera Casualties of Modernity, in which his artistic alter-ego Miss Chief stars with the erudite Doctor of Fine Arts and a cast of vulnerable or forgotten art traditions, including appearances by Abstract Art, Performance Art, Conceptual Art, Primitivism and Romanticism.

Rampaging the Global in Art History: Decoloniality and the work of Kent Monkman

Renate Dohmen (Open University)

The paper explores the work of Cree painter, filmmaker, installation and performance artist Kent Monkman, one of Canada’s best-known contemporary artists, in relation to issues of indigeneity, (de)coloniality and Eurocentric pictorial conventions. It proposes that his work offers a creative, counter-colonial and radically differenced approach to negotiating the canons of art history that inscribes an empowered Indigenous presence and addresses the stereotyping and appropriation of Indigenous cultures in European art.

More specifically, the paper demonstrates the ways in which Monkman creatively counters othering strategies inherent in the visual discourses of modernity/coloniality by drawing on Indigenous notions of storying as well as the figure of the trickster epitomised by Monkman’s flamboyant, gender-bending, artistic alter-ego Miss Eagle Testicle, who rampages through the history of art, performatively upending its conventions. Moreover, it argues that his work signals the rise of the new paradigm of the artist as post-Indian warrior.

The discussion presents Monkman’s approach as paradigmatic of strategies of re-existence in contrast to notions of resistance, and explores its resonance with and divergence from prominent propositions of decoloniality as counter to the global.

Unsettling the Archive: Women and the Danford Collection

Stacey Kennedy (U
niversity of Birmingham)

The University of Birmingham’s ‘Danford Collection’ is an assemblage of African art and artefacts shaped by the entangled material and social interactions of objects, people and institutions. The pressing imperative to decolonise educational institutions makes it necessary to unsettle such colonial spaces and decentre existing hegemonies. Issues of ownership, control and power are at the heart of such discussions: who are the rightful owners of objects collected as a result of colonialism and its legacies? Who controls the narratives that give meaning to these collections? Who has the power to set agendas and prioritise whose voices are presented? The paper aims to unpick the inherent power structures within the collection by focussing on gender. I reveal that although named after John Danford, a British Council administrator based in Western Nigeria in the 1940s and 1950s, well over half of the collection was donated by four women: Sister Evelyn Bellamy, Elnora Ferguson, Marion Johnson and Prof Lalage Bown. Understanding the collection as a gendered space, the paper explores the dynamic cultural agency of these female donors, whose presence disrupts tropes of collector as male trader, colonial official or soldier, gathering items through force or coercion. I uncover relationships of possible reciprocity through which objects traversed the entangled socio-political networks connecting West Africa and Birmingham. The paper goes beyond the politics of cultural removal to investigate the range of interactions, negotiations and cultural transactions which took place alongside and beyond the context of structural violence inflicted by imperial frameworks. I aim to reinsert the agency of African people into collection histories, as principal actors and individuals responding to political and historical forces of their day.

Liberating our Framing: Movement in the break led by Claire Loussouarn

How can we be more aware of our framing in perceiving the world and what it excludes? How can we open ourselves to seeing the world from a different framing than our own? In a series of simple movement suggestions, we will actively embody different modes of observing and relating to the world around us in order to bring to awareness how each of our unique bodies are conditioned to see the world. Through this movement exploration, we will ask how can we learn to embody an attitude of not knowing which doesn’t exclude or discriminate but open itself up to the diversity and richness of perspectives and what they afford. The session will be fun and will provide a nice break from sitting and listening. It will not require much mind thinking, just a willingness to explore an idea with your body.


A Polyphony of Encounters

Barbara Preisig (Zurich University of the Arts)

How does the reception of travelling exhibitions differ in various contexts around the world? To what extent is it conditioned by regional or local differences? Contrary to the widespread idea that the encounter with art is determined by the reception proposed by artists and institutions, I assume that multiple appropriations occur in manifold encounters. They have simply not been taken into account so far, because art history has been limited to institutionally authorised sources (Western exhibition catalogues, reviews, scholarly texts) and thus cemented the unequal power relations in the global art world.

In my paper, I will discuss a theory of the art work, which further develops approaches from Material Culture Studies and New Materialism. I suggest that the meaning of art is neither to be found in the work itself, nor in the artists’ cultural background, nor in an implicit viewer, but in changing relations with art. The exhibition El Anatsui. Triumphant Scale is an interesting case for thinking about such a polyphony of encounters. Conceived by Okwui Enwezor and Chika Okeke-Agulu for the Haus der Kunst, the exhibition was sold ready-to-use to the Arab Museum of Modern Art (MATHAF), Doha and the Kunstmuseum Bern. Although the curators in Bern and Doha had hardly any creative possibilities, the museum’s public communication already shows local variations in the exhibition’s interpretation. In the museum’s visitor books, guided tours and in conversations with visitors in Bern, I experienced a further multiplication of perspectives, which reveal unexpected trans-local connections. What consequences does this ‘carpet of voices’ have for the conventions of art-historical writing?

Position Paper and Roundtable Discussion with Dorothy Price

A roundtable panel discussion at the close of this session to reflect on the issues raised by the session and by the recent widespread calls to ‘Decolonise’ art history. In February 2020, Art History journal published 30 responses to a questionnaire in which art historians working across different sectors ranging from higher education to museums and galleries, were asked to reflect on recent calls to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum. The Editors wanted to know what such calls might mean for the discipline of art history, what a decolonised art history might look like, and whether it was even possible? The aim of the intervention was to start a conversation. The responses were nuanced and varied but the pool of respondents was largely, though not exclusively, drawn from an Anglo-American axis, despite the Editorial team’s best efforts to widen the group of respondents. There was only one respondent from Africa, one from India, one from Canada and one from Malaysia. While the cultural origins of all of the respondents were varied in terms of race, ethnicity, gender and age, the linguistic axis was not. This roundtable will be an opportunity to reflect on this further within the context of ideas around global art history and the imbalance of power that will be explored within this session.





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