Decolonising the Canon
Drawing from her own background in anthropology, Virginia Whiles advocates an interdisciplinary approach to deconstructing the racist canon underlying western art-historical curricula. The ideological background to colonialism demands rigorous cross-cultural investigation, especially with the current delusion of imperialism inflaming the Tory party.
Not only fervent nationalism but racist ideology, too, transpired in the writings of several 19th-century European art historians such as Eugéne Viollet-le-Duc, whose passion for the Gothic northern so-called primitive Renaissance was linked to its good ‘arian’ blood (a polemical issue even now with the predicted restoration of Notre Dame, whose earlier restoration he oversaw in 1844). The term ‘orientalism’, as a form of ‘imperialist knowledge’ as Edward Said described it, was used by the critical defender of the French realist movement Jules-Antoine Castagnary to decry the popular tendency in French salon art between 1840 and 1860.
Twenty years ago while looking at so-called orientalist art with South Asian students, the critical questions raised about power structures, gender issues and representation of the other were perceived as relevant to their own context. In a recent discussion about decolonising art history with students at University of the Arts London (UAL) looking at the Tate Britain collection, one student said she had to look the word
Raisa Kabir, Build me a loom off your back and your stomach,
2018, performance, Manchester School of Art decolonising up and several admitted difficulty in grasping its sense. Of around 20 students, two thirds were from BAME backgrounds – the common proportion in UK art schools. Their reactions to the historical facts around cultural colonialism reflected the same degree of dismay shown by the South Asian students. Anger at their ignorance of their own cultural backgrounds coupled with anger at the marketing strategies of British education policies (hugely subsidised by high-fee-paying Asian students, soon to be enhanced by raising the fees for EU students) foments their challenging of the curriculum, both here and in Asia.
Richard Hylton’s conclusion, in his feature ‘Decolonising the Curriculum’ (AM426), that we need to decolonise academia was only too manifest in my review of ‘Art and Empire’ at Tate Britain in 2016 (AM393), in which I wrote: ‘the overall visual effect suggests that our means of knowledge are still colonised. As the Australian artist Brook Andrew stated in the Tate debate, steeped in post-imperial melancholia, “We still need to decolonise ourselves ... the final gallery, mis-named Out of Empire, makes a feeble footnote. Significant artists such as Aubrey Williams, Donald Locke, Hew Locke, Uzo Egonu, Balraj Khanna, Sonia Boyce and Judy Watson are hung without curatorial care or passion. Despite the worthy intentions to show the “inter-cultural connections of a postcolonial artworld in a multicultural Britain”, they fail to make their case by lack of imagination and collaboration with the artists.’
Deconstruction of the racist canon that ruled the western art world develops through interdisciplinary deviations. This route led me to study anthropology. Its focus on context and agency motivates the self-reflexivity critical for the study and practice of art as a social fact. Ethnography can be a tool towards understanding how other art stories disturb the ethnocentric narrative of western art history. Throughout the past 20 years of combining art history with anthropological methodology, I have run a seminar entitled ‘Anthropology as a Tool for Artists’ in France, the UK, Pakistan and India. Why and how this option seems popular is the subject of my current research. The main reason lies in its partial response to the demand from students to decolonise the curriculum; it serves as a forum for the multicultural student body to discuss migration and the diasporic shifts in cultural identity.
Further to this, the zines being produced by students at UAL interrogate issues surrounding western hegemony. Central Saint Martins has a zine library to support alternative forms of publishing representing anti-capitalist marginalised voices of all varieties, from LGBTQI+ to fat activism and squatting, all included in the library catalogue. The main UAL zine, Decolonising the Arts Curriculum (which is available online), is collated and curated by Hansika Jethnani (Students’ Union), Lucy Panesar and Rahul Patel (Teaching and Learning Exchange). Their activism was sparked off by a student-led campaign in 2016 called UAL SO WHITE. To the question: ‘Do you feel like your curriculum represents people of diverse backgrounds and identities?’, 13% of the student body replied yes and 87% said no.
The evidence for the prosecution of a colonialist mindset lies in two charges: first, ‘attainment gaps affecting international students and students of colour’ and, second, ‘the under recruitment of students and
Art Monthly no. 429, September 2019