Morgan Quaintance challenges the reductive and partial conception of the decolonial project that allows the liberal art world to feel good about itself while ignoring continued colonialism in the present. In May 2015, a series of protests erupted at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Agitators gathered to demand the removal of a statue commemorating the colonial achievements of one man: former Cape Colony prime minister, angliciser of the African landscape, eugenicist and racist, Cecil Rhodes. Perhaps traceable as part of an unofficial 21st-century wave of de-monumentalisation that could begin with the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s Firdos Square statue in 2003 and then extend to the removal (or not) of Confederate monuments in the US, the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement also birthed an enthusiasm, at least in Europe and North America, for a specific term: decolonisation. Signalling a critical approach to the hegemony of prejudicial western, heteronormative socio-cultural, economic, political, racial and aesthetic values, the word has, in the past five years, reached a point of linguistic saturation as a one-size-fits-all, radicalising prefix. In any given week, calls for decolonising fashion, art history, university curricula, Rupaul’s Drag Race, ballet or the BAFTAs will clamour for attention in the fraught public markets of online and offline opinion. What have been the cultural and ideological implications of this development?
For some, this widespread use of an ostensibly uncomplicated critical tool may be welcomed as a sign that progression and postcolonial redress are now popular. But, trending terminology aside, there is also a negative aspect to the dynamic. Through widespread use of the term, a process of dilution has taken place, leading to the loss of an essential critical rigour. The problem is semantic. In the West, and particularly in the art world, ‘decolonisation’ is largely understood and propagated as a symbolic and metaphorical process that has, for the most part, targeted objects, ideas and sociocultural behaviours. In parts of the majority world (that is to say, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, South America and so on) where the effects of colonial and neocolonial rule are concrete, enduring and operate at state level, the process of decolonisation is literal, economic and actual. The problem is that the former approach (the Euro-American symbolic) has dominated discourse, debate and action in the West to such a degree that the economic and actual effects of colonisation elsewhere are effectively marginalised and remain unchecked.
The detrimental results of this parochial activism are twofold. First, the critical privilege – that is the privilege of operating in an environment virtually free from censorship or the threat of political violence – of those who live in the global south (whether white, black, South or East Asian and so on) is rarely, if ever, used to draw attention to events in countries in the majority world where such liberties may not exist. Second, western organisations which benefit from the concrete core features of state-level colonial structures operate with impunity within the partial critical frame that the Euro-American symbolic territory creates. It enables such organisations and institutions to project an image of themselves as moral agents and supporters
Musquiqui Chihying, The Sculpture, 2020, video
Art Monthly no. 435, April 2020