Review: “Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future”

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams is an artist, critic and poet, based in the UK. He writes art criticism for The Critic, Standpoint, Apollo, Burlington Magazine, Print Quarterly, Printmaking Today, The Jackdaw and other publications. He publishes articles on censorship and free speech, as well as book reviews, on Spiked-Online.

Artivism (political and social activism using the forms and language of art) is set to become the predominant art movement of the early 21st Century. For both supporters and critics (both large groups that are growing), it is necessary to understand the movement, in order to promote or oppose it. Artivism tends to come from the left of political spectrum, though it remains to be seen if this holds true long term. After all, anti-migrant artivism is as viable as pro-migrant artivism and (judging from public surveys) the former would engender more popular support.

Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future is written by Carlos Garrido Castellano, a Hispano-Lusophone specialist in the intersection of culture and politics in Central and South America and Africa. This book looks at artivism as a branch of “anticolonial, postcolonial, and decolonial struggles”.[i] The use of Western avant-garde art forms – the installation, conceptual art, land art, performance, street art and other approaches – are ripe for non-Western practitioners to use (or appropriate) to advance their interests. “[…] through excavating “postcolonial” art histories, it becomes impossible to identify socially engaged art as a recent phenomenon, and the idea of this kind of art as an outcome of Western art histories is also called into question.”[ii]

The opening paragraph sets out the racialised identity-politics beliefs of the author. “Following Cedric Robinson’s incisive observation that capitalism is always racial capitalism, and that social inequalities are shaped by (and shape in turn) racial categorizations, Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future maintains that art activists and socially engaged artists are equipped with a decades-long experience of challenging the reasoning that lies behind neoliberal capitalism.”[iii] Garrido Castellano notes characteristics of socially engaged art are anti-commodification, pro-collaboration and anti-aestheticism.

The decision to take as a subject art biennales is by no means an obvious one. The author writes, “[…] biennials [are] the main space where art becomes global, where local and transnational art interactions are negotiated.”[iv] Yet the only people who pay attention to biennales are top-level curators and collectors. Most gallerists, artists, collectors, museum visitors, academics and historians ignore them. However, biennales have permitted political curators to showcase their arguments over recent decades, although the only people who notice are other post-colonial activists. “Three central elements can be deduced from here. First, biennials are not the new, nor is the kind of art they promote. Second, the impact of that kind of art goes far beyond the space and time of the biennial itself, directly conditioning what Jones calls “the global work of art” and having an impact on taste, tourism, and consumption. Finally, and this is crucial, the aesthetic resulting from biennials will not be determined so much by the objects as by experience.”[v] The chapter suffers from the excess of perhaps-this-perhaps-that, with the author quoting post-colonial theorists contradicting each other on the subject of biennales.

Garrido Castellano discusses the theoretical foundations of post-colonialism, looking closely at African nationalist Amílcar Cabral and Trinidadian historian-essayist C.L.R. James. These figures are considered as post-colonial thinkers, as they have no connection to art. The author chose Cabral as a case study because he had no cultural hinterland. He was – according to the quotes here from his biographer – a Machiavellian man of action, lacking any ideological encumbrances, dedicated to national unity under rule of a black citizenry. He was a collectivist, materialist and technocrat. “Cabral’s mistrust of individualism in cultural matters remains invaluable as part of a genealogy of socially committed cultural production. For Cabral, culture constituted a perfect and necessary platform for turning his idea of emancipatory and political practice into reality.”[vi] He had a utilitarian, materialist approach to culture. He criticised the bourgeois black Cape Verdeans and Bissau-Guineans for preferring Western Modernism in the visual arts over the collectivist socially functional production of the black proletariat, that Cabral favoured as socially valuable. Cabral, like other post-colonial leaders, advocated an outright rejection of Western taste and thinking. In the following chapter, Garrido Castellano seeks to place James as a key precursor to socially-engaged cultural production.

Ugandan projects Lilian Mary Nabulime’s HIV/AIDS “social sculpture” and the Disability Art Project Uganda are described. The author then considers reactions of writers to the wave of “do-good activism” in Africa, considering if the urge to benefit local people conflicts with a duty to critique a social system or socio-political economy that (supposedly) produced the imbalance in need of correction. Artivist groups Taring Padi, Ruangrupa and Kunci Cultural Studies Center are presented as critical voices negotiating the complex political situation in Indonesia during the 1990s and 2000s. The establishment of democracy after the departure of President Suharto in 1998 and the struggle between regional separatists, Islamists and the national military forces was a time of political and civil turbulence. The heterogenous and conflicting interests of ethnic, regional and religious groups were suppressed by the government until 1998; in the era immediately after Suharto Taring Padi made public street art that raised the possibility of a non-authoritarian society (along the idealistic lines of Western humanism), it is one which actually supports sectarian identification whilst proposing an idealist multiculturalism to contain anyone acting according to that sectarian identification.   

Temporary Art Platform, Beirut is “a curatorial and interventionist collective that focuses on producing and researching public art projects. TAP facilitates site-specific art interventions and mediates between artists and private and public powers. Seeking to understand how public art can become more context-sensitive, the platform also conducts research on legal and practical aspects surrounding existing and ongoing initiatives. Finally, TAP has recently started lobbying for production budgets for public art.”[viii] The organisation published a handbook for artivists, explaining the law in layman’s terms and detailing how to acquire permits and funding from public bodies. It was published in Arabic and English. Garrido Castellano outlines the difficulties facing activists in Lebanon in the post-civil war period (after 1990).

“Ensayos is a nomadic educational and research platform located in the southernmost part of Chile. Ensayos was initiated in 2010 through the collaboration of curator Camila Marambio and the scientists and conservationists working at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Karukinka Natural Park in the Chilean part of Tierra del Fuego.”[ix] Two topics of Marambio were local sovereignty and the impact of introduced species. One problem of deconstruction is that the issue of utility becomes immediately locked into competing claims and definitions. If colonial and post-colonial/indigenous priorities define utility, where does sex, sexuality, religion and age come into the equation? What about trans-species rights, especially pertinent to projects centring on conservation? However rigorous the language of discussion, intersectionality (and standpoint theory) cannot help but nakedly foreground the priorities of speaker’s preferred metric or group allegiance.

Regrettably, Garrido Castellano misuses the term “alt right” to refer to populist movements in the UK, USA and Brazil. In October 2017 in Lisbon a statue of Padre António Vieira was the centre of a protest by left-wing activists and conservatives and rightists, this is compared to the events of Charlottesville, in 2017, “where the alt-right protestors impeded any approach to the statue, gathering in a circle around it in order to “protect” it from defacement.”[x] The protestors were not exclusively alt right; they also included conservatives, traditionalists and local residents. Preventing vandalism or iconoclasm is protection; there is no need for the scare quotes. Whether one approves of defacement or not, protection is protection. “[…] the attitude of the persons supposedly “protecting” the sculpture of Vieira was only the result of a more widespread defensive nationalism that despite the articulation of new iterations of portugalidade remains alive and well in broader segments of present-day Portuguese society.”[xi] One only has to look at the violence and defacement of colonial statuary common during this period in the USA and Europe to understand that those who wished to preserve their physical culture from attack were justified in being highly concerned. As the author of the book Iconoclasm, I can attest to this, having thoroughly researched the subject.

There is ambiguity in the political impact of activism through art. In what respect is agitation for Western liberalist values of egalitarianism, universal suffrage, state-provided healthcare, parliamentary democracy and freedom of conscience actually rooted in native cultures and to what degree is it imported by NGOs, activists and academics? Does a Lebanese agitator for collectivism have to drop the tenet of religious superiority ingrained in his people’s culture? Is he permitted to pick and choose between native beliefs and enmities? What if an Indonesian artivist wished to lobby for reinstatement of royalty, sharia, a strict caste system or expulsion of a tribe historically in competition with his tribe? As with the question of agency, the question of legitimacy of native causes is very much a case of post-colonial theorists being highly selective about what they consider authentic and appropriate. What if a local population wanted individualistic laissez-faire capitalism as route to independence, provision of healthcare and material comfort? It is often the case that such aspirations are dismissed by post-colonialists, temperamentally opposed to capitalism and individualism. We hit again the Neo-Marxist dismissal of the proletariat’s attachment to capitalism as “false consciousness”, that term used to discredit its opponents.

How much of post-colonial theory is simply taking away the role of gatekeeping from governments, museums and local leaders (colonial and decolonised) and giving it to artists, curators, critics and academics, as arbitrators of agency and commitment? After all, it is this latter group that designates itself as assessors of self-determined artistic activism carried out in the field, applying (often abstruse) theoretical measures without recourse to dialogue with local people.

One suspects that much of post-colonial theory is post facto justification for the occupation of spaces and use of resources by political actors. After all, as Marxists and Neo-Marxists admit, theory is nothing if not backed by power and their theory is almost solely concerned with power. Engaging with the post-colonial theory could be viewed as beside the point, as the theory is never the proximate cause – or even the explanation – for a tactical seizure of space, be that space academic, artistic, financial, civic, economic or any other category.

This book is a useful demonstration of that. Post-colonial artivism cannot remain at the theoretical level; it cannot be framed by a Western perspective; it must be applied or it is useless; it must be taught to students as a tool for liberation and agency. These positions are not so much Garrido Castellano’s, as the sources he quotes; he seeks to set out these positions in Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future. The book includes thorough endnotes, a bibliography and index. Unreliable as the author is on iconoclasm and contemporary politics, Garrido Castellano knows his field well and has read the latest literature in depth. He seeks to avoid jargon where possible but some passages will mean more to academics and students in his field than to the general reader. Overall, this is a stimulating and serious study of the reception and understanding of post-colonial artivism in non-Western settings.

The artivism discussed in this book offers a template for indigenous populations across the world; there is no reason it should be restricted to those in the political Global South. Nativist causes, self-determination and freedom from globalist interference provide counter-narratives opposed to international capital – all of these are causes of the political right in the West. It remains to be seen if progressivist positions will dominate the field of artivism wholly.

Carlos Garrido Castellano, Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future, State University of New York Press, 2021, 338pp + x, 24 mono illus., hardback, $95, ISBN 978 1 4384 85737

Alexander Adams’s book Artivism will be published by Imprint Academic in 2022. Details here.

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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[i] Back cover

[ii] P. 56

[iii] P. 1

[iv] P. 27

[v] P. 33

[vi] P. 98

[vii] P. 193

[viii] P. 199

[ix] P. 223

[x] P. 243

[xi] P. 243