Tag Archives: art history

South Ways – art undercurrents across the South

Paper for South-South Axes of Global Art (Paris, 17-19 Jun 15)


I present this paper as a curator, more concerned with opening up a space for new possibilities than analysing the past. My purpose is to present alternatives to the biennale model that are conducive to horizontal south-south exchange. Presenting these here, in the cultural capital of the North, affords a critical space to consider its limits and potential for further development.

Before I begin, I need to account for my voice as a citizen of Australia. Australia is an extractivist settler nation that has largely ignored its position in the South in favour of models inherited from Europe and North America. Until recently, the colonial imagination was fired by nationalist tropes like ‘Downunder’, the ‘Great Southern Land’ and ‘Southern Cross’, but these are mere clichés in a neoliberal state that is more concerned with the people it can exclude than the shared stories it can generate from within.

Charles de Gaulle was rumoured to have said of Brazil, that ‘it is a country of the future, and always will be’. So in Australia, our place in the world remains, paradoxically, a distant horizon. But as Paulin Hountondji remarked ‘culture is not only a heritage, it is a project’ (Sahlins 2005). The South is our project, to be more than a colonial outpost. Australia’s distance from the centre has potential to open a space for new possibilities.

Also before going further I should clarify my use of the term ‘south’. Though it seems uncomfortable in a globalised world to offer spatial limits, I do use ‘south’ as a political reality, more than a convenient trope. Jorge Luis Borges proposed that ‘universal history is the history of various intonations of a few metaphors’ (Borges 1973). Derrida proposed light was one of these key metaphors (Derrida 1978), evident since Plato in the symbol of knowledge as enlightenment. South could be considered among these key metaphors. The meaning of South is predicated on the concept of a vertical hierarchy, where value lies above. It is more than just a trope—an improvement on ‘Third World’, but not as incisive as ‘Majority World’. South cannot be readily transposed. South is a real fixed phenomenon, what Ricoeur calls the vestricktsein, ‘living imbrication’ (Ricoeur 1984, 75). By convention I fly up to Paris, despite that our experience of the world is as in the long run as an even plane. ‘Going south’ has become synonymous with failure. This is a phenomenological function embedded in how we see the world. We live in metaphors, which suits some better than others. Just as blackness is historically tainted with ignorance, so ‘southern’ is by default lowly.

The biennale dream

The story begins with the quest for civic identity. Sydney and Melbourne are Australia’s rival cities. Missing the nature-given attractions of Sydney, Melbourne identifies more with man-made elements, such as its architecture. Through its Major Events strategy, Melbourne also seeks to feature in the international circuit through programs like the Formulae One Grand Prix. But an important piece has been missing. Though originating many of the artistic movements in Australia, Melbourne lacks a place in the international visual arts calendar. Finally, in 1999, it acquired its first, and only, visual arts biennale. Mostly praised by local critics, the event proved a financial disaster. In the end, the Melbourne Biennial didn’t receive the same kind of international funding support that was already directed towards Sydney, one the oldest biennales. At a forum in RMIT Gallery, the godfather of biennales, Rene Block, explained cruelly that there was just ‘no room on the carousel’ for Melbourne. It was too similar to Sydney, which was already established, and did not have the exotic appeal of new members like Istanbul or Gwangju.

This led to many discussions about what it meant to have a biennale in Melbourne. Was there an alternative model? Brisbane had shown how it was possible to consolidate a place in the international calendar outside the carousel, in the Asia Pacific Triennial. Rather try to inveigle oneself into an existing circuit, the Art Gallery of Queensland had created a new set of exchanges framed by an east-west dialogue between Australia and the cultures of its region. At a public discussion at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in 2000, the Brisbane model was explored and the question asked—what new international space could Melbourne help open up?

At that time, the democratic turn in many countries in the South were relatively fresh. Nelson Mandela had just stepped down as President of the new South Africa. In Latin America, countries like Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay had broken with the military dictatorships of the 1970s. The 20th century story of the South as a region of tin-pot dictators and banana republics was no longer relevant. Boycott was no longer the most appropriate ethical engagement with the South. In this context, it seemed that a triennial style event in Melbourne could provide a new space for trying out exchanges with these reformed countries along southern latitudes.

South Project

In 2003, the South Project was initiated and heads of the city’s cultural institutions came together to endorse a future APT style event in Melbourne. In the meantime, however, most of the leading visual arts organisations like the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art reverted back to architecture as a forum of ambition. New buildings like Federation Square testified to Melbourne’s cultural value. It was left to a relatively marginal organisation, Craft Victoria, to carry the South baton. For a craft organisation, the South Project offered not only the potential to forge south-south alliances, it also provided a way to engage with craft practice in an otherwise highly conceptual visual arts scene. The rationale for this came from the relative importance of craft as a means of both livelihood and cultural identity in many countries of the South.[1]

Rather than see this developmentally as evidence of a cultural backwardness, the challenge was to integrate crafts into the platform. This was framed as a democratic issue. Craft helped ensure that this exchange was not simply reproducing the cultural elites that normally ride the carousel, but embraced also those in townships, slums and poblaciones.

The democratic framework was attempted in three ways. The first was to include where possible a local indigenous welcome alongside the inevitable meeting of dignitaries. While now a common feature of public events in Australia, it was still a relatively new component in other countries, particularly South America.

The second was to include practical workshops alongside the standard format of talks and exhibitions. Fibre crafts played a leading role, including Australian Aboriginal techniques in Johannesburg and Māori basket-making in Wellington. This offered craftspersons and artisans with a more direct benefit in attending, as well as opportunity for the university educated participants to engage in a dialogical space was did not privilege their cultural capital.

The third involved exchanges with children. The South Kids program featured the story of an emu that wanted to fly. A kit including the toy emu and camera circulated around schools in the South, enabling children to document their worlds. In Soweto, this was a pretext for praising the capacities of the ostrich, which though unable to fly has unique features such as physical beauty, useful eggs and impressive running speed. The story of the flightless bird was a predicament seen to typify the South, as a region lacking the capacity to share its unique features with each other.

In the end, the South Project did not achieve its grand ambition to establish a triennial in Melbourne. While this was partly the consequence of internal political factors, it was not helped by the relative lack of economic opportunities for Australia across the South compared to the Asia Pacific.

Nonetheless, the South Project left a residual network and a trail of unanswered questions. What does the South share in common, besides a shared opposition to the North? To what extent is the focus on the South reproducing a post-colonial dynamic where indigenous cultures are defined by their oppression, rather than in their own terms? What would be a space such as the South that didn’t need the North to define itself against? A kind of Hegelian dialectic had been initiated to discover an autonomous identity for the South.

Southern Theory

Meanwhile, there emerged a call in the academy to broaden the purview beyond the trans-Atlantic north. In 2007, the book by Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell was published, titled Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science (2007). Connell addressed the degree to which the discipline of sociology was built on a set of interests that were particular to the northern metropolitan centres. She argued that the theories of Marx, Durkheim and Weber did not account for the experiences particular to the periphery, especially that of its subaltern majorities. Rather than the universal systems offered by those theorists, Connell advocated for a ‘dirty theory’ that takes into account the particularities:

The goal of dirty theory is not to subsume, but to clarify; not to classify from outside, but to illuminate a situation in its concreteness. And for that purpose — to change the metaphor — all is grist to the mill. Our interest as researchers is to maximise the wealth of materials that are drawn into the analysis and explanation. It is also our interest to multiply, rather than slim down, the theoretical idea that we have to work with. That includes multiplying the local sources of our thinking, as this book attempts to do. (Connell 2007, 207)

While concerned particularly with the institutional production of knowledge, Connell’s work paralleled others that have recently used the South within a framework of critical social theory. This includes Enrique Dussel’s work constructing a discipline of liberation philosophy (Dussel 1985), which evaluates ideas according to their impact on social justice.  Such a philosophy takes geopolitical space seriously. As Dussel writes, ‘To be born at the North Pole or in Chiapas is not the same thing as to be born in New York City.’ (Dussel 1985).  This drive has been continued by thinkers and activists such as Boaventura de Sousa Santos, whose epic ‘epistemologies of the South’ (Santos 2013) aims to deconstruct universalising gestures.

There is much diversity among the theorists framing their work in a Southern context (Rosa 2014). But they share the key principle of place as a valid framework for the production of knowledge. This means working in the South can be more than just a second best option, indicative of failure to succeed in the North.

Southern Theory and visual arts

How might Southern Theory apply to the visual arts? Within an ecological framework, ideas are evaluated not only for their internal consistency but also the greater world they make possible. We may thus look at anthropology not as the disinterested study of an exotic tribe for the production of academic knowledge elsewhere, but as an exchange involving solidarity with the aspirations of the community under scrutiny. While Southern Theory is predominantly a matter of reflecting social realities, in the case of creative practices it is more about constructing alternatives to the world as it is.

Walter Mignolo is one theorist who has extended the southern perspective to the practice of visual arts and design (Kalantidou and Fry 2014). From an academic base in Hong Kong, Mignolo has led a group of scholars to develop a ‘decolonial aestheSis’ (Mignolo and Vázquez 2013), which critiques Western aesthetic categories like beauty through practices of juxtaposition or parody. Mignolo highlights the Sharjah Biennial (Mignolo 2013) as an example of radical decentring. According to Mignolo, this event ‘turns its back on the intellectual Euro-American fashions that have dominated, until recently, the “biennial market place”’ (Mignolo 2013).  For Mignolo, the value of Sharjah is a matter of its content; the countries and artists that participate represent an alternative ‘cultural cartography’. He notes that of the 100 artists, only 2 were from the USA and 20 from Europe. However, he refrains from mentioning any work in detail. The works are seen to illustrate a particular world view that is independent of the West. An example of one ‘illustrative work’ is:

Nevin Aladag, Turkey, Session (2013). This video triptych shot in Sharjah brings together the topography of the city and percussion music composed with Arabic, African and Indian percussion instruments. The video triptych invokes the spirit of re-emergence in that it works with musical instruments that elude the European renaissance. At the same time, that the instruments are played by and in the environment of Sharjah, cultures once disavowed by western hegemony ‘re-emerge’ with the force and the confidence of pluri-versal futures. (Mignolo 2013)

While its subject may seem non-Western, the format is readily assimilated into the dominant model. It is a ‘white cube’ work, detached from the work, where the visitor is an anonymous viewer. Apart from its geographic location, this work reproduces the biennial model of the world as spectacle.

The current Venice Biennale curated by Okwui Enwezor has brought the concerns of Sharjah to the centre. The majority of works offering a political critique of capitalist hegemony. But as noted (Cumming 2015), there is some irony in an event that is resourced and enjoyed by the very elites it attempts to critique. While some may argue that the carousel is opening up to the South (Gardner and Green 2013), there is no guarantee that it extends beyond the strata of cultural elites found in almost all countries. The challenge is to consider platforms for art making that go beyond reflecting the world as it is, and instead offer alternative pathways for creating a world that might be.

South Ways

It was with the aim to develop alternative platforms that a project was formed last year within the Southern Perspectives, a network of writers and artists that continued after the South Project. The aim of South Ways was to initiate development of platforms for art that act in the world. The process involved roundtables that brought together a variety of voices from those involved in creative practice. Four roundtables were held in different cities of Australia and New Zealand reflecting a diversity of perspectives. To provide a simple pragmatic frame, the seed for each roundtable was provided by a single verb that reflected a distinctive mode of engagement found in the South.[2]

I will provide a brief overview of these verbs and an example of their use.

To bestow

The first roundtable was held in Wellington New Zealand and included a mix of Māori and Pākeha participants. The verb to consider was ‘to bestow’ reflecting the traditional Māori practice of koha or gift giving in art practice and the emergence of Pākeha jewellery forms of engagement involving gift exchange. The main challenge concerned the vulnerability of such practices when exposed to consumer capitalism. Even in biennales, the freebie expectation means that gifts offered as part of the art world are rarely taken in the spirit of exchange. The task was to develop a platform that fostered trust and reciprocity between artists and their audiences.

The project Joyaviva was an exhibition where artists developed prototypes of modern amulets. This drew on the South American tradition of public shrines that receive ex-votive offerings. In the exhibition format, visitors were offered plastic flowers to adorn works and encouraged to reflect on the impact of these amulets on their lives. One of the participants, the Māori artist Areta Wilkinson, integrates koha into both her art work and academic research. For Joyaviva, she featured an initiative to support a Māori community devastated by the Christchurch earthquakes, which included a Matiriki brooch symbolising the Pleiades constellation that signals the New Year.

To open

Melbourne was the site of the second roundtable. Initially, the verb to open related to the work of artists like Nicholas Mangan who chose to expose sites of production in art galleries, such as guerrilla supply lines or factory assembly belts. Present were some of the artists who had chosen to boycott the Sydney Biennale because of its association with Transfield, the company commissioned to manage offshore detention centres. As befits the birthplace of Julian Assange, the Melbourne gathering advocated for a radical transparency, which would highlight the economic value that artists contribute for sponsors to major art events. The proposed WikiLeaks style of platform has yet to emerge.

But one initiative that does aspire to this is the Sangam Project. This platform emerged from the context of the practical workshops in the South Project, where North and South sometimes met in the process of product development, where designers and artisans sought to build creative partnerships.  The program attempts to use the new e-commerce platforms as a means to give economic value to the information about the maker, otherwise unacknowledged. This aspires to platform that is alternative to the commodity circuits that occlude the means of production.

To swap

In Sydney, the verb ‘to swap’ was set up to reflect the phenomenon of reverse primitivism in which Southern artists turn the exotic gaze back on the North. In the end, the subject of contention again was the biennale. In this case, the issue was the way the carousel privileged the art of international relations, rather than local practices that draw on urban nature and community histories. The proposal was a distributed biennale which spread its program across local sites in different cities.

An existing example is the project Minga Sistemas de Trabajo Colectivo in Santiago, curated by Angela Cura Mendez and Felipe Cura (Donoso 2015). Minga is a precolombian term for collective labour. In the island of Chiloe, it often takes the form of a Tiradura de casa when the community gather to move someone’s house to a different location. Working with the community of artist-run art spaces in Chile, this exhibition involved gathering more the spaces themselves than work within them. Maria Gabler re-constructed the walls of Galería Tajamar, which exists in a public housing estate, within Galleria Gabriela Mistral in downtown Santiago. This Minga of contemporary art enables a concentration of work that still retains its locatedness within its home community.

To glean

The roundtable in Hobart was concerned the practice of recovering what is left over, ‘to glean‘. This reflected not only the arte Povera practices such as El Anatusi, granted the Golden Lion in Venice for sublime recycling, but also recovery of cultures lost during the process of colonisation, which was particularly dramatic in Tasmania. The discussion eventually led to the revival of the idea of a Museum of Southern Memory, initially proposed in the first South Project, reflecting the common experience of Apartheid, Stolen Generation and the Disappeared. This museum will not be a physical structure, but a network of individuals and groups that sustain a story or cultural practice through use.

This year, the project of a Social Repair Kit involves re-modelling traditional forms of conflict resolution through blood money. The ‘sorry object’ is the subject of workshops in Bogotá, Santiago and Melbourne. The focus is the injury sustained by conflicts such as the Colombian civil war, coup against Allende and last year’s Sydney hostage siege and consequent islamophobia. Rather than reflect on these conflicts, the aim is to draw inspiration from traditional modes of conflict resolution, such as the Palabreros, in order to develop objects that can be introduced into the communities to facilitate apology and pardon.[3]


South Ways is a scattering of seeds, each with a kernel of action. Of course, we need to be realistic about the likelihood that these proposals will flourish, given the kind of soil in which they are planted. Stepping off the carousel means leaving behind the capital which it has proven effective in gathering. The success will depend on the strength of solidarity rather than self-interest of participants. But if South is to be more than a primitivist mirror to the North, it needs to be a space were we can test out other ways of being.


[1] See (Skinner 2014) for a more developed framework for the importance of craft in a settler colonial art history.

[2] The theoretical framework for this use of verbs is Actor Network Theory, which offers a flat explanatory structure that does refuses the mimesis and instead identifies the effects that accompany representation (Harman 2014). Accordingly, the dominant verb in visual arts is ‘to explore’ or ‘to examine’. This colonial mode entails a distance between the active world of the artist and unknowing object of knowledge. Viewed in this way, the challenge becomes identifying alternate actions in the world.


Borges, Jorge Luis. 1973. “Pascal’s Sphere.” In Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952, translated by Ruth L. C. Simms, 1st British ed. London: Souvenir Press.

Connell, Raewyn. 2007. Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science. Cambridge; Malden, MA: Polity.

Cumming, Laura. 2015. “56th Venice Biennale Review – More of a Glum Trudge than an Exhilarating Adventure.” The Guardian. Accessed June 14. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/10/venice-biennale-2015-review-56th-sarah-lucas-xu-bing-chiharu-shiota.

Derrida, Jacques. 1978. “Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas.” In Writing and Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Donoso, Diego Parra. 2015. “Cuidado: Zona de Autogestión Apuntes sobre Minga en Galería Gabriela Mistral.” Revista Punto de Fuga. http://www.revistapuntodefuga.com/?p=1774.

Dussel, Enrique. 1985. Philosophy of Liberation. Vol. 1. Maryknoll, N.Y. : Orbis Books, c1985.

Gardner, Anthony, and Charles Green. 2013. “Biennials of the South on the Edges of the Global.” Third Text 27 (4): 442–55. doi:10.1080/09528822.2013.810892.

Harman, Graham. 2014. Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political. Pluto Press.

Kalantidou, Eleni, and Tony Fry. 2014. Design in the Borderlands. 1 edition. New York, NY: Routledge.

Mignolo, Walter. 2013. “Re:Emerging, Decentring and Delinking.” Ibraaz. August 5. http://www.ibraaz.org/essays/59/.

Mignolo, Walter, and Rolando Vázquez. 2013. “The Decolonial AestheSis Dossier.” Social Text. July 15. http://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_article/the-decolonial-aesthesis-dossier/.

Ricoeur, Paul. 1984. Time and Narrative Vol.1. University of Chicago Press.

Rosa, Marcelo C. 2014. “Theories of the South: Limits and Perspectives of an Emergent Movement in Social Sciences.” Current Sociology, February, 0011392114522171. doi:10.1177/0011392114522171.

Sahlins, Marshall. 2005. “On the Anthropology of Modernity, Or, Some Triumphs of Culture over Despondency Theory.” In Culture and Sustainable Development in the Pacific, edited by Antony Hooper. Canberra: ANU Press.

Santos, Boaventura de Sousa. 2013. “Public Sphere and Epistemologies of the South.” Africa Development 37 (1): 43–67.

Skinner, Damian. 2014. “Settler-Colonial Art History: A Proposition in Two Parts.” Journal of Canadian History 35 (1): 131–75.


[3] I should also mention a more dispersed project drawing from the Melanesian language of silence to develop a platform outside of discourse. Vakanomodi project is named after the Fijian practice of deep listening to the land.

Image is from the exhibition Mirador, de María Gabler, en Galería Tajamar, Santiago de Chile, 2015. Foto: Sebastián Mejía

Encuentro Internacional de Estudios Visuales Latinoamericanos 2014

III Encuentro Internacional de Estudios Visuales Latinoamericanos 25, 26 y 27 de junio de 2014 en la UAEH, Pachuca de Soto, Hidalgo, México

El Tercer Encuentro Internacional de Estudios Visuales Latinoamericanos, tiene la finalidad de reunir especialistas internacionales en relación con el estudio de la imagen como instrumento fundamental para la construcción tanto de memorias colectivas como del acontecer histórico latinoamericano. En esta ocasión, el Encuentro centrará su atención en las metodologías del estudio de las imágenes y la cultura visual.

La propuesta de la Red va mucho más allá de la Historia Oficial, que ha utilizado la imagen y el registro visual para justificar políticas de exclusión o interpretaciones sesgadas e interesadas del transcurrir histórico. También va más allá de los métodos empleados por historiadores de carácter tradicional, que han considerado la imagen como un subproducto histórico, un objeto auxiliar que acompaña a la palabra o, en el mejor de los casos, la ilustra.

La Red sostiene que la imagen (y, en general, la cultura visual) desarrolla estructuras propias que conforman discursos que deben ser leídos en otras claves: rigurosas, actuales y tomando posición.

La imagen provoca procesos de intertextualidad que la historia y las ciencias sociales no han sabido o no han querido explorar, ni asumir. Hoy en día, es imposible acceder al estudio del pasado y del presente de una manera eficaz y verosímil si no tenemos en cuenta la imagen, instrumento que sobrepasa la noción limitada de documento que maneja el discurso escrito.

La imagen plantea sus propias condiciones (y contradicciones), y responde a preguntas que no están presentes en la ortodoxia de la tradición histórica. Además, en momentos en que la construcción y recuperación de las memorias sociales e individuales se ha convertido en un reto para la academia, las imágenes son un instrumento ineludible, una herramienta de comprensión quizás más cercana al individuo social y a los procesos de globalización en los que estamos inmersos.

El Tercer Encuentro Internacional de Estudios Visuales Latinoamericanos tendrá lugar en el marco del III Coloquio Internacional Imagen y Culturas que organizan el Cuerpo Académico de Estudios Históricos y Antropológicos y el Grupo de Investigación en Estudios Sociales y Culturales del Área Académica de Historia y Antropología de la Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Hidalgo.

Con el objetivo de estrechar relaciones académicas entre investigadores de América Latina, la Red de Estudios Visuales Latinoamericanos se suma a la convocatoria del III Coloquio Imagen y Culturas para, juntos, construir un espacio de intercambio académico interdisciplinario en torno al estudio de la imagen.

El Tercer Encuentro Internacional de Estudios Visuales Latinoamericanos se desarrollará en varias sesiones organizadas en mesas de acuerdo a las coincidencias temáticas y/o metodológicas de las ponencias seleccionadas.

Las propuestas deberán incluir los siguientes elementos: título, breve biografía académica del autor (máx. 500 palabras), datos de contacto (postal y electrónicos), resumen de la ponencia (máx. 600 palabras), y cinco palabras clave. Deberán ser enviadas antes del 28 de febrero a: [email protected]

Las ponencias tratarán de los diversos temas que son propios de los Estudios Culturales y la Cultura Visual, con una cronología que va desde la Colonia hasta nuestros días, siempre dentro del marco geopolítico de América Latina. Se podrán abarcar todos los medios de expresión que conciernen a la imagen. El tiempo máximo de exposición será de veinte minutos.

Heading South: a meditation on the ‘ruins’ of the South Project

This is paper by Pamela Zeplin was presented in the panel ‘Cultural production: Where to put baskets in an art gallery? ‘The place of traditional cultures in art history’, which was part of Other Views: Art History in (South) Africa and the Global South, a colloquium organised by SAVAH under the aegis of the Comité International d’Histoire de l’Art (CIHA), University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 12 – 15 January 2011


Geographically and historically situated ‘south of the west’, Australian art institutions are yet to fully embrace Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures of the global south, despite recent incursions into the Asia-Pacific region. Notwithstanding claims to cultural inclusivity, Melbourne’s 2008 CIHA Congress, for example, barely registered the presence of Diasporic African, Pacific Island and Latin American communities dwelling in this island continent. It was as if the South Project, another significant local initiative with international cross-cultural reach, had slipped below CIHA’s Eurocentric horizon. With a visionary five year program interrogating conceptual and geo-political understandings of ‘south’, The South Project was last sighted somewhere between Yogyakarta and Noumea, although it is rumoured to be still in existence. This ambitious endeavour was inevitably doomed by idealism as it journeyed between Santiago and Soweto, Melbourne, Wellington and Yogyakarta with its ‘cargo’ of lateral connections between art and craft communities, exhibitions, workshops, residencies and gatherings. Surprisingly, these peripatetic events attracted little critical attention, despite initiating a complex web of weird and wonderful events and relationships. The paper critically examines this program as a possible alternative to biennale models of ‘exchange’ and ruminates on the South Project’s remains.


Dr Pamela Zeplin is a writer and artist based in Adelaide, where she is Portfolio Leader of Postgraduate Research Education (Art, Architecture & Design) at the University of South Australia. With a long-standing research focus in regional cultures in the Asia-Pacific and southern hemisphere, Pamela regularly publishes and actively participates in national and international events throughout the region. In 2005 and 2006 she delivered plenary addresses at South Project gatherings in Wellington and Santiago. With Dr. Paul Sharrad in 2009, Pamela convened a funded national workshop, The Big Island: Promoting Contemporary Pacific Art and Craft in Australia at the University of Wollongong, resulting in Art Monthly Australia’s landmark ‘OzPacifica’ edition, specifically devoted to Australian Pacific art. In 2008 Pamela received a national Distinguished Researcher Award from the Australian Council of University Art and Design Schools.

First of all, I’d like to acknowledge the Indigenous owners of this land upon and thank the SAVAH team for such a welcoming and stimulating environment.

Where to put baskets in an art gallery?

Installation, Pacific Storms, 2009

Installation, Pacific Storms, 2009

Before I ruminate on the ruins – or otherwise – of The South Project, let’s begin with baskets since my paper has migrated to this panel, Where to put baskets in an art gallery?’ from the now abandoned panel ‘Interrogating the Global South ‘. During this process, the following discussion become a more personalised and ‘basketised’ narrative – that has loosened a few strands during the process.

This photograph shows Pacific Storms, a ground breaking 2009 exhibition in Australia of work by artists from the Pacific-Oceania neighbourhood and those of Pacific heritage resident in the world’s largest continental island, Australia. You will notice the baskets and also numerous other weavings festooning Bundaberg Regional Art Gallery in northern Queensland alongside contemporary art; photographs, videos, paintings, and poetry texts.

Although no longer fresh and lush, these fibre textiles remain as more than dehydrated relics of performative opening ceremonies; they represent lingering testimony to creative expression that can be participatory, cross-disciplinary and multi-dimensional in nature – including, notably, children’s furniture and programs actively inviting art and play.

So, you might wonder, what is so groundbreaking among the textiles here? Firstly, Pacific Storms represented a rare exhibition of contemporary Oceanic – and predominantly ‘Melanesian’ – art in this country, even though 400,000 of its population (or2%) are of Pacific Islander heritage.

Children’s program, Pacific Storms, 2009

Children’s program, Pacific Storms, 2009

Secondly, this landmark exhibition took place not in a major institution, like Queensland Art Gallery, renowned for the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art but in a regional gallery in rural northern Queensland. Thirdly, baskets are not generally encountered in Australia’s sharp and shiny art world unless they form part of an Indigenous – generally Australian Indigenous –exhibition. So there’s something significant happening here – something about generosity, conviviality, hospitality, inclusiveness. Perhaps, even ‘relational aesthetics’, although this recently ‘discovered’ art ‘fashion’ features less as a rationale for curator of Pacific Storms’ Papua New Guinean-Australian, Joycelin Leahy, than ‘the Pacific way’ things are done in this part of the global south. Ironically, few Australians, including art cognoscenti, have had access to these indigenous and ‘southern’ ways of knowing – and presenting – given our continued reverence for northerly trans-Atlantic models of knowledge production.

In fact, the Pacific region has long been considered Australia’s ‘backyard’ and in political, economic and cultural terms, a place of tacky tourism – and/or tornadoes and trouble. And, until 2007 with the Rudd Labor Government’s revised regional foreign policy, the Oceanic/Pacific region was collectively regarded by Australian governments post 1975 as a ‘basket case’.

CIHA 32nd Congress

This near invisibility of Pacific and southern hemisphere art and culture still characterises major art events, including the prestigious ‘parent’ body of this Colloquium, CIHA International Committee of the History of Art, although yesterday’s comments by CIHA committee members addresses gave us cause for hope. CIHA’s so-called ‘ground-breaking’ 2008 32nd Congress in Melbourne, Crossing Cultures: Congress, Conflict, Migration and Convergence aimed to ‘to make people of different nationalities engage in debate’ and was declared by convenor (and now CIHA President), Professor Jaynie Anderson as the ’first meeting of an international congress of the history of art in the southern hemisphere [to] epitomiz[e] the expansion of the field throughout the globe’[1].

Whether or not this claim can be validated, this ‘Art History Olympics’ certainly made an impact on Australian art historians, attracting almost 700 registrations from 50 countries[2]. With one exception[3], however, among 226 presentations, including 42% of papers from Australia and 10% (22) from ‘other’ Southern Hemisphere countries[4], the only ‘Pacific’ featured was in two presentations of New Zealand’s – not Australia’s – urban ‘Pasifika’. Moreover, only four Australian Indigenous speakers presented amongst 74 Australian papers, although many of these concerned issues of indigeneity. There were two speakers from ‘Africa’ (South Africa and Cameroon), a country not, however, considered an ‘appropriate’ location for the next full CIHA Congress (to be held in Nuremburg in 2012). This decision catalysed the staging of the Johannesburg colloquium[5], which was endorsed by CIHA following the Melbourne event, but not financially assisted by the international ‘parent’ body[6].

Astonishingly, the Melbourne-based South Project’s intensive four year dialogue across the Southern Hemisphere did not appear on the Melbourne Congress’ agenda[7], where neither baskets nor wider craft discourses were apparent. For all CIHA’s cross-cultural claims, at $AUD660 (R4454) many attendees expressed disappointment at the congress’ elitist and inhospitable environment[8]. Eurocentrism dies hard, it seems, even in the highest echelons of well-intentioned art history.

South Project & ‘The Basket’

The South Project, on the other hand, by 2008 had demonstrated over five years that art gatherings – even conferences- can be about more than a schedule of topics. Although Pacific Storms was not part of The South Project, it might well have been; its spirit embodied much of what this enduring Melbourne-based endeavour successfully achieved. And baskets and weavings provide appropriate metaphors for both Pacific Storms and The South Project; traditionally crafted within social and performative story-telling situations, baskets are containers with capacity for plenitude, exchange and countless uses. Woven from diverse materials and designs, baskets are strong, porous and receptive and nothing if not portable. Importantly, like the South Project, they are not intended to last forever.

A combination of Indigenous and non-Indigenous ‘basket cultures’ as well as contemporary art informed by cross-cultural social and political engagement, provided the architectural structure of The South Project. This was envisioned in and for the most culturally conscious of Australian cities – Melbourne. By 2003 this city was, ironically, ‘sliding off the international art map’[9] without an ongoing biennale or triennial event. The South Project intended to fill this void but in a radically lateral rather than vertical direction so as to explore the possibilities offered by south-south transactions. In an Australian art climate unsympathetic to localism or craft, this project challenged and enlarged understandings of what ‘south’ could signify within and beyond its Eurocentric contexts. ‘South’ was thus situated by this new organisation as much as ‘a question as a location’, where attitude’ mattered as much as ‘latitude’[10] .

A unique, highly ambitious, and visionary program, The South Project was inaugurated in 2004 by Kevin Murray with manager, Magdalena Moreno under the auspices of the Craft Victoria organisation. It was carefully developed through personal professional networks cultivated over time[11]. This enterprise encompassed a vast practitioner-based program comprising Indigenous and non-Indigenous craftspersons, artists, writers, curators, scholars, and social activists, thickly intertwining a continuous web of exchanges, exhibitions, residencies, symposia, workshops and publications across different places and times in – and beyond – the Antipodes. Significantly, until 2009 a highly developed children’s program, Southkids provided an essential and ongoing component of South Project’s broader endeavour, enabling children across the Southern Hemisphere to work with professional visual arts and craftspersons[12]. With the exception of a few Australian state art galleries (namely Queensland Art Gallery), the acknowledgement of children as an integral part of the project was remarkable at this time.

South 1 Gathering

Launched in Melbourne in 2004 with miniscule staff resources and a proposed five year lifespan, The South Project stimulated conversations between artists and communities of the south whether defined by hemisphere or by concept. These dialogues might be visual, verbal, tactile or textual, embracing different shapes, textures and tones. The inaugural gathering with hundreds of delegates was astounding.

In a conventional auditorium with workshop spaces, a dazzling diversity of Indigenous and non-Indigenous ‘southerners’ from fourteen countries came together to re-imagine possibilities for weaving previously un-dreamed of connections. ‘South 1’, in Susan Cochrane’s words, ‘encouraged all kinds of responses: philosophical and whimsical, creative and conceptual, contesting and renewing ideas, in the first gathering of its kind’[13]. Presentations ranged from Aboriginal Australian weavers and writers and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) artists lamenting their lost language, to Argentinian activists witnessing for the politically ‘disappeared’, community architects from South Africa and Antarctic voyagers. Taking its cue from Mbulelo Mzamane’s inspiring keynote address[14], an extraordinary spirit of ‘ubuntu’ suffused the event. This atmosphere transformed a conference into an intensely moving and uplifting experience where delegates (even art historians!) openly wept and embraced during the closing ceremony; for those attending it felt like re-uniting with family.

Southern journeys

While The South Project continued to catalyse numerous strands of diverse and intersecting activity, by 2005 its annual gatherings began literally weaving their way across southern latitudes[15]. Wellington (New Zealand) hosted the first gathering outside Australia (administered by the Melbourne South Project team collaborating with local hosts). From this South Western Pacific location, the next South Project travelled to the South Eastern Pacific, to Santiago (Chile) in 2006, and in 2007 to Soweto/Johannesburg, this last event organised locally by Clifford Charles and team, with support from Melbourne staff.

Southkids Workshop, Belle Primary School, Orlando West, Soweto, October 2007

Southkids Workshop, Belle Primary School, Orlando West, Soweto, October 2007

For me, the highlight of this event was the Southkids workshop at Belle Primary School in Orlando West, Soweto, particularly the way these kids came back for more, ‘crashing’ South Project’s adult craft workshops at Uncle Tom’s Community Centre the next day. Such an intrusion by children would be unthinkable in my country. At the kids’ workshop I met Muelo Lebenya, an artist volunteer working at the school who constructed ‘baskets’ from recycled vinyl LP records. I returned to the school four days before this Colloquium to find it dramatically expanded and now renamed Mbuyisa Makhubu Primary School, after the young man who was photographed holding Hector Pieterson, the twelve year old school child martyred during the 1976 Soweto Uprising[16].

Following this South Project imbizo, the Melbourne-based organisation was re-structured under Interim Director, Magdalena Moreno and a new board since Murray’s resignation as Director of Craft Victoria in early 2008. Murray continued involvement with South Project activities, including the 2008 Johannesburg/Soweto Imbizo. Nevertheless, the organisation separated from its former craft base at Craft Victoria via an ‘exit strategy’ as part of a new corporate makeover. Up to this point, a new prospectus recorded that between 2006 and 2007 alone, 84 events had attracted audiences of 33,000 in addition to 227,000 website visits[17].

Time does not permit a detailed analytical or theoretical account of South Project’s major gatherings, its related programs, myriad partner organisations and participants – let alone its lively internal politics. Suffice to say this organisation’s multiple parameters and ever-expanding connections had become a complex weave of intersecting and pulsating nodes between people, ideas and objects around the globe, and from many reports, anecdotes and statistics, a generative and useful platform for practitioner exchange.

Instead of South Project’s grand finale originally planned for 2008, a focus group style of symposium in Melbourne[18] was assembled where d a Yogyakarta Gathering was proposed for 2009, ‘the intention of [which was] above all COLLABORATIVE, RECIPROCAL AND OF ACTIVATION’[19]. This was to be followed by a grand triennial South Festival for 2010, ’focus[ing] on Melbourne as a cultural hub’, after which would be a Pacific gathering in francophone New Caledonia in 2011 and from thence to Rio de Janeiro in 2012. This ambitiously expanded schedule was, however, not to be, despite being set out in a glossy prospectus polished with corporate language describing KPI deliverables, ‘cultural capital brand[ing]’ and an impressive ‘investment logic map’[20]. Significantly, the word craft seldom appeared in the document and, apart from two images of weavers, baskets were not to be seen. Metaphorically speaking, The South Project ‘basket’ of multiple dimensions had been stitched up and hermetically sealed – economically, politically and culturally.

Dylan Martorell et al. Documentation, final night performance, Room Mate, Yogyakarta, 2009.

Dylan Martorell et al. Documentation, final night performance, Room Mate, Yogyakarta, 2009.

Notwithstanding South Project’s elaborate new strategic plan, the organisation was, surprisingly, soon de-funded by major institutional sponsors and the 2009 gathering in Yogyakarta (Indonesia) proceeded with almost no financial support[21]. What went wrong? The World Financial Crisis? Too many Festivals? Too much Melbourne focus? Not enough Pacific focus? More likely, the following factors played a role in the project’s demise: a lack of critical review coverage by external arts writers and an efficient but extraordinarily demanding administrative structure that was constantly required to be on the move between Melbourne and ‘field’ locations across the South. A call for donations went out across the networks in 2009. But not all was lost; such was the loyalty engendered by The South Project that most Yogyakarta-bound artists self-funded their participation, unlike other waged participants/curators long associated with the South Project who withdrew. As Zara Stanhope has noted: I think people are hungry to get out and experience those other cultures…And artists do it so well. They go off and live on the smell of an oily rag to have those experiences”.[22] Despite – or because of – a severe paucity of resources, a down-to-earth exchange took place in Yogyakarta. Here, local Indonesian artists politely but firmly challenged the privileged cultural naïveté of a number of [inappropriately selected] emerging artists, predominantly from Melbourne, whose steep learning curves offered valuable opportunities to learn about ‘real’ relational aesthetics away from the theorised and insulated precincts of familiar urban art spaces at home. The event became a grass roots encounter on concrete floors, grass and cyberspace in a city where craft plays a significant role in contemporary art and life. Ironically, baskets as well as designer T-shirts were for sale in the main exhibiting venue, Kedai Kebun contemporary art space, which epitomises Indonesian artists’ necessary capacity for resourcefulness.

Four days of four hour long improvised performance culminating in Kraton tea ceremony complete with furniture music/hand made instruments, live call to prayer, crickets. Frogs, bejak, medicinal root vegetables, and sugar-powered gong sculpture, various field recordings from bali and Jogjakarta, aquarium equipment, found materials, etc. ‘ [sic].

Yogyakarta exchanges continued via a small post-event exhibition and residencies in Melbourne[23], while independent collaborative projects initiated in Yogya have maintained momentum, even without external funding. In Australia, this is unusual in assisted cross-cultural projects.

Re-considering ruins

On ruins one can begin to build. Anyhow, looking out from ruins one clearly sees; there are no obstructing walls’. (Dame Rose Macaulay)[24]

In terms of its past ambitious range and scale of activities, The South Project may now appear as ‘ruins’ but it continues to facilitate south-south and multicultural projects, all be they in reduced capacity through online networks linked with, for a time, a small alternative gallery in a Melbourne shopping mall[25]. In this way, contemporary visual artists rather than craft practitioners have continued to characterise the program’s curatorial focus, which, it may be argued, has contributed to the organisations’ diminished social texture and following.

I had intended to lament the unfortunate demise of this remarkable phenomenon known as The South Project. It has been an important part of my life since 2004 but after six years I realise I probably need to get over it and continue researching in and of the south – including the Australian Pacific – in different ways. In any case, strong links have been established through various South Project activities between many people and these continue to be maintained – as the Yogyakarta experience demonstrated, outside the structures of a facilitating organisation. It is remarkable, nevertheless, that such a nimble and dynamic venture could continue to be relevant and exciting over such a long period of time. At this event in Johannesburg and elsewhere I am reminded, in meeting up with previous South Project participants, of how those initial professional and personal connections can and do remain engaged through the South Project ‘Diaspora’ – with or without a capital G Gathering.

Nathalie Luis, Inside Taman Sari ruins, Yogyakarta. 2008.

Nathalie Luis, Inside Taman Sari ruins, Yogyakarta. 2008.

Thus it’s appropriate to conclude with this 2008 image of Taman Sari (Water Palace) ruins in Yogyakarta following one of a number of recent major earthquakes, A year after this photograph was taken Yogyakarta was the site of The South Project’s final gathering ‘abroad’. Here and in previous gatherings this organisation provided remarkable models for consideration of what Domenico de Clario refers to as ‘southness’: ‘It follows’, he suggests, ‘ that we must turn our attention to the quality of what constitutes our immediate reality, and love it more and better.’[26] Significantly, the photographer of this image has angled the shot skywards, looking upwards and beyond the ruins.

If we consider statistics alone, it’s possible that hundreds of thousands of people have been made aware of their ‘immediate reality’, directly or virtually, through The South Project[27]. Finally, and of more consequence than these impressive statistics is the fact that legions of Southkids across the southern hemisphere can now look up into southern skies and, hopefully, more confidently identify their own place in the global south – where ideas, things and events (including conferences) can be done differently – and sometimes better than those imposed from above.

The vital point for identity…is that the antipodes is not a place so much as it is a relation, one not of our own choosing but one which also enables us.”

(Peter Beilharz, 1997)


[1] ‘The history of the International Committee of the History of Art suggests what many people throughout the world have recognized: art and the discourses around it are increasingly global. Art and its history are not only created, but discussed in one form or another on all the inhabited continents of the earth. Globalism has thus also assumed an art historical aspect: indeed it has been described as art history’s most pressing issue. But how can global issues in art history take form in theory or practice? What are the possibilities for a world art history?’. CIHA International Committee of the History of Art 32nd Congress: Crossing Cultures: Congress, Conflict: Migration: Convergence, The University of Melbourne, January 13-18 2008. Online: Accessed 6 January 2011. http://www.cihamelbourne2008.com.au/

[2] ‘Melbourne’s passion fills the house at ‘Art History Olympics’, The University of Melbourne Voice, Vol 2, No 1, February 2008. http://uninews.unimelb.edu.au/news/4892/

[3] Childs, Elizabeth, ‘Exchange: Gifting, identity and writing history in fin-de-siecle Tahiti’, paper presented at CIHA 32nd Congress of the International Committee of the History of Art, The University of Melbourne, 13-18 January 2008.

[4] Of the papers by Australian-based presenters, 33% were from The University of Melbourne, CIHA’s host institution.

[5] ‘First call for papers: Other Views: Art History in (South) Africa and the Global South’, Southern Perspectives, Online: Accessed December 15 2010. http://www.southernperspectives.net/conference/other-views-art-history-in-south-africa-and-the-global-south-call-for-papers

“CIHA has recently been addressing concerns about the unequal distribution of resources around the globe and challenges from post-colonial societies to the older methods and concepts of western art history. At the CIHA congress in Melbourne in January 2008, one of the key issues for discussion was the extent to which we need to re-think the discipline of the history of art “in order to establish cross-cultural dimensions as fundamental to its scope, method and vision”. SAVAH proposes continuing these discussions in the colloquium ‘Other Views: Art History in (South) Africa and the Global South’ to be held at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in January, 2011. A principal focus of the discussions, with particular reference to South Africa, will be how the study of art from the African continent is often impeded by a totalising notion of an undifferentiated ‘Africa’. This belies the histories, political trajectories and regional differences of its many communities, nations and states… We do not envision covering all aspects and areas of Africa and the Global South, but we shall use the Global South construct as a framework to focus on Africa and in particular South Africa. The aim is to complicate the history of art and the relationship between histories in the Global South and the ‘north’ or ‘west’”.

[6] Conversations with SAVAH president Dr Federico Freschi and Professor Anitra Nettleton, Johannesburg, January 14 2011. In obtaining CIHA affiliation, the small SAVAH organisation funded and/or facilitated accommodation and business class airfares for a number of visits to Johannesburg by members of the CIHA Committee executive, including attendance by these speakers at the SAVAH event in January 2011.

[7] The South Project elicited only passing criticism, as ‘diminish[ing] the artistic culture of Asia’. Marravillas, Francis, ‘Art Histories at the crossroads: “Asian” art in “Australia”’, presentation at CIHA 32nd Congress of the International Committee of the History of Art, University of Melbourne, 13-18 January 2008.

[8] While (optional) receptions at Government House and the National Gallery of Victoria were lavish, the CIHA congress $AUD660 conference fee included no lunch or refreshments, except for inadequate tea/coffee facilities for long lines of patient delegates.

‘Delegate Welcome Packs’ supplied an impressive if cumbersome 269 page volume of presenters’ abstracts and biographies but no schedule summary with which to navigate up to ten parallel sessions per day. Information about (many) changes to the schedule were unavailable, except online, and there was much discussion about lack of courtesy and hospitality by the professional conference organisers.

[9] ‘With Australia’s second city “sliding off the international art map”, [Peter Hil] proposed that it was time to invent an event where “so-called rival cities in the region ” could “work together inclusively rather than facing off at each other as if at a sporting match”. This would, he suggested, “fully integrate the region within the global art world”’. Fuller, Peter, in Hill, Peter.( 2006), cited in Zeplin, Pamela, Horizontal Relations: The South Project goes to Santiago’, ‘Publications’, The South Project. Online: Accessed 2 January 2011. http://www.southproject.net/south/Pam_Zeplin_Horizontal_Relations.html

[10] Rankin, E, ‘South 1: Common Ground’, The South Project, Online, Accessed 11 May 2006. http://www.southproject.org/texts/rankin.htm

[11] For more details about the 2007 South Project’s aims and objectives, see The South Project. Online: http://www.southproject.net/south/Johannesburg2007_files/Johannesburg%20Program_1.pdf

Accessed 2 January 2011. ‘ The South Project is the major international arts project that brings together the distinct voices of the southern hemisphere through south-south dialogue and cross-cultural exchange. Making its platform in the south, it supports contemporary dynamic cultural practice and promotes the experience and understanding of visual culture for global audiences. We are by nature a lateral organisation in our structure and philosophy: consultation is essential. We are dedicated to ongoing rigorous investigation of contemporary cultural life that challenges & inspires audiences & the art community…’.

[12] South Kids, ‘…students had worked with nine international artists who had originated from countries from Chile, Brazil, South Africa, India, Korea, Indonesia, Mauritius, Maldives,Fiji, New Zealand and of course Australia. Some of the workshops over the three years included learning skills in the areas of puppetry and mask making, jewellery design, stencil printing, weaving, carving, sculptural construction, performance and curatorship, painting and drawing. South Kids have been very fortunate to have the opportunity of working with such a diverse group of people and to be able to experience the one on one contact with each artist’.

[13] Cochrane, Susan, ‘Towards Ubuntu: The Way of the South’, Artlink, Vol 24 no 4, 2004.

[14]…abantu (Bantu languages) we call ubuntu –the sum total of humanising values as the First Nations People of the South understand them…It rejects the regressive and takes due cognizance of progressive strains in all cultures that it harnesses, and teaches…[Ubuntu] eschews chauvinism and cultural imperialism – the insistence by a group that their ways of doing things are superior beyond compare – as well as narcissism and ethnocentrism – the incapacity to look beyond Self. Ubuntu humbles and teaches…a fitting and uplifting philosophy on which to predicate a movement of re-humanisation.’ Mzamane, Mbulelo Vizikhungo, ‘Of Minks and Men’, ‘Beyond Mythification: Constituting a Southern Identity’, Conference Paper from South 1: The Gathering, The University of Melbourne, 1-4 July 2004, p. 7. The South Project. Online: Accessed 11 May 2006. http://w.w.w.southproject.org/texts/mbulelo.htm

[15] South 1 Melbourne: The Gathering – A New Conversation, July 2004; Wellington Gathering: Between Earth and Sky – Ways of Making a Place in a Placeless World, Wellington, 20-12 October 2005; Crossing Horizons: Context and Community in the South, Santiago (and Valpariso), September 2006; South-South Imbizo, Johannesburg and Soweto, October 2007.

[16] For further details, see ‘Hector Pieterson’, Accessed December 13 2010. http://www.soweto.co.za/html/p_hector.htm

[17] Moreno, M, ‘History of the South Project’, The South Project: A new international arts voice (prospectus), The South Project, Melbourne, 2007? (n.d.), pp. 15,17.

[18] Why Gather?, Elisabeth Murdoch Theatre, The University of Melbourne, 19—20 July , 2008.

[19]’… Delivered through a series of exhibitions, actions, performances, workshops and collaborations, most of which will take in the public domain, the Yogyakarta Gathering in 2009 will be the first time that the South Project has travelled to Asia. Although a select group of Indonesian artists has already participated in South Project activities (such as Heri Dono, Titarubi, Jumaadi, Wulan Dirgantoro, and Dian Fatwa) the South Project has a growing network of potential support, such as the Indonesian Contemporary Art Network amongst others. The South Project also welcomes collaborations from other regions in the South to participate in Yogyakarta 2009. The intention of the Yogyakarta Gathering is above all COLLABORATIVE, RECIPROCAL AND OF ACTIVATION…’. ‘2009 South Project Yogyakarta Expression of Interest’, The South Project, 2008. Online: Accessed December 13 2010. www.southproject.net/south/Yogyakarta2009…/Yogyakarta_October_Brief_ 2008.pdf

[20] Moreno, M, p. 12.

[21] Perjumpaan Selatan-Selatan, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 21 to 25 October 2009

[22] Stanhope, Z, in Andrew Stephens, A,A new world order’, The Age Entertainment, July 5 2008, p. 2.

[23] ‘Tuesday, December 15, 2009 until Sunday, December 20, 2009…Melbourne Reflection Post Yogyakarta South Gathering 2009 The South Project presents in Melbourne a reflection on the 5th International South Gathering in Yogyakarta Indonesia in October 2009 – a collaborative model of engagement bringing together arts projects from Melbourne, Perth, Santiago and Yogyakarta. Opening includes artist talks’. ‘South Project’, Bus Projects, 2009. Online: Accessed December 13 2010. http://www.busprojects.com.au/2009/12/09/south-project/

[24] ‘Dame Rose Macaulay’ [n.d.]. Wise Wisdom on Demand. Online: Accessed December 15 2010. http://www.iwise.com/m2ORX

[25] 2010 South Project Inc., Melbourne 2010: How Can a Network….?, Exhibition, 22 November 2010 – 5 December 2010. 2010 ‘Each concept is an imaginative response to the question of ways of activating people and places by means of a network. Some were planned as hypotheses only, others evolved to works in process, and a number fully intended to be realised by the artist either for this exhibition of ideas or at a future time. All were originated by artists in diverse locations to be seen in Melbourne for this South Project event’.

[26] De Clario, Domenico, ‘South remarks Sunday 20 October 2007’, Unpublished essay, email correspondence, 2007.

[27] Moreno, M., p. 12.

‘Decoloniality’ in Latin American art

This paper by María Helena Lucero was delivered at the Southern Perspectives series at the Institute of Postcolonial Studies on August 11 2011. It introduces recent Latin American thinking about modernity, particularly in the concept of the ‘decolonial’.

Beyond the Favela, the Rua and the Museum: Reading Hélio Oiticica and Artur Barrio from Decoloniality.
Fluctuations and Paradoxes of a Latin-American Modernity[1]


Thinking about modernity in Latin America implies revising the works of certain artists who have been protagonists of episodes of rupture in the local as well as in the international cultural arena, including the decades of the 1960s and 1970s. As we move in this direction, it is possible to recognize visible signs of a decolonial position in two emblematic artists of Brazilian, and thus Latin American art: Hélio Oiticica (1937-1980)[2] and Artur Barrio (1945). The aim of this paper is to focus on a reading of these two visual trajectories, from a critical perspective that is rooted in what Ramón Grosfoguel and Santiago Castro-Gómez (2007) have called the “decolonial turn,” given that it is necessary to re-evaluate certain cultural itineraries from an adequate epistemic framework if we are to concern ourselves with a Latin American specificity. Decoloniality formulates a vision of knowledge that is compatible with that of postcolonial studies, an aspect that will also be taken under consideration. In this way, the development of theoretical perspectives that aim for the expansion of discussions around the global-south implies pluralistic modes of perception and interpretation of the cultural productions that emerge there.

Hélio Oiticia

Hélio Oiticia

Artur Barrio

Artur Barrio

Hélio Oiticica has gone through different artistic stages, from the two-dimensional paintings we associate with the Frente group in the 1950s to his Cosmococas in 1973, or actions born out of “contra-bólido”’ toward the end of the 1970s. His explorations resulted in theoretically complex, vigorous, and coherent constructions, that drew a personal itinerary that stimulated a “permeable corporeity”: he would activate not just a connection with certain surroundings, but also perceptual channels that, at times of oppression, would work as zones of self-conscious liberation and as decolonial signs. Artur Barrio initiated, toward the end of the 1960s, a series of interventions in urban and peripheral zones in Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte. His well-known trouxas ensanguentadas, pieces that alluded to physical remains that were wounded or devastated, operated as provocation devices that altered the perception of the unaware walker-by, who would come across these disturbing packages that were squirted and stained with a violent red as he stepped along the city sidewalk.

Both trajectories have shown us visual propositions that, on one hand, instituted regional expressions within an international artistic arena, expressions that are tied to the subversive character of Latin American conceptualism –a counter-discourse strategy that questioned the political hegemony of the State and the fetishist condition of legitimated art. On the other hand, they openly rejected the military dictatorship that took place in Brazil (1964-1985), which reached its crudest and most violent moment in 1968, when the law AI 5 was passed to suppress the civil and political liberties of Brazilian citizens.


Before developing the concept of decoloniality, let´s consider the academic backgrounds of the members of the modernity-coloniality network, the nucleus from which the concept arises. Certain Latin American intellectuals, among them Aníbal Quijano in 1996 and Ramón Grosfoguel in 1998, while working in U.S. universities, began to debate colonial legacies, the geopolitics of knowledge, and the coloniality of knowledge in Latin America. Up to par with researchers like Santiago Castro-Gómez, Walter D. Mignolo, Edgardo Lander, Fernando Coronil or Enrique Dussel, these intellectuals participated in the activities of the modernity-coloniality network. As do Cultural and Postcolonial Studies, “…el grupo modernidad/colonialidad reconoce el papel esencial de las epistemes, pero les otorga un estatuto económico, tal como el análisis del sistema mundo” [… the Modernity/Coloniality Group recognizes the essential role of epistemes, but it assigns them an economic status, like world-system analysis] (Castro-Gómez, Grosfoguel, 2007: 16-17). This epistemic frame is in some ways linked with the theories of Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak, but it has also avoided automatically introducing postcolonial reflections on the Latin American stage, in order to examine regional singularities and to consolidate a discussion on Occidentalism “by and from” Latin America. It is in this context that the term “post-occidentalism” has gained currency, as a reformulation that conjugates decolonization and postcolonialism, where knowledge is forged in interstitial or hybrid ways, “…pero no en el sentido tradicional de sincretismo o ‘mestizaje’, y tampoco en el sentido dado por Néstor García Canclini a esta categoría, sino en el sentido de ‘complicidad subversiva’” [… but not in the traditional sense of syncretism or ‘mestizaje’, and also not in the sense given by Néstor García Canclini to this category, but in the sense of ‘subversive complicity’] (2007: 20).

Strictly speaking, decoloniality, as it has been mapped out by Castro Gómez and Grosfoguel, insists on the liberating nature of the term and encourages a second decolonization—of an intellectual and cultural nature, in comparison with a first decolonization that is restricted to the legal-political level, achieved by the Spanish colonies in the nineteenth century and the British and French colonies in the twentieth century. The transition from modern to global colonialism took place without a substantial transformation of binary organizations, such as the economic poles of centre-periphery, thus reproducing political and economic submission. The crisis of the modern condition produced cracks and variables in the historical canon of power that denied multiplicity, superposition or hybridity, making a turn toward increasingly plural global presences. In spite of these changes, the colonial traces of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have endured. Thus, it follows that the decolonial perspective pushes for a culture that is intertwined with decisive effects on ethnic, racial, sexual, epistemic, and gender dimensions. In and of themselves, racial discourses provoke negative consequences in the international labour system, a worrisome aspect for decoloniality.

Racial premises would justify the access of supposedly “superior races”[3] to better offers in the labour market, as opposed to the “inferior races” that would be relegated to badly-remunerated tasks, thus tracing a way of thinking that inherited notions of the nineteenth century. This condition should be examined from a heterarchical perspective, where no level exists that dominates or subjugates others but, instead, there is a multiple and shared influence that works for a new and better paradigm. Let us remember that the idea of heterarchy, developed by sociologist Kyriakis Kontopolous, is antithetical to hierarchy and undertakes the analysis of social structures by including dysfunctional aspects in a partial, discontinuous, and non-homogenous way. Likewise, decoloniality confronts coloniality of knowledge, which is grounded on an economic dimension as well as on mechanisms of social control. As Mignolo (2007) has noted, decolonial thought has been configured as a resistant and different zone from modernity/coloniality itself. In this manner, coloniality exteriorizes the situation of domination of those who have been forcibly submerged in modernity.

Even though the theoretical alignment of the modernity/coloniality group traces differences and relocations with respect to postcolonial studies, they do share its interdisciplinary and deconstructive character with respect to the Eurocentric, colonial paradigm. Mellino (2008) has presented a revision of the term “postcolonial” in order to delineate a genealogy of its repercussions and incidences in the international academic world. He makes a distinction between a literal and a metaphorical interpretation of the concept of postcolonialism. In the first case, it would refer to a “post” moment of decolonization in the political arena, or forms of emancipation from territorial colonization at a given time period; in the second case, there appear far-reaching implications that are not contained within a segment of time. The crucial precedents for this way of thinking are to be found in Edward Said, an intellectual associated with anti-imperialist criticism; in Gayatri Spivak, who detects, in British literature, the echoes of colonialism and imperialism that subsist beyond the multiple cultural meetings, contacts, and shocks between Orient and the West; and in Homi Bhabha, whose expressions of “hybridity” or “the in-between” have endowed us with the capacity to give a name not just to the cultural interstices forged on fluctuating borders, but to new social actors who do not have a fixed locus. Here, postcolonial criticism works through the deconstruction of the Western imperialist subject, exploring the degree of epistemic violence in the narratives that are cast upon cultural alterities.

From Said´s, Spivak´s, and Bhabha´s contributions, the postcolonial paradigm came to be formed as a “desarrollo del pensamiento posmoderno orientado a la crítica cultural y a la deconstrucción de las nociones, de las categorías y de los presupuestos de la identidad moderna occidental en sus más variadas manifestaciones” [development of postmodern thought aimed at cultural criticism and the deconstruction of the notions, categories, and presuppositions of modern Western identity in its most varied manifestations] (Mellino, 2008: 51). For Homi Bhabha, colonial discourse attends to a system of symbols and practices that organize social reproduction in colonial space. According to him, the sense of “post” that is implicit in the term “postcolonialism” refers to a “beyond” and embodies a certain “inquietante energía revisionista” [unsettling revisionist energy] (Bhabha, 2007: 21) that has the ability of transforming the present into a locus of experience and plurality. In this operation (which, in the end, assumes a political stance), culture makes up a seminal dimension, founding a “estrategia de supervivencia es a la vez transnacional y traduccional…” [strategy of survival that is at once transnational and translational…] (2007: 212) and that establishes a space “in-between” that allows for the emergence of hybrid and interstitial cultural signs.


In order to circumscribe the critical tone of the productions generated by the aforementioned artists, let us remember that the tone that preceded conceptualism in Latin America stimulated reflections on the idea of dematerialization. Mari Carmen Ramírez (2004) has pointed out that this cultural project did not depend on centre or metropolitan phenomena, but transcended the opposition “centre-periphery” and accentuated structural and ideological factors over perceptual conditions. A systematic “inversion” occurred through Latin American conceptual experiences with relation to the North American model, given the conditions of marginalization and repression that Latin America experienced in the 1960s and 1970s. The revision of conceptualism in these latitudes obliges us to approach it as “the recovery of an emancipatory project” (Ramírez, 1999: 557). These incipient enunciations predict developments in global conceptual art from an eccentric position, outside or displaced from the centre. Luis Camnitzer underlined certain mechanisms that marked Latin America as a “cultura de resistencia en contra de culturas invasoras” [culture of resistance against invading cultures] (Camnitzer, 2008: 31), whose visual and formal productions pollinated dimensions of the political along with poetry and pedagogy. These sides merged, and the result was a globality that transcended the dichotomy “agitation/construction”: the artist didn’t propose himself as an activist but as a builder of forms, objects, ideas that become embodied in the artwork. There would be a Latin American specificity in contrast with the U.S. conceptual process, observable when taking in account areas such as: the role of dematerialization, pedagogical incidence, the application of the text or literature. For the Latin American case, the process of dematerialization followed a politicized and politicizing condition, more than an aesthetic choice.

Oiticica developed part of his work in the period that immediately preceded as well as during the Brazilian dictatorship. The 1964 Parangolés were capes that were made of ephemeral materials, outside the art circuit. The spectators, besides integrating the work, would make movements in space to the rhythm of Rio de Janeiro samba, thus establishing a dialogue with the surrounding context. In this way, there appeared a new “una experiencia integradora donde la Percepción cumple el doble rol de estructurar y transformar el mundo de lo cotidiano (…)” [integrative experience where Perception has the double role to restructure and transform the quotidian world (…)] (Lucero: 2009a: 2). In 1965, the common denominator among artists and critics was their opposition to the system through protests of a cultural nature, that took place in events such as Propuestas 65 in São Paulo, an event that was similar to Opinião 65 in Rio de Janeiro. These were interdisciplinary exhibits that discussed the fate of the arts after the military coup. Hélio, in Propuestas 66, called this new trend “our objectivity”, thus underlining the avant-garde characteristics of these encounters, as well as promoting a space of experimentalism where subjects could free their imagination and, besides being part of that world, they could also be its creators.

Hélio Oiticica Parangolé P 08 Capa 05 – Mangueira, 1965; P 05 Capa 02, 1965; P 25 Capa 21- Nininha Xoxoba, 1968; P 04 Capa 01, 1964. Image from Ivan Cardoso’s film H.O, 1979. Credits: Catalogue Hélio Oiticica. The Body of Color, 2007, p. 317

Hélio Oiticica Parangolé P 08 Capa 05 – Mangueira, 1965; P 05 Capa 02, 1965; P 25 Capa 21- Nininha Xoxoba, 1968; P 04 Capa 01, 1964. Image from Ivan Cardoso’s film H.O, 1979. Credits: Catalogue Hélio Oiticica. The Body of Color, 2007, p. 317

Tropicália from 1967 was the product of diverse appropriations, which allowed him to advance his environmental agenda, and can be understood as “an idea of a garden for sensory and graphic experiences” (Figuereido, 2007: 118). The notion of anti-art coined by Helio emphasized the artist´s condition as an instigator of creation and that of the spectator as an active participant of the artwork. Anti-art was the response to a collective need in relation to the creative action, that was exempt from intellectual or moral premises: it was man´s simple position within himself, “in his vital creative possibilities” (Oiticica, 1999: 8). Dance was a direct search for the act of expression, and in contrast with ballet´s mechanical choreography, the movement suggested by the dances of carnaval was the equivalent to the exteriorization of the popular element in these communities. The collision with preconceptions related to artistic practices formulated “the connection between the collective and individual expression – the most important step towards this -” (Oiticica, 2006: 106).

Artur Barrio has been a reader of Frantz Fanon (also Oiticica had a translated copy of The Wretched of the Earth). This is an important detail that helps us understand his plastic choices as well as what it means to produce art in the periphery of capitalism. The reference to residues of cheap materials targeted hierarchies and reflected the idea of “economic leftovers”, or edge of the margin. In this sense, “la obra de Barrio incluye estrategias del Conceptualismo apelando al uso de elementos precarios, banales y frágiles, trazando una opción disidente respecto a los materiales industriales de alto costo económico” [Barrio´s ouvre includes conceptualist strategies, that make use of precarious, banal, and fragile elements that delineate a dissident alternative with respect to industrial, high-cost materials] (Lucero, 2009b: 6). The sum of his aesthetic choices constituted the equivalent of an attitude of resistance against others´ control over his own matter. “La postura estético-política de Barrio es una toma de conciencia en relación a la producción del arte en el Tercer mundo como resistencia a la contramodernidad” [Barrio´s aesthetic-political position is an act of conscience with relation to the production of art in the Third World as resistance to countermodernity] (Herkenhoff, 2008: 15), if we understand “countermodern” in Homi Bhabha´s terms, that is, as related to neocolonialism. In this way, Barrio took a clear position before an instance of oppression, that colonized liberty and the senses. In 1969, the artist piled up packages that were toned with blood in one of the rooms of the Modern Art Museum in Rio, that were presented under the title Situação..ORHHH.OU..5.000.T.E..EM.N.Y…CITY: the word “situation” set a deviation from traditional notions of art, while emphasizing an attitude of spatial intervention. One month later, those packages would be taken to the steps of the garden or to the street. The project became more and more extended and in 1970 Barrio deposited the trouxas ensaguentadas on the banks of the river that runs across the City Park (Parque Municipal).

Artur Barrio Trouxas ensanguentadas, in Situação…T/T1; Belo Horizonte, April, 1970; Credits: Inverted Utopias. Avant-Garde Art in Latin America, p. 370

Artur Barrio Trouxas ensanguentadas, in Situação…T/T1; Belo Horizonte, April, 1970; Credits: Inverted Utopias. Avant-Garde Art in Latin America, p. 370

He then packed five-hundred plastic bags with human remains, such as nails or bones that were splattered with bodily fluids, and he placed them in different sites in Rio and Belo Horizonte. The trouxas were, according to Herkenhoff, evidenciadores or “witnesses” that altered or brought a different dynamic to a particular state of affairs. These evidences or demonstrations translated into: operations of repulsion against countermodernity; distributive circuits in the urban and marginal fabric; objects that were “anxious” to force a confrontation with the visceral fear that emanated from the dismembered or gashed organism; visual contaminations, fragmented bodies, paintings, flesh, and finally, living mud. Also in 1970, he did an ambulatory experience that consisted in spending four days and four nights without food or sleep, and just smoking manga rosa, a seed that is grown (sativa) in Brazil that became popular during those years. His body was the physical support for an action that became effective at every moment, in a way that was erratic and to-the-limit. The artist recorded these explorations in perception in a notebook and eight years later he wrote a text defining the term “deambulário” as a one that was written and inscribed on the body (Klinger, 2007).

In Oiticica, the Parangolés provoked an attitude of emancipation in all of the participant´s perceptive dimensions. Each cape provided a different tactile arsenal, with different textures, and colours, promoting a decolonial sense in two ways: the independence involved in dancing with the piece of clothing, and the liberation of showing revolutionary and rebellious phrases: “be marginal, be a hero.” The Tropicália installation generated feelings of provocation and dislocation because it subverted the order of conventional visuality. There, a cultural need irrupted that made it possible for the subaltern to empower and renew himself, while rescuing the symbolic remains that accumulated in the margins and infiltrated the artistic production, an enunciation that was also political and that grew out of a bastard, emergent territory that induced new, contextualized ways of seeing.

Barrio, on the other hand, swept away with the high cost industrial façade while augmenting the symbolic value of throw-aways from the technological circuit. The trouxas ensanguentadas were furtive cargo that reinforced a decolonial strategy, not just because of the precarious and ephemeral materials from which they were made, but because of their subversive wink against despotism and nationalized torture. He reconstructed private cartographies (the location of the packages) as well as public ones, transforming the urban theatre through minimal interventions that were reiterations but also effective. The wandering that went on for days, that put in risk his physical and mental health, opened an erratic channel that, among other things, allowed him to explore his own bodily limits and his autonomy of action – a personal choice that is articulated within the mode of decoloniality.


Why speak of a Latin American modernity that is vexed by fluctuations and paradoxes? From the field of sociology of communication, Roncagliolo (2003) defines the broad concept of modernity through its chronological and cultural aspects. When we think of the beginning of modernity since the end of the fifteenth century (and through the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries), this temporal category designates, in Berman’s words, a whirl of interacting, parallel phenomena. But this series of vertiginous events were directed toward three potential zones: a nucleus of cultural, scientific, and ethical signification; another of a financial and industrial nature; and another with political roots. The voracious development of economic modernization drove forward the accumulation of capital, an action that was stimulated by the colonization that has expanded toward non-Western territories since the fifteenth century. The projection of these modernising trends in Latin America was attempted with great difficulty, The geo-social reality here differed so profoundly from that of Europe: “América Latina fue una región necesaria para la modernización del mundo capitalista, pero ella misma no se modernizó cabalmente” [The Latin American region was necessary for the modernization of the capitalist world, but Latin America itself wasn’t completely modernized] (Roncagliolo, 2003: 114).

Some of these frictions stem from the persistence of unequal degrees of modernization and, as Achúgar (1993) notes—quoting the Mexican writer Fernando Calderón—, Latin America accepted the cohabitation of the premodern, the modern, and the postmodern. Mixed temporalities exposed paradoxes in our modernity, which provides the conditions of decoloniality.

I have noted here that decoloniality calls for a cultural, artistic, and intellectual decolonization. As a critical category, it refutes Eurocentric views within the field of culture and confronts the heavy weight of coloniality in the realm of knowledge. It opens other senses which, in confrontation with the cultural mainstream, strengthen contortions that betray, perturb, and invert that mainstream. The chain of signifiers is exposed in the objects themselves: the significances disperse, disseminating in the multiple gazes of the spectators. The cultural movements that began in the 1920s and continued in Latin America, and which became belligerently propelled in the 1960s, fought against this condition of coloniality that was rooted for centuries, allowing for the emergence of a “búsqueda de conformación de plataformas de pensamiento propias” [search in the formation of self-made platforms of thought] (Palermo, 2009: 16).

The restitution of local and regional materials, challenging the official status quo of art, and a deeply politicized visual production, are pivotal characteristics of Oiticica’s and Barrio’s installations. Moving their actions to public or socially neglected areas places these aesthetic versions on an institutional edge. At the same time, these artists proclaim, with a most fervent individual freedom, a cultural act that is fuelled by decoloniality. Both Oiticica and Barrio revealed a nucleus of signification that refers to disruptive gestures that, in turn, transcended legitimated art media channels, slipping beyond the favela, the rua, and the museum. They bore witness to a state of crisis not just in their own social and political context, but also in the notion of modernity itself that, as a local phenomenon, was marked by fluctuations and paradoxes, thus producing a cultural convulsion on the Latin American stage.


ACHUGAR, Hugo. 1993. “Fin de siglo, reflexiones desde la periferia”. In AAVV. Arte Latinoamericano Actual. Exposición, Coloquio. Noviembre de 1993, Museo Juan Manuel Blanes, Montevideo, Uruguay, pp. 85-90.

BHABHA, Homi. 2007. El lugar de la cultura. Ediciones Manantial, Buenos Aires.

CAMNITZER, Luis. 2008. Didáctica de la Liberación. Arte Conceptualista Latinoamericano. HUM, CCE Montevideo, CCE Buenos Aires, Uruguay.

CASTRO-GÓMEZ, Santiago y GROSFOGUEL, Ramón. 2007. El giro decolonial. Reflexiones para una diversidad epistémica más allá del capitalismo global. Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Siglo del Hombre Editores, Colombia.

FIGUEIREDO, Luciano. 2007. “’the world is the museum’: Appropriation and Transformation in the work of Hélio Oiticica”. In Ramírez, Mari Carmen. Hélio Oiticica. The Body of Color. Tate Publishing in Association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, pp. 105-125.

HERKENHOFF, Paulo. 2008. “De un Glosario sobre Barrio (dos apuntes: Tercer mundo y Trouxas)”. In AAVV. Artur Barrio. Catálogo de Exposición. Museo Rufino Tamayo, Colección Jumex, México DF, pp. 15-20.

KLINGER, Diana. 2007. “Artur Barrio y Hélio Oiticica: políticas del cuerpo”. In Garramuño, Florencia, et al. Experiencia, cuerpo y subjetividades. Literatura brasileña contemporánea. Beatriz Viterbo Editora, Rosario, pp. 197-205.

LUCERO, María Elena. 2009a. “Diluyendo los límites. Deslizamientos en la práctica artística de Hélio Oiticica (Brasil)”. In AAVV. I Jornadas Internacionales de Arte. Educación en la Universidad. PICEF. Universidad Nacional de Misiones (UNAM), Oberá. CD-Rom, pp. 1-4.

LUCERO, María Elena. 2009b. “Interpelar la opresión: los disturbios de Artur Barrio y Adriana Varejão”. II Congreso Argentino-Latinoamericano de Derechos Humanos: un Compromiso de la Universidad. Facultad de Humanidades y Artes, Universidad Nacional de Rosario (en prensa).

MELLINO, Miguel. 2008. La Crítica poscolonial. Descolonización, capitalismo y cosmopolitismo en los estudios poscoloniales. Paidós, Buenos Aires.

MIGNOLO, Walter D. 2007. La idea de América Latina. La herida colonial y la opción decolonial. Editorial Gedisa S.A., Barcelona.

OITICICA, Hélio. 1999. “Position and Program”. In Alberro, Alexander; Stimson, Blake (editors). Conceptual Art: a critical anthology. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. London, England, pp. 8-10

OITICICA, Hélio. 2006. “Dance in my Experience (Diary Entries)//1965-66”. In Bishop, Claire (edited by). Participation. Documents of Contemporary Art. Whitechapel London, The MIT Press Cambridge, Massachusetts, pp. 105-109.

PALERMO, Zulma. 2009. Arte y estética en la encrucijada descolonial. Cuaderno Nº 6, Ediciones del Signo, Buenos Aires.

RAMÍREZ, Mari Carmen. 1999. “Blueprint circuits: Conceptual art and politics in Latin American”. In Alberro, Alexander; Stimson, Blake (editors). Conceptual Art: a critical anthology. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. London, England, pp. 550-562.

RAMIREZ, Mari Carmen. 2004. “Tactics for Thriving on Adversity. Conceptualism in Latin America, 1960-1980”. In Ramírez, Mari Carmen y Olea, Héctor. Inverted Utopias. Avant-Garde Art in Latin America. Yale University Press, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, pp. 425-439.

RONCAGLIOLO, Rafael. 2003. Problemas de la integración cultural: América Latina. Enciclopedia Latinoamericana de Sociocultura y Comunicación, Grupo Editorial Norma, Buenos Aires.

[1] Translated from the original text in Spanish by Laura Catelli. The citations that appeared in Spanish in the original have been kept in the original language of publication and translated in parentheses.

[2] This presentation has been extracted from my Doctoral Dissertation, Approximations to the Construction of a Methodological Device from the Crossing of Disciplines: Analyzing Productions by Tarsila de Amaral and Helio Oiticica from an Anthropological Perspective. Here, decoloniality is formulated as one of the key concepts for the examination of the artworks.

[3] The term “race” is used here in quotation marks in order to highlight its biologicist and determinist sense. Let us take in consideration that the concept will be debated afterwards, given that it connotes a strong colonialist view that stems from the reflections of authors such as Bernier, Gobineau, Buffon, Renan or Le Bon. For more details, see Tzvetan Todorov’s “Race and Racism” in On Human Diversity: Nationalism, Racism, and Exoticism in French Thought (Harvard UP, 1994).

Dr María Elena Lucero teaches at the School of Humanities and Arts, Universidad Nacional de Rosario, Argentina. She is Director of CETCACL (Centre of Critical Theoretical Studies of Art and Culture in Latin America), Universidad Nacional de Rosario. She is the author of many publications on Latin American art movements and artists, including Eugenio Dittborn, Cildo Meireles and Adriana Varejão. She has also written widely on pre-Columbian cultures.

Art history in the South–it’s time to step out of the quotation marks

A moment of solidarity between Helena Chávez Mac Gregor (Mexico), José Llano Loyola and Paulina Varas Alarcón (Chile) and Mwape J. Mumbe (Zambia)

A moment of solidarity between Helena Chávez Mac Gregor (Mexico), José Llano Loyola and Paulina Varas Alarcón (Chile) and Mwape J. Mumbe (Zambia)

The symposium Mobility, Circulation, Transnationalism: Art History and the Global South concerned the question of art history as it is practiced in the Global South. It was organised by SAVAH (South African Visual Arts Historians) under the aegis of CIHA (Comité International d’Histoire de l’Art) as an opportunity for the Western-oriented discipline to embrace the experience of those in the South. It sought particularly to acknowledge the discrepancy of resources and in doing so fulfil the key aim ‘to bring to the centre that which, throughout history and across nations, has been traditionally ignored, marginalised, displaced and appropriated.’

It was a bold and ambitious move from SAVAH, which attracted academics from across the world, particularly the Americas, Australasia, Europe and other countries of Africa.

The conference began with the CIHA board giving papers about the importance of South in the discipline of art history. This was followed by papers that reflected various corners of the South. Through an analysis of Rorke’s Drift, Elizabeth Rankin identified social critique as a key element in South African modernism. Robyn Sloggett spoke about the Leonard Adam collection in Melbourne and argued that his category of ‘primitive art’ was liberating at the time. Jonathan Mane Wheoki constructed at Whakapapa (genealogy) of Maori modernism which offered an alternative methodology for art history (hopefully one day applied to art outside New Zealand as well).

After this initial positive statement of southness, the panel sessions that followed were dominated by a critique of northern dominance. The main argument was that the major centres of collecting and criticism in the North take a superficial view of the South, which reflects more their own interests than the real experience of artists and audiences from the periphery. This resentment never really had the opportunity to engage with the CIHA position, which served to only confirm its perceived marginality.

While cathartic, this resentment distracted attention away from the key question: How might the methodologies of art history in the South might evolve parallel to those in the North? In South Africa and other countries of the South, the subjects of non-Western influence are not tribes or villages in distant lands, but peoples who co-exist with academics inside robust democratic cultures. From this perspective, the Northern practice of art history can seem rather forensic. It scrutinises the object for signs of lost meaning – precise, but sterile. By contrast, in the South there is the opportunity to engage with artists in a broader conversation that shares the origins of their work.

The contributions to the panel that I organised, ‘Where to put the baskets in an art gallery?’ demonstrated this broader engagement. The panel was prompted by the experience of visiting to the Johannesburg Art Gallery and finding a sharp division between the craft of black rural women in the shop and the works from urban, mostly white, artists in the gallery. How is this still possible in the ‘new’ South Africa?

Though publications like the Journal of Modern Craft are building up a substantial body of scholarship, craft is still perceived as a quite minor element in art history. Yet as an ‘excluded’ art form practiced by communities across the South, it offered the opportunity to make a critical contribution.

Rather than focussing on the objects as such, the papers reflected on the process of craft production. John Steel presented a story of the Eastern Cape potter Alice Gqa Nongebeza, who wood-fires her pots adapting traditional methods to her own distinct personal style. ‘Mastooana Sekokotoana from Lesotho spoke about the Marija museum and associated arts and crafts festival, concluding the need for a ‘living treasure’ program to recognise masters of traditional skills. Though not specifically about craft, Pam Zeplin’s analysis of the South Project pointed to the engaging way its southern events brought together artists and craftspersons through workshops and performances.[1] This was art not as the history of dead objects, but as a living entity with whom one must engage.

In present circumstances, it seems that the southern perspective on art history offers something quite important to the global discipline of art history. There is a sense of declining interest in art history in universities. For good or for ill, the specialist appreciation of art is at odds with the kinds of democratic energies which seek to open up closed fields of knowledge. We see this most dramatically with the breaching of the diplomatic core by Wikileaks. But parallel challenges have appeared in a wide variety of media, including bloggers who challenge the profession of journalism and YouTube performers becoming celebrities. How can art history respond to this energy without losing the invaluable legacy of specialist knowledge, techniques and taste that it has developed over centuries?

One possibility is to engage in a process of consultation with the broader field of art practice. This would involve conversations with the subjects of art history about their own interest in what the field produces. Boaventura de Sousa Santos talks about an ‘ecology of knowledge’ as constitutive of a southern epistemology. There are developments in anthropology such as the Fijian Vanua Framework for Research discussed by Unaisi Nabobo-Baba that identifies protocols for gaining traditional knowledge. Such knowledge is seen as more than a mirror to the world, but a practice with real world implications. The importance of this locally is reflected in the criticism by black South African curator Khwezi Gule of the work by Bitterkomix for the way it confirms the racial fears of white Afrikaners. (Despite the best intentions of organisers, the symposium lacked voices of local black academics. Why would they decline the invitation?) In the colloquium, this spirit was reflected in the inspiring presentation by Zambian Mwape J. Mumbi, which ended with a call to ‘humanise museums’.

No doubt there would be resistance to the idea of protocols for art history. For academics suffering audit-fatigue, it may represent yet another hurdle after ethics committees. For those who have a territorial attachment to their subject, the consultation process may represent an external threat.

But for the discipline as a whole, the development of protocols offers an alternative to both the forensic style of methodology and the impotent sense of resentment from those in the margins. Particularly, in giving a voice to the subject of art history, it offers the chance for the democratic powers that are gathering around us to be a strength growing within the discipline rather than a threat from without.

The day after the colloquium, in Desmond Tutu’s Soweto church, a young woman orator delivered the sermon of the day. She talked about the need to leave behind the ‘comfort zone’ of historical pain and face a new future. To great applause, she urged the congregation to ‘Stop being “black”!’ “Black” was gestured in large quotation marks. Voices like hers are necessary to find a way out of those quotation marks.

Note: Kevin Murray’s travel to the colloquium was supported by the Australian High Commission

[1] Ursula Helg from Vienna was the exception. Due to the tyranny of distance, she was forced to read into objects for meaning, rather than engage with her subject directly. Still, her comparison of beaded works from South African and European contexts offered a promising new formal method of analysis.