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Decolonising Art History – Creative Arts Group Workshops

Following our two group workshops in November (access Padlets here and here), I came away with a lot to think about. One was that talking about colonialism and its aftermath is unavoidably deeply emotional, and it requires sensitivity and active listening skills on the part of both conveners and participants. The OCA cohort is wonderfully diverse, and it was great to bring people together from around the world on this shared issue, but it also reveals how individuals have very different experiences of systemic bias, inequality and oppression. We must remember that even though we are talking about art, and the study of art, we are also (always) talking about people and their lived experiences; whether through their presence or their absence in these histories.

It was heartening to hear students’ genuine interest in the art and craft traditions of cultures and societies that often get left out of art history curricula. I shared their frustration and anger that global perspectives are only now, in 2020, making it into the programming of many institutions. I did make the point (after Jim Elkins) that art history is a discipline born and firmly rooted in the Global North, but this doesn’t excuse the fact that so many departments have yet to catch up with an art world that has, for some time now, stretched far beyond ‘the West’.

It’s difficult to face up to the devastating facts of the UK’s colonial legacy, which are still very much present in our public spaces (read my conversation about public monuments with Doug Burton here) and in the foundations and systems that underpin our lives. In the visual arts there is a rapidly expanding world view that manifests in biennials and art festivals spanning the globe, but this is rarely reflected in our teaching and course content.

There is also a need for postcolonial studies and other spheres of identity politics (including but not limited to Black, indigenous, gender, queer, transgender and disability studies) to become a fully engrained part of art degrees, so that students take away informed, enriched and critically reflective perspectives on the world. We all come to the classroom with baggage, but it’s our responsibility to become aware of it and, ideally, learn to replace it with new understandings and knowledge. An arts and humanities degree should help shine a light on our biases (conscious and implicit), the limitations of our world views and the misperceptions that can prevent us from seeing those different from us as equals.

In one of our workshops we talked about cross-pollinisation in historical periods like the Renaissance, which many automatically associate with Italy, and Rome and Florence in particular. In fact, there was a plethora of creativity and innovation taking place across the globe, and plenty of exchange through trade and travel. Courses on ‘The Global Renaissance’ are now being offered, along with in-depth analyses and contextual studies that are needed to bring art historical moments into depth and focus. The change is happening, it’s just taking a while.

In one of the workshops, a student asked if decolonisation is about rewriting history – and I think it absolutely is. Just as we are rethinking the permanent authority and value of public monuments, we should be questioning the scholarly and artistic voices that dominate much of art history (mainly wealthy Western men), and editing in the voices of less privileged, marginalised people whose legacies have been unrecognised, buried or eclipsed by dominant narratives.

Ultimately, it is students’ appetite for learning about alternative art histories (so that they are no longer alternative), and willingness to confront their own biases and the biases of others, that will allow a more diverse, inclusive and truly global art history to emerge. It is also their courage in challenging the status quo, and the myth making that informs much of our historical scholarship, that will drive a new generation of artists, art thinkers and art writers. I was very inspired by the students I encountered at these workshops, and look forward to future conversations.

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Posted by author: Lara Eggleton
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