The Impact of Colonialism on Artistic Intervention

Reflections on Sunanda Sanyal’s MFA Critical Theory Seminar taken in June 2016 at Lesley University College of Art & Design

Having spent the prior semester investigating my community’s relationship to race and identity, Sunanda Sunya’s Critical Theory III seminar on colonialism proved to be extremely relevant to my research. The readings and discussions were useful in helping me frame my discourse within a broader historical context and understand the impact of colonialism on artists and contemporary society at large. I will illustrate the struggles faced when “others” try to achieve a successful intervention into mainstream society.

It was pointed out early in our class discussions that the universality of experience is impossible under current social conditions. In fact, one reading, Alien-Own / Own Alien by Gerardo Mosquera, states that “Globalization, [interchangeable with universality], is only possible in a world that has been previously reorganized by colonialism.” (18) This suggests that globalization in postcolonial society is an extension of colonialism. From the point of view of a non-white other, the continuity of colonialism is apparent, but for white Europeans living within privilege, it becomes difficult to comprehend or accept, in many cases.

The ease of recognizing colonialism for others comes from experiencing an ever-shifting set of rules that maintain the hegemonic power of the colonizer. In Claudia Rankine’s book “Citizen,” she discusses African American tennis star Serena Williams and the aggressions she has been subjected to throughout her career. Functioning within the predominantly white institution of tennis, Williams has been subjected to racially charged mockery, as well as a slew of unfair calls by officials — something not happening to her white peers. After keeping her composure at these injustices for years, Williams finally objected to an obvious bad call in 2009. As a result, the athlete received a point penalty (resulting in her loss), was fined $82,500, and put on the tennis organization’s probationary period for two years. Rankine summarized, “Perhaps this is how racism feels no matter the context — randomly the rules everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you.” (26–30)

In Maurice Berger’s essay Race and Representation, he quotes Foucault, “‘[truth is] bound in a circular relation to systems of power which produced and sustain it.’” Foucault states that this truth is designed with ‘general politics’ that define truth and allow it to be sanctioned by the voice of the consensus, which often serves as the justification for racial oppression. This is exemplified in Serena Williams’ experiences, which illuminate a microcosm of our hegemonic system operating to reject non-white others from mainstream success.

In a system organized by colonialism, others have little voice to make substantial change. Artist and scholar Rasheed Araeen described this condition in his essay Art and Post-Colonial Society:

The absence of non-European people as active agents from this narrative is based on the idea that colonized peoples cannot be agents of history, as they are not free subjects. They cannot therefore enter history, act upon it, and change it….they cannot and must not play any critical role in the construction of the world and must only allow themselves to be led by those who are inside and are part of the dynamic history. (370)

This hegemonic structure isn’t only imposed, but also assumed (Mosquera, 26). As a theme in my own artwork work, I investigate the way local whites perform to maintain power and how others (specifically African Americans) perform to fit in. For me, this consent is represented by the way black others may use humor to ease white suspicion or over extend themselves to achieve success, thus proving worth to the colonizer. While this concession of supremacist behavior serves to protect others from retribution and can move them ahead socially and economically, it also perpetuates unhealthy behaviors that are demeaning (even harmful) to others. Also, due to the murky definition of truth, as applied to non-Europeans, good behavior doesn’t guarantee protection.

In his novel “Between the World and Me,” Ta Nehisi Coates provides a vivid example in the death of his friend and fellow Howard University alumni, Prince Jones. Jones was the son of an esteemed academic, an excellent student, and a kind and devout Christian with a slight build. However, he was shot to death by a lone police officer who was outside of his jurisdiction. The officer claims that he thought Jones resembled a 250 pound criminal suspect. It didn’t matter that Jones looked nothing like the suspect or that he was, according to Coates, a gentleman. The officer (who was later exonerated of any wrong-doing) set aside the rules of justice and civility to flex his white dominance.

Relative to art, America’s system of oppression has continuously dismantled opportunity for non-white artists, while reaffirming white supremacy. Because my work and research relates to African American others, I’ll focus there and offer examples where attempts at artistic intervention into mainstream art world have been challenged by the “truth” of colonialism.

An example of how colonialism has hindered the entry of black artists into the mainstream can be seen in New York City’s African Grove Theater (1821). The theater was established in an attempt to feature black performers in a safe space for black audiences (with a white section). While this example may not seem like a true “artistic intervention,” due to its segregated structure, I argue that in the post-slavery north, African Grove was progressive in making a space for non-Europeans to perform and watch mainstream plays, as well as offering a space where performers can share their talents with a limited white audience.

The theater drew large riotous crowds that behaved similarly to white audiences within their own venues, and there was speculation that whites were payed to add to these disturbances, leading to police harassment. The National Advocate described African Grove’s ordeal as follows: “It was at length considered necessary to interpose the arm of authority, and on Monday evening a dozen watchmen made part of the audience…Finally [theater operators] plead so hard in blank verse, and promised never to act Shakespeare again.” (Lott, 45–46) The theater would attempt to regroup, but met the same backlash until it closed its doors in 1823.

The African Grove’s struggle is a glaring example of Foucault’s aforementioned “truth” imposed on black people. What drove this assault on the African Grove? Was it the comfort of black actors playing white parts in Shakespeare, or was it the financial success and independence of colonized people? Araeen states that “the fundamental prerequisite for [a successful] artistic intervention is the position of the artist, how they are seen or considered in relation to the society which they are located.” (365) Members of African Grover were working under the assumption that they were free and were afforded the same rights as their white counterparts. Unfortunately, the fresh wounds of slavery had not even begun healing when the players tried to make their mark in mainstream theater.

Another example that demonstrates the pushback against black intervention is that of African American painter Elzier Cortor. In 1947, his painting Americana was accepted into the Carnegie Institute Annual Art Exhibition. Utilizing the language of modern art, Americana featured a black female nude emerging from her bath. The background image of newsprint walls and chipped linoleum floors speak of the realities of poverty in black communities. “Americana apparently touched a raw nerve, with its jarring mix of black sensuousness, hardcore poverty and…sarcastic commentaries on the American dream literally shouted from the walls.” Upon its arrival to the institute, the painting was vandalized.

Cortor’s intervention wasn’t a complete failure, as his acceptance into the Institute reveals, but like African Grove, the artist experienced backlash for making himself too comfortable among white peers. The destruction of Americana serves as a reminder of the artist’s otherness. (Powell, 94–96)

In Rasheed Araeen’s essay Art and Postcolonial Society and through class discussion, it became evident that there wasn’t space reserved for others in modern art. As postcolonial culture began forming, Western people would remain trapped in their hegemonic roles. This phenomena was (and remains) ingrained into our culture, and when paired with a psychological desire to forget past atrocities toward others, it provoked the paradigm shift toward postmodernism. In a candid (and sardonic) imagined monologue, Araeen delineates the thought process of colonizers as they figure out how to handle the issue of inclusion:

You [non-Europeans] are within [postmodernism] it as a part of us, and we want you to play a creative role in it. We know you have problems here, being away from your own culture, but we will help you overcome these problems…We think you are different. We want you to express your difference…As for the history of art and the discourse of modernism, they belong to a different period. We should let bygones be bygones…We should look to the future, the brilliant future of our multicultural world. (372)

In the catalogue for the Grey Art Gallery’s 2013 exhibition, “Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art,” curator Valerie Cassel Oliver stated “the artists in this exhibition have defied the ‘shadow’ of marginalization and have challenged both the establishment and at time their own communities.”

It seemed fitting for Adrian Piper to request the removal of her film, The Mythic Being from the show following that statement. Piper responded, “I appreciate your intentions. Perhaps a more effective way to celebrate [black artists] might be to curate multi-ethnic exhibitions that give American audiences the rare opportunity to measure directly the groundbreaking achievements of African American artists against those of their peers in ‘the art world at large.’” (Cembalest) Without a doubt, artistic intervention of postmodernism requires acceptance into the institutions of power, but an artist cannot reach mainstream acceptance when they are segregated to shows for others within those institutions. Gerardo Mosqura’s statement that “power today doesn’t strive to confront diversity, but control it (22)” rings true in this situation and for Piper, Cassel Oliver’s remarks basically invited the artist to extricate herself from the show in protest.

There is a general misunderstanding that only the colonized are faced with the “specific conditions of postcoloniality; and that there [is] no need for the colonizer to change or go through a liberation from colonial relationship (Araeen, 366).” In fact, the benefits of true homogenization can free those in power from their own constraints within the hegemony. Instead, the master-slave relationship is perpetuated and to what end? I question, how do we move forward and what are the implications of not doing so? Perhaps James Baldwin’s can enlighten; he often does:

[Supremacy] must be admitted, very slowly, and very much against our will–that this vision of the world is dangerously inaccurate, and perfectly useless. For it protects our moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality. People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster. (174–75)

Works Cited

Araeen, Rasheed. “Art and Postcolonial Society.” Globalization and Contemporary Art, edited by Jonathan Harris. Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2011, pp. 365–374.

Baldwin, James. “Stranger in the Village.” Notes of a Native Son. Beacon Press, 1984, pp 159–75.

Berger, Maurice. “Race and Representation.” How Art Becomes History: Essays on art, society, and culture in post-New Deal America, edited by Maurice Berger. Harper Perennial, pp. 78–92.

Cembalest, Robin. “Adrian Piper Pulls Out of Black Performance-Art Show.” ArtNews, 15 August 2016.

Coates, Ta Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel and Grau, 2015.

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class.Oxford University Press, 2013.

Mosquera, Gerardo. “Alien-Own / Own Alien.” Complex Entanglements: Art. Globalisation, and Cultural Difference. Edited by Nikos Papastergiadis. Rivers Oram Press, 2003. (18–29)

Powell, Richard. Black Art: A Cultural History (Second Edition) (World Art). Thames and Hudson, 2003.

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen. Graywolf Press. 2014.

Sanyal, Sunanda. “Critical Theory Seminar.” Lesley University College of Art and Design, Cambridge, MA. June 2016. Lecture.

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