Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Center for Contemporary South Asia

Art History, Postcolonialism, and the Global Turn — Session I

Friday, September 25, 2020

11:00am – 12:30pm

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As attention turns increasingly toward the “global” in art history, has postcolonialism fallen into obsolescence? Although touted as liberating, does the new “global” dispensation mark a rupture with history? What shall become of the generative critical theory that emerged in the 1980s and ‘90s, which partly grew out of reflections on anticolonial movements and post-independence nation-building? 

11:00 – 11:15
Opening Remarks + Conference Introduction

11:15 – 11:30
Tammer El-Sheikh (York University)
“What Does Art History Have to Say about a Lebanese Sasquatch?: Form, Value and Negation in the Decolonial Work of Edward Said and Amanda Boulos”

Two books on the state of art history appeared this past year. Christopher S. Wood’s A History of Art History and a first English translation of Eric Michaud’s Barbarian Invasions both respond to pressures felt by art historians to account for a relativistic and ahistorical global contemporary art scene. The challenge for both is to show how global contemporary art with its dizzying range of practices, mediums, and sites of emergence can be meaningfully related to a discipline that was established on the basis of contrasts between, for Michaud the “barbarism” of 4th century Germanic tribes and the classical traditions of Rome, or for Wood ethnically distinct “biographies of form” in Riegl and Wölfflin’s work. In her double review Rachel Wetzler formulates the crisis resulting from these incongruities between art history’s past and present succinctly: “In both books the main narrative ends around 1960; when the story jumps to the present, it focuses not on new ways of understanding the past but solely on contemporary art—whose mode, we are told is amnesia.” While this decade marks the beginning of contemporary art as a period, it also saw the collapse of colonies in Africa, the MENA region and Asia. In this paper I will explore the resources for a decolonial, global and cosmopolitan contemporary art history in the published and unpublished work of Edward Said. Taking Palestinian- Canadian artist Amanda Boulos’s work as a case study I argue that, what strikes Michaud and Wood as a kind of amnesia in contemporary art might also be viewed as a strategic forgetting of the discipline’s Eurocentrism in service of ongoing struggles for decolonization.

11:30 – 11:45
Sonal Khullar (University of Pennsylvania)
“In Light of Octavio Paz”

For Octavio Paz (1914-1998), India was Mexico’s intimate other. He wrote of his first visit there in 1951: “From the beginning everything I saw inadvertently evoked forgotten images of Mexico. The strangeness of India brought to mind that other strangeness: my own country.” In Paz’s poetry and prose, which abound in comparisons between India and Mexico and their experiences of European colonialism, strangeness is the basis for affinity, identity, and community. While Paz’s Essays on Mexican Art (1993) is a celebrated example of art criticism, his less well-known memoir In Light of India (in Spanish, Vislumbres de la India, 1995) is a singular meditation on South-South relations and models what I have elsewhere called postcolonial worldliness. Drawing on In Light of India, this paper offers methodological and historiographical reflections on the discipline of art history. Rather than locating Paz’s comparative method and postcolonial worldliness in the past—belonging to or associated with historical movements such as modernism, liberalism, internationalism, and decolonization—I consider its implications for the present. Paz’s writing illuminates the juxtaposition of the work of Indian painter Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941) and American filmmaker Maya Deren (1917-1961) at documenta 14 (2017), which highlighted affiliations in their feminism, primitivism, and cosmopolitanism. The intimate estrangements on view in Kassel’s Neue Galerie link Tahiti and Haiti as art-historical and world-historical projects, and establish them as foundational rather than exceptional to our thinking of art history, postcolonialism, and the global turn.

11:45 – 12:30

Art History from the South