Decolonising Art

Opinion Piece by Tereza Neuwirthová

The shadow of colonial past can often be an offsetting factor in achieving a favourable bilateral relationship between countries. Postcolonial states often find themselves in a precarious situation of finding a balanced stance towards their former colonisers, whereby the process of reconciliation is regulated through various diplomatic channels. The innumerable artworks that have been appropriated by the colonial powers during their domination over the “backward” countries of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, is one of them. This art that is being decolonised from the galleries of Paris, London, and Berlin, and subsequently returned to the countries of its origin, whether it be Egypt, India, or Australia, is a way of letting the old enmities be forgotten, while instead focusing on atonement.

Decolonisation of primarily European, but in many cases American museums and galleries is done in several manners. The removal of art pieces from their long-held spots in the exhibition halls of renowned art institutions of the world is seen by many as a betrayal, and thus presents a contentious practice that often ends in a clash of interests, and an undermining of its noble aims.

However, better processes exist through which the decolonisation of art is fostered without leading to unwanted predicaments. One beneficial approach is in enabling the inhabitants of former colonies to collaborate with the exhibition curators, whereby this would enable them to have a say in the organisation and conceptualisation of the art collections taken from their lands of origins. What is more, a proceeding such as the strengthening of the position of indigenous peoples, for whom the manner in which their art is being displayed is of immense importance, furthers the mutual understanding of the countries in the postcolonial setting. Moreover, as the interpretation of art is very much influenced by one’s social environment, it is crucial to stress the origin of the artworks that are on display in non-native settings, with the emphasis on the cultural background, as well as the contexts in which such artefacts are customarily found in the individual ex-colonies. The listing of these details, next to the usual information such as the name of the art piece and its creator, is a common practice in an increasing number of galleries and museums across the world, and represents a useful tool of expressing respect and acknowledgement for the artwork’s place of origin. Not least, the return of artworks from the former colonisers to the formerly colonised is the ultimate demonstration of reconciliation, which represents the solely path leading to undoing the decades of appropriating the cultural aspects of the colonised countries.

Both as a form of diplomacy, but even more so for a better future that is only possible through ideals such as understanding, respect, ethicality, and integrity, the decolonisation of the art that follows the one of world’s states with more than 50 years’ time lag, is a momentous step forward. Reconciling the world’s regions that have long been at odds with each other offers immense possibilities of achieving a fair and equitable global order. Indeed, there is still a very long way to go for such a full reconciliation, and it remains to be seen how the process of art decolonisation will evolve, however given the successes hitherto attained, this phenomenon does have a bright prospect.

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