The very notion of discussing colonial legacy is one which is quite touchy amongst my white South African relatives; an ageing generation who lived through apartheid and stagger through modern day political discussions buckled with white shame partnered with ignorance. The topic held a personal relevance to me as I’m aware understanding doesn’t come served on a plate but has to be sought out. This is the very reason why I chose to see the ‘Undefined Territories’ exhibition in the MACBA, Barcelona, instead of visiting Museu Picasso. Colonialism not only had geographical implications for native peoples but shook their identity and culture, hence these artworks give insight into how colonial paradigms still affect newly independent colonies; how decolonisation is an ongoing process; and how neocolonialism is affecting indigenous populations. Given my family history in Africa I shall be focusing on the work considering the continent, I will nonetheless discuss other post-colonial nations relevant to the work.
As soon as you walk through the sun-chambers of the gallery foyer, the exhibition greets you with the giant mural by the Choctaw-Cherokee artist Jeffrey Gibson; the multi-coloured geometric pattern, reminiscent of Native American motifs, reads ‘Look how far we’ve come’. This introduces the theme of decolonisation with a tone of irony as it remains unlikely that America will ever fully reverse the consequences of British colonisation. Although the USA gained independence on July 4, 1776, the nation’s population of American Indians and Alaska Natives, (including those of more than one race) made up only about 2% of the total population in 2015. For this minority their culture struggles to survive and withstands constant appropriation, as highlighted by the similarity of the mural to aesthetic characteristics of Amercian Modernism.
This reminds me of a passage in Adichie’s ‘Americanah’, when she’s discussing the nuances of interracial relationships in contemporary America: it reads,
‘The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie…We don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we’re worried they will say we’re overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive. And we don’t want them to say, Look how far we’ve come, just forty years ago it would have been illegal for us to even be a couple blah blah blah, because you know what we’re thinking when they say that? We’re thinking why the fuck should it ever have been illegal anyway?’Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, ‘Americanah’
Although Adichie is talking about the experience of a non-American Black living in America, this issue is also applicable to this case. Yes, America gained independence. Yes, legal action has taken place to help put an end to discrimination against Native Americans. But, the minority that remain continue to face prejudice, mistreatment and inequality in broader society; a legacy established by the British Colonial powers. I stood opposite the mural reading ‘Look how far we’ve come’ thinking, ‘”why the fuck should it ever” have happened in the first place?'(which of course is a complicated question post-colonial theories have been tackling for the past few decades).
STRUCTURES OF COLONIALISM
Having already been launched into a field of thought, I wandered into the first room where, spread out on the floor, was the next piece, Mariana Castillo Deball’s ‘Nuremberg Map of Tenochtitlan’(2013). On the expanse of floor board in front of me lay an ampliation of the detailed map of the ancient Aztec capital (now Mexico City) that the conquistador Hernán Cortés sent to the Spanish king in 1520; this was passed along with letters describing the large, highly developed city and its people, including the ritual of human sacrifice, which was instrumentalised in depicting the Aztecs as barbaric and in need of civilising by the Spanish Empire. The map was pivotal in popularising support for the European conquest of the Aztecs and the ‘New World’ as it was circulated around the continent in 1524. However, by the time of its publication, the Spanish had already destroyed the city, moving in with their forces in 1521. We see here how even cartography was used by foreign powers to depict their ‘discovered lands’ in the light of their own western ideals with no respect for native customs or beliefs. There is something to be said about the European need to justify their oppression of the South Americans by stripping their representation down to an accusation of boorish and uncivilised behaviour.
Two fascinating pieces in this exhibition were addressing how possession and control was claimed by colonial and imperial powers by naming and renaming items or even geographical locations or features. The first is displayed above: ‘Salto (Pipa Cornuta)’(1977) by Lothar Baumgarten. This is quite literally a list of names of rivers in La Gran Sabana, Venezuela, in Pemon – the native language – as a way of restoring memory and vindication of place and language. This power strategy was utilised by colonial empires to claim ownership in various places around the world including India, Namibia and many other countries. The work reflects Baumgarten’s deep respect of the indigenous population of the Americas and a fascination in how their culture evolved over time with the influence of economics, environmental changes and politics -colonial and otherwise. This piece was a very restorative one, speaking healing into a censored culture.
“No human utterance could be seen as innocent. Any set of words could be analysed to reveal not just an individual but a historical consciousness at work.”Ania Loomba, ‘Colonialism/Post-colonialism’
Maria Thereza Alves’ piece, ‘This is Not an Apricot’ (2009), brings a comedic edge to the colonial narrative as she illustrates 20 different types of indigenous fruit that she found at a market in the Amazonas, all of which the vendor referred to as apricots. She walked through the market only a few years ago, proving that the legacy of linguistic imperialism is far from being diminished; the original names for the fruits have been lost in years of colonial rule.
“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”Chinua Achebe
Although this was one of my least favourites I must say, Sandra Gamerra’s ‘Merchandise I (Still Life)‘ and ‘Merchandise II(museum)’ (2018), offered an interesting starting point for some research. Gamarra regularly uses typically European colonial formats of=landscape and still life as a critique of the imposition of the Western gaze and the marginalisation of native populations by considering them as the inferior “Other”. We see various pieces of pottery from unnamed colonies, belonging to the indigenous culture, appropriating the items in an exotic display of wealth and power. The quotes written in white on the top are those taken from the post-colonial theory of Enrique Dussel, Victor Stoichita and Mario Rufer about does of representation and power, objectification and monetisation of culture through a system of transnational capitalism that was propelled by colonialism. This hints to a future of neocolonialism in which we see unfolding as capitalism, globalisation and other forms of cultural imperialism take the place of Western governing bodies in the control of less economically developed countries.
DECOLONISATION AND NEO-COLONISATION
‘Colonialism has also its modern dress, in the form of economic control, intellectual control…It is a skilful and determined energy, and it appears in many guises.’Ahmed Sukrano, President of Indonesia, Bandung Conference, 1995
Walking into this part of the exhibition, my senses lit up as I saw a room full of flower arrangements. Upon closer inspection, it became clear to me that the exotic bunches dead, withered and dry which offered a rather uncanny beauty. Upon reading the text next to them, it began to make more sense; Kapwani Kiwanga’s ‘Flowers of Africa’ (2013-ongoing) is a time-based piece. Using historic memory through reconstructions of floral arrangements based on archival photographs related to independence ceremonies of African countries, she produced these displays. Indeed, they were set up fresh and would have given off the very celebratory tone of independence originally, however, the transient nature of the flowers alludes to notions of impermanence and flux, as well as to the challenges of independence as they wilt over the duration of the exhibition showing. Having recently read ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ by Adichi, I was only too aware of the civil strife suffered in Nigeria following their newly found independence. I’ve also watched the consequences of decades of Afrikaners rule in South Africa, causing economic devastation when apartheid ended.
Next to these arrangements is a collection of photographs of the first Independence Day events of former colonies in Africa, Asia and the Middle East; brought together by Maryam Jafri under the name ‘Independence Day’ (2009-ongoing), they are organised according to the type of event. the images are indicative of how new nations have upheld the political aesthetics, protocol and sometimes systems of governance, of their former colonisers, just as the floral arrangements are a colonial import. There is a deep irony in this. Indeed, there is a lot to say in terms of how imposing certain political systems on a culture who’s values do not match up to the ideologies can be detrimental to their society as a whole.
My favourite part of the whole exhibition came at the very end. Based on the Dambudzo Marechera novel ‘Black Sunlight’, Dana Whabira explores the use fo language as a tool of repression and manipulation. I did a little background research into this novel; the stream-of-consciousness narrative of this cult novel traces the fortunes of a group of anarchists in revolt against a military-fascist-capitalist opposition. In an unspecified setting, Marechera parodies African nationalist and racial identifications as part of an argument that notions of an ‘essential African identity’ were often invoked to authorize a number of totalitarian regimes across Africa. Such irreverent, avant-garde literature was criticised upon publication in Zimbabwe in 1980, and ‘Black Sunlight’ was banned on charges of ‘Euromodernism’ and as a challenge to the concept of nation-building in the newly independent country. The video displayed is of a Shona lesson that includes exerts of an interview with Marechera, pointing to the calculated misinterpretations of the indigenous language and how ideas of African nationalism were often invoked to justify totalitarian regimes across the continent. The neon text above is lit up apart from the black out letter ‘l’; this was a deliberate exclusion as the letter doesn’t exist in Shona, thus creating another meaning. I struggled to find the meaning of the phrase in relation to Marechera but if anybody knows anything more on the topic please comment below and enlighten me!
There was so much more in the exhibition I haven’t included such as the film following the ‘non-alignment movement’ for no reason other than the need to prioritise what I was most engaged in; however, the whole exhibition was fantastically curated and featured extremely relevant and challenging content. I’d highly recommend that anybody visiting Barcelona before the 20th Oct take a detour to the gallery as even the architecture of the building is worth your while! The collection is also fantastic, featuring the Guerrilla Girls and even a new exhibition on Christian Marclay.
I’d love your comments so do feel free as always to comment below or directly message me on my instagram account. Thank you for reading! (I’ve attached the link with information about the exhibition below.)