Postcolonial Identity in Contemporary Art
The times when world art was primarily understood as “White art” while artists of the Global South remained largely excluded from the Olympus of the white cube are over. There is no such thing as a neutral European view of history. Diversity and inclusion mean programming for all people and advocating for an open and dynamic society. In their film and video pieces, the selected artists focus, each in their own way, on decentering and decolonizing thinking and the fluctuation between different identities and realities of life. The exhibition brings together leading international artists who combine postcolonial criticism and hybridity in compelling filmic imagery to create a different history.
Yinka Shonibare CBE RA (1962 London, GB)
Renowned British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare has developed a diverse oeuvre examining the legacy of the former British Empire and Western colonialism. He became known for his room-filling installations featuring headless, life-size figures in historical costumes made of colorful Dutch wax batik fabrics. The artist sees himself in the role of a “postcolonial hybrid” and makes the deconstruction of national and cultural identities a focus of his work. He likes to take episodes from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European art and history and turn them into tragicomic scenes of human activity. In his work, he combines theatricality and irony with a keen sense of history, especially the decadence of the rococo era, and the absurdities of the so-called leisure class.
Un Ballo in Maschera (2004) is the first of three films Shonibare has thus far produced. Loosely based on the 1859 opera of the same name by Giuseppe Verdi, the film resembles a fantastic journey into the past, as it takes us to a 1792 masked ball attended by the then Swedish king, Gustav III. The monarch’s decadent lifestyle and unsuccessful expansionist wars ended up being his undoing and he died of injuries sustained in an assassination attempt by a young nobleman at the ball. In Shonibare’s cinematic version of the events, the masks can’t hide a role reversal of the figures: the king is played by an actress and the fatal shot is fired from the pistol of a woman. The action is shown in three slightly varying sequences; as a result, the story remains open-ended and there is no moral resolution of cause and effect. The artificial dance performances serve to put the construction of gender identities and attribution of moral qualities up for renegotiation.
Yinka Shonibare, Un ballo in maschera, 2004, Video, 32 min.
Addio del Passato (2011) references the aria of the same name from Verdi’s 1853 opera La Traviata. Throughout the video, a black opera singer sings the famous lamentation of the unfortunate Violetta. Shonibare sees a parallel to Violetta’s feelings of loss and desire in the story of Lord Nelson’s betrayal of his wife, Frances Nisbet, and his passionate love affair with Lady Emma Hamilton. In the video, the poignant dirge is repeated three times with subtle variations in the staging, periodically punctuated by images of Nelson and his lover. The result is a haunting mise-en-scène of desire, love, oppression, and power.
Yinka Shonibare, Addio del Passato, 2011, Video, 16:52 min.
In The Emancipating Opera she draws on the musical form of the cantata, the sung piece, and uses this genre from European musical history in the form of a contemporary video cantata in order to unfold a narrative about power and emancipation. Voices come up against each other, singing of the hegemonial psyche (the psyche of the white, European, and later US-American patriarchal colonizers) and the subaltern psyche (the psyche of excluded elements of society). In the video, two protagonists mediate between these two poles: On the one hand the “arriero,” a traditional Chilean mule driver, and on the other the trans singer and actress Daniela Vega.
The “arriero” traveling through the mountain landscape of the Andes brings together various origins. On the one hand his roots are in the European colonialization of Chile, and on the other the “arriero” is a descendant of indigenous communities and closely intertwined with the untamed nature and early culture of the early inhabitants of the Andes. In this video, Jarpa contrasts indigenous cultures with her exploration of colonialist and racist writings in which a discourse of devaluation attempted to legitimate the subjugation of non-Western cultures. The singer Daniela Vega here operates as a multiple figure of rebellion against repressive concepts of identity. She not only turns against the colonialization of nature, culture, and people, but also against the limitation and taming of the body.
Voluspa Jarpa, Emancipating Opera, 2019, Video, 11:53 min.