Dr Edwin Coomasaru

Can Art History Be Decolonised?

Decolonisation is a contested concept. Since the 2020 wave of Black Lives Matter protests, there has been an increasing number of UK-based publications and events dedicated to ‘decolonising’ disciplines and institutions in England, with titles often using that specific term more than ‘anti-colonialism’ or ‘anti-imperialism’. This essay will reflect on recent texts written within the context of Britain and beyond to ask: can the imperial centre be decolonised? Although I will draw on and discuss ideas from philosophy, sociology, and history – the particular focus of this article will be on art history in England: as a university subject, a set of museums and galleries, and art criticism. It is important to attend to the specificities of demands to decolonise a place or time. Can the Victoria and Albert Museum, for example, even be decolonised?

2020 Black Lives Matter protests in Melbourne

In 2019 its director Tristram Hunt declared: ‘For a museum like the V&A, to decolonise is to decontextualise’. As often with liberals, Hunt helped shape a political rhetoric that was quickly appropriated by and ultimately served right-wing Conservative government interests. After a statue of slave-trader Edward Colston was toppled by Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol in June 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson disingenuously complained ‘we cannot now try to edit or censor our past […] To tear [statues] down would be to lie about our history’. Such rhetoric was particularly disingenuous, given that Britain destroyed archival records of its own colonial crimes. Nevertheless, months later the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden threatened to remove funding from public organisations that repatriated objects, removed statues, or shed light on parts of British history that the government wished to suppress.
            Heritage bodies’ board members have been asked to take an oath of loyalty to the government. In the following weeks, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Equalities Kemi Badenoch announced that it was now illegal for schools to teach ‘critical race theory as fact’ or to support ‘the anti-capitalist Black Lives Matter group’. She continued: ‘Our curriculum does not need to be decolonised, for the simple reason that it is not colonised [...] It goes without saying that the recent fad to decolonise […] is not just misguided but actively opposed to the fundamental purpose of education’. What is the fundamental purpose of education? Sara Ahmed has written of the European Enlightenment expectation that schooling was a form of social discipline, intended to shape obedient subjects and reproduce structures of power.
            Badenoch’s rhetoric should be seen in the context of an increasingly authoritarian UK government, intent on criminalising protest and making it harder to vote in general elections. Back at the V&A, Hunt is not a fan of dissent either: demanding his ‘critics from left and right need to get out of the way’, taking issue with any possible ‘political reckoning with patriarchy, racial inequity and social injustice’, and declaring ‘Let museums live’. Perhaps he feels the challenge presented by Black Lives Matter or anti-racist activism to the V&A is so existential to the institution’s creation or purpose that it would result in a symbolic death of the museum. But there is not any neat consensus on what decolonisation means in the context of art history in the UK.
            In February 2020, Art History published a questionnaire, conducted by Dorothy Price and Catherine Grant, which invited academics and curators to reflect on the subject. Some of the respondents talked of diversifying curriculums and staff or sources of knowledge in the academy, others spoke of challenging underlying conceptual structures in higher education. Art history departments are often organised around certain nation states: these very nation states are themselves historical performances of power rather than natural givens – including, of course, both Britain and England. Place is not the only framework that shapes art history across university departments or research subjects in the UK, so too is an understanding of time as linear and progressive.
            This approach to temporal thinking was a product of European empires, used to try and justify imperial conquest and dispossession on the basis of supposedly modernising colonisers spreading enlightenment. There are many different practices for conceptualising temporality, plenty of which are non-linear, including forms of Indigenous knowledge. Rather than ahistorical or transcultural, the whole Western idea of art is itself a colonial construct specific to a moment and set of market developments. What does it mean for the art history to be defined by and organised around a concept that is anything but universal? Demands to diversify curriculums often do not reckon with the underlying foundations of the discipline, foundations that are themselves expressions of and shaped by histories of power.
            In Out of the Dark Night (2021), Achille Mbembe has considered the ways in which decolonisation could radically transform education, noting that while ‘disciplines and fields of studies have never been entirely fixed […] many are now wondering whether disciplines as such have become obsolete’. Writing in the context of South Africa, he insists universities can be fundamentally rethought to challenge the legacy of colonialism, which as institutions they were indelibly bound up with. Mbembe argues that where ‘Knowledge produced by the university was bounded and restricted by organizational apparatuses […] there is no boundary for any knowledge today. Extra-institutional knowledge is unbounded, uncontainable, and easily searchable’. Should the disciplinary frame for art history itself be abandoned?
            Certain contributors to the Art History special issue implicated the field within a continuous social and economic landscape of global oppression and inequality. But many of the solutions proposed were limited to universities as an intellectual space abstracted from their labour practices, investments in arms companies, or complicity with government immigration and surveillance policies (including the Prevent strategy). The publication also received criticism from Rafael Cardoso, who challenged the overrepresentation of respondents from the UK, US or former British colonies. Conversations conducted in English only exclude certain voices and forms of knowledge, since the global distribution of the language itself is indelibly bound up with Britain’s violent imperial histories.
            Cardoso condemned ‘the self-referentiality with which discussions of decolonization are conducted within the Anglosphere’ which ‘reveals a structural inability to think beyond the world view bequeathed to the present by centuries of English-speaking dominion’. Since the journal’s special issue was published, decolonial rhetoric has proliferated at pace through public events and publications in England and beyond. In the aftermath of the global wave of activism in response to George Floyd’s murder last year, museums and university art history departments have reflected on their complicity with structures of white supremacy. But what appeared to be a hasty adoption of anti-racist talk also came in for criticism.
            For Latino and Caribbean Studies and Comparative Literature scholar Nelson Maldonado-Torres, ‘Opportunism and posturing become evident in those who approach decoloniality as mainly a professional career, or purely as a scholarly endeavor’. Rather, he insists: ‘academics, curators, and others who are jumping onto the bandwagon […] need to break away from their confinement within liberal institutions of higher learning and spaces dedicated to exhibiting historical or artistic artifacts’. Some of these criticisms were being made even before the most recent trend for decolonial rhetoric in Europe and North America took off: the sociologist Leon Moosavi has traced decolonial debates from the Global South going back decades, while also critiquing band-wagoning in the Global North.
He relays concerns that ‘Northern academics who are interested in intellectual decolonisation may make the mistake of ‘rewesternizing’, or ‘reinforc[ing] Northern hegemony by co-opting intellectual decolonisation and seeking to control its trajectory’. Moosavi warns that as universities realise the profitability of decolonial rhetoric they may go on to commodify it by marketing a timid version. Francoise Vergés has also noted that the term ‘has now been adopted in the neoliberal West, where the notion has rapidly been institutionalized – universities, museums, and art galleries have been organizing debates and exhibitions’.
            Vergés’s new book A Decolonial Feminism (2021) is part of a body of thought from the Global South going back decades – with landmark publications including Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961), Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o’s Decolonising the Mind (1986), and Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies (1999). Walter D. Mignolo and Catherine E. Walsh have contributed to the field with On Decoloniality (2018). But while it is important to draw on intellectual traditions from the Global South, it is essential to recognise that academia itself is profoundly shaped by global inequalities: most of the books cited above were first published in the US or Europe. In a recent lecture Awino Okech noted that academics in the Global North are often afforded a greater international mobility and access to research funding or publications and presses with prestigious reputations. This power dynamic is underpinned by an unequal distribution of resources: resources that were violently stolen and hoarded in the Global North, which then restricted access to the spoils via hostile immigration law. Not only were former colonies deliberately underdeveloped by imperialism, but after independence many have been subject to Western-backed military interventions and economic exploitation. Discussion of decolonisation in the Global North might require acknowledging that knowledge production is intimately implicated in its material basis.
            What about museums, repositories for artefacts stolen through imperial wars or taken under threat of colonial violence? Mbembe has reflected on how ‘what was taken were not only objects, but along with them enormous symbolic deposits’. The University of Aberdeen have recently pledged to return Benin bronzes pillaged by British soldiers in 1897 during their massacre and ransacking of the city. But for Mbembe such a ‘colossal and practically incalculable loss […] cannot be remedied by purely financial compensation, since what it led to was the devitalization of our capacities to bring about worlds’. The fact that such destruction is irreparable does not mean compensation is not due, nor that it can erase wrongs done. Rather, ‘Europe, for its part, will have to take responsibility for its acts’ – which means giving ‘an account of itself while resituating our objects’.
            Hunt’s claim that ‘to decolonise is to decontextualise’ is projection from the perspective of an imperial museum director. Appropriating cultural objects under colonial rule dislocated them from their spiritual and cultural contexts, a violence bound up with systems of mass murder and oppression – a process subsequently concealed by collection displays. Sociologist Dalia Gebrial has made a similar point writing about the statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University’s Oriel College: erected at the behest of the benefactor following considerable endowment, the public memorial makes no mention of how a fortune was made exploiting South Africa’s Black population. Despite years of activism by the Rhodes Must Fall Oxford campaign, Oriel College has refused to remove the imposing statue from the building’s public street facing façade.
            For Gebrial the campaign to topple the sculpture tapped into something much larger than just one man’s legacy: ‘In the way same that colonial violence and Rhodes’ wealth are decoupled in the statue’s form, despite both being intrinsically connected, so is the relationship between coloniality and the making of modern Europe’. The European Enlightenment is and was often presented as an intellectual project separate from its material and historical context, despite the fact its traditions drew heavily on Islamic philosophical-scientific writings and South Asian numerical systems or that its industrial revolutions were financed with the proceeds of colonialism and slavery.
            Museum or university funding often reveal forms of institutional complicity. BP sponsored the British Museum’s 2018-19 exhibition of the ancient Neo-Assyrian Empire, which once ruled from its capital in Nineveh (located today outside Mosul in Iraq). The company, which can be traced back to 1908, has long been indelibly interconnected with British imperial conquest and resource extraction, connecting climate change with colonialism. In 2002 the UK government secretly discussed exploiting Iraq’s oil reserves with BP ahead of the 2003 invasion; after the Iraqi regime was overthrown the corporation was subsequently awarded twenty-year contracts. Is it possible to talk of ‘decolonising’ an institution like the British Museum when it is implicated in ongoing neo-imperialism?
            If art history is embedded in a context that extends beyond the classroom, its imaginative horizons need to be limited by the classroom: scholarship is both implicated in and can work to challenge unequal global distributions of wealth, power and violence. Moosavi has warned that those ‘those of us who are unwilling to engage in decolonial activism beyond the university may come to realise that we are actually producing tokenistic decolonisation’. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang have criticised the rhetorical tendency for decolonisation to be rendered as a metaphor, stripped of any connection to material structures of power or the repatriation of stolen Indigenous land.
            Tuck and Yang declare: ‘Decolonization in exploitative colonial situations could involve the seizing of imperial wealth by the postcolonial subject’.  Driven by anxiety, efforts to co-opt decolonial struggle represent a premature attempt at reconciliation: ‘one way the settler, disturbed by her own settler status, tries to escape or contain the unbearable searchlight of complicity, of having harmed others just by being one’s self’. For Tuck and Yang, ‘seizing imperial wealth is inextricably tied to settlement and re-invasion. Likewise, the promise of integration and civil rights is predicated on securing a share of a settler-appropriated wealth (as well as expropriated ‘third-world’ wealth)’.
            In the introduction to their edited book Decolonsing the University (2018),  Gurminder K. Bhambra, Gebrial, and Kerem Nişancıoğlu aim to extend and deepen Tuck and Yang’s warning while also complicating its analysis. The editors point out ‘that colonialism (and hence decolonising) cannot be reduced to a historically specific and geographically particular articulation of the colonial project, namely settler-colonialism in the Americas’. They also insist that struggles against colonialism should not exclusively target the dispossession of land, as ‘To do so would be to set aside colonial relations that did not rest on settler projects’. For example: commercial imperialism across the Indian Ocean littoral, the Atlantic slave trade, the mandate system in West Asia.
            Western universities were, and still are, sites where colonial knowledge was produced, consecrated, institutionalised and naturalised – where imperialist and racist theories were developed or where colonial administrators were trained, funded by the spoils of empire and slavery. Products of higher education research continue to be deployed in the pursuit of imperial projects in former colonies or occupied territories. Nitasha Dhillon recognises the potential for institutions as ‘training grounds and passageways, places to challenge power and build relationships, places of struggle and sites of organising’, but concedes that ‘by and large they are obstacles to the collective liberation’. Hannah Feldman criticises imperial organisations appropriating rhetoric: ‘The museum and related institutions, for example, are not, nor were they ever, colonized. No. They are colonizers, or least the tools—and powerful ones at that— of a historical colonial project […] built into the neo-imperial corporate logic of global finance’. She calls to resist ‘making that word an imperializing tool, one that continues the museum’s traditional work: business as usual, just a little bit better. One arms manufacturer is easily replaced by an oil magnate’. For Dhillon the task involves dismantling and assembling entirely different social relations: ‘Our sights are set on a broader horizon of self-determination in which specialized institutions like the museum, the university, and indeed academic journals […] would no longer be necessary, at least in anything resembling their current forms’.
            She reflects a growing consensus among Indigenous and Black organisers in the US that decolonisation necessitates abolition: ‘Abolition includes the treatment of the underlying causes that give rise to the need for borders, bosses, landlords, and prisons’. But it is also important to acknowledge that some of the North American context does not translate into England. Tuck and Yang call for specificity when it comes to conversations around colonialism. While the UK still holds onto remnants of its colonial territory across the world, universities and museums in England themselves do not sit on land taken through colonialism – although that is not to say that parliamentary enclosure acts from 1604 did not rob and privatise what had previously been common land in Britain, part of a larger economic system that also included the Atlantic slave trade.

Victoria and Albert Museum

To live and work in the UK is to have uneven access to the economic legacies of the British Empire and slavery – which funded the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolutions, higher education and the arts, or later the welfare state. The intellectual and political demand to decolonise by scholars and activists in former colonies or occupied territories present a urgent and vital challenge to global inequalities of wealth and power, a system backed by violence and war. But should art historians in England, a country with no recent experience of invasion, use the terms ‘anti-colonialism’ or ‘anti-imperialism’ instead when referring to museums like the V&A?
            Is there a risk that the language of decolonisation when applied to English institutions implies that colonisation was something done to, rather than by, England? Being specific about terminology matters at a time when Brexit-supporting press and politicians have spent years warning the UK risked becoming an EU ‘colony’ or deliberately likening leaving a trading block to anti-colonial national liberation struggles. For all Badenoch’s bad faith and disingenuous attacks on Black Lives Matter and anti-racist activism, she is right about one thing: England has not been recently colonised, museums like the V&A or the British Museum were not set up by an occupying force. It is important to reckon with the fact that English museums and universities are imperial institutions.
            It is worth asking whether art history in England can be decolonised at all, or whether it is possible to demand something else entirely. Vergés has recently asked, ‘should we see decolonization as another trick of the West? And thus, should we embrace de-imperialization?’. Terminology matters, as does specificity when thinking critically about colonialism and its legacy. Decolonisation is not just a concept or practice, but part of a global body of knowledge. The very process of tracing some of the tensions and contestations that underpin decolonial discourses reveals both intellectual fault-lines and possibilities. ‘Can the erstwhile coloniser, the metropole, decolonise?’ wonders historian Priyamvada Gopal in a recent journal article.
            For her, the answer is broadly affirmative: calling for ‘a full reckoning with the economics of empire, showing how institutions, including universities, in Britain and Europe have benefited from labour, profits and commodities from the colonised world’. ‘Alongside a material gauging of debt’, argues Gopal, ‘the university in the erstwhile metropole is well-placed to undertake a substantial portion of the intellectual and cultural work towards ‘decolonising the (Western) mind’. What might such proposals mean for art history in England? It may not be possible to strictly-speaking ‘decolonise’ a discipline or set of institutions that were never colonised but part of Britain’s ongoing imperial infrastructure. But as a global body of intellectual thought spanning centuries, the demand to decolonise can certainly challenge English museums and art history departments.
            Gopal admits that decolonising universities ‘remains a difficult but nonetheless modest endeavour especially absent other more far-reaching changes in society and economy. It is […] certainly not a substitute for material reparations, whether those be for land dispossession or slavery’. She is fully aware that claims of decolonising elite Western institutions risk criticism of bad faith or self-parody. Yet Gopal insists that the set of intellectual demands that the discourse brings to higher education can contribute to wider social change, even if the ‘university [itself] cannot be decolonised independently of society and economy’. Ultimately Gopal argues ‘that decolonisation is a fundamentally material process, requiring radical structural changes, including wide-ranging economic redistribution, not just between nation-states but within them’.
            Although there is no neat consensus on what exactly decolonisation is, it may be that art history in England needs to be completely rethought and restructured from the ground up: not only to account for the discipline’s complicitly with the material knowledge economies and murderous violence of British imperialism, but ultimately with the aim of redistributing wealth and power. Whatever this process may involve, it is likely to be as contested and conflicted as the debates surrounding decolonisation itself. Price writes: ‘As British-based art historians, the idea that we can decolonize from within is undoubtedly problematic. Yet that should not stop us from at least thinking through the demands of decolonial praxis from our position at the heart of the colonial system’.