The Decolonial AestheSis Dossier

In this dossier we look at the geopolitics of sensing, knowing and believing that have been at play in the variegated versions of the project decolonial aestheSis. The participants are intellectuals, curators and artist and many of them all at once. They were invited explore decolonial aestheSis through their own artistic and theoretical work.

The ideas of the general introduction on decolonial aestheSis were distributed among the contributors. As mentioned in Section I all of them were previously engaged in one or the other events exploring “decolonial aestheSis” that found their expressions in exhibits, workshops and publications in specialized journals.

The dossier is organized to flag and enact “geopolitics of knowing, sensing and believing” in order to avoid hiding what postmodern aestheTics hides — its own local history. It is also in contrast with altermodern aestheTics which flags what artists in the world have in common, rather than their differential experiences. By opting for the geopolitics of knowing, sensing and believing we are not aiming at essentialisms but at pluri-versalism: each local history is uni-versal. The belief that uni-versal is one is the fiction of Western Civilization and modern aestheTics. Modern aestheTics had its point of origination in Europe, it is regional, local but assumes the right to be ONE universal AMONG other regional and local universals. Pluriversality is composed of many universalities and it departs from decolonizing the Eurocentered fiction of one universality — that of its own local and regional history. What we present here is the work in progress of the decolonial options, or options in plural if you wish, but decolonial at the end.

I

To understand Madina Tlostanova‘s argument in The Observatory of the Beraved: Unbinding the Imaginary in Eurasian Borderlands, it is helpful to remember two epigraphs she used in a previous article to argue the decolonization of epistemology:

―J’ai de sérieuses raisons de croire que la planète d’où venait le petit prince est l’astéroïde B 612. Cet astéroïde n’a été aperçu qu’une fois au télescope, en 1909, par un astronome turc. Il avait fait alors une grande démonstration de sa découverte à un Congrès International d’Astronomie. Mais personne ne l’avait cru à cause de son costume. Les grandes personnes sont comme ça. Heureusement pour la réputation de l’astéroïde B 612 un dictateur turc imposa à son peuple, sous peine de mort, de s’habiller à l’Européenne. L’astronome refit sa démonstration en 1920, dans un habit très élégant. Et cette fois-ci tout le monde fut de son avis.‖ Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Le Petit Prince

―A Russian in Europe is like a cockroach. He is running, moving his whiskers, nervously smelling. He is scandalous for Europe’s clean surface. Europe can contemplate with interest the exotic insects, it would like some kind of poisonous tarantula or a caterpillar, ladybirds are a touching site for it, but there are no good cockroaches…‖ Victor Yerofeyev, Five Rivers of Life.

Tlostanova build her argument on aestheTics instead of epistemology, around the figure of Caliban: Caliban the artist and the decolonial philosopher who turns aestheTics into aestheSis and delinks from Prospero’s assumed, pretended or blind universality of his “mastery.”  Mona Lisa has been appropriated and converted into an undisputed model and reference of Renaissance art and model for the future, an anchor of Western Civilization’s visual imaginary. But when a a Buryatian (Caliban) artist, Zorikto Dorzhiev paints Jioconda Hatun, makes Miranda look like her mother Sycorax, visual aesthetic disobedience is in movement. Visual aesthetic disobedience set the state for decolonial aiesthesis. In Tlostanova’s own precise words:

The crucial drive here is overcoming in existential or Zen-Buddhist sense, transcending in Kantian sense, and trans-modern delinking in decolonial sense. After delinking the subject needs to re-link and here resistance gives way to re-existence.

Two concepts are crucial to Tlostanova’s argument: colonial and imperial differences. These concepts are not restricted to art and aestheTics but to the entire frame of Western Civilization, from knowledge to art, from religion to politics, from science to fashion, from basic belief system to the logic of war. Both concepts have one element in common: that certain people are ontological and epistemically inferior to those people who are in a position to classify.

What is more relevant to notice is the fact that while imperial and colonial differences where crucial to structure the hierarchies of modernity through the logic of coloniality, we are not, in the planet and in the twenty-first century, overcoming the deadly consequences of colonial and imperial differences. Artist and decolonial thinkers, as well as artists as decolonial thinkers, are making a huge contribution to asserting the humanitas of the anthropos by revealing and reducing to size the anthropos within the humanitas.

Pedro Lasch focuses on his intervention at Documenta 13, in Kessel, in a series of panels AND, AND, AND. Based on his previous work Lasch offers a series of decolonial aesthesis “propositions.” These propositions prove to be the manifestation of truly decolonial “pensiero forte” (countering Gianni Vattimo’s celebrated “pensiero debole’).  At the same time they continue the task of “mapping decolonial aesthesis” that started in section I. Lasch piece is at once a reflection on his own itinerary as well as an opening to reflect also on the necessity and the potential of decolonial aestheSis. In his piece we can see how the concept of “aesthetics” is reinvented decolonially and at the same time how it impinges on artistic doing. Being himself an artist and a philosopher, the lines between aesthetics and art are blurred. Art becomes aesthetics and aesthetics becomes art. The seven propositions are indeed an anchor for future theoretical/artistic works.

Here is one of the key propositions advanced by Lasch:

Modernity is inseparable from coloniality. Decolonial aesthetics is therefore not modern, postmodern, or altermodern. It is rather the multitemporal movement of those who look and have looked to rebuild the world from the ruins of the modern/colonial system, with all the specifics of what this may look like in a given time and space.

The proposition inserts decolonial aesthetics into the heart of the general frame of the collective modernity/coloniality: modernity is inseparable from coloniality, there is no modernity without coloniality. The proposition also locates postmodernity and altermodernity as variations of modernity and therefore, inseparable from coloniality. Consequently, postmodernity and altermodernity in their apparent emancipatory principles are indeed but new faces of the rhetoric of modernity that hides coloniality. Decolonial aestheSis becomes then the project and the processes of liberation of being and healing of colonial subjects (see Shillian in this dossier).

II

Alanna Lockward‘s ‘Black Europe Body Politics; Towards and Afropean Decolonial Aesthetics’, presents us with the rich panorama of artists and ideas that have come together around her curatorial project. Alanna Lockward brings to the fore the importance of conceptualizing the ‘diasporic’ as an essential element of the aesthesic practices that depart from the modern/colonial order. Alanna’s concept ‘Afropean decolonial aesthetics’ gives a name to aesthesic practices that are rooted and that bring to view the experience of coloniality, the hidden side of modernity. ‘Afropean decolonial aesthetics’ makes visible what has been made invisible by the modern/colonial order.

The artistic practices grouped around ‘afropean decolonial aesthetics’ are open possibilities of sensing and doing that overcome the conditions of oppression reproduced by what Alanna calls the “art plantations of modernity”. Her curatorial practice has been able to conjoin the conceptual and the practical, thus giving voice and opening spaces for decolonial aestheSis. Through her curatorial vision Alanna Lockward has been successful in connecting the histories of Africa, the Caribbean and Europe in order to nourish the struggle against the silencing and the injustice that the Afropean communities are enduring.

By grounding her work on the notion of diaspora, Alanna Lockward enables us to see aesthesic practices that disobey the normative framework of modern aestheTics. They disobey not through a meta-critique, rather they disobey by enacting a sensibility that is inseparable from the embodied experience and the embodied knowledge of those who have been discriminated and displaced by modern/colonial violence. ‘Afropean decolonial aesthetics’ names the coming together of aesthesic practices that are born out of the embodied experience of the colonial wound. In the same way that we speak of border thinking, these aesthesic practices make us speak of ‘border aestheSis’ and ’embodied aestheSis’. The embodiment of these practices becomes the locus where the open wounds of the modern/colonial forms of oppression are not just expressed in the abstraction of concepts but appear in voice and flesh.

Ovidiu Tichindeleanu, ‘Decolonial AestheSis in Eastern Europe: Potential Paths of Liberation’ offers a reading of decolonial aestheSics through the practices of Eastern European artists. In the context of the administrative incorporation of Eastern Europe into the forms of governmentality dictated by the European Union and the global financial institutions, Ovidiu highlights the importance of decolonial aestheSis to decolonize the narratives that after three decades of recession have exhausted their possibilities to orient the imaginaries of East European societies.

Ovidiu brings to view different artistic practices that have to show the timeliness of a ‘decolonial aesthetiSis of liberation in Eastern Europe’. The imposition of the culture of consumption has also meant the control of historical memory. The communist past has been converted into a rigid narrative that has no place for diverging interpretations, whereas the present is saturated with the discourses of consumption and Occidentalism fixed in a present without history.

The artistic practices of Eastern Europe offer a deep criticism of the historical normativity imposed by the transition. They bring to question the mechanisms that have been rendering void everyday life memories. They are questioning the conflicted relations between gender, race and class that are being produced and denied by the dominant discourses. The possibilities of liberation that decolonial aestheSis holds can only be nourished by the recovery of the alterative memories, knowledges and sensibilities that are being subsumed.

Tanja Ostojic‘s Crossing Borders / Development of Diverse Artistic Strategies offers a narrative of the complexity of her vision and execution in the sphere of aestheSis. Ostojic delinks from all available and imaginable coded structure of “performance art,” an expression that entered the aesthesic vocabulary in the 70s, thus qualifying the general sense of “doing” to “artistic doing.”  When Rolando and I invited Tanja’s contribution to this issue of Social Text/Periscope, she wanted to support it with contributing her work but at the same time she was concerned that she is not into the “decolonial aestheSis” vocabulary and arguments to make a case for her work in those terms. Now this conversation was taking place after three valuable Tanja’s participations in exhibits-cum-workshop on “Decolonial Aesthetics” in Bogota and Durham (Duke University) and the third one Pedro Lasch’s AndAndAnd Platform in Documenta 13 in Kassel, 2012. So, what is in Tanja’s work that resonates with the decolonial aestheSis?

In her “Crossing Borders” series Ostojic introduces three of her signature “story-telling.” Story-telling rather than “performance” better matches her artistic/aesthesic project. The three pieces presented here, and most strikingly the first two, are a out-cry from bodies, sensibilities and subjectivities left out by the formation of the European Union. Coloniality began to manifest itself in full force, in Europe, with the formation of the European Union and the colonization of the former Eastern and Central Europe. Tanja, Yugoslavian born and raised, had to deal with both the demeaning status of legal citizenship and the none less humiliating status of cultural citizenships of Eastern Europeans. Coloniality is not longer a logic that operates in the non-Euro-US world. Western Europe and the US have, on the one hand, run out of places to expand over the planet and, on the other, in-migration is the specter that is hunting the yesterday triumphant rhetoric of modernity (progress, civilization, development).

Immigration to Western Europe from the former colonies as well as from Eastern Europe are both different manifestations of the logic of coloniality, hidden by the rhetoric of modenrity. The rhetoric of modernity is the rhetoric of the European Union, triumphal a decade ago, dramatic in the past two years. But the hope is maintained in the rhetoric of progress, development and betterment. The logic of coloniality taking care of the “service countries” of the European Union. First, Eastern Europe; now the pillars of Europe and Western Civilization: Greece and Rome (Italy), the first two colums of the modern/colonial world: Spain and Portugal.

The mutation (not transition, for “transition” is presumed to be a step forward in the linear history of the world of which Western Civilization is leading the way) in the history of the Balkan Peninsula is one that goes from non-modern (and not pre-modern, for “pre-modern” is an appropiattion of linear time by the rhetoric of modernity and postmodernity) Ottoman Sultanate to the modern Soviet Union to the post-modern European Union. People from the Balkan Peninsula belong to Europe as a mythical geography, but the European Union is a different story. The European Union requires legal citizenship and legal citizenship quesioneed you cultural belonging to the European Union, even if you can claim that the Balks are also Europe. Geography is not history.

III

Dalida Benfield found her own way to enact decolonial aestheSis. Branching on her own childhood memories of Panama and the Canal, and in her own work on the subject that she exhibited in Bogota (2010) and in the Duke University version and continuity (2011) of the project initiated in Bogota. Her narrative weaves her own work on the video “Memorias del hijo del viejo” by Enrique Carlos Rios. In Flow Benfield attempts show a singular and important face of decolonial aestheSis. Her piece is at once a “making, poiesis, a piece of art” and a philosophical reflection. She brings together and by so doing disobey the modern Western distinction between aestheTics (reason, philosophy) on the one hand and art (emotion, intuition) on the other. The move is significant. It will impinge on other such dichotomies such as theology and religion, sociology and society, anthropology and community, political economy and economic, political theory and politics. Born and with families in Panama, the story and consequences of the Panama Straight touches her emotionally, not only in the sphere of political rationality.

Benfield focuses on the imperial building of the Panama Canal, a flow of water that Spaniards in the sixteenth century took as a natural divide of the Northern and Southern parts of the continent. Imperial building of the canal is one of the land-marks of the US moving from a British colony, to independence and moving toward global leadership. At the end of the nineteenth century, control of the seas became priority among European imperial powers. The Panama Canal was built shortly after the Hispanic-American war in which the US gave the final coup-de-grace to the decaying Spanish Empire. In the same year, the US took over the Philippines and by so doing, it stamped its signature on “Indias Occidentales”  and “Indias Orientales”, as the planet was divided by Pope Alexander VI in 1494 and 1529. But it though decolonial aestheSis that Benfield confronts not just the history, but the colonial wound in the people who suffered the consequences of imperial conflicts.

Raúl Ferrera-Balanquet and Miguel Rojas-Sotelo explore decolonial aestheSis based on their own work and focusing on a panel during the Havanna Biennial (May 2012). The narrative based on the panel provides another glimpse at the unfolding of the project “decolonial aestheSis” within the larger project “modernity/(de)coloniality.”  And secondly, it provides an entry to his personal work in which he brings together Afro-Caribbean, Mayan and Latino/as spirituality with Latin American legacies. The originality of his work consists precisely in enacting decolonial aestheSis at the cross-road distinctive memories that have been disavowed and relegated to the “unsustainable” in the triumphal march of modern, postmodern and altermodern aestheTics.

The narrative take us, readers, through the process of managing to carve a place, in the 2012 Havanna Biennial for a panel in which decolonial aestheSis would be debated. It take us through a journey of collective camaraderie, of enjoying thinking and the slow time of the Caribbean, of sharing family life and friendship, a life style that goes hand in hand with decolonial delinking. As the report shows delinking is not a matter of rational choice and theoretical spinning the spin, but of a life option, a re-orientation of values. An anonymous woman interviewed during Hugo Chavez funeral said loud and clear: ¨The Comandante did not give us commodity, but give us dignity¨, a claim similar to the one made by a young lade at a market in Chiapas after the rise of the Zapatistas, in January of 1994. Since aestheTics is crucial in forming subjectivities, modern (and its sequels, postmodern and altermonern) aestheTics contributed to shape subjects and subjectivities to fit into the molds of imperial modernity. Decolonial aestheSis has the task of undoing, building conditions of liberation and healing the colonial wound. 

IV

In this section Vivian Lee nails the entanglement, in Hong Kong, of the entanglements of the British colonial past and China national present in the formula “one country, two systems.” Coloniality remains but have transformed. Western colonialism mutated into Chinese nationalism. Coloniality is common to both, only that now is not longer the West that control coloniality and for that matter, the rhetoric of modernity. The rhetoric of modernity in in dispute for China is no longer bending to the dictates of the West, but enacting what has learned. Globally, we are all witnessing the coexistence of two types of project toward global future: re-westernization and de-westernization. Much celebrated Hong Kong Cinema has been produced at the crossroad of British imperialism and China nationalism, which means at the cross fire for the dispute of the control of coloniality (e.g. colonial matrix of power). She shows how we (readers) detect decolonial moments at the same time understand the tensions between the British’s past in the present and China’s present revamping an-other past.

¨Hand-over¨ is the term used to mark the change of conditions of Hong Kong and Macao. Macao was founded and administered by Portugal since 1534 handed over to China in 1999. Hong Kong was founded by Britain, a peninsula Britain negotiated during the Opium War in a long process that goes from 1841 to 1898, and extended from Hong Kong Island to today New Territories. And it was handed over to China in 1997. Lee detects three decolonial tasks in Hong Kong Cinema after 1997: decolonizing the (idea of) nation, decolonizing the (image and idea of) city and decolonizing the image. Decolonial thinkers, artistic, critics, social scientists and philosophers in Hong Kong today and into the future (2046, when the treaty that established the relations between Hong Kong and China since the hand-over to China expires), has a singular task: to deal with the legacies of the British Empire and the memories of the Opium War, on the one hand, and to deal with the present and future relations with China, either as a nation-state or as a civilizational states, a current debate in mainland China. A very singular situation and tasks in the history of political decolonization either in the eighteenth and nineteenth century in the Americas as well as in the decolonization of Africa and Asia in the twentieth century.

De-orientalizing “Asia” is the idea that brings together the collective work here reported by Hong-An Truong, Nayoung Aimee Kwon and Guo-Juin Hong. Decolonial aestheSis is then entangled with larger and variegated decolonial projects as far as coloniality manifested itself differently in the local histories of Taiwan, Korea and Vietnam. “Asia”  (like “Latin” America”) is a unity in the Western Christian imagination since the European middle age: Asia was for Christian the land of Shem, one of Noah’s sons. Paradoxically, “Asia” did not exist as a concept for people identified as “Asiatic.” With time and the hegemony of Western knowledge, the Christian partition of the planet in four basic continents (Asia, Africa, America and Europe) was accepted. That cycle is closing and decolonial processes began to undo the long history of imperial/colonial naming. Decolonial aestheSis has an important role to play. Thus, Hong-An, Aimee and Go-Juin assert:

The ongoing project will interrogate both possibilities and the impossibilities of thinking together about “Asia” as a “regional collective” beyond hegemonic institutions and naturalized affiliations through a decolonial lens.

All local histories are today entangled, however, in the traces of European colonial pasts and present tensions between US extending to the Pacific and China guarding the territory. The Opium War’s memories died hard. For “small states” like Taiwan, Vietnam and Korea the question is to strike a balance between the two “big states” that are fighting for their pre-eminence. What artists do in such global context? What critics and theorist do joining the concerns of artists and activists whose artwork are aiming the marketization of art but the decolonization of the mind?  Hong-An Truong, Nayoung Aimee Kwon and Guo-Juin Hong make us walk through their own art-work and their reflections on art-work confronting the dispute over the control of the colonial matrix of power and searching for decolonial enunciations and delivering.

V

The text by Robbie Shilliam offers a reading of decolonial aestheSis against the backdrop of the coloniality of power. Shilliam shows how decolonial aestheSis moves as a subterranean force that recognizes the entwinement between the canon of western aestheTics and the coloniality of power. From this enlarged view decolonial aestheSis show their critical force to break with the control over visibility and the senses.

Shilliam’s reflections are born out of the unique experience of participating and being present with others in the Black European Body Politics  2012 (Be.Bop) in Berlin curated by Alanna Lockward (in this dossier). Shilliam unveils how the works of art that were present at Be.Bop come from a different genealogy, one that is not validated by the canon of modern aestheTics. Their presence is a radical break, a critique against the condition of silencing and oppression of the modern/colonial order.

Shilliam shows us that this critique is not just one of contestation, but one that moves beyond the dialectics of violence into opening an ‘aestheSis of healing’. Robbie’s perception is one that overflows the boundaries of the high art critique. He sees in these works of art the undercurrent of history at work; a history that has been silenced but that remains painfully present in the everyday experiences of oppression. In decolonial aestheSis, Robbie helps us recognize the operation of ancestral memories not simply as a record of colonial violence, but as holding the potential of healing the still open colonial wounds.

Decolonial works of art, Shilliam tells us, do not follow the violent logic of modernity. Their logic originates in their own ancestral memories; it delinks from the modern/colonial entanglements and reveals its power of redemption.

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