Ibejis and decolonial art
Ana Beatriz Almeida
21 Nov 2019, 4:07 pm
Jumping in confusion, you landed in the land of a miserable man
Reversing your misfortune
A rare pair of twins who unduly demand honor and respect from their parents
For your stepmother you are an unwanted landscape,
For your mother you are kings of two empires!
Would you like to be parents to twins?
Ibeji oriki, public domain
The twins, or Ibejis, are opposite forces coming into the world simultaneously, attracting and repelling each other. In Yoruba traditions, twins are the manifestation of chaos and dichotomy contained in the force of realization. I evoke this image because I believe it is impossible to propose a reflection on decolonial art without remembering events that arose in the West almost simultaneously. The emergence of the category “artist” in 1535, in the publication “Lives of the Artists”, by the Italian painter and sculptor Giorgio Vasari – a work that only mentions European men from Florence – occurs just 63 years after the issuing of the papal bull Dum Diversas, in which the Roman Catholic Church authorized the Portuguese to conquer non-Christianized territories and to consign “perpetual slavery to Saracens and Pagans”. In this document, for the first time in the West, the term negro emerges in order to designate a group of people to be subjugated. If we include in this timeline the arrival of the Portuguese in Brazil in 1500 as a milestone in the official history of this country, which was the last one to abolish slavery, we get to an equation where the history of art and the history of colonialism constitute two codependent empires.
Michelangelo’s appearance in Vasari’s work as a genius emitting the voice of God inaugurates a new phase, in which the cult of images was replaced by the art market. Simultaneously, inhabitants of the west coast and the south of the African continent had their lives condemned to perpetual slavery – initiating a global market for human beings that produced a primitive accumulation of capital essential for the creation of European empires. Even after this period, the history of art and the history of the subjugation of other cultures continue to influence each other.
An example of this relationship is the German Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the first author to propose a model of art history in the 18th century, in which there was a hierarchy of development among civilizations based on artistic production, with Europe being “higher” and Egypt “lower”. It is important to mention that the author is also one of the founders of scientific archeology and that this model has become fundamental to justify and support eugenics – “science” whose objective was to obtain biological evidence of superiority and inferiority between the races, rescued by Nazism in mid 20th century. In this scenario, in the 19th century, art history becomes a discipline within the Austrian History Research Institute, in an attempt to project itself as an empire, with art as a tool for legitimation. The reason for this desire was justified since empires were entitled to the exploitation of lands and people on the Asian and African continents.
With the same objective, other nations adopt the idea of national art as an imperial tool, exhibiting their artistic productions at the Universal Exhibition in Vienna in 1873. This atmosphere is responsible for World War I in which empires, legitimized by their respective histories of art, come into conflict for the exploitation of territories on the African and Asian continents, where live the peoples whose bodies were condemned to perpetual slavery since the papal bull at the end of the 15th century.
In this sense, there is currently a global movement to undermine the life and culture of these peoples, constituting a continuity of historical cycles, in order to compose a global policy of death called by philosopher Achille Mbembe as Necropolitics. Through the recognition of art as a reference source for the Modern ethical project, it is possible to perceive the emergence of artists descended from these historically vulnerable subjectivities interested in denouncing, subverting and transcending these ethics and their unfolding in oppressive aesthetics.
An example of this movement is the founding dimension of colonial expropriation in the production of great nations, exposed in works such as “Portuguese Stones” (2017), by Jaime Lauriano, in which the names of the countries first occupied by Portugal are written with Portuguese stones originally produced by enslaved human beings. This criticism is also present in works such as “Old Hope” (2017), by Paulo Nazareth, in which everyday packages with sayings related to the colonial subjugation structure are immortalized in resin cubes, in order to convey a frozen notion of temporality.
There are also productions where the artist’s place of origin in the Western imagination is subverted and ironic, as in the paintings and photographs by the artist Desali, in which the Nacional neighborhood on the outskirts of Contagem (Minas Gerais, Brazil), his residence for decades, appears as a frequent obsession. The production of a genocide logic based on raciality and poverty as a residual production of slavery can be seen in Maxwell Alexandre’s aesthetics, in works such as “E para salvar o país, Cristo é ex-militar” [And to save the country, Christ is ex-military] (2018). In addition to establishing criticism, decolonial artists tend to propose non-Western logics of perception of aesthetic experience, such as Moisés Patrício, who mixes the speed of selfies with ritual art in the series “Aceita?”, and Antonio Obá, who establishes decolonial criticism from rituals developed during slavery as in “Malungo: rito para uma missa preta” [Malungo: rite for a black mass] (2019).
In a more profound way, in order to reveal that the intersection between racial logic and gender oppression doubly marginalizes Afro-descendant women, there is the work “Bastidores” (1997), by Rosana Paulino – in which female subjectivities are portrayed through textile support and the artist embroiders over their eyes and mouths. The artist goes beyond denunciation, and in works such as “Parede da Memória” (1994), she uses logic from an African matrix, where the patuá is a symbol of protection, by representing Afro-descendant faces through this support. Another artist who develops her work through textile manipulation is Sonia Gomes, who presents another aesthetic perspective, alluding to the memory contained in this materiality inserted in manifestations of an African matrix, as can be seen in the work “Magia” (2014).
However, it is possible to perceive that the ethical and aesthetic narrative that structures the History of Art constitutes a double twin of the colonial instances of gender and race subjugation, which are beginning to be questioned. To our happiness, as defended by medieval art expert Hans Belting, this narrative came to an end in modernity, since it was exclusive to the European continent and to the male gender. Therefore, the artists mentioned here present a dynamic of criticism and innovation that proposes a fusion that annihilates the dichotomy between these two parts forged in the colonial project.
According to the Yoruba, the death of a twin implies the process of extinction of the other. Thus, decolonial art establishes through artistic desire a will to destroy the socio-cultural policy of genocide that affects women, Africans and Afro-descendants, LGBTQI + people, peoples of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, etc. Nevertheless, decolonial works have had an exponential appreciation, moving an average of 37 billion dollars a year – which reveals a global desire for change. Brazil’s participation in this market is still insignificant. Considering the history of a country that was the last to abandon the traffic of people enslaved on the African continent, it remains to be seen whether we will repeat history, now in the field of the arts. Art collections are fundamental in the national construction of the ethical and aesthetic framework of each country. They are what will constitute our cultural history in the coming decades, and the definition of this future is part of the acquisitions and collections that we form in the present.