Perspectives on Colonialism and Art

Historicizing ‘Folk Art’: A View From Bengal (India) by Avishek Ray/ From Hut to Monitor: The Electrification of Chokwe Wall Murals in Angola, 1953-2006 by Delinda J Collier/ Codetalkers Recounting Signals-of-Survival by Cheryl L'Hirondelle
Monday, 19 September, 2011 - 17:00 - 18:20
Chair Person: 
Sebastian Sierra Barra
Avishek Ray
Delinda Collier
Cheryl L'Hirondelle

Historicizing ‘Folk Art’: A View From Bengal (India)

by Avishek Ray

Dissemination of the colonial ideology and utility for administrative needs were the main objectives of the educational policy of the British government, nevertheless the educational program of the (nationalist) Indian intellectuals was oriented to the ‘re-generation’ of the country. Among other things, this primarily calls for canon-building.  

The Indian intelligentsia was however caught between a serious dichotomy: whether to believe in Enlightenment as a panacea, embrace western ideas and focus on England as the birthplace of progressive values or to ‘re-invoke’ (cultural) indigenity. The former group of elites disowned an assorted chunk of India’s heterogeneous cultural past in the name of the ‘folk’. The distantiation between the colonizer and the colonized, the West and the East, was made, according to Said, by deictic categories ‘we’ and ‘they’. Xenophobic and paranoid ‘we’ designated ‘they’ simply as primitive, savage; ‘we’ called those homo sapiens by the name ‘tribe’, ‘ab-original’, ‘folk’ and so on.

Is there any natural or biological basis for these categories?  Who, for what cause and intention set up these categories to signify a certain group of people? What is the ‘telos’ of this dividing practice? Which politico-historical milieu allowed this ambiguous polarization of the ‘Homo Sapiens’ into the ‘folk’ and ‘non-folk/ classical’? 

Tracing back the originary moment as early as the German Romanticism (c.f. Herder, Hegel) obsessed to find human beings in the ‘raw/ natural/ organic’ state, the paper initially aims for a genealogy of -- the politics of in/exclusion in what eventually came to be known as ‘folk art’. The paper shall account for how the nineteenth century/ nationalist inhibition for clinically sanitizing the ‘classical’ against the ‘folk’ forges links with the ‘public/popular art’ in the contemporary. Citing works by Abanindranath Tagore, Ramkinkar Baij, Jamini Roy, Nandalal Bose, Benodbehari Mukherjee (each preferring  non-Western modes of representation in their unique way) on the one hand and the ‘folk/popular’ art forms like the Kalighat paintings (patachitra), woodcut prints, Chau masks, calligraphies etc on the other, it would be shown how there had been a perennial bi-way traffic between the ‘folk’ and the ‘classical’; and hence the collective identity ‘folk’ born out of the exclusionist practice seriously problematic.

From Hut to Monitor: The Electrification of Chokwe Wall Murals in Angola, 1953-2006

by Delinda J Collier

“Lunda Tchokwe” was a major initiative of the first Trienal de Luanda in 2006.  Conjuring ancestors of a pre-colonial past, the project digitized and reprinted images from an anthropological volume on wall murals of the Chokwe ethnic group of northeastern Angola, Paredes Pintadas da Lunda by José Redinha (1953). My concern in this paper is with the continuous reinscription of protocols of access to ghosts and ancestors of a mythic past, of which “Lunda Tchokwe” is the latest. The digitization of “African” culture presently thematized by many African artists negotiates communalism in terms of “free” information technology and visibility/access, a postcolonial return to ancestors that overcomes colonial appropriations of “African” creativity.  Underneath that myth of free access, however, lie real and hidden protocols of its transmission.  The ever-evasive communal control over transmission, or the access to the powerful ancestors that secure contemporary resources, is figured in this paper as the specter that haunts digitized heritage projects.

One particular type of visual symbol that recurs in the book and the “Lunda Tchokwe” project derives from sona drawing practice, a self-organizing algorithmic method of drawing in which young Chokwe boys learn about hierarchy and social mores.  Once mastered, the drawing practice allows the practitioner to speak publically to/for the ancestors: to own the myths, legends, and to access the power structures of the Chokwe. Importantly, sona is at once an open and a closed logic system.  This paper compares sona logic to the information science underlying the current digitization of the sona symbols in the “Lunda Tchokwe” project. Similar to the open and closed logic of today’s information systems, in which Lunda Tchokwe is now embedded, sona contains “bottom up” logic as well as the more specialized and occult realm of code and its ownership. Since the moment of colonization of Chokwe art, it has been in the realm of transmission media (as code and as material) that access to knowledge was seized and its restrictions again circumscribed. 

Codetalkers Recounting Signals-of-Survival

by Cheryl L'Hirondelle

In most of the world Indigenous people are thought to be behind in using new technologies and either on the other side of the digital divide or in the chasm of the unknown that separates haves from have-nots. Yet to the contrary, Aboriginal artists have been, since time immemorial, ‘making things our own’ and, certainly since the 1960s, finding our own indigenous aesthetic in digital storytelling and in the unique contributions and ingenuity we’ve contributed to computing and technology.

This presentation will be the first of sizeable future involvement featuring the landmark creations and innovations of several Indigenous artists from around the world. It will illustrate and critically analyse their contributions that need to be included in the field of electronic arts internationally so that a more truly global picture of aesthetic and technological advancements can be viewed. Works critically contextualised (and illustrated using powerpoint) will range from interactive and participatory websites/ productions, performative MIDI and haptic objects/screens, locative and i-phone/android applications, kinetic art, computer generated and sound installations.

The artists’ projects discussed have all been included in three exhibitions (Codetalkers of the Digital Divide, RE:counting coup, S-O-S) curated by award winning media artist, musician and curator Cheryl L’Hirondelle for imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival as part of their commitment to focus on presenting cutting-edge, groundbreaking new media exhibitions from an Indigenous perspective. What L’Hirondelle envisioned for imagineNATIVE and will present for the ISEA assembly is the findings from a  three-year “triangulation” of exhibitions that artistically, culturally, and critically examined and located the intersections between new media practice and that of Indigenous history, cosmology, and artistic expression.