How to approach art ‘from elsewhere’?
Through the Peephole

published in: <H>ART (Antwerpen) #44, November 2008, p. 18.

In conjunction with the ubiquitous discussions about globalization and the increasing interest for post-colonialist questions, one can see everywhere the awareness of the arts of ‘other parts of the world’ – and exhibitions and texts like ‘Women’s Art from Pakistan’ or ‘India is the new China’. But there is still no satisfying answer to the question how one should be able to select artworks from a culture one hasn’t grown up in.

Is it the appropriate way just to travel these countries, visit studios and pick artworks along the way? Or is it a solution
to invite curators from these particular countries to curate exhibitions for a Western audience? But what if in these
countries the art system with curators, artists and dealers doesn’t even exist? Is it a solution to think ‘local’ again instead of ‘international’, an argument frequently proposed on panel discussions on this topic? Or doesn’t there exist any problem at all, and should we give up altogether these ‘objective’ attempts and get back to purely personal and subjective criteria, thus risking to overlook art which is not at once plausible for viewers from another culture (because on can only see what one knows)?

During the last few years, the focus of the discussions about the ‘non-western’ art has been focussing preliminarily on the arts from the Middle East. I do not aim to discuss the reasons for this dominant interest in the ‘Middle East’ – whatever this means anyway, as Salwa Mikdadi asked in her recent article in ‘Canvas’ magazine: "Middle of where? East of what?” – , I am rather interested in the general question how a viewer ought to deal with artworks which were being developed in a culture which is not familiar to the him or her. And this question is – from the perspective of a Western European – applicable to all so-called ‘non-western’ cultures, may it be the Middle East, India, Africa, or South Asia.

At the latest since the mid-nineties, the art world has been feeling the need to address globalization’s affects on contemporary
art. In some countries, e.g. in Egypt, India, China or Pakistan, this led downright to an invasion of western curators into the studios of artists. In the beginning, these artists were surprised by the sudden interest. But in the meantime they got more and more used to the curatorial desire to import non-western art to western countries. Since then, the gold diggers’ atmosphere from the earlier years has been notably changed.

As Berlin-based curator Marina Sorbello who was on a Cairo residency a few years ago put it: “When I started visiting studios in Cairo, the artists’ attitude was mainly like ‘Oh well, there is another one’.” As result of the hard curatorial work, in Europe and North America many exhibitions were presented which focussed on aspects of nationality rather than artistic content, such as ‘Contemporary Art from China’ or ‘Female Photographers from Iran’. It is easy to comprehend that many artists don’t want to be labelled this way and refuse to participate in those shows although it may mean that they might not be represented in the western art world at all. These artists take the opposite position to those who started seriously producing artworks for the western art market – and succeed. You cannot blame artists for doing so, however, it doesn’t make the task to develop criteria to recognize ‘good’ art from other cultures less challenging – no doubt, it is difficult enough to set criteria for contemporary art from the culture one grew up in. In recent years, in museums, art institutions and also on European art fairs, panel discussions and lectures have been held that address the question how to approach art from other cultures without continuing the tradition of colonisation.

Especially large museums, as Tate in London, have included showing and collecting artworks which are beyond the western canon into their objectives and employ curators for different regions in the world. Obviously, this requires a lot of money and depends very much on funding and subventions. It is no surprise that after 9/11 it is much easier to gain grants for research on art from the Middle East than from any other region in the world. This not only means that art from other countries necessarily continue to stay under-represented, it also shows how close the connection is between art and politics.

It is good that there is an awareness that not yet surmounted cultural differences might be a reason for political conflicts, and it is good that people started trying to understand other culturesand developed an interest in the cross-cultural dialogue and that they tried to do so with the help of contemporary art. Yet, one consequence is that most of the western curators concentrate on artworks that deal in one way or the other with the political situation of the society the artists live in, “dismissing diverse aesthetic interests as ones that do not relate to any immediate local reality”, as Egyptian artist Basim Magdy states in his text ‘Walk like an Egyptian’ on the commendable multilingual website www.universesin- , “As a result of this situation, Egyptian artists who work within different contexts based on widely diverse individual interests find the current situation quite frustrating. The stereotyping of socio-political art as the pre-eminent representation of contemporary Egyptian art leaves them wedged in between institutional accusations of being influenced by Western trends and Western accusations of neglecting their local ‘identity issues’”. And artists who do not work with socio-political questions tend to be forgotten at all because it usually requires much more research and in fact art historical work to be able to understand artworks which deal with aesthetic and art immanent problems that don’t arise from the western art history but from a history very often barely known. But is it acceptable toneglect certain art for these reasons?

It is easy to answer this question with a confident ‘No’. Unfortunately, this does not provide the directive how to avoid such mistakes. Just as one is on the verge of despairing of the sheer magnitude of the challenge, it is refreshing tohear curator Marina Sorbello’s conviction that “good art will always win recognition”, no matter where and how and by whom it was produced. Sorbello curated the show “Cairoscape” which took place in Berlin in 2008. It presented artists of different nationalities who work in Cairo. For Sorbello it isn’t a handicap that she is no expert in Egyptian art. Nor does she see the necessity to develop different criteria for judging art from that region. “The differences between the cultures are not that big”, she says, “I still believe much less in differences than in similarities.” Certainly, this position is appeasingly positive but is it one you can stick to if you deal with different cultures more in-depth?

Everyone who ever was engaged in looking at art with serious interest knows by experience that an artwork can change immensely if one looks at it several times, of course even more when one gets background information on the piece. And one of the most amazing experiences as an art observer is the change of perception if one compares the artwork with another one. This school of seeing via comparative viewing is essential for understanding art. But how can one guarantee this on a brief visit to several artist studios in a foreign city or a biennial in Dubai or Sharjar without knowing the society and culture that makes the context or the work?

Luckily, nowadays, there are a lot of groups and associations that work on improving working conditions for artists in countries that have no functioning structures for art production yet, that organize exchange of all kind, for artists, curators and theoreticians – if only again mostly for the currently ‘hipper’ regions like the Middle East or China. These initiatives are essential as they give the impetus for the cross-cultural exchange and maintain the dialogue between people which is urgently needed. French curator Catherine David who was responsible for documenta X and curated several shows with focus on the Middle East (her recent show ‘In the Middle of the Middle’ opened on Nov. 19th in Beirut) never gets tired of emphasizing the importance of production preconditions, the cultural production and the obstacles artists have to overcome in their countries. “One has to be accurate”, David says in an interview, “and this accuracy can be achieved if you provide discussion rounds.” This led the curator to her show ‘Di/Visions’, 2008 in Haus der Kulturen in Berlin, which presented mainly documentary material, interviews with artists, intellectuals and other individuals in Middle Eastern countries. The show was meant as a complement to exhibitions that prioritise the artwork. David’s presentation showed the context, although the curator emphatically refuses this term, as “it invites people to be lazy and to believe that one gives them a recipe for reading and understanding the works.” Is this the answer? It might be: not only to show artworks which are brought to us from individual curators from foreign countries but also to bring people who can not only explain the artworks but foremost life and circumstances in the regions where the artworks were created.

An aspect which is raised rather seldom is the issue of language. Artists – or curators – who don’t speak English have much more difficulties to enter the international art world at all, let alone artworks that use languages or even a writing system that is not familiar to the majority of viewers. Of course, in many cases the artist could use an English translation but we know from so many artworks in the culture we grew up in that some things can only be conveyed in one’s mother tongue. This dismissal of non-English art is still widely ignored and in its consequences underestimated.

Translation and translators are needed everywhere. We are all dependent on them and on their ability to transfer an artist’s thought from one language into another. It is obvious that no one – neither curators nor writers from the ‘East’ nor from the ‘West’ – can achieve enough knowledge and experience to guarantee an unbiased or objective view on artworks of other cultures. But then, nobody even can for their own culture.

So why bother, one could ask. And indeed, there is no reason or justification for claiming an objective view on ‘Chinese painting’ or ‘Syrian Photography’. Curators and writers who try to explore non-western art usually work hard on understanding this art and it is worth to follow them on their individual way through a country or region or city. Thus, all exhibitions or papers or essays about ‘art from elsewhere’ can only be read – and ought to be marked – as a proposal or, maybe better, as an offer to see with the eyes of the curator/writer through a peep-hole into another culture. In fact, this gaze into another
world is the best art can offer – no matter where it is from or about.