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25/06/24 • Residency : Natasha Marie Llorens

Decoloniality and Minor Transnationalism: Notes on a Framework

EN
25/06/24 • Residency : Natasha Marie Llorens

Decoloniality and Minor Transnationalism: Notes on a Framework

In the below essay, 2023 CAS resident Natasha Marie Llorens reflects on the origins of her curatorial practice that speaks to the "networks that connect the geographic and intellectual margins produced by coloniality." Llorens critically examines the common parlance of decolonization within the cultural sphere, and questions whether a truly decolonial practice is possible within the exhibition format.

I was standing in the middle of a street in Algiers when I learned of Nigerian curator and writer Okwui Enwezor’s passing on the 15th of March, 2019. 1 It was mid-day and sunny. I was with a group of friends that had wandered off Boulevard Mourad Didouche, the main traffic artery through downtown Algiers, in search of water after a long morning of marching in protest of the then-president Bouteflika’s fifth run for office. This was the beginning of the Hirak, the popular uprising that would eventually depose Bouteflika and shake a regime that had been in power since the country’s independence in 1962. It was a day of overwhelming optimism, even euphoria. There had been no public occupation of Algeria’s streets on a comparable scale since the Liberation Day parades more than five decades previously. Our small group was disoriented, hesitant, but the city was exploding around us and there was no way to filter out that kind of energy. I had pulled out my phone to check the time when a message announcing Enwezor’s death found me.

  1. I identify as a settler. I have a specific, concrete relationship to settler colonialism in Algeria, but also a broader complicity with settler colonialism as both a citizen of the United States and of France. I am descended from three generations of Spanish settlers in Algeria on my father’s side and settlers of the North American continent through at least four generations on my mother’s side. To my knowledge, no member of my family has ever identified as non-white.

I met Enwezor once in 2009 when I was studying at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. At the time, I knew little of his work nor did I grasp the immensity of his legacy for the discipline. I had come to curatorial practice from social work, with a stint in the Peace Corps living and working in a rural village in Morocco, followed by a position at TEACCH in North Carolina working with adults on the autism spectrum. I was an outsider to the world of contemporary art. What struck me–even without a firm schema in place to interpret cultural capital or locate people in the vast, informal hierarchy of the art world–was that Enwezor could see a role for art beyond the boundaries of New York and other elite centres. As a child of the post-colonial margins, I found this perspective resonated for me on a deep level. Enwezor’s intellectual integrity and his commitment to aesthetic “elsewheres,” a commitment that refused both exoticization and voyeurism, also felt sincere in a milieu that has a tendency to over-perform its politics. It is a mark of my respect that I found myself in tears, staring at my phone, grief-stricken in the middle of an uprising for a man whom I did not know. 

Enwezor understood that decolonization in the realm of art means producing exhibitions that deconstruct Western epistemologies both in terms of content—who and what was shown—and at a structural level. 2 To accomplish this deconstruction without inadvertently re-centering Western European and North American models of knowledge and aesthetics, Enwezor moved perpetually back and forth across a global threshold both intellectually and materially. Significantly, he abandoned neither the museum nor the exhibition format, working with major exhibition platforms like the Venice Biennale, and directing Haus der Kunst in Munich. Instead, Enwezor stretched these formats to be as geographically far-reaching as possible. For example, in his monumental documenta11 in 2002, Enwezor fragmented the exhibition into five platforms all over the world. 3 This act of physical displacement sought to break the binary division between the West and everything else, as this division ultimately reinforces colonial and neo-imperial ideologies.

  1. Okwui Enwezor, “A Question of Place: Revisions, Reassessments, Diaspora.” In The Caribbean Cultural Center Presents: Transforming the Crown: African, Asian & Caribbean Artists in Britain, 1966-1996 (New York: African Diaspora Institute, 1997); Enwezor, Okwui. 2003. “The Postcolonial Constellation: Contemporary Art in a State of Permanent Transition.” Research in African Literatures. 34(4): 57–82.
  1. Okwui Enwezor, Documenta 11, Platform 5: Exhibition, Catalogue (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2002).

His structural insight proved critical to defining the stakes of my own fifteen-year independent curatorial practice, which is addressed to the networks that connect the geographic and intellectual margins produced by coloniality. It is also the basis for a collaborative research project with Algiers-based curator Myriam Amroun for which the methodological questions explored here provide a rough point of departure.

 

Amroun and I met on a couch adjacent to an open kitchen in the house she was sharing with several others on the heights of Algiers. At the time, I was working on what would become the first of three exhibitions, all entitled Waiting For Omar Gatlato after a book edited by Wassyla Tamzali in the 1970s. The first of these was produced in parallel with my doctoral research for a PhD in modern and contemporary art history at Columbia University. Columbia’s program does not allow for practice-based research, nor does it conceive of curatorial practice as equal to academic practice in the production of knowledge, so I created an unofficial curatorial component to what would otherwise have been a traditional PhD. I wrote a dissertation on experimental cinema from the 1960s and 1970s in Algeria based on close readings and a broad historiography of Algerian cultural politics, and I also produced an exhibition and an edited anthology dedicated to the Algerian cultural scene in the present, both of which were based on extensive field work and studio visits in France and Algeria.

 

That evening in Algiers, Amroun asked me about the decision not to include a specific artist in the project. I gave a reason. Amroun shook her head and laughed. “That is a thought mistake,” she said and went to get a glass from the kitchen. The exhibition took a different orientation from that moment. Trust based on mutual frankness and intellectual generosity formed slowly as she challenged me, especially on my tendency to gravitate towards artists’ whose work fit into the market-oriented framework of the New York art world in which I had come of age as a curator. This trust grew into a multivalent conversation about the way the coloniality continues to structure representation in Algeria, the difference between that struggle and white supremacy within what Amroun calls the “European block,” and Algerian artists and curators’ continued effort to deconstruct coloniality within their own society. 

One particularly important element of our friendship is a clear understanding of what we have in common and how where we come from shapes our practices. Amroun was born and raised in Algiers during a time of deep political upheaval in the 1990s, known as the Black Decade, and she was formed professionally by the reawakening of the cultural scene in the period that followed. 4 I am descended from three generations of Spanish settlers in Algeria on my father’s side (this community is known as the pieds-noirs or black feet) who immigrated to France in several waves after Liberation in 1962. Amroun’s generation is suspicious of decoloniality and post-colonialism, seeing in both conceptual trends a mechanism to maintain Algerian cultural production in a subordinate role (de- and post-) to those art scenes that do not require a prefix. My generation—and here I write in the wake of Algerian colonialism specifically rather simply as a white woman in her early 40s—clings to such formulations in order to come to terms with a history that is still not openly discussed in society in France even though it structures so much of current political realities.

  1. For a recent history of Algeria linking the Black Decade to the hirak movement, see: Michael J. Willis, Algeria: Politics and Society from the Dark Decade to the Hirak (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2021).

Between 2019 and 2023, I would eventually curate three very different versions of that initial curatorial project: the first in New York, then at a regional art centre in Marseille named Triangle France-Astérides in 2021, and finally at the national centre for contemporary art in Grenoble, Le Magasin, in 2023. Though they shared a title, each show was conceived for its specific context. Only a few works were shown twice. In Marseille we were able to borrow several important historical works from the 1960s and 1970s from the Centre nationale des arts plastiques in Paris, which is the French national art collection. The final version in Grenoble was much smaller, with fourteen artists’ work rather than twenty-five and twenty-eight in the previous versions. In New York, the show matched the political moment with a jubilant tone. In Marseille, in the middle of COVID-19 lockdowns, the exhibition was dedicated to intergenerational transmission. It never actually opened to the public due to bans on cultural institutions. In Grenoble, the project presented a fractured and deeply ambivalent aspect that corresponded to a political tenor of anticipation, both in Algeria and in France. These differences reflect long discussions among collaborators, including Amroun, about the difference between a national exhibition about Algeria in New York and in France. 

All three were exhilarating projects and historically crucial for the Algerian art scene. The exhibition in New York in 2019 was the first survey dedicated to the Algerian context in North America and the second was the first large-scale intergenerational survey related to Algeria in France, indeed in Europe. But as the outcome of a decolonial curatorial practice, they were too closely tied to the Algerian national territory to work as a model for a more sustainable methodology. They “represented” Algeria at the expense of some of the more nuanced ideas in the exhibition, despite all the language I produced to counter this nationalist perception. A meditation on my own failure, curatorially speaking, evolved into an idea in line with what Françoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih call “minor transnationalism,” defined as a way of enacting transnationalism at an individual scale, or the scale of the body. 5

  1. Françoise Lionnet and Shumei Shih, Minor Transnationalism (Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 2005).

An insight about scale and the importance of working across nationalisms is the first building block for my thinking with Amroun. It grows out of our friendship, it deepens with an acknowledgement of the failure of the Omar shows to transcend Algeria, and it finds a name in Lionnet and Shih’s work. Here is another building block: in their much anthologized article from 2012, “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang argue that decolonization, a verb, is the re-appropriation of land and resources by indigenous people. 6 In their view, decolonization is not the process by which settlers produce critical consciousness about injustice for a society governed by a settler elite or—worse still—the collection of indigenous knowledge by outsiders motivated by a desire to “safeguard” it against the violence of settler colonial society. Tuck and Yang argue that “[w]hen metaphor invades decolonization, it kills the very possibility of decolonization; it recentres whiteness, it resettles theory, it extends innocence to the settler, it entertains a settler future.” 7 To use the term decolonization in their sense entails reinstating the power to name the world of those who have been dispossessed.

  1. Tuck and Yang are specifically focused on the North American context and there are some limitations to citing them in a project focuses on the Nordic region and North Africa. I am borrowing the point to argue that across many different contexts—including the one in which I will work, there is a danger of abstracting the ideal of decolonization. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 1, no. 1, Sept. 2012, p., http://resolver.scholarsportal.info/resolve/19298692/v01i0001/nfp_dinam.xml. For a perspective on decoloniality in a Nordic art context that privileges the concrete, see: Katya García-Anton, Harald Gaski and Gunvor Guttorm, Let the River Flow: An Indigenous Uprising and Its Legacy in Art, Ecology and Politics (Oslo: OCA, Office for Contemporary Art Norway, 2020). For an analogous perspective addressed to the North African context, see: Manthia Diawara, Jacinto Lageira, and Kitty Scott, Kader Attia: The Repair: from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures (Berlin: Green Box, 2014)
  1. Tuck and Yang, “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor,” 3.

Tuck and Yang’s insistence on the incommensurability of decolonization with the current order of the world, a conviction they draw from Frantz Fanon and Achille Mbembe, poses a methodological question for curatorial practice: Is a curatorial methodology that does not metaphorize decolonization possible? Could such a methodology allow theory to be unsettled, refuse to extend innocence to the settler, dismantle the fantasy of a settler future, and decenter whiteness? Further complicating this question is the fact that contemporary art is a metaphorical object, or, it produces sense at the level of metaphor. How to avoid metaphor when the aesthetic is encompassed by a metaphorical paradigm, and the curatorial depends on aesthetics for its mandate? 

“To ask whether decolonial exhibition-making is possible, one must first ask whether both sense and resources can be redistributed in such a way as to empower the dispossessed.”

To ask whether decolonial exhibition-making is possible, one must first ask whether both sense and resources can be redistributed in such a way as to empower the dispossessed. Enwezor’s text from 2008, “Place-Making or in the ‘Wrong Place’: Contemporary Art and the Postcolonial Condition,” offers one possible way, perhaps, to think with Tuck and Wang without discounting the metaphorical nature of art. 8 He sees his most significant contribution to the field of curatorial practice in the emphasis on “the exhibition venue and its place-making possibilities… the way it grounds the work of artists in the framework of their discursive practices as the juncture of global and transnational communities.” 9 Like Tuck and Yang, Enwezor insists that space of contemporary art must be re-distributed to those who have been dispossessed of it, but that this must be done without the guarantee of coherence or legibility. The space of art must be ceded unconditionally to the “wrong places”, without the injunction to answer to art’s canonical centres. Enwezor writes: “I want us to think of the anomalous, indeterminate, distorted place that enable the exorbitant designation of certain cultural spaces as off-limits to particular paradigms of contemporary practice, as the ‘wrong place’ or destination for certain types of artistic subjectivity.” 10 He wants to make things appear where the order of the world would have them be invisible, and in so doing suggest that another order is possible.

  1. Okwui Enwezor, “Place-Making or in the ‘Wrong Place’: Contemporary Art and the Postcolonial Condition,” in Maria Hlavajova and Simon Sheikh, eds., Former West: Art and the Contemporary after 1989 (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2017).
  1. Enwezor, “Place-Making or in the ‘Wrong Place’,” 53.
  1. Enwezor, “Place-Making or in the ‘Wrong Place’,” 56.

Yet unlike Lionnet and Shih, Enwezor sees the large-scale, temporary exhibition as ideal for this re-distribution—events such as Documenta or the biennials in Dakar, Havana, São Paulo and so on. A generation later, I fear that the radical potential of the form at a large scale has dissipated. Writing about the 20th Biennale of Sydney in 2016, Blak arts writer, editor, and publisher Madee Clark notes that in the wake of state funding cuts in Australia and globally, corporations have stepped in to make large-scale exhibitions like the Biennale of Sydney possible. 11 This change in funding structure has been accompanied by a change in mandate. Clark concludes a sketch of this economic and ideological transition for the Biennale with their assessment of a workshop they were invited to take part in as part of the Bienniale’s public programming, the aim of which was to imagine a future world: “[N]o one described a future that included Aboriginal people. Nor were there any iterations verbalized that included organized Aboriginal governance, sovereignty, or even treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Blak presence was completely erased from the future as told by the workshop.” 12 Though superficially engaged with making space for Blak perspectives, the workshop nevertheless fostered the imagination of a settler future along established lines of power. Clark uses this anecdote to make a broader point about the Bienniale: it does not cede space to indigenous perspectives in any sense that could destabilize its commitment to settler futurity.

  1. Madee Clark, “How to Decolonize the Artworld: Three Scenarios,” in Brad Haylock and Megan Patty, eds., Art Writing in Crisis (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2021), 163-177.
  1. Clark, “How to Decolonize the Artworld,” 167.

With artist Neika Lehman, Clark co-edits an arts publication based in Narrm (Melbourne) called un Magazine. In a recent issue entitled “The Unbearable Hotness of Decolonization,” they responded to the growing sense that “[a]rts organizations and institutions alike utilize ‘decolonization’ as a buzzword without interrogating their deeply held values, and without developing sincere relationships with First Nations people… decolonization was being used as modelling anti-colonial virtue without properly interrogating the origins of colonial wealth, or the material conditions of the art world itself.” 13 People perceived to be “those who were colonized” are invited to represent their position—they are invited to perform the metaphor of decolonization—but the power to name, to imagine the future, or to define the space is not granted. The settler does not risk coming undone through a profound relational encounter. There is neither time nor infrastructure for fundamental destabilization.

  1. Clark, “How to Decolonize the Artworld,” 168.

“Further, there is wide consensus that the exhibition was developed to showcase colonial spoils of war and conquest, and that it has come to represent a basic unit in a global art-economy with significant ties to the oil industry, among other multinational corporations.”

I gave a talk once in Switzerland on Algerian film that also touched on the Omar shows. A woman came up to me afterwards with something ambivalent in her expression. She wanted to know why I didn’t take my analysis into the streets, why I spent so much time and energy on aesthetics. I think what she meant was something like, “If you see the violence so clearly, why are you only watching films?” The same pointed question could be asked about exhibition-making; it is an exercise of elite power to build an idea in space with others, after all. Further, there is wide consensus that the exhibition was developed to showcase colonial spoils of war and conquest, and that it has come to represent a basic unit in a global art-economy with significant ties to the oil industry, among other multinational corporations. 14 Yet it remains hegemonic, in other words it is still the dominant form for displaying art both within Europe and globally. 15 This continued relevance is due in part to the fact that many still perceive it as a neutral or ahistorical space, but that is not the only reason for its dominance. It is also a space that allows those from the margins of empire to access the resources and intellectual dynamism of the center–access and the potential for critique. While it is tempting to try to break the format of the exhibition in response to its inescapable violence, its performance of false neutrality also provokes strong and productive artistic resistance. 16

  1. This consensus has a long critical bibliography which includes Brian O'Doherty and Thomas McEvilley, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (Santa Monica: Lapis Press, 1976); Douglas Crimp, On the Museum’s Ruins (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1995); Ivan Karp, Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997); Mary A. Staniszewski, The Power of Display: A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1998); Carol Duncan, Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums (London: Routledge, 2001); Evans, Mel. Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts (London: Pluto Press, 2015); Tristan Garcia and Vincent Normand, Theater, Garden, Bestiary: A Materialist History of Exhibitions (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2019).
  1. We also address this point in the “ethical considerations” section of this application.
  1. A partial list includes: Okwui Enwezor, "The Postcolonial Constellation: Contemporary Art in a State of Permanent Transition," Research in African Literatures. 34 (2003): 57-82; Barbara Vanderlinden, The Manifesta Decade (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2005); Shannon Jackson, Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics (New York: Routledge, 2011); James Voorhies, Beyond Objecthood: The Exhibition As a Critical Form Since 1968 (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2017); Knudsen B. Timm, J R. Oldfield, Elizabeth Buettner, and Elvan Zabunyan, Decolonizing Colonial Heritage: New Agendas, Actors and Practices in and Beyond Europe (Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge, 2022); Terry Smith, Curating the Complex & The Open Strike (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2022).

This is not an answer to my unknown Swiss questioner. The truth is complex for all of us who perceive something of the catastrophe of colonization and its enormous wake. Part of the reason we stay with the trouble of representation is desire, I think, and in that sense the commitment I have to art and its spaces is about myself and what I want. But that is not the only reason I choose to take Enwezor’s non-abandonment of the exhibition seriously as an intellectual challenge. I accept the conventionality of the exhibition, for myself and in my collaboration with Amroun, because it is a useful infrastructure for the redistribution of resources—financial resources but also attention, critical engagement, and integration into transnational networks—to those who have been historically dispossessed. In this redistribution, I see the potential for a curatorial methodology that goes beyond the performance of solidarity. 

 

I am not sure curatorial practice can go beyond metaphor, nor am I convinced that anything other than the return of the land will respond to the more profound claim for justice made by those from whom it, and the idea of the future, have been taken. But in the years I have spent in Algeria, where the notion that the land was returned is state dogma, I have learned that the appearance of restoration is only the beginning of a process to rebuild the imaginative universe that was destroyed by the French. That process involves aesthetics, and it has space in it for all kinds of desire, all manner of solidarities. 


Natasha Marie Llorens is a Franco-American independent curator and writer based in Stockholm, where she teaches art theory at the Royal Institute of Art and co-directs the Center for Art and the Political Imaginary. Llorens is a regular contributor to e-flux Criticism. Her writing has also recently appeared in ArtPapers, Art Margins, and frieze, as well as in exhibition catalogs for Djamel Tatah and Ulrike Rosenbach, among others. In 2019, she edited the first English-language anthology on aesthetics in Algeria (Sternberg, Wallach Art Gallery) and, in 2022, she won the Andy Warhol Arts Writers grant. Llorens holds a Ph.D. in modern art history and comparative literature from Columbia University (2021) and an MA from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College (2011). She is currently at work on a book project about five experimental films from the 1960s and 1970s in Algeria, and a research project on the 1970s Algerian urban planning initiative called the 1000 Socialist Villages in collaboration with artist Massinissa Selmani.