C Magazine


Issue 145

What Else Might Be Possible? Towards a Decolonial Criticism
by Serena Lukas Bhandar, Kemi Craig, Lindsay Katsitsakatste Delaronde, Kim Dhillon, and Tarah Hogue

In her 2019 book of essays, Before I Was a Critic I Was A Human Being, Amy Fung explores the uncomfortable space between settler colonialism and art criticism. The art critic, who was born in Kowloon, Hong Kong and raised in the Treaty 6 area of Edmonton, calls into question the myth of multiculturalism that underpins Canada’s national identity and its pervasiveness in contemporary art. At one point, Fung writes about attempting to ask a question when she sat in the audience of a Q&A panel consisting of the finalists for a Canadian art award. Though Fung doesn’t name the specific prize, it becomes clear from the names of the finalists that she’s referring to the 2017 edition of the Sobey Art Award, Canada’s largest monetary art prize for an artist under 40. The artists included Raymond Boisjoly, Jacynthe Carrier, Divya Mehra, Bridget Moser and the prize’s winner, Ursula Johnson. The panel moderator at the award’s press event represented what Fung called an “authoritative” voice of the Canadian art world.1 Fung felt that he “did not connect with or understand” the finalist artists, which, for the first time in the award’s history were entirely either BIPOC and/or women.2 Because the moderator initiated the conversation with a Northrop Frye quote, the panel conversation stayed rooted in what Fung calls “outdated inklings.”3 The questions from the moderator and the audience expressed frustration with the artists’ “audacity” to make work that was illegible to them, which implied that whiteness was their default framework for perceiving the work.4 In attempting to align those artists with it, they were unable to imagine possibilities for discussing the artists’ work beyond that framework. “Did [the artists] feel there were layers of missing knowledge between them and the dominant culture, who know little or nothing about Other histories, cultures, and experiences?” Fung reflects.5

“The question I wanted to ask, but never got to, was about legibility … I wanted to know if their work felt visible here, in this context, and what were their strategies and coping mechanisms?”6 What Fung highlights here, in my mind, is characteristic of the still-prevalent colonialism of the discursive formats for engaging with and evaluating art. Undoing that is not simply a matter of plugging BIPOC artists into a structure that is inherently colonial, for that only reinforces the normative lens through which their work is seen, as Fung demonstrates. But if art criticism remains rooted within a colonial framework, how can it adequately engage with artists whose work or worldview does not yield or subscribe to that framework? How can we circumnavigate it, to produce meaning in a way that questions the format’s own biases? What is required to be legible in “Canada” for an artist who is of a visible or invisible minority? Is the legibility of that artist’s subject position necessary to understand and respectfully critique their work? What about the critic’s subject position, especially if they’re BIPOC, in relation to colonial modes of criticism?

This roundtable crystalizes the discussions of Feedback Feedforward, two discussion groups on de-colonization and art criticism held in summer 2019.7 To extend the discussion group from a public conversation into a published roundtable, I’ve drawn from Fung’s unasked question on legibility and directed it to four artists of wide-ranging practices and identities. We discussed: if the colonial model for art criticism— developing from a Eurocentric tradition, in English, in print, following agreed-upon discourses on art, within a capitalist infrastructure—didn’t exist, what else might be possible?

Criticism, as a word and as a model, has always rung hollow for me. What I connect with, instead, is story-telling. Rather than attempting to objectively “evaluate” art based on arbitrary standards, I invite you to ask yourself: “What stories do I tell about the art that I experience?”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, storytelling and writing are my main creative modes. I’m currently at work on a hybrid essay/poetry collection called The Tale of the Snake Woman, which tracks my intersecting experiences of being both racialized and transgender. The collection arises from a Punjabi folktale I once read, in which a shapeshifting trickster woman seduces a king and then is burned alive by him when he discovers her true nature. Similarly, the violence that I experience daily as a transgender woman of colour often derives from societal ideas that I am attempting to “trick” the world, that I am not actually who I say I am.

When we move beyond attempting to approach art objectively, when we consider the intersections of the artist’s identity and the systems of violence under which they create, then the whole Eurocentric model of criticism begins to collapse. I don’t want audiences to support my art because they can relate to it, or because it speaks to a universal truth; I want people to see me and see my experience and say, “I don’t know what it means to be trans, to be racialized, but I still understand and will love and celebrate you. Your life and what you create with it has inordinate value and worth.” I want audiences, and critics in particular, to embrace the disconnection they may feel when exposed to art that doesn’t speak to their experiences. I want you to be comfortable with not having every word translated into your worldview.

For the longest time, it has been standard practice, or “house style,” for publishers to italicize non-English words, and, especially in prose and academic texts, to offer a translation in a footnote. However, lately more and more publishers and curators have bucked that practice, making non-English words part of the text itself rather than othering them through italicization, not even requiring a footnote to say what the words mean. The words just are. If audiences want to know what they mean, they can Google them. That absence of translation—of performing the emotional labour of making art accessible and legible to all audiences—extends to concepts as well. There are so many concepts that only make sense within the context of the cultures that created them, and they should not require translation into dominant forms of discourse and language in order to have value.

What stories do we tell about the art we experience? I think, crucially, that depends on who we tell those stories to. The act of storytelling relies on relationships and community. When we take the people behind the art into consideration, and when we recognize the stories and narratives we create about the world around us, then criticism becomes an attempt to exist in community with one another. Storytelling is the only way that criticism of any form can configure into my worldview.

In searching for “a new framework for [B]lack diasporic artistic production,” the artist Martine Syms created “The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto,” an adaptation of the literary rules of Mundane Science Fiction. In it, Syms argues for a future imaginary without “fantasy bolt-holes”—common sci-fi tropes like interstellar space travel—that instead centres on humans and the future of planet Earth (as the only realistic option). She writes that “dream[s] of utopia can encourage us to forget that outer space will not save us from injustice and that cyberspace was prefigured upon a ‘master/slave’ relationship … post-[B]lack is a misnomer, post-colonialism is too.” Perhaps I find her invitation or challenge to be compelling because I cannot imagine a timeline without the history of colonization. My inherent multiplicity as the daughter of a Métis father and Dutch immigrant mother obfuscates this possibility. Just think of the generations of kinship relations, the confluences of historical events and the agency of individuals that overwhelm these designations of “Métis father,” “Dutch immigrant mother,” which might otherwise be read as political positionings or genealogies (although they are also these things). Pushing against “hard-and-fast racial designations,” Adam Gaudry articulates that a failing of historical determinism is its lack of addressing Métis’ agency in their construction of a “political and social entity on their own accord,” across their culture, language, songs and lives.

What I am trying to articulate is an approach that confounds the naturalization of whiteness as an invisible ground (or “absent centre,” as Sara Ahmed names it) against which otherness is articulated and becomes legible. How can we relate to one another, and to the world with which we are enmeshed, using terms that do not capture and close, but rather open up to radical possibilities?

Ayumi Goto and Peter Morin are performance artists and best friends, and their collaborative practice considers the moment of encounter in which “Every contact is potentially the first one, given due consideration for the constant of change.” In their work, friendship and the care it engenders enters into the formalized space of performance just as the considerations informing and arising from performance leak back into the world. This process includes attending to individual and collective histories, trauma, racism, families, genders, languages, cultural knowledge and production, lands and nations; it is both an everyday practice of 合作 (gassaku)—of building something together—as well as a vision of a world otherwise. They ask, “How does this meeting inform your experience? And how does your experience inform this meeting?” of themselves, each other and their audience, implicating all in a relational articulation of self and other.

Syms’s manifesto claims the mundane—as in, of the Earth rather than of the supernatural—as the site of future world-building while Goto and Morin’s everyday is a continuum of past, present and future that is equally inhabited by ancestors and persons (both human and non-human). They nevertheless meet at the limits of how difference is articulated, both inscribing forms of difference and togetherness that destabilize the very notion of cultural (or ethnic or racial) otherness by refusing fixed frames of reference and institutional cooption.

The accepted understanding of criticism is embedded within capitalism and colonialism. What I would like to offer, instead, is a notion of critique that centres on locations: on being able to locate ourselves in terms of our identities, the territories we are living on and the time context we exist in, in order to speak alongside makers, artists and other folks who are bearing witness to creation. Our locations inform form, and the way we read, thus informing what is legible and where opacity exists. For me, legibility is possible on the basis of familiarity, and allows me a greater opportunity to participate in collaboration with the artist as a creator myself. I am able to imagine alongside, in response to an artist’s work. My reading becomes less fixed, less static and more open to possibility. My responsibility as a witness is more active in this space of critic as co-creator.

Opacity protects vulnerability, whereas legibility allows connection. As an artist, who am I asking to create with and who am I trying to connect with? The legibility of my work places Black women at the centre of knowing/experiencing. When my work is illegible, it is purposely so in order to activate the space of critical thinking and accountability for folks beyond the location I am speaking to. I think opacity and legibility can be used as devices for viewers to interrogate their locations of identity and how identity relates to discourse, systems and experiences.

I also want to be careful to not place these frameworks and possibilities as something only in the future. This work has already been done, and is already being done. This work exists in Indigeneity. It exists in the voices that make up equity-seeking communities. It exists in the communities that were able to operate within models—before capitalism, before colonialism—that honoured fluidity rather than privileging categories, that honoured decentring authority over hierarchical structures. For me, criticism is ultimately about amplifying worldviews founded in Indigeneity, Afrofuturism, feminism, queerness and accessibility.

Exploring dance, movement and storytelling through our bodies to heal our bodies, minds and spirits is the purpose of my creative practice. My practice is rooted in Indigenous epistemologies. Indigenous art is created from the land and returned to the land as an offering and acknowledgement of all its gifts and beauty. Mother Earth is present in the artworks of many Indigenous art practices in a literal sense but also metaphorically and symbolically.

Resurrecting ancient knowledge is the journey of transformation and evolution of Indigenous art in Canada. With the attempt to eradicate and erase Indigenous peoples for the purpose of Canada’s mission to exploit the land, we persist to be visible in all aspects of human existence, including the arts.

As an Iroquois woman, my philosophical understanding of creation is embedded in every aspect of my culture, including our creation story of Sky Woman falling onto the back of the turtle. There, she grew Earth out of dirt while dancing the shuffle dance on the turtle’s back. I honour our stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. We remember and re-tell these stories—they change and shift and continue to live inside our bodies and blood.

Creating from an Indigenous-centred worldview, with a focus on social justice, land-based and cultural knowledge, I work collaboratively and most often with a council of Indigenous women, gathering stories and igniting the fire of truths to be embodied. We gather to heal our intergenerational and historical traumas from the impacts of colonization. Confronting injustices of violence and social issues is at the heart of the work. We are invested in mending past, present and future, weaving story and rhythm using our natural abilities to orate our experiences. Embracing the complexities of our Indigeneity is a core value in creating safe space for marginalized women of colour, who have been subjected to the violence and genocide of patriarchy and colonization throughout history.

I honour and recognize the experiences shared among Indigenous women, POC and the LGBTQ2S community. My intention is to create action of resurgence and gain our rightful power and positions in our societies by embracing dance and movement. I embark on a journey of rediscovery grounded in ancient knowledge and sacred movement. Through my body I seek to liberate, restore, reclaim and resist the perpetuation of violence against Indigenous women. Criticism of our work needs to come from a place that seeks to understand the world- view from which our work comes, or it perpetuates the violence that I am actively working against.