The 2022 March Meeting Contends with Global Decolonisation
In Partnership with Shajrah Art Foundation
Khalil Rabah, On what grounds (2022). Handwoven wool rugs, cement tiles. Dimensions variable. Exhibition view: Sharjah Art Foundation (4 March–4 July 2022). Photo: Shanavas Jamaluddin.
An unforgettable moment at the Sharjah Art Foundation's 2022 March Meeting was watching octogenarian theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, sitting front row, respond to a conversation between filmmaker Manthia Diawara and activist Angela Davis by recalling the time she saw Malcom X debate James Brown at Cornell.
Here was not only a triangulation of thinkers who have mediated theory and praxis amid global and intersectional struggles, but a meeting of remarkable lives who brought memories of their mentors into the room.
At one point, Davis paid tribute to Herbert Marcuse, among a group of Frankfurt School thinkers that produced key intelligence reports on Nazi Germany during World War II, while Diawara described his film portrait of philosopher Édouard Glissant as his best-known work.
Just days earlier, Spivak, who is known among other things for translating deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, delivered a keynote speech seeking to establish a productive ground to consider MM2022's theme: The Afterlives of the Postcolonial.
The meeting gathered over 40 speakers across 9 panels over 3 days (5–7 March 2022), including artists Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran of CAMP, whose exhibition at Bait Al Serkal—part of the Sharjah Art Foundation's spring exhibitions running from 4 March to 4 July 2022—offers an intimate look into the shipping networks that sustain global supply chains.
The result was a dense overview of urgent issues confronting the present, including two talks organised around 'Persistent Structural Inequalities'.
The first was 'Settler Colonialism, Segregation and Apartheid', with human rights attorney Noura Erakat and artist Khalil Rabah discussing the legalised violence inflicted on Palestine and The Africa Institute's Premesh Lalu speaking about the apartheid of the everyday in South Africa.
The second panel, 'Indigeneity and Sovereignty', saw artist Brook Andrew and curator Megan Tamati-Quennell in the room, and artists Jolene Rickard and Gerald McMaster online, illuminating contemporary artistic practice from a First Nations perspective, extending the rich conviviality of Andrew's 2020 Sydney Biennale NIRIN between them.
Brilliantly, the techno-fetishist position that sees the future as a singular, foregone digital conclusion was upended by an audience question about NFTs, to which McMaster replied: 'What's an NFT?'
The Q and A sessions were often the most spirited and activated portions of each MM2022 panel, which at times suffered from the rigidity of its academic structure of presentations and moderations that sometimes failed to draw out engaged conversations between speakers.
Artist presentations became antidotes to some theory-heavy monologues that, according to a few mutterings in the room, felt alienatingly dense and terminology heavy.
Noteworthy was the contribution of artists Hrair Sarkissian and Carolina Caycedo to the panel 'The Environment, Climate and Global Warming, and the Anthropocene', and artist Rachid Koraïchi's presentation for 'Migrations to the North, Forced Repatriation and the New Middle Passage'. Koraïchi introduced a project he initiated in Tunisia in response to the Mediterranean migrant crisis by creating cemeteries for victims to be buried and remembered with dignity.
In one evening performance, Lawrence Abu Hamdan presented his audio-visual essay Daght Jawi (2021–2022), which tracks the health impacts of Israeli war planes in Lebanon's skies by projecting sky and jet visuals on the domed ceiling of Sharjah Art Foundation's contemporary art space, The Flying Saucer.
Daght Jawi extended Abu Hamdan's exhibition at Sharjah Art Foundation's Art Spaces curated by Omar Kholeif, which included the new commission Air Conditioning (2022), a horizon of prints depicting a continuous chain of clouds representing measurements of Israel's sonic warfare over the Lebanese skies since the July War in 2006.
Geopolitics has long been a concern of the March Meeting, with Spivak's keynote speech prompting a rethinking of entrenched perspectives.
Quoting political scientist Samir Amin, she called for a rerouting of 'the fight against colonialism' towards a confrontation with globalised neoliberalism, 'which turns nation states into global capital managers, while encouraging the nationalisation of identity in the name of anti-colonialism.'
Pointing to structures of corruption operating within 'postcolonial politics'—for example 'the return of theocracy in India; the silk road in China; imperialist interpellations in Europe'—Spivak challenged the room to grapple with the contradictions inherent to postcolonial discourse.
Calling out nation-states like Russia, which use postcolonial rhetoric to enact colonising missions on territories like Syria and Ukraine, she warned against colonialism as 'a cultural excuse for finger-pointing', using former Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe and the current Modi regime in India as examples of excusing 'every oppressive move in the name of anti-colonialism'. 'Did all deployment of power relations start with the colonies?' Spivak boomed. 'I speak from a country with thousands of years of caste oppression. The colonies are a day before yesterday.'
Spivak also spoke about individuals in elite universities ignoring the class realities of their privileged positions within the imperialist system, while espousing high-minded theories far removed from lived realities on the ground, noting that, 'Most indigenous languages have a word for work but not for...deconstruction.'
'Did all deployment of power relations start with the colonies?' Spivak boomed. 'I speak from a country with thousands of years of caste oppression. The colonies are a day before yesterday.'
With that, Spivak opened The Afterlives of the Postcolonial with a refusal of simplistic definitions and convenient views, squashing the question of whether the term 'postcolonial' has any use today by pointing to the academic fetishism that creates incessant and ultimately unproductive debates—'You want the term? Keep the term! I'm not here to trade in terms,' she said. Action, after all, is more important than hand-wringing over definitions that tend to serve careers more than movements.
That point came through in 'Restitution and Repatriation of Looted Artworks and Artefacts', with architect David Adjaye, currently working on the Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City, Smithsonian National Museum of African Art Director Ngaire Blankenberg, and Princeton professor Chika Okeke-Agulu, highlighting the fact that, while museums are indeed loaded spaces tainted by the colonial model, efforts are being made to both critique and evolve their form and function.
A practice extended by Khalil Rabah's exhibition at the Sharjah Art Foundation, What is not, which includes projects like Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind and the Riwaq Biennale, that interrogate forms of institutional archiving and display.
All of which returns to Spivak's invitation to MM2022 participants to acknowledge their complicity in the systems they both critique and work within—a recognition in which she sees 'no weakness' since 'it makes for a much stronger practice.'
That urgency to reroute the discussion—Spivak's concerns in this time of ecological disaster, she pointed out, are planetary—was echoed in Davis' responses to Diawara days later.
Ahead of a film portrait of Davis by Diawara for the 2023 Sharjah Biennial, Diawara's pre-recorded interview was a masterclass in moderation, prompting Davis to define concepts of freedom, feminism, and abolition.
Davis summarised intersectional feminism as 'not primarily identitarian' but 'methodological'—ideas extended in the panel 'Intersectionality, Feminism and Gendered Identities' that followed—and freedom as a concept that 'has been utilised in ways that often militate against [its] very meaning.' (Recalling Sun Ra's point about America, with its ideology of individual freedoms über alles, waging wars in the name of liberty.)
For Davis, 'Any meaningful notion of freedom should be collective in character', which connected to her position on abolition as a struggle to reconceptualise 'the futures of this planet' through collective action against what the Black feminist Combahee River Collective referred to as 'interlocking systems of oppression'.
These interlocking systems were highlighted across MM2022, with panels like 'New Social Movements, "Black Lives Matter" and its Global Reverberations' bringing Black academics Russell Rickford and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, dialling in from the U.S., into conversation with Dalit scholars and activists Suraj Yengde and Meena Kandasamy, who described India's caste system as a form of racial capitalism.
An impetus for intersectional discussion was underscored when Diawara spoke to Professor Salah M. Hasan following his interview with Davis about the pitfalls of rigid, identity-based tribalisms that re-produce imperialist violence. ('There is no fixed notion of Africa if we have a Mandela and a Mubutu,' Hasan pointed out.)
Hasan and Diawara were expanding Davis's point about American centrism, which she said she's been working against since 'learning to be in solidarity through the Algerian revolution' in the 1950s and 60s, when the Third World Liberation movement—defined in part by the Afro-Asian Bandung Conference and the Non-Aligned Movement—created transnational networks of solidarity from Japan to Palestine.
That kind of internationalism 'makes our lives so much richer and our struggles so much stronger', Davis said, with the intersectional foundations of the Black Liberation Movement extending as far as Ireland—which curator Koyo Kouoh identified as the first English colony for the 2016 Eva International—where Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells visited and found support.
'The point that I want to make is that precisely because of this internationalisation of Black struggles, Black people in the U.S. should be especially willing to offer solidarity to people involved in freedom struggles in other parts of the world,' Davis said. 'In Africa of course, but also in the Philippines, Brazil, Europe, in Palestine.'
For Davis, 'Any meaningful notion of freedom should be collective in character...'
This call to expand—or rather, reinvigorate—trans-national networks of solidarity aligned with Spivak's refusal to fetishise the postcolonial, whether through distant academic discourse or uncritical adherence to the Non-Aligned Movement's legacy in the name of ultra-nationalism, insofar as it speaks to the potential of a global movement led by people rather than states and ruling classes, borders, and nationalist identities.
'What would global decolonisation look like?' Spivak asked, imagining a movement focused on 'restraining the laws of global capital' over 'nation-based decolonisation projects generally undertaken by people who are quite comfortable enabling violations of colonialism.'
It's a big question that relates to what thinking historically in the present means, which is what Diawara asked Davis at the end of their talk—as if to invite a response to recent moves to dismiss 'postcolonial' and 'decolonial' as terms co-opted by empty mainstream gestures, which seems to erase the lived histories that brought those terms into being.
Pushing back on that erasure was the Sharjah Art Foundation's exhibition Revolution and Image-making in Postcolonial Ghana, with photographs by Gerald Annan-Forson documenting Ghana between 1979 and 1985, as the promise of Non-Alignment and its proposal for a New International Economic Order put to the U.N. in 1974 gave way to oil shocks, debt crises, and the asymmetric Reagan-Thatcher free-market axis.
It was Ghana's first president Kwame Nkrumah who defined neo-colonialism as the means by which former colonial powers maintained control over former territorial holdings through financial capture—a warning that foresaw the conditions of neoliberal globalisation that Spivak described at the start of MM2022.
With that in mind, Davis's response to Diawara spoke to Spivak's challenge to contend with the intersecting and tainted global webs of historical longue durées that exist both as spectres and structures in the present.
'We fail to understand the dynamic—and I might even say the dialectical—production of the present,' Davis said, which is produced by the past as much as it is 'constantly producing possible futures.' The conditions of that production, whatever you want to call it, is the thing at stake. —[O]