Decolonising the Curriculum

Art history lags behind other disciplines in incorporating art by black and ethnic minorities argues Richard Hylton

Frank Bowling, <em>South America Squared</em>, 1967

Frank Bowling, South America Squared, 1967

Frank Bowling’s forthcoming major retrospective at Tate Britain has been a long time coming. So long, in fact, that visitors to it will be able to ‘experience’ what Tate describes as ‘the entirety of Bowling’s 60-year career’. As ‘one of Britain’s most visionary painters’ who ‘went on to study at the Royal College of Art alongside David Hockney and RB Kitaj’, and who ‘became the first Black artist nominated as a Royal Academician’, Bowling has finally been recognised by the upper echelons of the UK art establishment. Like Rasheed Araeen’s retrospective in 2017-18, organised by the Van Abbemuseum in Eindoven before touring to the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead (as well as Geneva’s MAMCO and Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art) that charted Araeen’s 60-year career (Interview AM413), Bowling’s retrospective characterises recent institutional attempts at slowly inserting black artists into British art history. It is difficult to overstate the significance of these exhibitions. Both Bowling and Araeen are in their 80s. Furthermore, these shows mark a break from posthumous recognition bestowed on artists such as Ronald Moody, Aubrey Williams, Anwar Jalal Shemza and Donald Rodney. Accompanying the display of substantial bodies of work spanning several decades are equally substantial monographs on Bowling and Araeen respectively, which include essays by a coterie of curators, critics and art historians. These exhibitions and monographs reflect the museum sector’s continuing attempts to diversify the canon. But is academia’s instrumental contribution to these exhibitions evidence of a move towards expansive and pluralised notions of art history? In any number of retrospective exhibitions staged in the UK over the past few years, including those on Hannah Höch, Eva Hesse, Thomas Ruff, Käthe Kollwitz and more recently Joan Jonas, Anni Albers and Franz West, academics often play key roles, be it as curators, writers or advisers. Often testament to their sustained and prolonged academic inquiry, it follows that these artists figure prominently in course offerings on modern and contemporary art. Given that postwar black artists have been largely excised from dominant art history narratives, is the academy suitably equipped to follow the museum sector in diversifying its curriculum or does its role in historical revisionism mask prevailing racial and cultural hierarchies within art history? This article considers the racial and cultural politics of academe in the UK today. It argues that while feminist-based theories, for example, have played an instrumental role in challenging notions of the canon, conversely post-colonial discourse in its many forms, though equally important, remains largely marginalised if non-existent across the course offerings of many art history departments in the UK. Concepts of difference and pluralism are presently more widely reflected in the UK, not least by universities eager to project themselves as tolerant and inclusive environments. However, from their curricula to employment practices, academe remains largely impervious and resistant to change. Is this a consequence of an unspoken white privilege which continues to pervade and dominate the field of art history?

In 2000, as part of a presentation for my MA in History of Art, I explored the politics of black artists in British art. Ruminating on why Bowling had been and continued to be frozen out of mainstream narratives of British art, I showed Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman, 1968, from Bowling’s now widely acclaimed map paintings series. The paintings represented an amalgamation of ideas pertaining to abstraction and representation, culture and identity, as well as being a witty homage to the revered US painter Barnett Newman. Comprising shimmering green and red sections, intersected by a luminous yellow crevice, reminiscent of Newman’s signature ‘zip’ motif, a faint but discernible white outline of the map of Guyana, Bowling’s country of birth, reinforced the interplay between representation and abstraction. This confluence of narratives and entry points to Bowling’s work were, so I thought, sufficient to spark and sustain a productive discussion in an art history context. However, at the end of my presentation, and possibly as a means of igniting discussion within the student group, an art history lecturer ventured the opinion that the UK was awash with painters working in studios waiting to be discovered. Although a fleeting, if not flippant comment which would not find its way into print, the lecturer’s observation did represent for me a certain hostility within art history teaching towards asserting that the art world is a racially structured space. This personal experience took place within what could be considered a relatively liberal and progressive art history department. Nevertheless, it embodied, in microcosm, the formidable challenges and obstacles within art history. For the record, in 2000, at the age of 65, Bowling was not ‘waiting to be discovered’. His exemplary practice and the high regard in which he was held was reflected in many important exhibitions of his work in the UK and the US, which belied his systematic exclusion from the mainstream art world. In the intervening years, Bowling’s stock has risen significantly within the museum arena, yet art history teaches us nothing; despite a plethora of awards, exhibitions and critical attention, we are offered only a selective view of history. Tate’s foregrounding of Bowling’s time working alongside Hockney and Kitaj is a case in point. Scouring Tate: A History from 1998 by Frances Spalding reveals not a single mention of Bowling. Following Lubaina Himid being heralded as the oldest practitioner to win the coveted Turner Prize, the BBC glibly commented that ‘Himid made her name in the 1980s as one of the leaders of the British black arts movement – both painting and curating exhibitions of similarly overlooked artists’. Where Bowling is now seamlessly positioned as part of postwar British art, Himid’s recognition was framed by a casual acknowledgement of ‘similarly overlooked artists’. These seemingly different forms of historical recovery nullify rather than address the incalculable damage systematic art-world exclusions have had and continue to have both on individual practitioners and on wider narratives of art history.

Art historians and cultural theorists have offered insightful texts which could in many ways be considered as templates for reading and complicating conceptions of British art history. For example, Kobena Mercer’s essay ‘Ethnicity and Internationality: New British Art and Diaspora-Based Blackness’ from 2000, published in Third Text (whose founding editor was Araeen), considered ‘the curious position(s) of diaspora artists amidst the contradictory forces of art world globalisation and regressive localism’, thereby intervening to address the stranglehold yBas had on art history. Such important essays, however, remain at academia’s periphery.

The weighty monograph which accompanies Araeen’s retrospective synergises the museum and academia. The publication includes ten texts charting Araeen’s enduring and expansive career as an artist, curator, writer, publisher and editor. This formidable collection of essays by academics such as Michael Newman, Marcus du Sautoy, Zöe Sutherland, John Roberts and Courtney J Martin (who, interestingly, is also a contributor to Bowling’s monograph) leaves us with plenty to ponder, with titles such as ‘Third Text: Modernism and Negritude, and the Critique of Ethnicity’, ‘Dialectics of Modernity and Counter Modernity’ , ‘Politics of Symmetry’ and ‘Equality, Resistance, Hospitality: Abstraction and Universality in the Work of Rasheed Araeen’ and so on. Nick Aikens’s decision, as the publication’s editor, to primarily call on academics is in many respects in keeping with the conventions of such retrospective tomes. When considered in relation to academia, however, it does raise a question about what function this writing has as part of a wider commitment to challenging what Charles Esche describes in his preface to the monograph as ‘the partiality and blindness of Eurocentric modernism’. Is this writing on Araeen akin to an otherwise absent parent who lavishes copious birthday gifts on their child? The relative paucity of teaching within academia on postwar black artists does temper the critical triumphalism of Araeen’s monograph. The contributors’ biographies alone suggest that their essays here are, almost without exception, a break from their usual artists or areas of interest. Is there a correlation between the type of voices of authority who now champion excluded practitioners and the voices which previously ignored their exclusion?

Cultural theorists and art historians have contributed an immense range of scholarship, much of it academic, which has done much to expand and challenge received notions of art history. Three anthologies produced between 1999 and 2008 explored key themes spanning contemporary African art as an emerging force during the 1990s, the re-examination of art from the colonial period, and new discourses on modern and contemporary art. Reading the Contemporary: African Art from Theory to the Market Place, 1999, edited by Olu Oguibe and Okwui Enwezor, pooled a wide range of articles from journals and exhibition catalogues published between 1991 and 1997, written by art historians, anthropologists and cultural theorists such as Kwame Anthony Appiah, Mercer, VY Mudimbe, Laura Mulvey, Everlyn Nicodemus, Chika Okeke and John Picton. Similarly, Race-ing Art History: Critical Readings in Race and Art History, 2002, edited by Kymberly N Pinder, includes a broad collection of writing but this time using a narrower ‘historical lens’, primarily focusing on art from the 19th and 20th centuries but also including art from ‘antiquity to the middle ages, and Modernism and its “Primitive” Legacy’ in order to reconsider historical painting, through to the work of artists such as Sargent Johnson, Horace Pippin and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Then there is Annotating Art’s Histories: Cross-Cultural Perspectives in the Visual Arts 2005-08, co-published by MIT Press and edited by Mercer, which further exemplifies critical thinking emanating from academia. The first volume, Cosmopolitan Modernisms, 2005, offered what Mercer described as ‘a partial and provisional review of how we have arrived at the current state of play with regard to understanding cultural difference, not as an arbitrary irrelevance that detracts from the “essence” of art, nor as a social problem to be managed by compensatory policies, but as a distinctive feature of modern art and modernity that was always there and which is not going to go away’. Unlike the previous two anthologies, Mercer’s series was primarily based on new writing, but in keeping with their aspiration it too ‘sets out to question the depth of our historical understanding of cultural difference’. We could also cite art journals such as Third Text, Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art and Small Axe, launched in 1987, 1993 and 1997 respectively, which have also, to varying degrees, been supported by those based in the academic world. But why has this wealth of publishing been unable to have any impact on the presumed white authority which continues to underpin the teaching of art history? The histories of black artists were often considered as separate if not largely irrelevant to art history. Today, museums are historicising and incorporating black artists into British art history’s grand narrative; but does this now present a conundrum for art history departments? It is an understatement to suggest that those responsible for managing art history departments think more carefully about what constitute core subjects and specialisms in the 21st century. Artist Mary Evans’s eloquent observation that ‘the political, social, and cultural dynamics of modern Britain are in many respects the legacy of Britain’s imperial past’ provides an enticing starting point for narrating postwar British art. Rather than being seen as limited or specialist, though, such an approach to art history should be seen as a challenge to existing conventions. This is not a new proposition.

Art historians and cultural critics have for decades challenged the formidable orthodoxies on which art history has prevailed and been taught. Art historian Linda Nochlin’s groundbreaking essay ‘Why Are There No Great Women Artists’, 1971, and John Berger’s seminal television series and book Ways of Seeing, 1972, both exploded myths about the production, dissemination and interpretation of art. Exposing the gendered and socially stratified but unspoken narratives which governed art history, Nochlin and Berger brought not only new readings to the canon, but they also by necessity explicitly critiqued the epistemologies of art history. Influenced by this work, art historian Griselda Pollock recently noted in an updated preface to Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology, 1981, which she co-authored with Rozsika Parker, that a book ‘merely trying to add back the missing names of women was doomed to failure’. Instead, it proposed a critique of the structural sexism in the discipline of art history itself. Such critical approaches are integral to art history teaching. Peggy Phelan’s Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, 1993, and Amelia Jones’s Body Art: Performing the Subject, 1998, were staple texts within my History of Art MA. In different ways, both went beyond merely arguing for representation within the canon to disrupting its convention (for Jones, it was ‘the particular potential of body art to destabilise the structures of conventional art history and art criticism’). In this context, is it possible to understand the limitations of historical revisionism as a means of upholding convention?

In ‘The Difficulties of Naming White Things’, 2012, Eddie Chambers offers a series of cogent observations about the often-unspoken conventions which are hidden in plain sight but permeate art history and academia. He expresses the ‘frustration of not being able to call what generally passes as art history white art history, even though, with its consistent omissions and partial accounts, that is what the universities of the country are by and large serving up within their art history departments’. Beyond what Griselda Pollock termed as challenging art history’s ‘structural sexism’, Chambers identifies what he considers to be ‘an uncomfortable and frequently unacknowledged racialised schism within art history and academia’. In the US some discipline areas are now habitually demarcated along racial lines, such as ‘African Americanist’, ‘Africanist art’, ‘African diasporaists’. In the UK, academe’s gravitation towards courses such as ‘global perspectives’ or ‘non-Western art’ may represent concessions to notions of inclusivity and diversity but, equally, these euphemistic and all-encompassing terms also serve to reinforce racial hierarchies within art history.

Keeping difference at arm’s length and maintaining the unspoken but explicit racial stratification within academia supports the status quo. This is an unsatisfactory situation not aided by the disparity between the number of white and black academics across the range of the UK’s universities, which is striking. Employment statistics paint a bleak picture. In 2011, it was reported in the Guardian that 50 out of 14,000 British professors were black, while in 2016/17, 25 black women and 90 black men could be counted among 19,000 professors. In Inside the Ivory Tower: Narratives of women of colour surviving and thriving in British academia, Deborah Gabriel describes this situation as reflecting the unspoken ‘white privilege’ which pervades academia and plays a critical role in perpetuating inequality. The situation is all the more perverse when considered against the significant numbers of black artists who have received honorary degrees from universities wanting to be seen to be progressive.

Today, marketing strategies and campaigns used by universities are key for the recruitment of fee-paying students. These promotional and often formulaic campaigns, across the sector, project university life as enjoyable, aspirational and inclusive. Perusing the plethora of university websites it is noticeable how prominent black people have become in this marketing. Conversely, delve a little deeper into these university websites and their academic departments, and black people are often conspicuous by their absence. While statistics testify to enduring inequality, in today’s market-driven educational economy the absence of black faculty carries even greater significance. Pursuing a career in academia is by no means the only purpose of a university education, yet, on current evidence, and despite the increase in numbers of black and Asian people receiving degrees, it seems that a sector eager to educate these students remains less inclined to employ them. Such realities temper the current university fad for advertising employment success rates of graduates.

The racialised employment practices of universities raise questions about the veracity and the purpose of equality statements and equal opportunity monitoring forms. Beyond liberal posturing, what purpose do such bureaucratic mechanisms serve? Racial inequality is an issue across academia but is there an area where it remains more pronounced than in the privileged world of art history? Women have undoubtedly fought hard to prosper here but, with few exceptions, art history departments remain as white today as they were 30 or 40 years ago. Is this responsible for black British scholars seeking opportunities in the US? Despite the critical triumphalism which underpins Bowling and Araeen’s retrospectives, day-to-day teaching of art history appears impervious to the changes proposed by the very scholarship it is producing. Clearly, what is needed is a more sustained engagement with a wider body of black artists’ histories. Equally, diversifying the curriculum needs to be supported by more sustained efforts to decolonise academia.

Richard Hylton is a writer and researcher based in London.

First published in Art Monthly 426: May 2019.

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