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Discussant Remarks for CAA-Getty Alumni Session

posted by CAA — May 22, 2018

Discussant Remarks for CAA-Getty Alumni Session, CAA Annual Conference, February 23, 2018

Saloni Mathur, University of California, Los Angeles

Firstly, it is important—and indeed powerful—that the participants on this panel, titled Border Crossings: The Migration of Art, People, and Ideas, have themselves journeyed from afar and crossed many borders to convene this “Global Conversation” today. Supported by the CAA-Getty International Program, which is now in its 7th year, and which has as its goal to build international participation in CAA in order to diversify and enrich membership in our scholarly community, today’s panelists and chairs are art historians who teach, work and write in South Africa, Brazil, Nigeria, Hungary and India. Together, they represent four continents (Europe, Asia, Africa and South America), and a wide range of art historical interests across a broad time span. In other words, this is no arm-chair exercise about an abstract topic—migration—but a kind of intellectual practice grounded in a dialectic between a shared approach to history, on the one hand, and a situated understanding of the present, on the other.

A number of questions arise at the outset related to the overarching theme of migration and border-crossing: What kind of analytic or optic does it provide? Is it a methodology in the disciplinary sense, or is it more of a perspective or thematic focus—one that clearly rejects stasis in favor of fluidity, mobility, and the connectedness of the world? In this session, we have seen the rubric of migration illuminate seemingly incommensurable topics: the migration of an individual artist from Japan to Brazil in the twentieth century (Cezar); the border crossings made possible by new communication technologies and their role in enhancing the discourses of art in Nigeria (Peju); the transmission of objects and aesthetic ideas within South and Southeast Asia in the premodern world (Parul); and the crises caused by distinctly anti-migration forces in contemporary Europe, in particular the role that the visual arts can have in response (Ildikó). This raises an opening meta-question: is this too many things? That is to say, does it make sense to think of the migration of people, art, objects, and ideas together as a coherent inquiry? Does the optic get stretched too thinly, and thus compromised as an analytical tool? Allow me to turn to each paper in a little more detail to ground my own optimistic response.

Cezar’s paper turned to the figure of the artist, and highlighted the relation between migration and artistic subjectivity in the example of photographer, Haruo Ohara, who was born in Japan in 1909 and migrated to Brazil in 1927, where he would live and work until the end of the century (until his death in 1999). Significantly, as Cezar points out, this was not a solo or lone experience of transplantation, but part of Brazilian state policy to “import” Japanese workers to replace the workforce that served on farms and plantations after the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888. Locating Ohara’s journey within the migration policies of the Brazilian state and its shift to a “melting pot” ideology in the early 20th century, Cezar pointed to the complex dialectic between Ohara’s photographs of “nature”—farm-life and the Brazilian countryside—and the more “pragmatic” scenes of family life that dominate his second phase of work during the 1960s, often read as a record of his adaptation and assimilation. Cezar suggested that this assimilation was entangled in the complexities of Brazil’s unique racial fabric, but I am also struck by the strong outsider quality of Ohara’s rural (ie: non-metropolitan) photographic practice. And this leads to a question for Cezar: how does the rural-urban tension further complicate the story of Ohara’s modernist-migratory aesthetic, if we understand our narratives of the latter as often belonging to the cosmopolitan mixing of artists in the metropole? (Even Raymond Williams’ far-reaching account of the city-country relation seems to me to harbour this bias.)

Peju offered a case-study from Nigeria, namely, the platform of the CCA, Lagos, the influential art center founded by curator, Bisi Silva, in 2007, intended to raise the critical engagement with contemporary art in Africa, especially new media and experimental forms. The way that the CCA has employed communication technology – namely, internet, social media, and web-based platforms – has been especially transformative, she argued, in a developing or postcolonial society because it has nurtured connection, visibility, discussion and debate and galvanized a productive discourse about art. At this point, I think we may all recognize in Peju’s account the validity and centrality of what I might call – for lack of a better term – globalization’s electronic frontier. By this, I mean the radical potential of new technologies for the migration of knowledge, and for connecting human beings across time and space, and by extension, for galvanizing the discourses of art. But, by definition this terrain is a moving target, an entirely unprecedented and experimental horizon whose uses and abuses are also well known (think Facebook & its role in influencing elections, or the relentless commercialization of these platforms). In relation to art, the internet and social media can foster engagement in all the ways that Peju has shown; on the down side, it can also produce a thin-ness of quality, a lack of depth of writing, and perpetually distracted forms of reception fostered by the instant “like” formats of Facebook and Twitter. A question then that arises from Peju’s own critical assessment of the Lagos situation: how should we continue to think (to paraphrase her subtitle) about “fostering art linkages in the information age”? Especially for CCA, after a decade of success, what are the ways to continue to move the discourses of art (by embracing technology, but perhaps also not?) in ever-more generative ways?

Parul used the theme of migration to activate our historical imagination, and to take, as she stated, “a temporal leap backwards” to examine the linkages and networks across the Indian Ocean in the pre-modern period of South Asian art history. Highlighting two particular modes of transmission — “itinerant concepts” and “voyaging objects” – Parul showed how architecture and monuments (ie: built forms fixed in time and space, and therefore the most recalcitrant from a migration perspective) can be read through iconography to reveal stories of migration in the pre-modern world. Moreover, the built environment was also represented (in terracotta objects, illustrated manuscripts, miniature models, and so on) and carried by pilgrims and traders in their journeys, offered up as gifts or souvenirs. And these, in the case of the Mahabodhi temple, appeared to inspire similar buildings in other parts of pre-modern Asia, namely, in contemporary China, Burma, Thailand, Nepal & Tibet. What results, Parul argues, is “a rich visual archive of intra-Asian travel.” In following such chains of transmission, how should we also avoid re-inscribing the original vs. copy dilemma, and the hierarchical value structure these designations have so long entailed? I am reminded here of Cezar’s objections to those interpretations of Ohara’s photographs that embarked on a search for their Japanese roots. In other words, journeys also imply origins or roots, and we should be cautious about privileging the former without essentializing or fixing the latter.

Finally, shifting to Ildikó’s report: it comes from the front lines of a fraught battle over migration today, namely, from land-locked Hungary, located on the journey from Syria and the Middle East to Western Europe, and whose right-wing government has famously assumed a hostile, anti-migrant policy that is under close scrutiny by Human Rights Watch. Citing TJ Demos’ work that focusses on the intersections between art, activism and contemporary politics, Ildikó points to the responsibility that we – as professors, art historians and students of culture – have to research, document and engage with the damaging effects upon human lives for those (unlike ourselves) who are denied the entrance and mobility necessary for all acts of migration. Here, the rubric of migration and mobility must be conceived through the dialectics and crises caused by detention and immobility. Ildiko’s concerns, drawn as they are from the situation in Europe, should not be lost upon those of us who work in North America today, where border walls, mass deportations, and so-called “Muslim bans” have also become official government policy, and where xenophobic fear and anti-immigrant hatred has found expression in historically unprecedented ways. Ildikó’s question is worth repeating and putting to all of us yet again: what is, and can be, the role of art in such a situation, and how can and should art history respond to the hostile, real-life wave of anti-migrant sentiment that we see today all over the world?

In other words, as borders themselves become strengthened and fortified, inciting fierce protectionism and xenophobic nationalism, it becomes all the more clear how important a migration perspective is for humanistic understanding. For borders and boundaries are continually re-made and un-made, and are therefore mutable and subject to change. Artists, curators, teachers can intervene through imaginative acts to counter the terrible hold that far-right discourses have gained on the psyche; we can interrogate how certain views become normalized and acceptable, and refuse the acts of violence and militarism that border politics unleash. To the extent that all of the papers today have highlighted border-crossing interventions that support alternate ways of seeing, they can be viewed as already having journeyed across a threshold of some sort.

Filed under: International