(Post)-Colonial Identity is a Two Sided Coin
In reading both Claudia Mesch’s “Post-Colonial Identity and the Civil-Rights Movement”, and Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather it was interesting to compare their approach to the visualisation of colonial identity and how they differed.
Mesch clearly considers the topic of colonialism from an art historical perspective. She concerns herself primarily with the ways in which black artists used their work to fuel a discussion or stance against modern imperialist assumptions about black (artistic) identity throughout the 1940’s-2000’s. Mesch alludes not only to african visual art but also to new writing and theory, and how the political landscape on african identity and power in the mid 20th century was rapidly shifting. She argues that african modern art must therefore not be seen as separate from politics at the time (Mesch, 45). She goes on to discuss African diaspora in the U.S and how, influenced by independence in Africa and negritude (Mesch 54), the american civil rights movement developed. The main point Mesch aims to make in this chapter is the complexity with which identity and ethnicity is “structured and multiple” (mesch 65), further highlighting the role of art in propagating and archiving notions of ‘self’ and ‘other’ within a wider political setting.
McClintock on the other hand approaches the topic of colonialism by examining the development of aggressive colonial conquest in the 1850’s and the systemic ‘fetishization’ of the ‘other’, paired with an imperial obsession with the ‘domestic space’. Her writing begins with a thorough look at the fantasy of exploration and the sexually charged notions of charting (penetrating) a vast unknown (McClintock, 22). McClintock focuses on the development of an imperial visual language in which exhibition making, maps, prints, even soap labels communicate a pervasive white male longing, ego and and fetishzed paranoia surrounding the ‘pornotropics’, as she calls it. One of her main points concerns how this paranoiac visual language entered into the ‘domestic space’ through household labels, or family trees to demand the recognition of a hierarchy in which the ‘aryan class’ reigns supreme (McClintock 38).
What I found interesting was how each text approached the creation of identity from two very different perspectives. Where Mesch writes purely on post-colonial art from the viewpoint of african artists, and paints a general narrative in which art positively endows the artist with autonomy and agency in claiming a space for communicating your own identity, McClintock confronts the viewer with the vast array of visual symbolism Europe used to define another. The latter text is vicious in its critique of colonial symbolism (as it should be), and drives a very different point home in the use of kitsch imagery to construct an identity of (perfect) self and (sub-human) other.
I found both texts to be quite interesting, especially reading them together. I was especially intrigued by McClintock's text, which provided an understanding of colonial symbolism I had long been exposed to but had seen analysed in this way. Concerning Mesch’s text on the other hand I found myself wondering if it went far enough. Postcolonial identity is a tremendously large subject to cover in one chapter, and seemed to paint ‘de’-colonisation’ and ‘post-colonial-identity’ in one big general notion. She did not touch the colonisation of the first nations people in north america for example, which is something that had always been very prevalent for me, having grown up in Canada. I am beginning to wonder if the only point this book is trying to make is that lots of art is political, without considering the depth with which this political language is exercised and received. Perhaps the structure of the book makes it impossible for her not to ‘nutshell’ enormously complex issues. On this I am still undecided.
Claudia Mesch, “Post-Colonial Identity and the Civil-Rights Movement.” Art and Politics. A Small History of Art for Social Change Since 1945. London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2013. 44-67.
Lisette Lagnado. "Anthropophagy as Cultural Strategy: The 24th Bienal de Sao Paulo.” 8-62. Cultural Anthropophagy. The 24th Bienal de Sao Paulo 1998. London: Afterall, 2015. 8-62.