Decolonisation in the 2020s
Victoria Noorthoorn
Three Attempts to Decolonise the South

This devastating pandemic has thrown social, economic and cultural differences into the sharpest relief, as it has the strategies that determine one group’s domination over another under the colonialist logics still operating in our societies. Attached to these markers, which are often dismissed as essentialising, we find a number of logics and processes that profoundly affect the running of any modern art museum regarding itself as ‘contemporary’ and responsive to the prevailing climate at any given historical moment.1

Over the years, the Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires’s wide-ranging research into artistic movements and the individual practices of Argentinian artists, historical and contemporary, have shown time and time again that we can only offer a space for art to resonate in if we challenge the inequalities inherent in the original colonial outlook. This perspective is reproduced – rather than redressed – in the establishment of equivalences between modernity and westernisation, multiculturalism and globalisation, or in the postulation of a still hypothetical ‘Global South’ to balance a well-established ‘Global North’. At the core of any conceivable process of decolonisation lies the need to question any idea of superiority, precedence or teleology that places the West above the East, the North above the South, or establishes the West or the North as a goal or ideal towards which the East or South should strive. This does not entail denying the effects of these social processes on human and hence artistic experience but, quite the reverse, results in making them visible and problematic. This is our concern with the current running of the Museum in Buenos Aires, as we strive to make it an agent of the present, furthering the emancipation of artistic thought in numerous exhibitions (an average of ten a year), as well as educational and social programmes (about fifty schemes designed to meet the needs of our diverse audiences). All of this urgently requires us to throw off the old shackles and redefine priorities in response to the current climate and, more immediately, the emergency we are living through.

[Description: Panoramic installation view of the gallery at the Museum de Art de São Paulo. Rectangular cement bricks hold rows of glass walls up with framed works suspended on them. The gallery walls are made of up windows.]
Museu de Arte de São Paulo, 1970. Photograph: Eduardo Ortega. Courtesy MASP

Over the years, we at the Museo Moderno have redefined our priorities and mission, which states our ambition ‘to be a point of reference for Argentinian modern and contemporary art, and for the relationship between art and education in the city, the region and the world, while remaining a museum for all: a federal, inclusive and accessible museum that defends the values of gender equality and freedom of expression across a wide array of disciplines’. This emphasis on the importance of the local and the need to provide an immediate response to our context is the logical result of a process of historiographical revision that has taken three complementary paths:

  1. It contests the idea of a dominant, precursory canon of modern Euro-North American art, as in the exhibition ‘A Tale of Two Worlds’,2 which sought to bring out the originary character of Latin American art practices as innovative, complex and central to much of twentieth-century art, and so establish a possible art history that repositions Euro-American practices as a function of and in dialogue with Latin American practices. This inverts – or at least relativises and questions – the programmatic narrative defined by a stream of ‘-isms’ that contribute little to any understanding of the strength and power of art, which in fact arises out of a vital need to respond to specific contexts and draws its power from the voices and gestures of local artists.3 ‘A Tale of Two Worlds’ is just one of ten international exhibitions that have been staged at the Museo Moderno since 2013, invariably curated in-house and foregrounding a revisionist approach.
  2. It calls on the power of local artistic narratives from across Argentina’s different regions over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as in the exhibition ‘Una historia de la imaginación en la Argentina’ [‘A History of the Imagination in Argentina’](2019). This included some 250 works from public and private collections ranging across the Northwest, the Pampas and the Littoral. The central curatorial themes were defined by our Senior Curator, Javier Villa, as follows:

Might we forget the structure of -isms, periods, aesthetics and strategies that has rooted itself in Argentine art? Or even suspend our own ideas about them? Put to one side the anthropophagy about which we were once so enthused as though we were cannibals, but which is now boring – of more interest to Europeans, it seems, than to us, and especially to followers of post-colonialism? What would happen if we suddenly became conservative and spoke about tradition, or a national identity? We might at least try it: in the South we’re in no danger of becoming fascists simply because we want to talk about ourselves. The second idea we had about this exhibition was to pretend that the canons and categories of art we inherited from modernist Europe were a kind of disease and that the only way to combat them was to inoculate ourselves with a weakened form, as a kind of vaccine.4

The exhibition was curated with the preoccupation of delving into knowledge about the numerous localities in Argentina, a country that, back in the nineteenth century, when this nation-state was being built, privileged the centrality and domination of Buenos Aires, and replicated colonialist strategies of domination within our country. Determined to deconstruct centralist historiographical accounts, the approach of the Moderno’s curatorial team working on this exhibition was, in the words of Javier Villa, as follows:

The story told drew not so much on the history of art, but on the fictions to be found in Argentine literature and what the artworks and landscapes themselves had to say. We didn’t set out in search of the grand masters we were already familiar with, to ‘discover’ overlooked or forgotten artists like colonisers, or to ‘salvage’ them like imperialists. We wanted to learn, with a view to bringing back things with which the people who come to visit us in Buenos Aires would be unfamiliar. We thought about the need to establish a new, more inclusive definition of ‘us’, a sense of belonging in a contemporary context in which violence and exclusion haven’t yet been banished to the dustbin.

[. . .]

[T]hese territories were and still are fields of struggle. The land is also a cemetery on which Argentinians have been killing each other for centuries: Europeans and Indigenous peoples, Federalists and Unitarians, dictators and their subjects, rich and poor, men and women. This tragic history appears in the exhibition because it is an important part of the story that we must evaluate. A History… uses the past to immerse itself in the present. How do we re-interpret the Indigenous genocides today? Where do we place our dead [. . .]? How might the female body, the captive body that is both a trophy and geopolitical focal point, abused, raped and murdered time and again by men and institutions be re-evaluated?5

3. It roots every one of our curatorial, educational and social actions in our local context with the aim, on the one hand, of responding to the challenges of the current climate and, on the       other, of building up an archive of the present around the works, ideas and reflections of Argentina’s art community.6

This emphasis on the importance of locality has characterised our program since 2013. We at the Moderno have been determined to bring visibility to the widest generational range of Argentinian artists, with 65 exhibitions of Argentinian artists opening since then, as a form of poetic justice in a local context that has neglected to provide its own artists with the necessary institutional support for decades.

Today, faced with the COVID-19 pandemic and after building a programme that foregrounds what is local, we find ourselves in a position of relative strength and readiness to withstand its challenges. Accustomed as we are to our programming not being reliant on international art haulage and our box-office on the glamour of big names in the global ecosystem, the major challenges we have had to face were, on the one hand, the upsetting closure of the museum, lasting seven long months from March to October 2020 and, on the other, the search for various ways of tackling the immense fragility of social bonds, deeply rooted as they are in relations of domination, which the pandemic has left even more exposed.

Faced with closure, we developed at light-speed the digital programme #MuseoModernoEnCasa (Museo Moderno at Home) to provide robust support for the Argentinian art community, as well as families and teachers at home, producing content that allowed us to address questions and issues around this troubled present. Surprisingly, the total of twenty virtual programmes that we have been able to produce thus far brought us closer to artists throughout Argentina, from Jujuy to Tierra del Fuego, and our commitment to locality redoubled our attention to and research into the needs of artists throughout the territory. One of the resulting programmes, #PaísImaginado (Imagined Country), with 23 artists selected from all 23 provinces of Argentina, reminded us of how far we still had to go before we could consider ourselves truly representative, and set our museum the great challenge – still pending – of becoming more federal and reversing the centralism referred to above.

Another chilling void was created when, on 31 May 2020, just six days after the murder of George Floyd, a further brutal act of police violence occurred right here in Argentina, in Fontana, Chaco Province, when officers from Precinct 3 of the Banderas Argentinas neighbourhood stormed a house in the Q’om ndigenous community and beat and tortured its occupants, arresting and sexually abusing them. The victims were doused with alcohol and, to cries of ‘infected Indians,’ threatened with being set alight.7 In comparison to the mass global outcry at the murder of George Floyd, the silence of the Argentinian media at these brutal crimes committed in our own territory sounded alarm bells among our team.

Until then, the museum had practised politicised curatorship, though without denouncing local events. That day, we understood that all our efforts to remain relevant and respond to our various different audiences – through programmes linking art to education, including teacher-training programmes (attended by 7,000 docents per year), accessibility schemes, joint mental health programmes with hospitals, work on the autism spectrum, and all the programmes we devote to social inclusion and reparations for human rights abuses – only made sense if we adopted an outspoken institutional stance towards the extreme conjunction of the COVID-19 pandemic and the violations of individual and collective human rights perpetrated in its midst.

With these convictions, we set about preparing the #SobreRacismos [On Racisms] programme, which we presented from 21 September to 11 October 2020. Addressing the topic of racism in a country that perceives itself to be anti-racist meant, first and foremost, making the existence of the problem visible. We commissioned a research firm to conduct a study on racism in Argentina, the main conclusion being that Argentinians recognise the seriousness of racism in our country but do not see themselves as racist: it is always someone else who we believe practises discrimination, rather than ourselves. We called on Fabiola Heredia, Director of the Museo de Antropología, Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, Argentina, to advise us from a sociological standpoint regarding approaches to the artistic content proposed by artists nationwide so that we could understand more fully the complexity and consequences of every statement we made about the subject. Lastly, we called on artists to speak directly about the hierarchical value chains associated with identities, and to share with the museum works in which they describe and denounce the behaviours, gestures and practices associated with these chains, as well as their reflections on the forms taken by the social production of racism today.

The result was the programme of aesthetic and political contents that we entitled ¿Soy racista? [Am I Racist?].8 In it, we asked ourselves:

How do the many forms of racism operate among and within us here and
now? What happens when we enunciate race? There have been numerous theoretical
attempts to define it in terms of multiculturalism and diversity. But these concepts
conceal the way the various markers of social difference operate in the processes that
make racism invisible. Is it possible to build identities and identifications outside social
markers which become essentialised through their use in biologically reductive or culturalist arguments? What does it mean in contemporary societies to be Indigenous or white or Black or a woman or trans? How to recognise ourselves without simplifying the
complexity of what we are?

Just as racism in our context is made invisible, silenced and repurposed to continue operating in other ways, the same is true of certain works that exhibit processes of exclusion based on corporal reductions and phenotypes. This is because, while racism is associated with the contempt prompted by ethnic identities, these are latitudinally enmeshed with and expressed by such other forms of social differentiation as gender, class or religious affiliation. In this context, to speak of ‘racisms’ implies making visible all situations of discrimination and denigration that perpetuate colonialist power relations.

In conclusion, there are three strategies whereby the Museo Moderno strives to implement a revisionist practice of colonialism in Argentina:

  1. The curatorship of exhibitions and programmes that present both local and international artistic practices, yet always seek to reformulate these from a decolonial viewpoint centring on the Latin American South and rejecting the possibility of presenting ‘canned’ products from abroad.
  2. An obsessive insistence on the importance of local art in all its historical and contemporary expressions and all its federal complexity.
  3. Unremitting research aimed at problematising the dualities of centre-periphery, north-south, capital-province, white-Indigenous, which even today continue to replicate colonial structures of social and cultural hierarchy in our societies.

It is therefore vital to establish where the emphasis is placed in these dualities, and where hegemonies are wielded, if we are to reverse such emphases in a propositional and provocative way. If we do this, we can not only make visible how our societies crystallise around such polarities but also, in that act of reversal, act as agents that foster, incite and provoke the existence of other worlds.

Buenos Aires, 1 February 2021
Translated by Ian Barnett