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Creating a New Aesthetics for a Decolonial World

Artists, scholars collaborate on workshop and exhibit looking at the cultural legacy of colonial rule

In a new gallery deep in the old art museum building on East
Campus, an exhibit of works from international artists provides a visual
representation of some of the most significant humanities scholarship at Duke
and beyond.

"Decolonial Aesthetics" takes its name from a
phrase coined by Walter Mignolo, William H. Wannamaker Professor of Literature and
director of Duke's Institute for Global Studies and the Humanities. It refers
to the idea that political, scholarly and artistic beliefs such as freedom and
creativity are deeply bound with Western aesthetics, cutting off non-Western
cultures from their own history and knowledge.

To Mignolo and others, concepts such as nationalism that
were born of European experience are "double-edged" swords for people
in Asia, Africa and Latin America, allowing these people to oppose Western
hegemony but limiting the development of their own indigenous institutions. Too
often, the result has been autocratic regimes replicating the political culture
of the colonial rulers.

The Decolonial project, Mignolo said, is a manifesto calling
for non-Western artists and thinkers to transform art, sensibility and politics
and reclaim them as part of their own culture. 

Decolonial Art

looking for a husband
Hong video

Art from the Jameson Gallery:

Top: Tanja Ostojic: Looking for a Husband with an EU Passport.

Bottom: Hong-An Truong. Still from "Furniture to Aid in the Viewing of the Lover."

The international artists in the new exhibit make their own
contributions.  One common theme in
the Duke exhibit is identity and invisibility.  In one video in the exhibit, called "Black Magic at the
White House," a barely visible black dancer moves across the stately
courtroom of Marienborg, a magnificent Danish building built by a financier
with ties to the slave and sugar trade. 

In another exhibit, Serbian artist Tanja Ostojic's
"Looking for a Husband With a European Union Passport," the artist details
the events that occurred when she placed a personal ad looking for a husband in
Western European media.

The exhibit, which will run through June 20, is tied to a
workshop held at Duke May 4-6. 
Mignolo and more than two dozen international artists and scholars
discussed how to move non-Western cultures toward a future where ideas of
democracy and art have moved beyond Western concepts.

Mignolo said the workshop and exhibit was a follow-up to a
November 2010 exhibit on "Decolonial Aesthetics" in Bogota, Colombia,
which he co-curated with Pedro Pablo Gomez and Maria Elvira Ardila.

"The Duke conference and exhibit exceeded expectations,
without exaggeration," Mignolo said. 
"This workshop is community building of intellectuals, scholars,
artists, activists. The intensity, camaraderie, collaboration, intellectual and
political engagement across the globe from Vietnam, Korea and Taiwan to the
South American Andes and the Caribbean, to Eastern and Black Europe, was just
flabbergasting. All these people across the globe are connected by a common
experience: coloniality.

"Even if local histories are different, modernity and
coloniality are embedded in their life, in the way they feel racism and
disavowal. There are differences of scale, but the experience of coloniality
and the imposition of modernity touches all of them deeply."

Tying the workshop discussion to an art exhibit fits with
the scholars' interest in using a variety of approaches.  Just as scholars, artists and writers currently
work together in Duke's Haiti Lab, Mignolo and others said they wanted the
event to be a true "exchange."

"The Center for Global Studies is changing the academic
structure of a conference to a more collaborative way of 'inter-disciplinarity'
in which thought, history, visual, sound and sense are part of new ways of
knowledge production," said Miguel Rojas Sotelo, academic events
coordinator at Duke's Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies and one
of the workshop organizers.

Sotelo said the artists have the same intention, using a
variety of visual media to show connections from "footages of colonial
Taiwan, to visions of future in Mexico and Colombia."

More is to come. 
Mignolo said a second event on a parallel theme will be held at Duke
next year and a larger international event in two to three years. Several
websites, exhibits and publications are planned to build the collaboration
between scholars and artists. And a four-volume collection of works by scholars
and artists on "Decolonial Aesthetics" will bring together the
variety of efforts in one work.