Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 28, 2016
Ian McLean, ed. Double Desire: Transculturation and Indigenous Contemporary Art Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014. 380 pp.; 67 b/w ills. Cloth £52.99 (9781443867436)

The situations debated and analyzed in Double Desire: Transculturation and Indigenous Contemporary Art, edited by Ian McLean, were familiar to me. I was scheduled to give a paper at the 2013 International Symposium on Electronic Art (ISEA) in Sydney on a white South African artist whose work comes from a genealogy of European/American minimalism and abstraction. After some discussion it was decided that my paper should be moved from the panel on experimental art to the panel for Latin American art, because the panel covered art practices “marginal” to the West and my paper was “from Africa.” On the day of the panel, we were informed that two Australian filmmakers had been added to the panel because their films had been rejected from the overall program and they wanted a platform from which to voice their dissent. The (self-identified) Aboriginal artists pointed out that even though ISEA holds its symposia all over the world, organizers rarely make serious commitments to supporting indigenous artists in those locations. Indeed, the artists accused ISEA of cynicism in featuring an “Aboriginal welcome” in the opening of the festival, when they had effectively shut out Aboriginal new-media artists.

It is precisely this marginalization, by accident or by design, which McLean addresses in Double Desire. A collection of fifteen essays, two of which are McLean’s, the volume asks familiar questions and, barring a few sections, leaves a familiar response. The problem as it is regularly posed in the book is one of “inclusion” and whether the terms designed for specificity (Aboriginal, Indigenous, Native, Contemporary, etc.) have exhausted either their analytical usefulness or political capital. Upon completing the book, I wondered how much of the discussion was useful in increasing agency and opportunities for the artists. McLean writes in his introduction, “the authors share a concern to identify and track the agency of indigenous artists in their exchanges with the contemporary world” (3; emphasis in original). This word agency should immediately alert readers that this collection is lead by postcolonial theory’s focus on the author over the artwork. As McLean has written extensively on the history of the Aboriginal art market in the 1980s, including another edited volume entitled How Aborigines Invented the Idea of Contemporary Art: Writings on Aboriginal Contemporary Art 1980–2006 (Sydney: Power Publications, 2011), this book seeks to extend the discussion to the more generic “indigenous” art, thus allowing for more case studies. But this is the problem with Double Desire: parsing the many genealogies of the terms “indigenous” and “contemporary art.”

Double Desire is organized into four sections: “Rules of the Game,” “Relational Agencies,” “Contact Histories,” and “Artworld.” “Rules of the Game” is authored entirely by McLean, serves as an introduction, and is by far the most cogent and useful part of the book. The second section almost entirely engages postcolonial theory and its related literature, focusing on the core issue of agency and power imbalances in the art world. Una Rey writes about the competing claims of feminism and postcolonialism from the point of production and consumption of Native art. An essay by Quentin Sprague takes up one of the first accusations of exploitation to be raised after the Aboriginal art market boom of the 1980s: the power of the dealer. “Contact Histories” shifts to more careful descriptions of the artwork and the problems of its legibility. Finally, “Artworld” attends to the many issues of reception with regards to indigenous art. There are several valuable art-historical essays on individual artists such as Pantjiti Mary McLean, Maria Hupfield, and Gabriel Maralngurra that are useful for scholars, researchers, and teachers of indigenous art.

Throughout the volume, McLean and other authors cite African art as an example of success, as a handful of curators and critics in recent decades changed the terms under which it was debated and it became safely “contemporary.” McLean writes, “While globalism has catapulted Third World art, especially that of its diaspora in the West, into First World contemporary art museums, this is not the case with Indigenous contemporary art. It still awaits its invention” (10). After naming “globalism” as the reason, McLean more explicitly claims that Okwui Enwezor moved African art discourse into “the contemporary.” Enwezor has, for better or for worse, shifted the discourse away from identity and its market-based imperatives toward geopolitics. Moreover, Enwezor has long argued that postcolonialism constitutes the avant-garde today. That is, he preserves the historical avant-garde’s emphasis on self-criticality by transforming narratives of local situations and histories into critiques of the West, an operational postcolonialism. Enwezor, Olu Oguibe, Rasheed Araeen, and others have connected the genealogies of the historical avant-garde and those of African and diasporic artists via the medium of geopolitics; they have become legible. Authors like Anitra Nettleton describe what is lost in this process. Her essay discusses South African wood carvers from rural homelands who surged into the gallery art world at the fall of Apartheid in the 1990s, but quickly wore out their novelty. Enwezor did not include this work in the second Johannesburg Biennale (1997), as he had by then identified a set of criteria for contemporary art, the essential ingredient of which was a neo-Leftist ideal of critique—what Nettleton and many others at the time called “theory.”

Clarifying the relationship between contemporary art and the neo-avant-garde would specify the genealogy of terms used in Double Desire. Invoking the avant-garde in his Documenta 11 essay “The Black Box” allowed Enwezor to make the case not only for the contemporaneity of African art, but its status as the most important contemporary art with a long history found in the independence struggles of the twentieth century. Contemporary African art is, for Enwezor, only populist in the sense of an organized political identity, not a specific cultural coding that has typically characterized definitions of, say, Aboriginal art. From the second Johannesburg Biennale (1997) to The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945–1994 (2001), Enwezor built an apparatus for art criticism that relied on the political subjectivity of Africans as distinct from the West, but which still implicated the West. Indeed, McLean writes, indigenousness, with its suggestion of stability and permanence, was abandoned “as if the very concept stands in the way of thinking the contemporary” (37). Enwezor refused to locate indigeneity in any other place but the artwork itself—indigeneity as a medium. If it is there at all (and McLean mentions that only two artworks in Documenta 11 were “indigenous”), it was as a performance of criticality toward the West. There is, in his model, no place for an indigeneity built on essentialism.

Many essays in Double Desire gesture toward this idea of indigeneity-as-criticality, but most focus on the form/content problem. In some cases, indigeneity is facilitated by something like the Postminimalism of Felix González-Torres, where identity and the art object compete for medium status. Marie Watt’s work with stacked felt, for instance, belongs to a genealogy of mensuration in Minimalism, but the specificity of felt and its status as blanket refers to a cultural code: in this case Seneca. In his essay “Indigenous Minimalism: Native Interventions,” Larry M. Taylor struggles with how to characterize this dichotomy of form and culture, writing about Truman Lowe and Faye HeavyShield that “no matter what form their work took it could not be separated from their Native identity” (148). The ambiguity of Taylor’s statement, its passive tense, characterizes the problem rehearsed throughout the volume. The indigenous artist is conflated with her or his work, but few authors pinpoint who does this work of conflation. McLean’s introductory essay again sets out some of what is at stake and who has naming rights, including the legality of the term “indigenous” in various countries. In all, however, the word indigenous is doing a lot of work in Double Desire, and it is not clear whether it is elastic enough to unite what is a global output of its related art. As just one example, McLean writes that the first instance he knows of the term being used in an art-world context is 1992 in a Canadian exhibition (27). But what of the indigenismo movement in Latin America in the early twentieth century, which language and politics Geeta Kapur adapted in the late 1960s and early 1970s for Indian contemporary art? Again, terminology is both fixed and elastic, and “indigenous” art has a longer history than what is (or could be?) presented here.

And so I was puzzled by David Garneau’s concluding essay, “Indigenous Art: From Appreciation to Art Criticism,” and what was being modeled in terms of art criticism of art from “other” cultures. The last in a section on reception, the essay models an indigenous art criticism that proceeds from “pure” aesthetic enjoyment to educated engagement. The essay contains a rather bizarre passage in which Garneau narrates his experience of indigenous art, sounding like curator Jean-Hubert Martin of Magiciens de la Terre (1989). Garneau writes, “I deliberately avoid reading about this work and the biographies of their makers because I worry that critical knowledge might diminish my aesthetic pleasure. Active not-knowing allows me to use the work for my personal needs” (316). Garneau continues to narrate his Kantian process of judgment as a self correction, writing that to engage indigenous artworks only aesthetically is to “deny their fuller being, to resist the complexity of their makers and their claims” (320). He then discusses why it is important that we understand certain closed cultural codes and to discover the artist. Indeed, Garneau’s implicit argument is that criticality resides in the being of the maker, and it is through her or him that “we,” mainstream audience, receive our correctives.

At the time of Magiciens de la Terre, Benjamin Buchloh criticized Martin’s lack of “self-critical and corrective elements” for the exhibition. That is, if the artwork itself is not avant-garde, then the exhibition/curator/critic should establish its self-reflexivity, to account for how it incorporates its “others.” That problem of locating radicality, or even agreeing upon its cultural or artistic value, is on full display in Double Desire. If African contemporary art has a critical apparatus in place, it is premised on the “de-colonial,” or politically antagonistic, aspect of postcolonialism (with the possible exception of South Africa) that arose from the Independence Decade of the 1960s. Critics and historians of African art in recent years tied its history to the non-Aligned and Marxist movements of the twentieth century, which treated indigenism as a political identity (peasant, proletariat, folk, etc.). In the case of Australia, Canada, South Africa, and the United States, indigenous art has been more a market identity, at least in its circulation since the 1980s. The critical apparatus in those countries places the onus of criticality on the Native artist and her or his entire identity, and it is a heavy burden indeed.

Delinda Collier
Associate Professor, Art History, Theory and Criticism Department, School of the Art Institute of Chicago