Afterall is approaching its twentieth year of publication. Over the last two decades, both the content and the guiding philosophies of the journal have undergone significant change, driven by what has happened to art and its relation to the wider world. This issue is a perfect example of how far Afterall has travelled – and where it finds itself today – drawing much inspiration from a critical understanding of documenta 14, an exhibition that might still take some years to unfold fully.
Without enumerating all the steps along the way, it is obvious that the belated emergence of a new geopolitics in the art world has profoundly affected our discussions within the editorial team. Two decades ago, our map of the art world was largely white and bourgeois. On the one hand, it traced the route of North Atlantic modern and avant-garde legacies to the present. On the other, Afterall upheld a politics critical of social democracy, which had compromised itself in the 1990s. Yet it remained sympathetic to the broad tradition of well-meaning leftism that, at least nominally, dominated the art world. Now, both those positions seem redundant, ruins of a world that was neither desirable nor sustainable, however dark the future might look today. In their place, very little, if any, equivalent ideological force has emerged. Indeed, the idea of replacing Western modern ideology is itself caught in the trap of being a modernist demand. Instead, particularities, specificities and exceptions have emerged to construct a pattern in which respect for difference is fundamental. These changes cross the old left-right divisions of the modern political project – identity politics has purchase on people who would self-identify as left or right, and personal allegiances set the tone in most cultural debates. Demands to be heard by indigenous or national group cultures can represent liberation from North Atlantic imperial projects in Canada, Catalonia or Scotland and at the same time serve as a shield for white, male, conservative privilege in Britain, Spain or the United States. Amidst all this shifting ground, there are new alliances and treaties constantly being made and unmade. Individualism is hailed by libertarians and exploited by precarious capitalism, yet individual bodies are under enormous psychological and commercial pressure to make choices about how and with whom they want to associate themselves and to what collective sense of belonging they would like to adhere.
These confused and conflicted patterns of the present are what Afterall tries uncertainly to map in its choices of artists, writers and topics. In this issue, two artists who both have long histories of struggle with modern art and modern/colonial patterns of thought are given substantial space. Rasheed Araeen is undoubtedly one of the artists who has done the most to force the British art world to be aware of its imperial and white supremacist instincts. Nizan Shaked and Nick Aikens outline the way in which Araeen’s work, as an artist addressing and modifying Euro-modern aesthetics, is exemplary; and, in defining his role in publishing and commissioning texts considered unpublishable by the guardians of the modern art narrative, has been slowly but ultimately transformative of the Anglo-context. Rebecca Belmore, from a younger generation and with an impressive practice behind her, has also faced the struggle for recognition, as an Anishinaabe artist working in a white settler region. She has maintained an agonistic relationship to her official government, skilfully unpacked in cheyanne turions's survey and Julia Bryan- Wilson’s close study of Biinjiya’iing Onji (From Inside, 2017). This work was an example of a pivotal contribution to the ambitions of the documenta 14 exhibition, as was the extensive project comprising paintings, reading room and soup kitchen by Araeen. The last edition of Europe’s quinquennial mega-exhibition successfully captured the peculiarly introspective discomfort of Europe’s cultural condition, in which nostalgia, anxiety and feelings of ethnic superiority vie for supremacy. Documenta's relations beyond the North Atlantic, addressed in Anthony Gardner’s thoughtful text, is one of the few considerations of the exhibition to take the curators at their word rather than condemn them for things the market or the modern establishment wanted it to be.
What it would mean to decolonise Europe has become an increasingly urgent and vituperative question over the last few years. While decolonising in Europe might initially mean a coming to terms with the crimes of the many unwelcome white occupations, a renewed awareness of internal colonisations within the continent (is Europe really a continent?) is building all the time. This issue considers the state of play in the art world and its institutions in Albania, Scotland and Portugal: three ‘countries’ with ambiguous pasts having to define themselves against aggressive neighbours while sharing in their imperialist conquests. Alec Finlay writes about the lost opportunity of Scottish independence, something close to my heart, while Ana Teixeira Pinto analyses the recent cultural politics of Lisbon as a new destination of choice for the mobile artist class. In his text, Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei takes us on a fascinating investigation of the political motivations of Anri Sala and his relation to political power both before and after the fall of communism. All accounts are rather hopeless in the face of British neo-imperialism, fluid capitalism and the requirement to conform to corrupted democracy, but they provide the basis for a critique whose time might yet be coming around the corner. More prospective, perhaps because an independent culture has survived against Nordic state policy for much longer in Sápmi, is the work of Britta Marakatt-Labba, another artist featured in documenta 14 and whose trajectory as an artist is animatedly discussed by Anders Kreuger and Gunvor Guttorm. Beyond Europe, the pressure from the world that was occupied and exploited after 1492 grows ever stronger as economic globalisation affects cultural institutions and actors everywhere. As documenta 14 showed, there are more and more voices ready to enter the closed cultural sphere of the North Atlantic platforms; the question is, what do they find when they arrive? Simon Soon’s essay on Yee I-Lann, an artist who should have been in documenta 14 and is certainty a major cultural figure in Malaysia, and for global feminism generally, is a vital example of listening to a voice that needs to be heard if a global rebalancing can find some traction in the cultural field.
As the state seeks to withdraw its support from culture, the imperialist confidence of the liberal bastions of North Atlantic culture is taking a hit. No longer underwritten by governmental aspirations to prove their nations's civilised credentials, cultural institutions of all kinds are thrown into the hands of private patronage, or forced to seek survival through generating direct financial returns in the market. This pressure to find new economic justifications for their existence is at the same time being challenged by incompatible political forces coming at them from opposite directions. On the one side are new internationalist decolonising/demodernising reformers looking for different ways to repurpose historical narratives and redirect the way power flows through the institutions. On the other hand, the new ‘alt-right’ is growing more persuasive and sees the cultural field as a vital battleground on which to win a new generation for ethnic nationalism. In this fraught field, opinions diverge and former allies fall out. We see some of those lines emerging in the conversation between Walter D. Mignolo and Wanda Nanibush, an exchange originating in Mignolo’s essay about European indigeneity in a recent issue of Afterall. Finally, in a wonderfully paced essay by Tonika Sealy Thompson and Stefano Harney, we can clearly perceive the cracks opening even wider in those liberal cultural institutions as they try to bridge the chasms opening up between their tainted histories, uninspiring futures and the refusal to engage with them by people who simply want to try to gather and read together in the ‘Afro-Asian century’ ahead – a time and place that can never be expected to tolerate the culture that the North Atlantic consensus still vainly wants to maintain.