‘History is not the past, it is the present’, states James Baldwin in Raoul Peck’s poignant documentary I Am Not Your Negro(2016). Quoted in the comparative essay by Karen Alexander that draws parallels between two film-makers of different generations, Peck (Haiti) and Steve McQueen (UK), Baldwin’s words capture the core of this Afterall issue. Conceived in Singapore – collectively by the editorial team – and traversing different geographies and contexts, from Southeast Asia to The Americas, this issue is a tour de force into artistic practices taking a clear position against the long-lasting endurance of oppressive systems, be it racial, patriarchal or colonial.
It is little known that the invention of race goes back to the age of Enlightenment, in particular to the work of botanist and naturalist Carl Linneaus who marked race as a classificatory tool of biological difference across humankind. Loaded with social prejudices since its formulation, the idea of race served colonial exploitations while validating European superiority. In 1992, during his time in London, the Singaporean artist Lee Wen started his iconic work, the performance series Journey of the Yellow Man, an exploration of identity and representation. The Yellow Man, as Alice Ming Wai Jim suggests, performs the explicit. He performs the racialisation of labour, harking back to the colonial figure of the coolie up to the present-day migrant worker subjected to labour coercion and anti-foreigner sentiments. He performs the racialisation of the body within a global discourse – including modern-day Orientalism – through the multitude of connotations ascribed to yellow in different contexts where the Yellow Man journeyed. From the exterior space of performance art, Võ H`ong Chu'o'ng-Đai turns attention to the interior space of notebooks and sketchbooks as traces of Lee Wen’s performative practice. It is in his drawings and studies that Lee Wen’s colour-based expression of the body at the intersection between the natural and social landscape first emerges. Within the legacy of colonial violence, the French-Algerian artist Kader Attia explores the practice of repair as a form of healing the racialised subject. Giovanna Zapperi analyses such practices in several works by the artist as well in the activity of his independent art space, La Colonie, established in 2015 in Paris in the midst of increasing racism and Islamophobia. As Hannah Gregory explains, for Attia the methodology of repair informed by Asian and African practices, implies the visibility, the exposure of the gesture giving the damaged object or the injured body a new life rather than a return to the original state.
A form of revision in the practice of the Russian collective Chto Delat (What is to be done?) is analysed by Simon Sheikh through Perestroika Timeline (2009), a work that thematically and conceptually addresses the possibilities of reconstruction, the original meaning in Russian of this reform movement that marked the Soviet Union’s last decade. A trope of historicisation in contemporary art, the timeline became a tool for writing alternative histories and representing suppressed narratives. As with Group Material’s timelines based on a heterogenous collection of events, Chto Delat mixes registers and references while distinctively introducing a speculative approach to history. Asking what could have happened in the post-communist space rather than what has happened, the hurried embrace of neoliberal order, is an exercise of reimagining the future as a question, to which as Sheikh concludes, there cannot be an answer. Chto Delat works within the ethos of perestroika as a concept of reform of socialist politics, argues Irmgard Emmelhainz, who explores how collectivity is not only an organising principle of their practice, but also a form of artistic experimentation. While addressing Chto Delat’s engagement with the Zapatista radical movement in Mexico, Emmelhainz underscores what has been overlooked in this context: collectivity, as a form of political resistance, is an expression of decolonisation.
In the long-standing practice of the Bolivian collective Mujeres Creando, decolonisation is also a battle against patriarchy as claimed in their manifesto. It is a battle they fight through miscellaneous tools (radio, workshops, legal advice services, interventions, graffiti, etc.) whether outdoors in the streets or in the house they operate. Three members of the collective – Danitza Luna, María Galindo and Yolanda Mamani define in a casual conversation with Max Jorge Hinderer Cruz and Pablo Lafuente – the feminist struggle as a daily practice of social engagement, but also joy, opposing the view of struggle as sacrifice. ‘Our revenge is being happy.’ Defying expectations is also a layer in the practices of three Moana women artists: Natasha Matila-Smith, Janet Lilo and Edith Amituanai surveyed by Lana Lopesi. Working beyond identity politics, such artists develop their work within a wider debate of experience in the physical and digital space. As a strategy of resistance to essentialist approaches and international trends, but also local dubious manoeuvres, one might choose to become an outsider within and beyond their context. This is a position outlined in the context of the Myanmar art scene, which Yin Ker approaches through the voices and experiences of four Burmese artists: Po Po, Tun Win Aung, Wah Nu and Min Thein Sung.
Essentialist claims are also unravelled by Sven Lütticken in a cultural double bind. On the one hand is Cultural Marxism, a conspiracy theory appropriating and simplifying ideas emerging from the Frankfurt School to oppose any perceived threat to Western values. Tracing the mediatic evolution of the alt-right that embraces Cultural Marxism, Lütticken highlights how early manifestations of online harassment and hate speech, instilled with misogyny and racism, paved the path to the nowadays mainstream far-right. On the other hand, forms of reductive culturalisation often performed on the political Left grant culture only a symbolic function while also serving conservative rhetorics.
When the American artist Lorraine O’Grady performed as Mlle Bourgeoise Noire in the 1980s, interrupting and intervening in art openings, often uninvited, she also exposed a double bind. Dressed in a costume made of 180 pairs of white gloves, the artist pointed critique, as Bridget R. Cooks remarks, at the system of racially motivated exclusions in the art world, but also the surrender of experimentation by many Black artists as an entry ticket into such elitist circles. That was for O’Grady, art with ‘white gloves on’, an act of withdrawal from intervening within the social norms of the art world and denouncing its injustices.