Nations Seeking Form

Jacques Villeglé, "OUI" - Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, 1958 - © Private Collection, Courtesy Galerie GPS N Vallois, Paris

Jacques Villeglé, "OUI" - Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, 1958 - © Private Collection, Courtesy Galerie GPS N Vallois, Paris

“Nationalism” is a word that has been in constant motion during the postwar period. In this sense the concept of nation, like nationalism, has generated considerable reflection through which to understand particular formations of cultural and social identity and the political communities in which they are founded. Benedict Anderson has used the notion of “imagined communities” to describe the shifting currents of ideas of the nation and nationalism. In his groundbreaking study on these two concepts, he offers a crucial insight when he asks us to consider “the political power of nationalisms versus their philosophical poverty and even incoherence.” Given the unhealthy history of nationalism in the twentieth century — especially its misuse and abuse in places like Germany and Japan during World War II — it is all the more necessary to carefully consider the figure of the nation in the context of this exhibition section, “Nations Seeking Form.”

Artists in the U.S. and Europe often declined to align themselves with their national governments, which had proven corrupt and militaristic. Nationalism had a different valence for artists in countries that had newly struggled for and won independence, such as Iraq, Cuba, China, India and Pakistan, Israel, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Nigeria, Senegal, and South Africa. For this reason, those artists sought cultural forms to articulate and represent new national identities.

Nigerian artists, for example, played institutional and governmental roles, through personal commitment to national independence and the role of culture in establishing identity. Ben Enwonwu and Uzo Egonu represented African masks and instruments in what appears to be a critique of the European appropriation of such imagery. In Egypt, Gazbia Sirry depicted the martyrdom of Egyptians at the hands of the British occupiers, thereby also linking the Egyptian condition to the oppression of African Americans (whose movement for civil rights, informing the work of Jack Whitten and others, could take on a nationalist coloration).

The struggle to define what was truly national in identity, for example, in the debate between those who advocated discarding cultural tradition in the effort to become both independent and modern, and those who saw indigenous identity as central to their new national identity. In Southeast Asia, the choice would be described as one of East versus West, with “the West” representing Europe, the future, education, and technological progress; and “the East” representing indigenous knowledge, non-Western identity, the past, and tradition. While India’s nationalist movement fought against Western colonialism, many Indians saw the same West as the future. How, then, to support locally distinctive cultural self-confidence? Artists in the Progressives group that flourished in the years after Indian independence in 1947 found different solutions: Francis Souza, who depicted the biblical figures in his works as dark-skinned, even entirely black, achieved success among British critics, who compared his work to that of Francis Bacon. Maqbool Fidal Husain, in contrast, stayed in India as his peers left: “They said you can’t grow as an artist in India, and that I should join them, but luckily I was married, so I think for that reason I couldn’t go! My main concern was Indian culture, so I took that route.” Husain’s work celebrated Hindu deities, albeit in their visual rather than religious aspects.

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