Keynote Lecture by Geeta Kapur at Haus der Kunst, 14 October 2016
Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965, curated by Okwui Enwezor with Katy Siegel and Ulrich Wilmes, is premised on the material history of the postwar decades. The exhibition intervenes in the discipline of art history and with established museum itineraries. Almost 400 artworks from around 60 countries are divided into 8 themes and placed on level ground. This might suggest a community of artists settled into coexistence within the broad parameters of modernism. The exhibition, however, compresses this inclusive history to such a degree that it implodes – and lays bare uneven terrain: disparate sites, conditions and means of (art) production. In continuation of his other major curatorial interventions, Enwezor will have begun this project with a defined methodology for historical investigation. And a political position that is partisan but not sectarian; committed yet comprehensive.
I extrapolate on Enwezor’s positionality in my own (manifesto-like) terms:
To refuse a historicist account yet historicize – against the grain;
That is, to historicize with and through contradictions,
And allow the contradictions to be relayed across a mode of recursive narration.
To mark the rhythm of recursive narration with declared disjunctures,
And to construct an art history from this material.
To structure the exhibition (this exhibition) as a field of enquiry and as a series of encounters,
And convert this phenomenological experience into discourse.
To then set aside discourse and come (again) to the means and materials of production that shape (art) practice.
To thereby recognize the materialist undergirding of this historical method – but without overdetermining the aesthetic.
The curators have paid attention to the continuity of genres; to figurative and abstract, material and conceptual, avant-garde and rear-guard positions. But not as an academic exercise. The genres configured in the democratic space of this exhibition acknowledge the condensation of idea–image–form in modernist art, but encircle and loop through modernist formalism. Humanism, Realism (as in Raymond Williams or John Berger) or (more complicatedly) Nationalism (national/communitarian imaginaries) re-enter the itinerary of art movements, but with the intent to set up complementary, even contradictory, connections with Concretism, Matters of Form, and Formlessness. Such disalignment breaks the institutionalized incantation, the now notorious meta-narrative of Western modernism – but from within a recuperative and fully viable art-historical understanding gained from positioning the interlocutor at different vantage points. This democratic comprehensiveness is the opposite of curatorial conceit; it is a commitment to see the history of art in conjunction with the history of humanity – a proposition that is humble, self-evident and audacious.
The War and its Aftermath
The Holocaust and the Second World War devastate Europe, Britain and the USSR. This is history engraved with trauma. Its expression in philosophy and the arts, including especially literature and cinema, is profound. Modernity now shapes an ontology around trauma and offers this as the ‘universal’ language of postwar modernism. Another aftermath takes place in Japan and Asia: the surrender of fascist Japan; the use of the atomic bomb by the USA; Hiroshima/Nagasaki; the death and mutilation of generations of Japanese. The war ends in 1945. But all of Asia burns – with wounds inflicted by the Japanese empire and the persistence of Western powers now seeking to alleviate their war-torn economies through colonial extraction. In its last phase, European colonialism takes a decade and more to withdraw. By inducting colonized populations from Asia and Africa into the war (in India, a ‘volunteer’ army of two-and-a-half million soldiers are recruited to fight for the Allies), Europe ignites further resistance: the 1942 ‘Quit India’ call issued to the British by the Gandhi-led Congress Party sets the pace for India’s independence in 1947.
Decolonization and the Cold War
A very large number of Asian and African countries gain their independence between 1945 and 1965. But while the postwar period must be memorialized for a quickening of the decolonization process, it also stirs up internal violence all across Asia and Africa. Consider the states of India and Pakistan: 200,000 or more people are massacred and 14 million displaced in one of the largest mass migrations in human history at the eve of independence in 1947. Similarly, African countries gain independence in quick succession in the 1960s, but the continent is engulfed by wars: against the colonizers, especially the French and the Portuguese; but also territorial conflicts and communal massacres, civil wars and coups. There is political voluntarism and ideological struggle between ethnic, nationalist and socialist leaders as they try to define the nation-state and a democratically disposed citizenry.
In a world so fraught and turbulent, the rise of superpowers, with the US at the head of the NATO coalition and the USSR leading the socialist bloc, is not surprising. Equipped with nuclear weaponry, the positions of the Cold War players congeal into bitter hostility as they hold the world hostage. Many of the civil wars in Asia and Africa involve the superpowers. A partisan position will argue that at least with respect to the decolonization process, the socialist countries (from the USSR to the revolutionary state of Cuba) support liberation struggles, while the European and American forces provoke conflict in continuation of a colonial past and neo-imperialist agendas.
In West Asia, the mapping of Israel, undertaken in 1948 by the Anglo-European mandate and its subsequent militarization with US help, dispossesses Palestine. The 6-Day war with Egypt in 1967 mutates across the Arab world involving one country after another. There are internecine conflicts and wars of attrition that flare up across West Asia including Iran. These are ruthlessly fuelled by Western interests in the oil resources of the region. Even those West Asian countries that have developed economies and modernized institutions disintegrate. There is a hardening of sectarian politics within Islam and a steady rise of religious fundamentalism. From the 1960s till today, the devolution of West Asia into a war zone must weigh on the world’s conscience as a systematically provoked tragedy.
In Asia, the tearing apart of North and South Korea is contiguous with the wars in Indo-China. The example of Vietnam establishes how the Cold War, in the hands of US imperialism, is ready to annihilate a small peasant country with weapons of mass destruction. Ravaged for almost two decades, Vietnam defeats America – with help from Russia and China, no doubt, but with unimaginable courage and suffering of its own people. Vietnam is a miracle of the Third World.
The USA’s super-imperialism is most belligerent in Latin America: it supports military or rightwing coups and stages a parade of puppet regimes that suppress revolutionary movements across the continent. It is the Latin American intelligentsia, including artists, who, in opposing US-supported dictatorships, make brilliant moves in art, literature and cinema, and demonstrate better than all other ‘developing’ countries what we might mean by the politics of aesthetics in the Third World.
The Third World
Given the Cold War, solidarity among the newly liberated nations is predicated on a passionate plea for sovereignty. Pan-Asian, pan-Arab and pan-African dreams now develop into the largest Afro–Asian conference, attended by 29 newly independent countries. The Bandung Conference (April 1955) is hosted by Sukarno of Indonesia and has a strong Southeast Asian tenor. Despite ideological doubts, even Zhou Enlai of China attends the conference. Bandung develops into the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM, 1961), led by India’s Jawaharlal Nehru along with Sukarno, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. This time, Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia hosts the conference in Belgrade. Representatives of 25 countries from across Asia and Africa participate. NAM becomes the political face of the Third World.
Thence the Tricontinental Conference in Havana (1966); and the largest ever solidarity conference, of the Organization of Solidarity of the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America (OSPAAAL). 500 representatives of some 82 countries including independent governments, national liberation movements, leftists and guerrillas attend. This is an emphatically anti-imperialist congregation. Mehdi Ben Barka, Moroccan socialist leader and a prime organizer of the event, is kidnapped and killed just before the conference. Amongst the delegates are Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Chile’s Salvador Allende and Amílcar Cabral from Guinea-Bissau. ‘Che’ Guevara, their beloved comrade, to be murdered by the US a year later, sends a message.
Decolonization processes across Asia and Africa necessitate the claim to sovereignty. This is sought to be realized through the constitution of democratic republics where governments of the new nation-states commit to carry out planned development and infrastructural modernization in the name of the people. The populace – as an enfranchised polity – is viewed in terms of the socialist model (undergoing crucial revisions after the death of Stalin); but there are other statist models that are seen to advance liberal and progressivist coherence in a multi-‘national’ country. And there are communitarian models derived from traditional, tribal and peasant formations which are sought to be activated under a benign nationhood.
If the pledge of decolonization is a promise of sovereignty, let me suggest the complexity of this concept with the example of India (from where I speak more confidently). Modernity here is framed by the poet Rabindranath Tagore in universal, non-nationalist terms; Gandhi’s ethics of non-violent resistance, civil disobedience and a communitarian social order are posited in anti-modern and anti-state terms. Nehru’s modernity is progressivist and premised on the principle of a developmental nation-state; the jurist Ambedkar makes self-determination an insurrectionary claim for the caste-oppressed population of India. The Indian communist movement (beginning 1920s and realigned in the 1960s into three main parties) goes underground in periods of state repression, but the communists (barring the ultra-left groups) also participate in the country’s parliamentary democracy.
I am arguing that the Third World is not a mere deduction from the bilateral Cold War. In its precipitate moments the ‘third’ is a political alternative; it is also a long-lasting trope – as, for instance, when precolonial traditions are recalibrated to claim diverse styles of cultural modernity.
The politics and poetics of Negritude, formulated by the Caribbean poet Aimé Césaire, and in Africa by the poet-statesman Léopold Senghor who virtually makes this a national cultural mandate for Senegal and, arguably, for the pan-African movement.
The startling concept of Anthropophagy – a term translated as cannibalism by the Brazilian avant-garde of the 1920s and invoked thereafter as a conceptual trope: to invert the shame projected upon the colonized, and to radicalize the discourse around postcolonial identity.
The civilizational aura in the pan-Arab imaginary with claims to rational and transcendent knowledge – articulated, for instance, in the aesthetics of calligraphy and thence to a form of (linguistic) cosmopolitanism quite distinct from the Western metropolitan model of (alienated) self-autonomy.
Similar civilizational glory adorns the pan-Asian movement: the sense of an immanent ethics – of tradition, philosophical knowledge and social equilibrium– is adapted to become (popularly through Zen) a sublimating aesthetic in mid-twentieth-century modernism.
The ethical lapse of the political project we call the Third World must, however, be admitted. There is, within a decade, a dissipation of democratic mandates, a hardening of revolutionary energies, and a recurrence of repressive dictatorships. That many of these countries turn to (often cruel) dictatorship makes a devastating narrative. Quite soon there is indifference towards Afro–Asian solidarities; rejection of NAM and indeed of any common platform that spells ‘strategic autonomy’, leave alone non-aligned solidarity.
Peoples’ movements, liberation struggles and state formation after colonialism produce national allegories that are emancipatory as well as oppositional. The allegory is usually so constructed as to reveal (more than conceal) the nation’s fault-lines. Repeatedly investigated, these lineaments make up the fractured imaginary of postcolonial citizenry. Indeed, the allegorical mode produces a palimpsest where the aesthetic asks to be rewritten into the political. Postcolonial counter-narratives provoke several agendas for postmodernism as well: Stuart Hall and Sarat Maharaj speak about translation to gain a semantics for hybrid subjectivity in the postcolonial diaspora. Gayatri Spivak positions the figure of the subaltern – the body and speech of the dispossessed – to interrogate the idea of sovereignty within the postcolonial nation. Homi Bhabha theorizes the subversions through inflected speech, textual repetition and rescension practised by the colonized; he converts this into a narrative mode specifically generated by the citizen–subject in postcolonial nations. Dipesh Chakraborty’s thesis on ‘Provincializing Europe’ exemplifies the peculiar transposition of voluntarist and systematic methods whereby the given world is reordered in the postcolonial consciousness.
Generations of postcolonial theorists have contended with the Third World project, including its attributed ‘failure’. Some tend to repudiate even the founding optimism of the Third World; they see it as ‘false ideology’, or contribute to taming its challenge in the academy. But there is also a revival of Bandung and NAM histories (generated since the 50th anniversary of Bandung in 2005); and a dialogue around the idea of a new humanism developed during the founding moment of postcolonial consciousness. This is not the place to elaborate on the research, symposia and publications on the subject.###a title=""> To my understanding, realpolitiks and discursive re-evaluations need to acknowledge the historical conditions in which choices are made, whether utopian or pragmatic. Troubled histories need not be considered demonstrations of some fundamental ‘lack’. If developmentalism or the degree and kind of modernization are now subject to a more precise critique, it is in hindsight – with a better understanding of capitalism’s million manoeuvres and greater scientific knowledge of ecology. Even if the institutions of nation, state and democracy have unravelled in startling ways, an unqualified critique creates a morbid impasse. The more so because options are now subsumed by global capital which produces spectres signalling ‘lack’ – across all fronts except those that endorse its own triumphant expansionism.
Modernism: the larger frame
If modernisms in Mexico, Brazil, India, Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal, Indonesia, Japan and so many more have to be accounted for, it is obvious that the conventional art-historical litany of origin, chronology, precedence and derivation will not do. And if there are any claims for a universal mandate, artists beyond the Western metropolis, and indeed from everywhere – repressed, resistant, liberated, cosmopolitan – must be seen to partake and shape the political unconscious of the modern. /em### exhibition is punctuated with such semiotic data; it shows us how artists in fact change the rules of the game.
Some Radical Outposts of Art
The more unlikely sites of modernist assertion still tend to elude narratives of modernism. For example:
Fully conscious of Western (imperialist) antecedents, the Egyptian Surrealists, active from the late 1930s into the 60s (Art and Liberty Group), forge international political alliances; they become part of a worldwide network of Marxist-socialists with special connections to Mexico. During and after the war, Egyptian and British authorities begin to imprison and exile these revolutionaries for their political (at first Trotskyite) affiliations. Surrealist theorist and painter Ramses Younan is arrested in 1947 and expelled to Paris; he aligns himself with anarchists and is active in the early 1950s. Nasser’s nationalist military coup in 1952 declares the state’s hostility toward Surrealism. It is significant that the history of the Surrealist movement in Egypt reads like a counter-canon to the platitudes about tradition and modernity within a national postcolonial ethos. [Ramses Younan, mentioned above, features in this exhibition.]
The Chinese art historian Zheng Shengte has researched the encounter between Mexican muralists and Chinese artists. In 1952 Diego Rivera presents his painting, The Nightmare of War and the Dream of Peace, to Mao Zedong; in 1956, David Alfaro Siqueiros gives a talk on the occasion of a huge exhibition of Mexican art in Beijing – which Zhou Enlai visits. The Chilean muralist José Venturelli lives and teaches in official capacity from 1953 for ten years in Beijing. Dialogue between artists from China, Mexico and East Europe (especially the German Democratic Republic/GDR) offers the possibility of thinking in terms of Socialist Modernism rather than the standardized order of Socialist Realism. And this, according to Zheng Shengte, may arguably allow us to extrapolate (for and against) antecedents for contemporary art in post-Mao China.
With regard to the terminology: this exhibition shows, under the general heading of Realisms, many examples of what may be considered Socialist Modernism from East Europe. How else would we designate, for instance, the most remarkable Lithuanian/Polish artist, Andrezej Wroblowski? So many of the artists who move from GDR to West Germany – Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz and Penck – give to German art an interrogative intensity and, with it, new figuration, within the parameters of Realism but seen in the light of an equally valid modernism. [All the artists mentioned above are prominent in the exhibition.]
The Brazilian critic and curator Paulo Herkenhoff quotes the major mid-twentieth- century critic Mario Pedrosa, who writes admiringly about the shared approaches of Brazilian and Japanese artists: for example, Lygia Clark and Helio Oiticica with Gutai artists and the Fluxus-inspired Yoko Ono. What puts them in this imaginary dialogue is an anarchic, eccentric and performative use of material objects/and installations. Hekenhoff hints at this unlikely complementarity being a useful paradigm for the kind of art history that we are here to pursue. [These artists are in the exhibition and/or the catalogue.]
The role of ideologically driven artists is well signalled by the fact that the exhibition organized at the time of the Bandung Conference was initiated by Indonesian artists who were leftists – linked to the strong communist movement in the country. A decade later there would be a genocide of the communists, an internal upheaval supported by the CIA as part of the Cold War. The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) is still banned; but Indonesian artists seek to invigorate a locational art with full historical consciousness – as in the Jogja/(now) Equator Biennale dedicated to the memory of Bandung. [The senior artist, S. Sudjojono, included in this exhibition, represents the nationalist and revolutionary aesthetic active in the Bandung period.]
Assertion of national cultures also creates narratives of un-belonging, and materializes new subjectivities in conditions of chosen or forced exile. This makes for an identity that can perhaps be read through Edward Said’s understanding of exile and cosmopolitanism. There is Ernest Mancoba, a major artist from South Africa; there are many examples from West Asia: the Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair, the Iranian artist Siah Armajani, the Iranian/Armenian artist Marcos Gregorian. There is Francis Newton Souza and Avinash Chandra from India; Tetsumi Kudo and Yoko Ono from Japan. [These, and many more diasporic artists are part of this exhibition.]
It is cinema that best demonstrates what is meant by a Third World aesthetic. The manifestos of the Third Cinema in Latin America remain to this day emblematic: Glauber Rocha’s ‘Aesthetic of Hunger’ (Brazil, 1965); Julio García Espinosa’s ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’ (Cuba, 1969); ‘Toward a Third Cinema’ by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino (Argentina, 1969). Their epic film, The Hour of the Furnaces (1968), puts them in the lineage of post-Eisenstein avant-garde cinema of the twentieth century. Solanas and Getino begin their manifesto with a quote from Frantz Fanon: ‘...we must discuss, we must invent...’. This recalls Ritwik Ghatak’s Reason, Debate and a Story (1974), a culmination of his epic films of the 1950s where, at the end of his life, he mirrors the shuddering transition from familiar communism to Maoist sympathies among India’s 1960s generation. [There is a major and ongoing cinema component, curated by Mark Nash, that enhances the significance of this exhibition.]
The title as much as the nuanced narrative of the Cuban film Memories of Underdevelopment by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (1968) – a portrayal of a bourgeois intellectual in Havana in the 1960s – ‘confirms’ with due irony how the state of the economy can be seen to shape the state of being, and that despite all trepidation, this classic dogma yields an existential allegory as complex as any transcendent schema
Images from the Exhibition
My presentation selects and pairs images from the exhibition with an intention to (synoptically) illustrate some of the issues raised in my talk. Western art history sets up synchronic indices of style, and diachronic dimensions of art movements – and maintains prejudice about (the West’s) originality and (others’) derivativeness. It is my purpose here to reveal semiotic carry-overs that are subtle and precise, and that refract such schema.
The images in my presentation are arranged in two sections:
1. ‘Form Matters’ (bricolage)
Gustav Metzgar and Kazuo Shiraga; John Latham and Joseph Beuys; Alberto Burri and Jeram Patel; Piero Manzoni and Siah Armajani; Marcos Gregorian and Mohan Samant; Carol Schneemann and Marta Mijunin; Eva Hesse and Tanaka Atsuko; Helio Oiticica and Joseph Beuys/ Tetsumi Kudo; Tanaka Atsuko and David Medella; Lygia Clark andYoko Ono.
2. Human Image (representation)
Picasso and Siqueiros; Giocometti and Iri and Tashi Maruki; Siqueiros and Boris Taslitzky; Gerhard Richter and Andrezej Wroblowski; Rufino Tamayo and F.N. Souza; M.F. Husain and Ben Enwonwu; Baselitz and Mawaan Kassab-Bachi; Ramses Youhane and Iba N'diaye; Antonio Berni and Alfonso Ossorio; Wilfredo Lam and Ibrahim El Salahi; Affandi and Leon Golub.
Through this small selection of images, I try and signpost how the war-torn globality of mid-twentieth-century art (still) yields formal parities proper to modernist practice, but also, determined contrasts at generic and ideological planes. If ‘form matters’, as the exhibition declares, it does so in diverse ways: as obdurate matter (Jean Dubuffet/Art Brut); as opaque ‘otherness’ (Kazuo Shiraga/Gutai); as factura and formalism (Helio Oiticica/Brazilian Neo-Concretism).
On another plane, the exhibition’s anachronistic retakes rejuvenate subsumed categories: indigenous, national, diasporic. These run parallel to globality and are given thematized presence with further implications: that the humanist premise of European Realism may translate into an allegorized nation-form in Mexico or India (in Diego Rivera and Maqbool Fida Husain) and bring into modernism another ideological dissensus.
Given the hegemonic assumptions of modernism, we need to understand the difference between canon and grammar. Canon is an institutional laudation; grammar, on the other hand, refers to the structure of language. If we do accept a ‘master grammar’ of modernism, it is with a proviso: contextually (/culturally) shaped vocabularies possess their own grammar; and globally induced contiguity of world cultures offers a grammar-within- grammar paradigm with complicated realignments and subtle imbrications. Gross generalizations about modernism obscure the complex moves by which artists appropriate, annotate, invert and transpose signs and meaning. If there is indeed a master grammar of modernism, there is also a transactional grammar of production, practice and use.
Postwar has the courage to ignore the canon, to include ‘minor’ works, to contravene institutional endorsement. An inclusive modernism demonstrates why hegemonic art history, serving the conservative purpose of maintaining art as institution/the institution of art, is something of a lost cause.
I have just seen the catalogue/book accompanying this exhibition; it is encyclopaedic and offers a powerful paradigm within and beyond western art history. But more: it challenges, with its archival and punctual concerns, the hubris of discourse exalted (and straitened) by avant-garde formalism – as in the redoubtable book Art after 1900, written and edited by the brilliant historians of the October Group. The Postwar catalogue opens up a situational politics that gives material and moral density to the key avant-garde dialectic: ‘art and life’.
My real and imaginary dialogues with Rasheed Araeen, Gerardo Mosquera, Okwui Enwezor and my close colleagues in India, reinforce a retrospective, annotative and projective art history that does not any more ‘fill the gap’ but, rather, seeks location, as in archaeology; shifts paradigms, as in philosophy; and creates a topos that might aspire to the concept of heterotopia, referencing other spaces – indeed, several places – of difference and possibility. This exhibition sets up such itineraries; tracks other avant-gardes yet unmarked in twentieth-century art history.
As part of an immense expositional triptych (Postwar, Postcolonial, Postcommunism), this exhibition is terrifyingly punctual. The postwar experience is today omnipresent. Citizenship is deterritorialized; migrants and refugees must count as a viable polity in countries not their own. There is demotic pressure of the dispossessed in a fully globalized and as fully dismembered world. Which kind of art will guide us into what Okwui Enwezor calls the global public sphere?
During 1997/98, Hans Haacke stepped into the premises of the Reichstag building in Berlin and intervened in twentieth-century history by installing a textual/sculptural installation in the courtyard. He made an audacious amendment to the words that have adorned the portal: ‘DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE / To the German People’. Haacke’s enormous rectangular cast spells, in massive neon-lit words, the message: ‘DER BEVÖLKERUNG / ‘The Population’.
 It is necessary to note that the pan-Arab and pan-Asian movements can be said to have allowed – at different points in their history – the emergence of fascist and fundamentalist forces.
 The term postcolonial has a well-sustained history in cultural studies and art theory from the 1970s to the 90s. Just as it was waning in the art discourse of the twenty-first century, it was brought back and placed centre-stage by Okwui Enwezor in Documenta 11 (2002). It has since remained active and featured in many Biennales in the South (prominently, the third Guangzhou Triennial in 2008, titled Farewell to Post-colonialism, curated by Gao Shiming, Sarat Maharaj and Chang Tsongzung Johnson). Documenta 14 (2016) continues to engage with the South (‘as a state of mind’) by the very choice of a difficult location: Athens (in addition to Kassel). At the level of political theory, key Asian interlocutors like Partha Chatterjee, Wang Hui and Kuan-Hsing Chen, debate and complicate the issue, as do younger cultural theorists like Nikos Papastergiadis; Aamir Mufti suggests that Edward Said may perhaps be considered a ‘late Bandung’ thinker.
 Like all thematized/chapterized exhibitions, many artists and artworks in Postwar could simultaneously and validly belong in different sections. Such category displacements make the narrative (somewhat predictably) uneven. For example, major figurative works and ambitious representational genres of the postwar period are placed in the chapters titled ‘New Images of Man’ and ‘Realisms’; consequently, the section titled ‘Nations Seeking Form’ loses iconographical acuity or the edge that national–postcolonial imaginaries bring to the language of modernism. With less serious implications, the two sections, ‘Cosmopolitan Modernisms’ and ‘Networks, Media and Communication’, lose the argument through substitutable additions and subtractions.
 An exhibition titled When Art Becomes Liberty: The Egyptian Surrealists (1938–1965) has been researched and mounted at the Palace of Arts, Cairo (2016).
 An exhibition titled Non-Aligned Modernity: Eastern-European Art and Archives (from the Marinko Sudac Collection) is on display in Milan (2016). Art-historical issues are raised in relation to non-alignment in Central and East Europe – especially ex-Yugoslavia – and the merits of designating art produced in the region as Socialist Modernism.
Geeta Kapur is a Delhi-based critic and curator.