“It’s early, isn’t it!” Lecturer Rosalba Icaza Garza welcomes her students at the door on the third floor of the building on Kortenaerkade in The Hague. It is nine in the morning and not all students are inside yet. Two students arrive hurriedly with a hot cup of tea in their hands.
In the room, purple, green and orange chairs are placed in a circle. After all students have settled in, Icaza Garza introduces today’s guest lecturer: Rolando Vásquez from the University College Utrecht, who specialises in decolonial thinking.
College: Decoloniality in the Development Research Context (Mondays 9 am, room 3.39 in the ISS building, The Hague)
Lecturer: Rosalba Icaza Garza hosts the lectures, each week she invites a different guest lecturer.
Topic: How do you recognise coloniality and break through the colonial power relationship in art?
Audience: Over twenty students and researchers who just woke up and arrived a little late, but then enthusiastically joined the discussion.
Reason to follow: It is a safe space. Students are given space to share personal experiences. Because the students come from different cultural backgrounds, all kinds of perspectives are discussed.
Decoloniality in art
Vázquez begins the lecture by explaining decoloniality: it is about breaking a colonial power system based on unequal power structures that were normalised and then made universal by the West.
“But how do we recognise coloniality in art?” asks a student in a black sweater. “You can usually clearly see the coloniality in representation,” Vázquez replies. “When you go to an exhibition or walk into a museum, for example, you can ask yourself whose aesthetic ideals an artwork represents, how power structures are represented and in what ways are we being taught to see.” According to Vázquez, it is more about what you don’t see, because the practice of colonialism lies mainly in the erasure of the historical context. “For example, the ethnography museum in Paris has a huge collection of musical instruments from all over the world. But its historical context is missing, because there is no narrative on how these instruments got to the museum and what their role is in local cultures. Also, they are no longer being played, they’ve become only an object.”
During the break, students Alan and Jonathan discuss the first part of the lecture. “It is very important that we discuss this topic, especially since this faculty has many students from all over the world. Thanks to this lecture, we can learn how to treat different backgrounds and knowledge respectfully,” says Alan. Jonathan agrees. “Discussing decoloniality is not really specified in academia yet. We think that colonialism is something of the past, but our Western society is rooted in coloniality and it affects the global society.”
The subject captivates Anima, who is also a dancer. The story of cultural expressions being erased of their context is recognisable to her. “As a person of colour in the Western world, I struggled with it,” she tells the group in the second part of the lecture. She was born and raised in the Netherlands and is of Surinam-Indian-Dutch descent. Since she was little, she wanted to learn dancing, but she didn’t feel that she belonged in the dominant dance forms. “I felt that in the Netherlands there wasn’t much room for other kinds of dancing than ballet. If you want to become a dancer here, you just have to make do with ballet.”
“That is a perfect example of universality,” responds teacher Vázquez. With the concept of universality, he says, the West creates a dominant and unified model not only for aesthetics but also for civilisation. “Not only in the Netherlands, but almost throughout the world, ballet is seen as the norm, the pinnacle of dance aesthetics.”
When Anima tried North-Indian kathak dance, she was finally able to feel connected to the dance. She eventually went to India to learn the dance. “But once there, I learned that the dance also uses Western ballet techniques,” she says with a sense of irony. The class laughs.
The fact that white people delve into the Indian art is not a problem, she says, but sometimes it leads to the erasure of the cultural context. “Most white dance teachers can teach the techniques very well, but sometimes they do not understand the meaning and historical context of the dance, because they have different experiences and references. This could change the meaning of the dance and how the dance comes across,” she says.
Vázquez nods. “I understand what you mean. When it comes to traditional art, Western artists may have mastered the technique, but nine times out of 10 they don’t understand the essence of the local art.”
What to do
At the end of the lecture, students discuss what they could do to decolonise aesthetics. “We need to break the concept of universality,” says one student. “Exactly, because universality is a Western narrative. With that, the West determines what is beautiful and what is not,” Vázquez responds. “If we give a stage to non-Western narratives, we can create a world where different art forms and beauties coexist.”
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Editor Feba Sukmana and illustrator Pauline Wiersema follow a lecture every month. Together they describe and depict how education is given, what happens in the lecture hall and what students think of the lecture.
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