Toolkits, Tokenism and the Tyranny of Words

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At first glance, the term ‘outsider art’ feels like an unwelcome remnant of the Eurocentric epistemologies which position First-World knowledge as the only type of knowledge based in reason and logic. In the essay ‘Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and De-Colonial Freedom’, de-colonial theorist Walter Mignolo stated in relation to the de-centralisation of knowledge:

What geo-politics of knowledge unveiled is the epistemic privilege of the First World. In the three worlds of distribution of scientific labor, the First World had indeed the privilege of inventing the classification and being part of it.

Mignolo, Walter (2009) Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and De-Colonial Freedom, Theory, Culture & Society; SAGE, Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, and Singapore, Vol. 26 (7–8): 1–23 p.8

However problematic the term ‘outsider art’ may seem, when one sits with it for a moment something quite remarkable is revealed, it names the problem aloud and does not allow the Eurocentrism of the canon the tactical position of ‘invisibility’.[i] And for the remaking of a future history that tells the story of contemporary art across a multifaceted society, the tyranny of such words is necessary. It reminds us that even in this moment, where democracy and meritocracy are declared as the foundations of Australian society, the canon does indeed have a problem, it has a Eurocentric centre that deliberately excludes all those who operate on the margins of it. The problem is fixed firmly in our sights.


[i] Invisibility has long been recognised as part of the ‘white privilege’ that centralises and neutralises Eurocentrism. In the catalogue essay ‘This was the Australia that I saw, written by Chrisoulas Lionis for the exhibition Khalas! (Enough!): Contemporary Australian Muslim Artists (curated by Associate Professor Phillip George and Nur Shkembi and held at UNSW Galleries in May, 2018), Lionis reflects on the words of Australian-Malaysian rapper and poet Omar Musa from his publication titled CAPITAL LETTERS, as well as the collection of essays Whitening Race: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism edited by Aileen Moreton-Robinson. Lionis goes on to state in relation to the artist’s works, “If we are to understand ‘whiteness’ as exemplified by this nation’s approach to multiculturalism (where white Australia is cast as the ‘neutral’ population that mediates various immigrant and indigenous communities), this is an attitude also resoundingly reflected in the Australian art world. At a time when decolonial movements in the culture industry gain momentum around the world, ‘Khalas’ continues the process of dismantling the very thing whiteness needs in order to survive – its own invisibility.”

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