Outsider Art – Renovating the Canon: Toolkits, Tokenism and the Tyranny of Words

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Acknowledging the multifaceted reality of Australian contemporary society – from its fraught history of whitewashing brutal colonial settlement to the movement of bodies (erroneously deemed illegal) across borders and the migration of people from across the globe – is essential to the ability for both visual and material culture to speak to the future history of humankind globally. For this reason, Australian art historians must urgently activate and thoroughly engage in the much-needed renovation of the canon. With or without the canonical references to ‘outsider art’, so-called ‘outsider artists’ and their communities will continue to create and engage in various forms of art practice, and with each undocumented moment the chasm between art as culture maker and historical witness, expands and grows out of necessity into its own self-contained history. This contained history will soon enough surpass, and then reject, its Western occupier and host. Migrant and diasporic artists, artists from minority communities and all those deemed as ‘outsiders’ will no longer wait patiently on the sidelines as the global contemporary art community beckons them. The confines of Australia’s national narratives and borders, along with the Eurocentric tastes they harbour will be soon be discarded. 

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.” [i]  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’. [ii] 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.

The renovation of the canon must also include the methodologies that will drive it. This would ensure those artists deemed as ‘outsiders’ are no longer subjected to ethnographic observation or classified through anthropological methodologies that uphold or privilege Eurocentrism. The canon must also include multiple perspectives and various non-traditional modes of knowledge collection and sharing, such as ‘yarning’, oral histories and community led knowledge. Along with the concerns of ‘how’ knowledge is collected, comes the question of ‘who’ is doing the collecting. Perhaps the answer is as simple as privileging the cultural experiences of researchers and scholars from within the ‘outsider’ communities. The question of ‘who’ can also be answered by fully embracing the ‘gift’ of the contemporary, having access to living artists, the ‘outsider artists’ who art historians and curators can readily interview and document in context. By adding these tools to the renovation toolkit, this will no doubt aid in curtailing the potential difficulties ordinarily prevalent when writing on the outside, and about the outside, that of misrepresentation and tokenism.”


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[i] 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

[ii] 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 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, well as the collection of essays edited by Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Whitening Race: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism. 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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