Below is a collection of writings produced by members of the project’s Advisory Board. These were produced in response to a Roundtable event held in Melbourne during 2019.
[Image: Michael Camakaris, Post, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 168 x 153 cm. Image courtesy of Arts Project Australia.]
OUTSIDER ART – RENOVATING THE CANON: TOOLKITS, TOKENISM AND THE TYRANNY OF WORDS
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.
NUR SHKEMBI, FOUNDING ART DIRECTOR & CURATOR, ISLAMIC MUSEUM OF AUSTRALIA
[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.”
SHARING THE STAGE
When the introduction to the roundtable ended with the statement that ‘Many of you know each other, it is like the band gets back together”, I felt the warmth of inclusion, and indeed I had the pleasure of seeing several familiar faces around me.
The roundtable consisted of twenty participants. Of these most were academics, many working together on this ACR funded project. There was a large group representing Arts Project Australia including one of their current studio artists. Amongst the group there were four artists who identified as outsiders, three of them who knew each other from the refugee arts project, one of whom was also completing a Ph.D. at Melbourne University, and one artist who also identified as having a mental illness.
What is an ‘outsider’?
Can any of us taking part in a roundtable, with the opportunity to speak and be heard really claim such status?
What does the project look like if the ‘outsider’ is only represented through research?
Does being funded make you complicit with the broader aims of the organisation that supports you, preventing you from being able to view it from the outside?
Without funding, how will diverse and marginalised voices be heard? What about disability where artists may not be able to articulate their needs and where advocacy sometimes only paves the way for absence?
What do artists who identify as ‘outsiders’ and have agency to promote their work have in common with artists who have no language?
When asked what I would like the group to take away with them I suggested they keep searching for the artists that they have never heard of. But the challenge to seek out those who have no voice may be an oxymoron despite the best intentions of those who wish to include them. But as difficult as this challenge might be, it’s important to keep asking this of ourselves because as great as the band is currently sounding, we need to be sharing the stage.
LINDA JUDGE, ARTIST AND INDEPENDENT CURATOR
CAN’T IT JUST BE ABOUT THE ART?
I guess it can be frustrating for organisations like [Arts Project Australia] to constantly be validating the work of our artists as a critical and important part of the broader contemporary arts sector. Particularly the decisions makers, the lords of the museum and gallery sectors, the art influencers whose opinions and decisions are often slavishly followed by the collectors.
I have actually found that artists themselves are the most receptive to the proposed melange.
Systemic change means real endorsement from art funding bodies and philanthropists – we are starting to see a little of this from Australia Council and state arts funding agencies, but always under a lens of diversity. Can’t it just be about the art?
The main issue for me is the current structures of the art world generally – however I feel that this is a shake up that may be forced upon us (or them!).
I see the current COVID19 crisis as an opportunity to speed this up – with everything online for the foreseeable future, it has to be accessible, and it puts everyone on the same playing ground. It will be interesting to see how this evolves after the galleries and studios are open. We [at Arts Project] certainly plan to keep exploring online delivery in everything we do – and, of course, this has the capacity to be internationally received and accepted.
SUE ROFF, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, ARTS PROJECT AUSTRALIA
TAKING THE DISCUSSION OUTSIDE THE CONVERTED
The main issue for me is how do we effectively force systemic change that reforms and transforms current perceptions, values and access paradigms within the broader art cannon?
It makes me think; how do we take these considerable challenges to the kingmakers and cultural/political/social influencers, so we aren’t simply having these critical discussions with the converted?
The COVID-19 timing in terms of [this] research is fascinating. Perhaps we will see a faster, more inclusive transformation of the arts sector than we would have otherwise? All organisations and individuals have to rethink who they are talking to, who they are connecting with and how. Access and accessibility are moving more to the fore more than ever before. I think accountability is a significant issue.
Institutions such as the museum and gallery, need to be held to account to represent artists from diverse backgrounds more broadly; what we engage with should reflect our current society and culture. Periodically deaccessioning collections (“selling the Rothkos”) to purchase other works that reflect better the artists and culture of the time, could be a step toward creating a more accurate cultural history. However, would it not be better to add to the collections, and use the existing artworks in the collection as a point of reference for understanding why particular artists of that time were (and still are) underrepresented. It’s something I think about.
We still have a long way to go, but change is in the air!
SIM LUTTIN, ARTIST AND CURATOR & GALLERY MANAGER, ARTS PROJECT AUSTRALIA.