Documenting and Preserving the Undescribed

History of art and its categories, as a European framing, are being questioned by its insufficiency in addressing works based on distinct traditions and cosmogonies. When it comes to contemporary art production in the global south, history of art is increasingly criticized as a burden of the colonial system. Values within histographic practice tend to sound arbitrary and express a hierarchy of knowledge dictated by prejudice. Artists and intellectuals have proposed more diverse ways to understand art and its manifestations in the last fifty years – among them, Abdias do Nascimento, Lélia Gonzalez, Augusto Boal, Hélio Oiticica, Gayatri Spivak, Arcadio Díaz-Quiñones, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Ailton Krenak, Achille Mbembe, Grada Kilomba, Suely Rolnik. They provide relevant avenues for the reinterpretation and inclusion of works that exist outside the canon, and also new ways to analyze experimental language categories worldwide (performance art, installation, collaborative practices, digital art). This session investigates how to historize works of art that, until recently, would not be recognized as such – they would be, at most, in anthropological museums. How to equip history of art with the requirements to understand the heterogeneity claimed by contemporary artists and curators from the global south? How to identify and deconstruct colonial biases? And how does this paradigm shift contribute to understanding and conserving works that deflect European conventions? 

Session Convenors: 

Bianca Andrade Tinoco, University of Brasilia 

Daniela Felix Martins Kawabe, Federal University of Bahia/University of Brasilia


Magdaleen du Toit, University of Cape Town 

Lost to classification: Radically reinscribing the ǃXun Collection 

The Bleek and Lloyd Collection includes drawings, watercolors, and 161 notebooks of ǀxam and ǃXun instructors from South Africa’s Northern Cape and northern Namibia, respectively, convened during the mid to late 19th century by Lucy Lloyd and philologist, Wilhelm Bleek. Listed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, it has been studied from various scholarly perspectives. In addition, since the 1990s, it has been the subject of many artistic interventions. Four ǃXun boys created 524 drawings and watercolors held in the National Library of South Africa, Iziko South African Museum (a natural history museum), and University of Cape Town’s Manuscripts and Archives Department. These materials represent one of the earliest collections of visual works on paper made by southern African indigenous people, yet despite revealing both extensive knowledge of plants, their uses and visually rich depictions of personal experiences and beliefs of ǃXun people before colonization, the collection has been largely neglected. It has neither been seen as art, nor as ethnological or anthropological specimens, primarily, I argue, because it does not adhere to its custodian institutions’ traditional fields of scholarship, nor their inherited forms of categorisation. 

In this presentation, I argue that these works demand the visual attention traditionally paid to artworks, while mobilizing ideas pertinent to curatorial practice, botanical studies, visual  anthropology, and the formation of archives. To lift Tamme, ǃnanni, ǀuma, and Da’s (the ǃXun boys’) works from obscurity and recognise their value requires a radical reimagining of  what ‘art’ could include, and what might exceed it. 

Renata Cristina de Oliveira Maia Zago, Federal University of Juiz de Fora – Brazil 

Amanda Mazzoni Marcato, Federal University of Juiz de Fora – Brazil 

Distant echoes: China at the São Paulo Biennials 

Studies on contemporary Chinese art are developed from a task that implies understanding the past of contemporary Chinese art and the developments produced by this history. Hans Belting (2002), working on contemporary art from non-Western cultures, raises a central question for the development of this text: the concept of – Western- art is limited. Even when notions of artistic pluralism are addressed, we mostly stay within the confines of our own conception of art. Thus, the configuration of this study concerns fundamental decisions of Western cultural practice, starting with the participation of China in the São Paulo Biennial. From the research in the Biennial catalogs carried out from 1951 to 2018, it can be seen that before 1994, China was present in ten editions of the event, highlighting that, between the 1950s and 1970s, the country attended as a delegation or national representation. It is clear that there was a gap of fifteen years, that is, six editions of Biennials without Chinese participation, which does not imply that their first participation in the event was in 1994, as the Brazilian media point out. The XXII and XXIII Biennials (1994 and 1996) are important platforms for understanding the entry of contemporary Chinese art into the Western art world, from then the São Paulo Biennial, in an effort to connect Latin America with the international circuit, functioned as a mechanism for the dissemination and consolidation of modern art and the international artistic field. The narrative established by this research is built on this scenario and, having said that, it constitutes part of a larger debate, still open, subject to various future developments. 

Caroline Dunker Fucci, University of Leicester 

Brazilian Indigenous Art on a Global Stage: The Politics of the 34th São Paulo Biennial 

Although the biennial model is not a recent invention (the first edition of the Venice Biennale occurred in 1895, and the São Paulo Biennial was founded in 1951), the history of most biennials, especially those of the global South, is connected to the globalization of the art world and decolonisation processes. The first editions of the São Paulo Biennial, however, were still oriented towards European and North American avant-gardes, emulating the Venice archetype. Throughout its seventy-year history, this Biennial has gradually shifted from a predominantly modernist Euro-American paradigm to a more experimental and geographically expansive perspective. Its 34th edition, held between 2020 and 2021, featured a large number of works by Indigenous artists. Entitled “Though it’s dark, still I sing”, a verse from a poem by Amazonian writer Thiago de Mello, the show suggested a resilient attitude amidst Brazil’s political tensions. Five Brazilian Indigenous artists showcased pieces that addressed their ancestral histories, cosmogonies and socioenvironmental concerns. While some works embodied traditional techniques and iconographies, others challenged the Eurocentric art historical canon, indicating a movement for contemporary Indigenous art that critically responds to Western aesthetic values. How has the São Paulo Biennial, a politically charged institution and global platform for contemporary art, engaged with these art practices? By analyzing the display of works by Brazilian Indigenous artists at the 34th edition, this paper considers the issues in exhibiting Indigenous art within the contemporary biennial complex. 

Friederike Voigt, National Museums Scotland 

From Art to Craft: Re-thinking Iranian material culture in British museum collections 

Within the last twenty years, leading museums in Western Europe and North America have acknowledged the diversity of the Muslim world to a greater degree than previously in their renovated and expanded Islamic art galleries. Often driven by perceived or habitual audience expectations, Western aesthetics (masterpieces or tribal art), concepts (chronological/dynastic orders) and categorisations (art, ethnography, decorative arts), however, still prevail in the curatorial development and interpretation of these collections worldwide. Yet an increasingly critical view of these practices has developed within the field of Islamic art history itself. The contemporary debate around the colonial legacies of museums, their social responsibility, the need for inclusion, co-curation, and racial diversity, makes the re-thinking of Islamic art collections in public institutions, which were often built in the 19th and early 20th century, or with concepts in mind developed at the time, an urgent task to ensure their continued relevance. 

This paper therefore takes a case study of the Iranian collection in the National Museum of Scotland to argue for re-embedding these objects that to a large extent were collected as decorative art, into their original cultural context. I will focus on concepts of home and garden to provide an alternative interpretation that uses Iranian perspectives rather than the Western ones in which they have been presented since their acquisition by the museum. 


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