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Decoloniality in Art and Artist as Ethnographer Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Aug 12th, 2020


The connection between culture and art cannot be neglected in case people want to understand the essence of their values and to store them through generations. People like to talk about their rights and freedoms, their opportunities and challenges, and their achievements that prove their worth and some kind of social importance. There are many ways of how people could protect themselves against unfavourable impacts and changes in the field of art that appear with time. On the one hand, people like to introduce institutions of different types to maintain order and gain control over all creative activities.1

On the other hand, it is suggested to consider artists as ethnographers who have to investigate cultural issues in order to grasp their importance in the modern world.2 In this critical review, two articles will be discussed in order to clarify the main challenges modern artists could face and the methods they could use to solve their problems and avoid misunderstandings. Hal Foster and Rasheed Araeen are the authors who develop their ideas around such topics as benevolent racism, political transformations, truths, and the consequences of decisions made by people.

The review is divided into three main sections including the identification of the main arguments and the explanation of their worth, the evaluation of the supportive material and the clarification of methodological framework, and, finally, the contribution of the chosen sources and the lessons they bring to the field of art. Though their arguments vary considerably, both articles help to understand that cultural identity is crucial in the field of art because it opens people’s eyes and releases artists from such threats as self-contradiction, cultural arrogance, and malevolence so that they could share their history via their projects, underline their uniqueness in their messages, and promote the social, political, and cultural development of different nations.

Contemporary Artists Use Their Ethnographic Skills to Underline Their Exotic Difference

Today, there is a tendency to develop various paradigms and create new institutions in order to explain the relations in human society and give clear definitions of such concepts as art, culture, and identification. Besides, many nations have to find solutions to such question as racism and the presence of racial differences in the field of art. Foster offers to take into consideration different assumptions in order connect political and artistic transformations, use various quasi-anthropological models in order to prove that art should be the result of personal work and inspiration, and pay attention to the limitations modern artists have to suffer from.3

One of the most powerful aspects in the article developed by Foster is the identification of “the other” with its multi-definitions in art and a variety of locations that could be limited or could be elsewhere. The concept of “otherness” is what connects the chosen article with the article written by Araeen. The author says that the fundamental perception of the concept has been dramatically changed. Now, the term “others” is “defined and treated with benevolence” when people are free to define their roles “not in terms of their rights as individuals or equal citizens in a democratic society” but “in relation to the cultures, they have originated from”.4 Though both articles have different authors and different writers, they have many things in common including the impact on the reader and the intention to focus on cultural aspects of art and self-development of artists.

The peculiar feature of Foster’s argument is the relation to the ideas of Walter Benjamin who believed that any artist had to be a producer in a position of an advanced figure with the abilities to intervene in the ways ordinary revolutionaries promote changes on the basis of their personal ideologies. The majority of Foster’s arguments are based on the necessity to compare the political and cultural backgrounds of artists and clarify the reasons for why the idea of the aestheticisation of fascism was transformed in the necessity to capitalise culture so that an artist has to be considered as an ethnographer. At the same time, Foster wants to warn that the practice of “self-othering” could have a number of positive and negative aspects. On the one hand, there is a possibility to consider the worth of alterity in art, underline the importance of culture, use the context in understanding artistic details, and clarify the connection between contemporary art and other disciplines.5 On the other hand, the author underlines that the concept of others could lead to absorption in pure malevolence, ethnographic self-fashioning when artists cannot be centred on one thing only, and philosophical narcissism when respect is questioned considerably.6

In comparison to the usage of the historical perspectives demonstrated by Foster, Araeen’s main arguments prove that many artists continue neglecting the historical contributions in modern art but try to underline the importance of cultural diversity policies as the way to separate artists and prove their exotic difference.7 The author explains that the differences between “black” and “white” artists cannot be neglected because the differentiation of intellectual capabilities of artists has to be based on racial and cultural issues. Still, it is wrong to believe that cultural differences absorb art only. There is one thought that treatment to culturally diverse artists is the way of life according to which black artists have to offer their aesthetic quality, standards, and possible contributions to the way of how people should understand the world. Therefore, Araeen offers the term benevolent or positive racism within the frames of which no discrimination is observed because no disadvantages are created.8 The main argument in the Araeen’s article is the necessity to promote positive stereotypes and introduce artists’ work on the basis of various cultural and racial identities.

The arguments of both articles underline the importance of cultural diversities in art and the necessity for artists to demonstrate their skills and abilities in order to prove that their work and contributions should cover not financial or political aspects only but also an idea that all people are free to express themselves in a variety of forms.

Coloniality and Decoloniality in Contemporary Art

Two articles under consideration contain different means of support to prove the chosen arguments and explain their vision of contemporary article. Both authors prove that the conditions under which art was developed were not perfect. For example, Foster used the ideas of colonialist oppression as the explanation of human activities and intentions. Araeen tells that colonialism was the period when art institutional power was discovered and when people began to recognise and evaluate their work and possible contributions. Coloniality is the concept that describes the darker side of modernity and names “the underlying logic of the foundation and unfolding of Western civilisation from the Renaissance to today of which historical colonialisms have been a constitutive, although downplayed, dimension.”9

The presence of coloniality and decoloniality proves that people (not only artists) are bothered with the necessity to be culturally identified and properly represented. Cultural identity is what people have to strive for, and coloniality could be introduced as the epistemic strategy in order to create the required difference.10 Colonialism helps to incorporate racial points of views and introduce the required structural basis so that all artists could be treated with benevolence. Araeen explains that institutional racism should not deprive people of their creative positions but has to identify the roles that have to be fulfilled and the rights that have to be considered.11

Araeen and Foster pay their attention to the questions of identity and its importance in art. Still, the investigations of Fosters seem to be deeper in comparison to the achievements made by Araeen. Foster points out that alterity is one of the main points of subversion within the dominant culture.12 Therefore, it should be used to give definitions of art, an artist, and identity so that an artist could become a kind of paragon of formal reflexivity and a reader of culture that could be understood as text.13 It is wrong to believe that colonisation with its ability to hold people in their grips and make their brains empty and free from any forms and content has to be spread supported during the next years.14 Theoretical literature and the archival materials used by Araeen and Foster help to understand that cultural transformations cannot be stopped or neglected.

These transformations just occur in order to make people stronger and more confident in their intentions to prove their ideas and support their beliefs. Artists should not be the outsiders in this movement but to participate actively in order to create a supportive basis for such cultural, political, and racial transformations. In one of his past works, Araeen explained that an artist is a thinker who has to represent a kind of racial and cultural other who cannot be “defined or recognized by what [s/he] does in art, one’s position as an artist is predetermined by these differences”.15 Such theoretical explanation of racism and its connection to art seems to be a good contribution to the discussions of cultural movements and concerns about the changes of visions. In his turn, Foster aims at weighting the framework in which artists have to work and sharing his personal observations on how artists could deal with self-contradiction and arrogance around.

Importance of History in Understanding of Art

The articles of Foster and Araeen introduce a solid basis of how artists have to develop their abilities and recognise their cultural roots in order to become a significant part of the world’s history. It is important to understand that individuals take responsibility for moving their history and making it better by means of their experiences, ideals, and allegiance.16 At the same time, people should understand that art should have nothing in common with craft because the craft is the way of how people earn money and create incomes, and art is the way of how people share their views and thoughts.

In the majority of cases, it seems to be easy to develop some theoretical ideas and share the assumptions that could or could not be proved with the help of practice. The project developed by Mignolo aims at investigating museums in the modern world and in the colonial world and clarifying the ways of how it is possible to decolonise them and what changes have to be expected.17 The illustrative example offered by Fred Wilson in the form of Mining the Museum in 1992 is one of the most powerful attempts to explain how the process of decolonisation could occur. It is the explanation and illustration of how artistic disobedience should look like regarding epistemic and aesthetic characteristics. Mignolo underlines that the collection disclosed a number of demons of Fred Wilson and his understanding of the dark side of the US history.18

At the same time, the articles under analysis show that, sometimes, the intentions of artists to prove their positions and to use decoloniality as the way to change something are characterised by negative reactions and outcomes. Artists want to use such values like authenticity, singularity, and originality19; however, they fail to comprehend their true essence and possibility to influence human lives. Therefore, Araeen underlines the necessity to understand artistic intervention in relation to the society artists live in, its location, historical roles, and transformational processes that have already occurred and that could be developed within a short period of time.20

To understand the cultural differences in the works of white and black artists, Araeen gives two illustrative examples evaluating the works by Francis Souza and Aubrey Williams.21 Souza expressed Indian sexuality and tried to deprive his work of explicit sexual pleasure that was inherent to his own culture. Such decision made him “exoticised other” in the world of art.22 Williams did not focus on certain cultural roots that made critics investigate his exhibitions and be defined as one of “the others” because of his fascination with different cultures at the same time. These examples show that any artist could become “the other” as soon as not-standardised approach or idea is offered and proved as an effective one. Sometimes, people do not even need the explanations and definitions. All they could ask for is the history and the description of the situation in which cultural difference help to create a masterpiece. Artists have all rights to understand the world they want and share their understanding as one of the possible ways to contribute the world development and the development of a particular society.


In general, the review of two articles written by Araeen and Foster promotes the opportunity to evaluate the peculiarities of such concepts like art, artist, personality, identity, and craft. Sometimes, people are confused about their intentions to use art as a form of self-expression. Decoloniality is the result of artists’ work and their abilities to create their masterpieces not for someone but for themselves. Araeen and Foster explain that artists have already come to the conclusion that their work has to be introduced as a crucial part of cultural heritage. Now, it is high time to identify the ways of how to support the idea of cultural heritage through the works of artists, who define themselves or defined by critics as “the others”. Cultural identity and benevolent racism facilitate the lives of ordinary artists. Still, artists have to comprehend the essence of such transformations and interventions in order to succeed in art and demonstrate the results which meet the expectations of society.


Araeen, Rasheed. “The Art of Benevolent Racism.” Third Text 14, no. 51 (2000): 57-64.

—. “A New Beginning: Beyond Postcolonial Cultural Theory and Identify Politics.” Third Text 14, no. 50 (2000): 3-20.

—. “Art and Postcolonial Society.” In Globalization and Contemporary Art, edited by Jonathan Harris, 365-374. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Foster, Hal. “The Artist as Ethnographer?” In The Traffic in Culture: Refiguring Art and Anthropology, edited by George E. Marcus and Fred R. Myers, 302-310. London: University of California Press, 1995.

Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identify and Diaspora.” In Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, edited by Jonathan Rutherford, 222-237. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990.

Mignolo, Walter. “Museums in the Colonial Horizon of Modernity: Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum.” In Globalization and Contemporary Art, edited by Jonathan Harris, 71-85. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

—. The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. London: Duke University Press, 2011.

Sardar, Ziauddin “Introduction”, in The Third Text Reader: On Art, Culture and Theory, eds. Rasheed Araeen, Sean Cubitt, and Ziauddin Sardar (London: Continuum, 2002), 11.


  1. Rasheed Araeen, “The Art of Benevolent Racism,” Third Text 14, no. 51 (2000): 57.
  2. Hal Foster, “The Artist as Ethnographer?” in The Traffic in Culture: Refiguring Art and Anthropology, eds. George E. Marcus and Fred R. Myers (London: University of California Press, 1995), 302
  3. Foster, “The Artist as Ethnographer?” 302.
  4. Araeen, “The Art of Benevolent Racism,” 58.
  5. Foster, “The Artist as Ethnographer?” 305
  6. Ibid., 304.
  7. Araeen, “The Art of Benevolent Racism,” 62.
  8. Araeen, “The Art of Benevolent Racism,” 59.
  9. Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options (London: Duke University Press, 2011), 2
  10. Ibid., 153.
  11. Araeen, “The Art of Benevolent Racism,” 58.
  12. Foster, “The Artist as Ethnographer?” 303.
  13. Ibid., 304.
  14. Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identify and Diaspora”, in Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, ed. Jonathan Rutherford (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990), 224.
  15. Rasheed Araeen, “A New Beginning: Beyond Postcolonial Cultural Theory and Identify Politics,” Third Text 14, no. 50 (2000): 6.
  16. Ziauddin Sardar, “Introduction”, in The Third Text Reader: On Art, Culture and Theory, eds. Rasheed Araeen, Sean Cubitt, and Ziauddin Sardar (London: Continuum, 2002), 11.
  17. Walter Mignolo, “Museums in the Colonial Horizon of Modernity: Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum,” in Globalization and Contemporary Art, ed. Jonathan Harris (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 71.
  18. Mignolo, “Museums in the Colonial Horizon of Modernity”, 77.
  19. Foster, “The Artist as Ethnographer?” 306.
  20. Rasheed Araeen, “Art and Postcolonial Society”, in Globalization and Contemporary Art, ed. Jonathan Harris (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 365.
  21. Araeen, “The Art of Benevolent Racism,” 60.
  22. Ibid.
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