Center for Global Studies and the Humanities

Duke University


Creating a New Aesthetics for a Decolonial World

Videos of the opening reception concert with Ricardo Lambuley and the workshop

Artists, scholars collaborate on workshop and exhibit looking at the cultural legacy of colonial rule

May 26, 2011 | by Geoffrey Mock  |
"OAiE seal"
“OAiE Seal” by Pedro Lasch and Miguel Rojas Sotelo reimagines the logo of the Organization of American States

Scholars and Artists

“Decolonial Aesthetics”. Through June 20, 2011. Fredric Jameson Gallery, Ernestine Friedl Building East Campus. Duke University

Durham, NC – In a new gallery deep in the old art museum building on East Campus, an exhibit of works from international artists provides a visual representation of some of the most significant humanities scholarship at Duke and beyond.

“Decolonial Aesthetics” takes its name from a phrase coined by Walter Mignolo, William H. Wannamaker Professor of Literature and director of Duke’s Institute for Global Studies and the Humanities. It refers to the idea that political, scholarly and artistic beliefs such as freedom and creativity are deeply bound with Western aesthetics, cutting off non-Western cultures from their own history and knowledge.

To Mignolo and others, concepts such as nationalism that were born of European experience are “double-edged” swords for people in Asia, Africa and Latin America, allowing these people to oppose Western hegemony but limiting the development of their own indigenous institutions. Too often, the result has been autocratic regimes replicating the political culture of the colonial rulers.

The Decolonial project, Mignolo said, is a manifesto calling for non-Western artists and thinkers to transform art, sensibility and politics and reclaim them as part of their own culture.

Decolonial Art
looking for a husband
Hong video
Art from the Jameson Gallery:Top: Tanja Ostojic: Looking for a Husband with an EU Passport.Bottom: Hong-An Truong. Still from “Furniture to Aid in the Viewing of the Lover.”

The international artists in the new exhibit make their own contributions.  One common theme in the Duke exhibit is identity and invisibility.  In one video in the exhibit, called “Black Magic at the White House,” a barely visible black dancer moves across the stately courtroom of Marienborg, a magnificent Danish building built by a financier with ties to the slave and sugar trade.

In another exhibit, Serbian artist Tanja Ostojic’s “Looking for a Husband With a European Union Passport,” the artist details the events that occurred when she placed a personal ad looking for a husband in Western European media.

The exhibit, which will run through June 20, is tied to a workshop held at Duke May 4-6.  Mignolo and more than two dozen international artists and scholars discussed how to move non-Western cultures toward a future where ideas of democracy and art have moved beyond Western concepts.

Mignolo said the workshop and exhibit was a follow-up to a November 2010 exhibit on “Decolonial Aesthetics” in Bogota, Colombia, which he co-curated with Pedro Pablo Gomez and Maria Elvira Ardila.

“The Duke conference and exhibit exceeded expectations, without exaggeration,” Mignolo said.  “This workshop is community building of intellectuals, scholars, artists, activists. The intensity, camaraderie, collaboration, intellectual and political engagement across the globe from Vietnam, Korea and Taiwan to the South American Andes and the Caribbean, to Eastern and Black Europe, was just flabbergasting. All these people across the globe are connected by a common experience: coloniality.

“Even if local histories are different, modernity and coloniality are embedded in their life, in the way they feel racism and disavowal. There are differences of scale, but the experience of coloniality and the imposition of modernity touches all of them deeply.”

Tying the workshop discussion to an art exhibit fits with the scholars’ interest in using a variety of approaches.  Just as scholars, artists and writers currently work together in Duke’s Haiti Lab, Mignolo and others said they wanted the event to be a true “exchange.”

“The Center for Global Studies is changing the academic structure of a conference to a more collaborative way of ‘inter-disciplinarity’ in which thought, history, visual, sound and sense are part of new ways of knowledge production,” said Miguel Rojas-Sotelo, academic events coordinator at Duke’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies and one of the workshop and exhibit organizers.

Rojas-Sotelo said the artists have the same intention, using a variety of visual media to show connections from “footages of colonial Taiwan, to visions of future in Mexico and Colombia.”

More is to come.  Mignolo said a second event on a parallel theme will be held at Duke next year and a larger international event in two to three years. Several websites, exhibits and publications are planned to build the collaboration between scholars and artists. And a four-volume collection of works by scholars and artists on “Decolonial Aesthetics” will bring together the variety of efforts in one work.