Art and Anti-Racism: A New Online Exhibition
Art is a vital arena for challenging and questioning racism because it mobilises affective forces. A lot of anti-racism depends on rational arguments (e.g., science shows us that biological races do not exist; philosophy tells us that discrimination is unfair), but racism thrives on emotion and visceral sensibilities of hate and fear, as well as more everyday senses of what is good/bad, normal/abnormal, familiar/strange, likeable/distasteful, trustworthy/untrustworthy, etc., which are rooted in the structures that shape social life. Art is a privileged space for engaging with the affective in its visceral intensities and its everyday forms: it does not necessarily provide neat answers, but it opens up room for sensations and thoughts that circulate and accumulate, perhaps in unexpected ways, and that can be channelled towards openness and empathy.
This is the idea behind Cultures of Anti-Racism in Latin America, an AHRC-funded project based at the University of Manchester led by myself, Ignacio Aguiló and Lúcia Sá, and with academic partners in Argentina (Ezequiel Adamovsky), Brazil (Felipe Milanez) and Colombia (Mara Viveros Vigoya). The project began in January 2020 and, Covid notwithstanding, post-doctoral researchers Ana Vivaldi, Carlos Correa Angulo and Jamille Pinheiro Dias have worked tirelessly to build collaborations with diverse artists whose work has decolonial and anti-racist dimensions. A key output of the project was an online exhibition showcasing how these artists challenge the symbolic and material hierarchies of race and coloniality in their countries. In Brazil, the focus is on Indigenous artists, in Colombia we have worked with Black and mestizo artists, while in Argentina, collaborations have been with Black and Mapuche artists and with an art collective that affirm a “Marrón” identity (see below). The exhibition includes poetry, paintings, photographs, performance art, videos, animations and dance, with multiple contributions from over twenty artists. I hope the following tasters stimulate the appetite.
Minha avó foi pega a laço is a video-art piece by Naine Terena, a Brazilian Indigenous artist and curator. Translating literally as “My grandmother was lassoed”, Naine explains in her curatorial text that this is “one of those phrases that are reproduced in everyday life without any recognition of the historical aggression experienced by Indigenous people in the past and in the present”. People use the phrase to claim some Indigenous ancestry, for various reasons: maybe as a way to assert that they are not racist; maybe to try to look cool. But the word “lassoed” indicates that this Indigenous ancestry comes from violent and non-consensual sexual relations between an Indigenous ancestor and white colonists. The phrase therefore implies a history of racist and sexist violence, which Naine brings into the open.
The video shows a metal meshwork object adorned with pink ribbons (“laços” in Portuguese, the same word for “lasso”) and enclosing fragments of a ceramic museum doll – a hand, a face, a foot – giving the impression of a broken body trapped in a cage and reinforcing the sense of trauma. The video’s soundtrack is a discordant jumble of excerpts from a 2021 debate in the House of Representatives on Bill 490 (which proposed new restrictions on the demarcation of Indigenous lands). On the soundtrack, we hear how Joênia Wapichana, the only Indigenous congresswoman in Brazil’s history, is aggressively and dismissively questioned during the session. Naine concludes that the video “gives a sense of the structural racism and gender violence naturalised in the terms, popular sayings and attitudes rooted in the national imagination, which end up reinforcing hostility to Indigenous peoples”.
The Argentinian art collective, Identidad Marrón, contributed prolific material to the exhibition. Their project is to visibilise and make space for the people they call “marrón”, which literally means chestnut-coloured, but here means people who do not identify straightforwardly as “Indigenous”, “Black” or “Afro-Argentinian” but who are descendants of Indigenous people and may also be, or be descendants of, campesinos (subsistence farmers) or immigrants from neighbouring Andean countries. In Argentina, these people are often called by the generic term “negros”, especially by middle class people. This category is refigured here as “marrón” (which is distinct from other more familiar terms for brown in Latin America, such as pardo or moreno, which are rooted in colonial histories). In this sense, the term Marrón is a political proposal that is part of a wider decolonial project that seeks to get away from and challenge the structures and frameworks of coloniality.
A key goal of Identidad Marrón – shared by Indigenous Brazilian and Afro-Colombian artists – is to challenge invisibilisation. This takes on specific nuances in Argentina. In Brazil and Colombia, the figures of the “indio” and the “negro” have often been visible in art and literature but in exoticised and stereotypical ways. In Argentina, the dominant image of the nation as essentially white has practically erased the historical and present-day existence of Indigenous and Black people and their descendants. Identidad Marrón’s work visibilises the history of Marrón people, makes evident the discrimination and violence they experience, and makes spaces for them in the public imagination and institutional spaces of the nation.
For the exhibition, Identidad Marrón produced a video called Traspasar Las Puertas de Cristal del Museo, which is about reclaiming the museum as an institutional space open to Marrón people and as a space to address racialised difference and racism. It is set in the Museo de la Cárcova, a Buenos Aires museum founded in 1928 that houses reproductions of famous European sculptures. The video starts with trans actress and activist Daniela Ruiz telling a visitor that she is there to remind people of the foundational genocide that created “white” Argentina. In a subsequent scene, actor and writer David Gudiño movingly dramatises the violence against Marrón bodies in Argentina today. Another scene features Rebe López reading a poem about the limits of the anti-racist stances sometimes performed by middle-class white people who feel uncomfortable when a Marrón person enters the spaces usually occupied by them.
Still image from Traspasar Las Puertas de Cristal del Museo by Identidad Marrón, showing David Gudiño.
The Colombia section of the exhibition features a work by Afro-Colombian artist Liliana Angulo Cortés. Her visual essay draws on a process of collective curation by her and various community-based Black organisations of an exhibition for the Museo de Antioquia in Medellín. Their exhibition focused on a painting from the Museum’s collections called Familia Negra by the artist Rodrigo Barrientos (1931-2013), who turned out to have been a Black artist, a fact that had been buried or ignored by the Museum’s curators and archivists, who assumed he was white, like the other artists in their collections. As with Identidad Marrón’s work, the visual essay is about recognising Black artists, who are often made invisible by the accumulated actions of the people working in archives, art collections and museums, who operate on the assumption that artists are white, or at least not Black. The curatorial process highlighted the ability of local organisations to participate in archives and art collections and create new histories and memories.
Excerpt from Rodrigo Barrientos: Disfrazado de hombre blanco by Liliana Angulo Cortés et al., showing the painting Familia Negra by Rodrigo Barrientos.
The exhibition is a testament to the diverse ways art practices can challenge racism and the symbolic and material structures of coloniality. With an appreciation of the intersectional nature of racism and anti-racism, the works presented also touch on issues such as environmental degradation (Denilson Baniwa), gender fluidity (Identidad Marrón) and gender (Ashanti Dinah).
Peter Wade (@SPeterWade) is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester and director of the project Cultures of Anti-Racism in Latin America.