A Photographer Confronts His World
Human zoos. Someone actually thought this is a good idea, and a whole host of others concurred and celebrated it. The Edindurgh Festival certainly thinks so.
Apparently we just can’t get enough of this stuff. I wrote about it some months ago in a piece for Warscapes Magazine when something similar first appeared in Norway and was widely celebrated. There is something fabulously vile and callous about a bunch of white people going about recreating these criminal enterprises under the pretense of ‘education’ or ‘experience’ or even ‘art’. The very fact that they can re-create these displays reflects the vast differentials of political, economic and cultural power that still scars our engagement with Africa and other people of ‘the lesser kind’. Read my piece below.
This is the sort of cultural-whitewash that the West desperately clings to, and the appeasing ‘others’ desperately offer. The entire concocted narrative of ‘cultural understanding’ and ‘cultural exchange’ carefully elides the hard and obvious ugliness of crass political, economic and military reality that has defined the relationship of the Middle East to European colonial powers and more recently American imperial control. The Aga Khan would do better than to offer sops to a discourse that serves in fact the interest of political power, and continues to negate the struggles of people have been trampled with impunity and with extreme violence at the hands of this so-called ‘Western world’
The Aga Khan is quoted as saying:
One of the lessons we have learned in recent years is that the world of Islam and the Western world need to work together much more effectively at building mutual understanding – especially as these cultures interact and intermingle more actively,” commented His Highness Aga Khan. “We hope that this museum will contribute to a better understanding of the peoples of Islam in all of their religious, ethnic, linguistic and social diversity.
We have to question this ‘clash of culture’ nonsense. In particular, those confronting the so-called ‘West’ have to do so with intellectual and moral courage, and not with mealy-mouthed niceties about ‘mutual understanding’. Asking the occupied, the displaced, the invaded to create ‘mutual understanding’ with their oppressors is to strengthen the hand of the oppressor, and to erase the history, politics and sensibility of the oppressed.
These fraudulent ‘cultural’ events and institutions are part and parcel of a process of erasure of the politics of ‘the other’. They are a close partner in the structure of thought want to bifurcate a human political force in to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ muslims – a false construction that reduces people into either ‘collaborator’ or ‘terrorist’ dichotomies and negates any possibility of complex political and other engagement. The Aga Khan is walking the wrong path, and in fact, strengthening the hand of those who are determined to wage war, to steal, to use violence for base, material political and economic goals.
These institutions are also a clear reflection of the weakness of those who wish desperately to be invited to the dining room of power – a need to bend over and beg for crumbs by pleasing the masters, and offering them soft, pointless, depoliticized trinkets that will somehow convince them that ‘we’ are worthy. From a discourse about ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ (who gives a shit if it is or not ? why is that never asked about any other faith, including capitalist secularism? how is this even relevant in the face of the dogs of war unleashed in the region for decades?), to these over blown museums desperate to show that ‘we’ are worthy and that ‘we’ are ‘civilized’…as if somehow the wars, and the violence is nothing more than a ‘misunderstanding’!
This is a moment of hard, clear, measured and honest political engagement and confrontation. This is a moment to speak truths to power. To confront it not with apologetics, but with evidence, with rights, with demands, with law and with strength. This is not about ‘mutual understanding’ – go ask that to of family whose sons were tortured and raped to death in Abu Gharaib, or a child whose family was torn to shred by a wayward drone, or to any of the millions affected by our invasions in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia etc, or even any one of the families whose sons and husbands were entrapped in fake terrorism cases and had their lives torn apart. Ask them for ‘mutual understanding’ and to bring their trinkets of civilisation to the fine and peace loving people of the West to convince them that they are worthy of not being killed. Then see how inane and irrelevant all this sounds.
These projects simply entrench arrogance, and repeat – as Partha Chatterjee as argued, a derivative discourse of imperial power. The elide political facts and military realities. They avoid asking the hard questions and offering the clear evidence. They prefer to dwell into ‘culturalist’ narratives, somethign that suits those who in fact make their decisions on specific power and political goals. They never accuse, they never question, they never critique, they never refuse, and they never dissent. This sort of game cannot continue. A political dissent is needed if we are even pretend we are in spaces that are democratic and open. In fact, a radical political dissent, as writer Arun Kundnani has commented in a recent interview:
I think terrorism is the product of closing down political space, political engagement and political participation,” he says “So, think about the end of 19th century when you had anarchist bombers. All of them were veterans of Paris communes. A moment of political defeat gives rise to terrorism, such as the IRA in Northern Ireland. They start to get involved in violence when the civil rights movement, non-violent movement are suppressed, right? Similarly, the African National Congress turned to campaign of bombing and sabotage once the peaceful attempt to fight apartheid was suppressed. So this is the pattern you see. If that is right then creating opportunities for people to advance their political agendas through non-violent means is actually the best way of reducing the risk of terrorism.
We need not museums to imagined histories or ‘past’ civility, but podiums to express our radical political voices and fulfill our participation and our rights as citizens of our societies.
The theme for this year’s grant proposal call is described as follows:
The theme selected for the sixth edition is “Lawless areas in France”. This year, once again, the Carmignac Foundation wishes to support and promote an investigative photography project in territories away from the media spotlight by focusing on France and specifically on areas becoming so-called “lawless areas” – political, legal or socio-economic no man’s land subject to deregulation – where the authority of the French Republic is challenged.
Is this the new discourse around marginalized and ostracized communities in France? Is this wording for the award this year a massive collection of euphemisms about African, Muslim, Algerian, poor, immigrant, and migrant communities in France? Details »
I walked into the New Museum’s Here And Elsewhere exhibit recently. A major presentation of contemporary art from the Middle East. Much of it is quite predictable, some of it is downright amateurish, a few terribly is derivative and horribly scarred by the pretensions of modern Western contemporary art discourse. Some was quite disappointing as it desperately attempted to, as pointed out by one critic, that it “..takes our attention away from the political subject and draws it toward the artist’s techniques.” – a statement that I would use as a criticism of a work of art, but in fact was offered by way of praise by the writer. There are however moments of it that are luminous. For example, the gorgeous set of studio photography works from Hashem El-Madani.
I am confused about Teju Cole. This is possibly one of the most boring pieces I have read in a long time. A rambling, pointless journey to a small Swiss town in the footsteps of James Baldwin echoes a tried and true magazine concept piece. Fair enough. But if you are going to write about Baldwin, then really write about him. And write about what it was that he was speaking out against. Do it with a voice and a passion that at least mirrors Baldwin’s. If you claim to be like him, in his body and in his footsteps, then try to find a way to be in his disappointment, anger, sense of betrayal and determination to fight. Details »
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