Authenticity surrounding our western obsession with re appropriating exotic or interesting cultural heritages, despite whether they belong to us or not, is becoming ever more prevalent in our globalised world. This culture can be traced as far back as colonial Britain and sadly the stigmas attached to this have crossed over into post colonial Britain. Key words such as “tribal” or “ethnic” are constantly used in fashion but what do they really mean? Have they been redefined by their context? Nearly all non Western music falls under the category of world music regardless of genre. Innovation in artists with a cultural heritage is rich and varied but so often they are labelled “ethnic” that it limits their ability to enter into a conversation about anything outside of this subject.
Firstly, it is essential to establish what constitutes Britishness and therefore British art. As far back as the establishment of Protestant England, migrant painters created works of “iconic British imagery.” Therein exists a contradiction; what is understood to be British art is actually created by immigrants. This questions the relationship between the location of culture and the extent to which it is determined by migrant influences. This topic is becoming increasingly relevant in contemporary Britain as the influences of globalisation affect us more and more. Hypocrisies around race and class are still evident in a post colonial world. As people are on the move more than ever before, through international commerce and both social and economic migration, progression is made towards a community, where,as Black British artist, Yinka Shonibare, puts it “we will exist in a post- gender, post- race society.”
We will never reach the level of “post gender, post racial world” if our perception of art and culture is always limited to viewers looking at work in context of its origin. Mosquera argues that “Frequently works of art are not looked at; they are asked to present their passports.” In reality, globalisation only occurs in parts of the world that were previously organised by colonialism and it could be argued that there is still this structure in place. However, this becomes more complicated when it is considered how the artists from the previously colonised state, view their own traditions and heritage. It could be argued that ethnicity itself has been constructed through the Western perspective. This in turn this leads to a counter reaction that forces those with an ethnic heritage to cling to it, almost in defiance of the forced western traditions. Thereby, creating an unnatural hoarding of traditional culture that would otherwise disintegrate over time. The fact remains though that art institutions still exist in the great metropolises of the colonial world, London, New York, Paris and Berlin. This in turn leads artists from African and Asian countries in search of a successful career to export their work from their Native countries.Often they “self otherise” forcing them to “self exoticise.” Do they do this because this is what Western viewers expect of “Ethnic” art?
In a truly multi-cultural society we begin to accept artists of different ethnicities not as the “other” or non- Western but rather as a wholly integral part of the British art world. In this sense it would be possible to view ethnic art not in terms of its ethnicity or context. Perhaps “what gathers us together is not commonness but a will to communicate despite an acute awareness of how difficult it is,” (Naoki Sakai.) Only then is it possible to realise Shonibare’s vision of a post racial, post- gender world. The artwork starts to be seen in a light where the artist and the artist’s cultural heritage is irrelevant.
The British art world views “ethnic” art that is not in fact ethnic but a constructed view of ethnicity. The ethnic art actually exists in the silent sectors of the planet that globalisation does not connect. Instead globalisation connects, with ever increasing speed, centres of power to centres of economy. Though the world is progressing towards globalisation, the avant garde art scene has a long way to go. No institution in a third world country has or will for the foreseeable future, replace New York or London as the major art world centre. Tragically ensuring that the art world separation of curated and curating nations, remains.
Written by Lucy Whittaker
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