Opinion

Decolonization: an Act of Independence, Not Benevolence

It’s clear: We need space for new narratives. But how far will we get if the space-making rests in the hands of the colonizers?

Dawoud Bey, “Untitled #1 (Picket Fence and Farmhouse),” from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black (2017) (© Dawoud Bey, courtesy the artist and Rennie Collection, Vancouver)

This year’s Oscars provided everything award show viewers hoped for: glam, a rumor-inspiring piano duet, a fart-noise acceptance speech, and a dramatic announcement for best picture, complete with celebrity outbursts. Yet not all outbursts should be treated as equal. While Spike Lee’s reaction to Green Book’s win provided the sort of entertainment these events are made for, his message was profound. In a nutshell: you can’t dismantle #oscarssowhite by giving an award to a film that simply proves #oscarssowhite: a film based on the story of a Black man who was saved by a White man; a film which (along with its Academy Award) championed White benevolence.

As with the call for Hollywood to reexamine how it fits into larger conversations about representation, art institutions are confronted with similar challenges with the age-old, yet currently hot, call for decolonization. It’s clear: We need space for new narratives. But how far will we get if the space-making rests in the hands of the colonizers?

Growing up in Trinidad, my parents were British subjects who were well into their adulthood when the island earned independence in 1962. As they described it, independence was motivated by the idea that the British government was using the colonies for its own advantage, and the welfare of those in the islands was of secondary importance. From my parents, I understood independence to mean the ability to govern oneself. But I also understood that independence meant that the effects of the colonizers, in addition to the colony’s undoing, shaped the country my parents call home — a country which no longer resembled the place where the colonizers had arrived centuries earlier. With its indigenous populations wiped out, among a slew of other irreversible effects, there could be no return to a pre-colonial state. From my parents, I understood that independence was not merely a call for a return to the past, but an opportunity for colonized people to become of primary importance and envision the future on their own terms.

Recent debates about decolonization have called for the repatriation of art and artifacts including the return of the Elgin Marbles and France’s restitution of 26 objects to Benin. The idea of the give-back is so juicy, so emotional, it even worked its way into the blockbuster film, Black Panther. But un-doing coloniality is more than a just a give-back.

As the director of two art galleries dedicated to amplifying underrepresented narratives, I am familiar with well-meaning folks who want to do the right thing. But as conversations about decolonization become trendy, it’s important to remember that truly benevolent acts are slow payoffs earned through hard work — not shortcuts with high, and quick, rates of feel-good returns.

Thankfully, plenty of institutions are walking the walk as more and more administrators understand: representation is more than diversity — it’s a response to a need. The High Museum of Art reported it had significantly increased its visitors of color. And the Walton Family Foundation awarded Spelman College $5.4 million dollars to advance diversity in the museum field. At the University of Texas at Austin, I, along with my colleague, art historian Dr. Cherise Smith, and other staff members, have worked with various institutions seeking to diversify audiences, expand programs, and identify blind spots; and Dr. Smith has worked diligently to integrate predominantly white collections. The seats at the table are important. But being invited to, and occasionally accepting, the invitations shouldn’t be construed as an alleviation of White guilt or responsibility. We accept the seats, on our terms, in our quest for independence.

Admittedly, the renewed and hip conversations about decolonization have confused me as the layers — governance, repatriation, representation — get piled on, and the core of a multi-pronged effort, gets buried. While the process includes the reclaiming of treasures and autonomy, the colony’s un-doing, as my parents would say, is also an act self-liberation — not unlike what propelled the Underground Railroad, as Dawoud Bey, MacArthur Genius Fellow and photographer, recently explained to me.

Dawoud Bey, “Untitled #25 (Lake Erie and Sky)” from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black (2017) (© Dawoud Bey, courtesy the artist and Rennie Collection, Vancouver)

Through his series of photographs, Night Come Tenderly, Black, currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, Bey confronts this critical piece of American history. They are beautiful and haunting large-scale, gelatin prints — with rich silver-greys and inky-blacks — which capture dense forests, thickets, white picket fences, and eventually, the waves of Lake Erie. On a recent visit to the galleries with Bey, a museum guest, recognizing the artist, approached to offer congratulations before going on to profess, “As a white man, I know all about the Underground Railroad…” I walked away without hearing the end of the sentence.

For its part, the Art Institute has done an excellent job honoring both an important artist and critical piece of American history. Yet that visitor didn’t hesitate to stake his claim in the precious space given to this narrative.

Bey, later filling in the holes of my limited (Canadian) understanding of American history, explained, “One of the persistent myths of the Underground Railroad was that it was largely a white benevolence project, when in fact it was a black self-liberation project. The majority of the Underground Railroad ‘conductors’ were actually freed blacks … not only white people.”

When Green Book won an Academy award, Spike Lee reacted because, in part, what’s disguised as benevolence is a continued staking of a claim.

On the same visit to the Art Institute, as Bey and I left the galleries, a young Black woman hesitantly approached, with tears in her eyes, and asked if she could take a photo with Bey. I asked if she was a photographer — trying to ignore the emotion, imagining she’d simply been taken with the remarkable photographic technique. She tried to compose herself as she explained. “I’ve just never seen anything like this. And I — thank you.”

This is what telling stories, on one’s own terms, can do.

“Imagine how much richer the canon would be if we could tell our own stories,” said artist Deborah Roberts when I described the visit to her in a recent phone call. “We’ve heard what others have to say. It’s time for what comes next.”

To be clear: I’m not diminishing the critical significance of repatriation or trying to reduce colonizers’ responsibility. But efforts to decolonize, no matter what the arena, must be led by those who have been colonized. We need to amplify and empower diverse voices, to do the work that needs to be done.

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