Ariella Azoulay’s new book Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (Verso, 2019) is an important read on the topic of museums, colonialism, and their clear relationship. In this conversation, Azoulay, who is Professor of Modern Culture & Media and Comparative Literature at Brown University, joins us at Hyperallergic HQ to explain what we need to unlearn, and how artists, collectors, critics, and other arts professionals play a role in the continuing dispossession of colonial subjects, most often people of color, around the world. This conversation is essential for anyone interested in the future of arts institutions and their role in social change.
A special thanks to Dried Spider for the music to this week’s episode. You can visit driedspider.bandcamp.com, for more information.
A full transcript of the interview can be found below. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: The amount of objects that were looted in the 19th century required the creation of museums. Rather than assuming that museums were always there and objects were collected into those museums, what I’m trying to show is that the amount of plunder unleashed this process of creation of museums all around the US, for example, all around Europe and in other places.
Hrag Vartanian: Ariella Azoulay’s new book is a punch to the gut of complacency that’s still rampant in the culture and academic communities, communities that are still dominated by voices that find it hard to understand the ramifications of their work in relation to empires and colonialism. For far too long, curators, scholars, artists, collectors, and critics, of course, have relied on a myth that they’re above the fray, perched in their privileged positions and simply presenting the facts or reflecting the world around them.
Those of us paying attention have always known there’s more to that. In the last few decades, academics as varied as Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak have chipped away at that fiction. And now Azoulay has added her voice to the continuing conversation through the lens of photography and decolonization, which she suggests should start with the European conquest of the Americas in 1492 and not with the traditional start date of photography sometime in the beginning of the 19th century. That is sure to raise some eyebrows in the field.
Her work, though, has long lingered on the photograph and the conditions for their creation. She never fetishizes photos. And even in her latest book, she’s chosen to draw the images rather than reproduce them as photographs. A controversial decision, for sure, but one that highlights her interest in the world around images, rather than the image as the only site of inquiry.
If this all sounds like heady stuff for you, I suggest you sit back and take the time to listen and unlearn a bit. Her new book, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism is published by Verso Books and it builds on her past work that looked at the role of photography in the formation of the modern nation state. The book topped Hyperallergic Best Books of 2019 List and it has a lot to say about reparations, museums, modern art, and violence. I’m Hrag Vartanian, the host of the Hyperallergic podcast.
Hrag Vartanian: I think your new book is provocative in many ways, for many people who maybe haven’t been thinking about photography as much as you have. You know, and my first exposure to your work was as a curator. I saw your exhibition that you did at Bat Yam Museum in Israel. And do you want to talk a little bit about who the artist was and what that exhibition was?
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Yeah, this was an exhibition of an artist photographer who builds cameras and uses them in particular contexts. Each camera is built for a specific context. What he’s trying to do is to challenge the way that cameras were institutionalized as devices that should produce legible images that then will be circulated elsewhere. So, we were in a dialogue for, I think, almost two decades.
Hrag Vartanian: And his name was Chaim?
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Duelle Luski.
Hrag Vartanian: Chaim Duelle Luski.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: I also wrote a book about his work several years ago. And I think what I was interested in his work is the way that he challenges the device. The device of the camera. And I think that what I’m trying to do in the book is to challenge not only the device, but to challenge the way that we understand that device as the center or the focus of photography.
Hrag Vartanian: The thing that blew me away about that exhibition that we’re talking about is the fact that he had devised these different kind of cameras that were both sculptural and were playing with notions of the eye, clearly. And sometimes they seem to mimic eyeballs or other kinds of types of, you know, machines for viewing. And the images were fascinating in and of themselves, but there was kind of, like, a distancing that kind of happens in the different things because they feel both very immediate, but they feel kind of mediated, do you know? And it sort of, it made it more conscious. It was almost like you consciously saw how photography fails us by revealing the mediation, do you know, in his objects. How would you characterize his work for those who may not know?
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Let’s say that the images are less important for me, the images that come out of it, even though I agree with you, that they are fascinating. I am more interested in the way that [he] builds objects through which photography can be rethought, rather than thinking, you know, through the way that the device of photography was built in established as an instrument to capture the world and to translate it or to write it with light or whatever history you would like to embrace in order to depict it. What we see with these instruments is the possibility to think about photography outside, for example, of the relationship between the one who holds the camera and the person who is in front of the camera. Because all of these objects are not objects that are held in the hands of someone who is mastering the situation. They are devices that are … in between people. And they require a moment of exposure, but this moment of exposure doesn’t master the situation because you have no idea what will be inscribed in or on the surface that is within the body of those objects.
Hrag Vartanian: I mean, some of them almost looked like soccer balls, like you should be kicking them around and there are other … do you know, it’s like even imagining how they took images is kind of amazing, you know? And so in this book, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, one of the most provocative things I think about the book is you decide to not look at the traditional beginning of photography, which is often seen as the 1830s and in that period where the formation of this kind of photo history that’s taught in schools often. And you imagine it starting more like 1492. Why did you decide to do that?
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: [laughs] I don’t know if I can speak about it with the term “decision.” I don’t think that it is related to a decision, but let’s say that studying imperialism, I couldn’t continue to relate to photography as something that came late because, you know, several years ago when I wrote The Civil Contract of Photography, and later on The Civil Imagination, I tried to go beyond the reduction of photography to photographs. Because photographs are the outcome of the machine, of the device. And somehow they became the center of the archive, the center of the discussion of art. And what I try to do is to understand photography on the one hand as an event, on the other hand as a practice, and certainly not something that is reduceable to the person who holds the camera, the device. So I try to understand photography as an encounter in which many people participate and to understand their removal from our understanding of photography, the removal of the photographed person, for example. The removal of the spectator — the concrete spectator and the hypothetic spectator — that participate, in my eyes, in the event of photography. Because whoever participates in the event of photography as some, you know, notions or aspirations or anticipation of potential spectators that would be involved. And they are not necessarily the same from the perspective of the photograph person and the photographer. And when I started to study, you know, the history of imperialism, it was related to my migration from destroyed Palestine called Israel to the US seven years ago. And when I landed here, I understood that I really have to … [laughs] take a crash course in the history of this place, because I felt like …
Hrag Vartanian: How did that go? [laughs]
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: You know, I felt like, you know, this is really a settler colonial place, like Israel.
Hrag Vartanian: Par excellence.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Par excellence but I felt like, you know, colleagues around speak about the founding fathers. They speak about the Constitution as if it was a sacred document. And I knew that I had to learn more about the way that slavery shaped the display. So it was on the one hand slavery, on the other hand settler colonialism and the destruction of different species of life, let’s say. The appropriation of Indigenous land and all these. So I felt like, you know, I came here seven years ago. I thought that the Potential History book is almost done. And when I came here, I understood that it’s not done. And the rather than, you know, having Palestine as its focus, Palestine became a reiteration of imperial violence rather than, you know, the exception or rather than my focus. And so, you know, starting to work in this context of 1492, speaking about photography as a delineate practice felt completely wrong. And also speaking about photography as reduced to this, you know, encounter between an individual photographer and several photographed persons also felt wrong. What I started to understand is photography on a scale of extraction, because once you enter, you know, museums, you enter archives, and you understand how much was extracted from people all around the world, you understand that extraction was not invented with the device of photography. Extraction was there. The organization of the world, you know, that you call this place “US,” you call this place “Saint-Domingue,” all these, you know, taxonomies and division of the worlds, the spatial and temporal division of the world … It is as if photography, just, you know, continued this. So rather than accepting the imperial temporality that a practice like photography is the beginning moment that is related to the device, I wanted to understand photography as having its beginning together with other extractive practices. The extraction of land, the extraction of resources, and extraction of free labor. And once you understand photography outside of the encounter between individuals and you think about the extraction of what I call “visual wealth,” you understand the amount of free labor that was extracted from the photographed persons that is accumulated in Western-type museums or in Western-type archives. So I … forgot where we started!
Hrag Vartanian: I think we’re in the right spot where we should be. I mean, I think that for me is pretty mind-blowing. What I also love about the book is at the beginning, you do a little bit of archaeology on your own family history with your father and his roots in Algeria. And also by your middle name, Aïsha. Now, was that a name that was given to you or you claimed that name?
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: I claimed that name because when when my father passed away, also seven years ago, it was at the same time that they migrated to the US, you know, he passed away and we had all of a sudden access to his documents. When I’m saying “we” I’m speaking about me and my siblings, and we had access to his documents. And all of a sudden, I see that his mother’s name is Aïsha, and not Elise as he used to tell us. And as we didn’t meet her frequently because she lived in France, you know, we couldn’t confront him on this ever. We couldn’t ask her even because she spoke French. We didn’t speak French when we were children. So I realized that his mother’s name is Aïsha and Aïsha is not a typical Jewish name, to say the least. And immediately I decided that this will be my name. And later on when I wrote the book and several things came together, one of them is the understanding that, you know, the Crémieux law, for example, in Algeria, when the Jews were given citizenship, they were actually pitted against the Arab inhabitants of Algeria. But when I’m thinking about my great-great-grandparents, they gave their daughter an Arab name 25 years after the Crémieux law, which means that they refused to become the good citizens of the French empire, while all the years that my father was alive, I related to him as someone who really wanted to pass for a French guy, even though, you know, he was North African. In retrospect, I even recognize his accent is a North African Arabic accent when he spoke French. So yeah, Aïsha is the name that I claimed for myself and it helped me to, I think, not complete, but to go farther with my withdrawal from the identity that I was given when I was born, which is I was born an Israeli, which means I was born to be the enemy of Palestinians, from whom their lands, their resources, and everything else was stolen. So understanding that I am Aïsha was actually going against, let’s say, my ancestors. My father and my mother did embrace the Zionist project and aligned with my great-great-grandparents that refused to be the good citizens of empire.
Hrag Vartanian: You know, it also really impacted me when you write about your father marrying a lighter-skinned woman. My father did a similar thing. I think part of [why] that story resonates so much is because I think these are all very common. You’re talking about how he was trying to pass as French, and then he arrives in Israel passing as French. Is that correct?
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Yeah.
Hrag Vartanian: So all these layers that have been hidden in the story are very much the kind of … I’m using this as an example so people kind of understand how these skins sort of, like, emerge as you sort of delve into these different topics, which I think is incredibly important. So now, how do you situate yourself then? Do you know, because you talk about not embracing the Israeli part, you’ve talked about all these different aspects. And one of the things I find in this work and in these conversations, there’s always this tendency with people, like, “Oh, but you’re implicated, you can’t free yourself of that. You’re part of the system,” you know? This sort of thinking like, “Oh, you’re part of the system. Like, don’t complain so much. You’re benefiting as much as anyone.” How do you respond to that kind of … I mean, it’s a lazy critique in my opinion, but how do you respond to those kinds of ideas? How do you situate yourself in that kind of imperial dynamic?
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: I think that there are two parts to your question. One of them is, how do I situate myself? And the other one is, how do I respond to this kind of, as you say, lazy critique? I think that they are not really the same question. So let me start by trying to answer the first one. How do I situate myself? I think that for now, I can say, after I finished working on this book in the last decade, I would recognize myself more like a Palestinian Jew on the one hand and like an Arab Jew in the context of Algeria, in the context of North Africa, and even, I would say, in the context of Africa. And it matters for me to ask, what does it mean that Algeria became North Africa rather than Africa? And what does it mean that I was born in Palestine and interpolated to forget all these components of my identity. And when I’m thinking, for example about, you know, my identity from the side of my mother, who was born in Palestine. In her understanding, before she was compelled to embrace the Zionist project in 1948 when she was 19, in her understanding she was a Palestinian Jew. So even if it sounds like, you know, provocative to say that I’m a Palestinian Jew, I would like to relate to it not as a provocation, but rather as reconstructing different genealogies that imperialism deprived us of. So when you ask me, where do I situate myself? I situate myself where I can exercise some liberties to reject or to refuse the interpolation of imperialism to define who I am. But this doesn’t relate only to, you know, geographical or cultural context. It relates also to, you know, the way that by imperial categories, I am being defined as a scholar, which means having different privileges, having different accesses to certain objects, et cetera. So in this domain also, I’m trying to refuse some of those … licenses, let’s say, to do certain things that are expected from scholars.
Hrag Vartanian: I was about to say, that’s such a great word, “license,” because part of your book talks about that. The fact that the scholarship, and I mean, anybody who’s studied the history of Western intellectual history knows the infamous French expedition to Egypt is probably the most stark example of what that is. And you talk about it in your book. So, what does it mean to give up those privileges? We’ll go back to the second part of that question shortly, but I just wanted to ask about that.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Maybe this is the second part of the question, that we are not outside of the system. So I don’t pretend that I am not teaching at Brown and I am enjoying many of those privileges. But the question is how you are negotiating those privileges in a way to emphasize and to make present all the time — not just, you know, to say it and then to move on. To make present all the time what is wrong about using certain of those privileges. And I don’t think that there is a place outside of those systems, but there are different places within those systems. And we have much more power than we believe, especially if we were many, to reject some of those interpolations that are given to us.
Hrag Vartanian: Amen. [laughs] So now I want to talk a little bit about the art in the book. And when I say art, I use that term specifically because I expected it to be full of photographs. And the book has a number of sketches of photographs, and they’re clearly derived from photographs, so that’s clear. But you’ve chosen to draw them instead. And it looks like probably in pencil, I’m guessing, or graphite?
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Yeah, pencils.
Hrag Vartanian: Yeah. So what was that about?
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Most of them, except one.
Hrag Vartanian: So why did you make that decision? Was it about taking the power away from the image itself? Or from the spectator and the person constructing that image and undermining them? How would you characterize it?
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: So it’s none of those options, even though it can be any of them at a certain time. And why I’m saying it’s none of those options is because, first of all, it has a history when I started to trace images and I will come back to it in a minute. But on the other hand, there are different moments or different justifications for each and every image. So this is why I cannot say “yes” for what you’re suggesting as a general approach to why to draw rather than to print photographs. So the history of that comes back to, I think, 2007 or 8, I don’t remember exactly, when I visited the archive, the photographic archive of the International Red Cross center in Geneva. And I asked to see what do they have from Palestine from ’47, ’48, because I knew that they were there. You know, it’s several images. I’d already created the photographic archive of ’47, ’50 from Palestine to Israel at the time. So I knew that they were there, you know, with cameras because I had some images in which they are being seen with the UN armband, taking photographs. So I asked them what do they have, and they showed me only 500 digitized images. And you could think that they were there in a field trip rather than in the destruction of an entire place. So, you know, rather than putting myself in a situation that I am looking for the sensational images, I nonetheless explored what they showed me and I selected 40 or 50 images that I wanted to show in an exhibition. And they told me that I will be allowed to show them only if I show them only with their caption. And immediately I rejected their offer, but I didn’t reject my right to show these images. So the solution that I found was to trace them, to draw them because, you know, I had very low resolution thumbnails of these images, but I didn’t want to become an artist. The idea was not to become an artist, always drawing now those images and will be appreciated for my drawing skills. The idea was how to inscribe those images that I’m not allowed to show within the photographic archive. So I called them “unshowable” images. And why “unshowable” images? Because these are images that you can go to the Red Cross archive in Geneva, and you can see them. You can view them if you ask for them. So they are not censored by the archive. Because I’m working against this notion that the archive is about censorship. The archive is about so many other things. So you can go and see them. So what they prohibited is that I will show them to you. So it’s the act of showing to others. It’s the act of taking something, depriving the archive from being the voice of those images, that they are not tolerating, that they denied to me. So I call them “unshowable” photographs, but this was already the second category I introduced into the photographic archive. The first one was “untaken” photographs of rape. When I read many testimonies of women who were raped, for example, in Palestine in ’48 or later on in ’45 — later on in my work, previously, chronologically in ’45 — when the mass rape of German women took place. And I read, you know, about the presence of the cameras, I created this category of “untaken” photographs of rape. We speak about taking photographs, but what about the photographs that were not taken? This relates us also to what we spoke [about] at the beginning, that I’m relating to photography not as a productive practice, because cameras were there and they didn’t yield the product, but nonetheless, the camera was there. So what I try to do is to invent these archival creatures or archival entities, unshowable photographs, inaccessible photographs, untaken photographs, and to put them as placeholders in the archive in a way that destabilizes or undermines the way that we conceive the archive.
Hrag Vartanian: Absolutely. I just want to give people a little bit of context. So the project you’re saying in ’45, it’s been documented that up to 2 million German women were raped right after World War II by Allied Forces, predominantly Soviet, it seems, but you also point …
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: All of them.
Hrag Vartanian: Almost all of them were Soviet?
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: No, no.
Hrag Vartanian: Oh, I’m sorry.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: All of the allies.
Hrag Vartanian: Oh, all of the allies that’s right. But I think that you did a great job in terms of also pointing out the statistics of others also, including American forces, raping the German women. And some of the context and sort of, like, the reflections by people, just to give people a sense of context for that item. One of the things also about this book that I think is going to make waves in the art community is the understanding of modern art as part of this project. Now, I have to say my heart was full after reading this, partly because it’s so hard to convince art people, particularly those interested in modern art, that modern art was part of an imperial project, as opposed to some thumbing its nose at authority, rather than just another form of assimilating the other and other things. Now, I’ve started that a little provocatively, but I’m going to also read a sentence from your book. You say, “Imperial violence is not secondary to art, but constituent to it.”
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Yep. [laughs]
Hrag Vartanian: Do you want to take it from there?
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Yeah, sure. So, you know, let’s take it slowly from there. Even when we speak about objects that were looted and were channeled towards museums, even when we say that, we are already trapped in the imperial temporality, as if museums existed and people just, you know, collected or looted objects and put them in those museums. But this is a completely imperial understanding of the process of extraction of art or extraction of objects from other cultures. What happened is that imperialism destroyed cultures.
Hrag Vartanian: Consciously, too. This isn’t, like, a mistake, you know?
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: It’s not a mistake.
Hrag Vartanian: I think some people make it seem like, oh, well it just happened, you know? No, no, it was actually a process.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: It’s a process and it recurs from one place to another, and it recurs over time, over 500 years. And it continues. I just, you know, I’m coming from Theater of Operation exhibition at PS1.
Hrag Vartanian: About the Gulf Wars.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Yeah. And, you know, the destruction of culture didn’t end at any moment. We are still in it.
Hrag Vartanian: Absolutely. I mean, just last week alone, we saw bombings in Iraq from different nations that had nothing — you know, as an example. Yeah.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: And then they are “rescuing” the objects. So coming back to this problematic imperial temporality is that the amount of objects that were looted — not only in the 19th century, but let’s look at the 19th century — the amount of objects that were looted in the 19th century required the creation of museums, rather than assuming that museums were always there and objects were collected into those museums, what I’m trying to show is that the amount of plunder unleashed this process of creation of museums all around the US, for example, all around Europe and in other places. So this is one thing that I would like to say in relation to your question about modern art. But now, when we understand that all these, you know, massive objects were looted together with different scholars who started to organize them to make sense out of them. And what did they make sense? They made sense out of objects that were disconnected from their cultures, which means did they added samples of culture and they started to organize it and into these, you know, visionary, fantasmatic narratives, historical narratives, there was a place created for modern art. So rather than assuming that modern out came after all these periods that we know from different narratives of history of art, we have to understand that modern art was the product of this accumulation of objects that all of a sudden started to be organized, you know, along temporal or geographical or cultural axes.
Hrag Vartanian: And through imperial taxonomies.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Yeah.
Hrag Vartanian: You know? I attended your lecture — was it last year? I can’t even remember — at Cooper Union where you talked about Picasso specifically and Cubism and the huge hordes of African art that were in Paris at the time. And how Picasso talked about “discovering” them, even though he literally just went to the basement of a museum. You know, this idea of discovering. So what’s that connection here? How do you see that as part of this continuity of the imperial project? So what role were modern artists playing within that, and were they doing that willingly or unwillingly? Were they even aware of what they were doing?
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: So let’s take this word of “discovering.” Not only Picasso didn’t discover in the same way that Columbus didn’t discover the New World, but myself, I’m not discovering that Picasso looted objects on ins on so many levels. The idea is, or not the idea, the challenge of the book is how you make sense of this knowledge that we all have. We all know that, you know, they went to Egypt. We all know that they went to Africa and they brought objects. How do we incorporate this knowledge into the foundation of our fields of expertise? This is the challenge. So it’s not about, you know, the anecdotes about Picasso. It is about making it pertinent to what we understand is art. And when we analyze a little bit, you know, the habitus of the artist or the modern artist, it is based on license, again. License to study everything. License not to be limited by anything. License to have access to different cultures and to learn from them. So here we have to dwell for a second on some categories that are related to scholarship or to artistic creativity. It is … curiosity is praised, right? Curiosity, the way that it was institutionalized in relation to art, is an imperial category. Because this curiosity means that you have a license, you have a right to be curious toward others.
Hrag Vartanian: And to know what they don’t want you to know.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Exactly.
Hrag Vartanian: Right. Absolutely. You know, in another part of the book you talk — I’m just going to read the sentence: “Even though museums initiated, contributed to, and participated in expeditions, and their directors are at the forefront of the opposition to restitution, they are still not perceived as institutions that should be accountable for the violence they accelerated. Rather, museums are seen as arbiters and authoritative voices that can decide on the fate of looted objects.” Why do you think that persists?
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Ah … [laughs] I think that, as you quoted earlier, art is constitutive of the imperial project. So if museums will really be or substantially be decolonized, the imperial project also will be decolonized. You cannot decolonize the museum without decolonizing the land. So there is a continuity and …
Hrag Vartanian: So, what do we do, Ariella? [laughs]
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: And museums, you know, there are a site of, there are considered to be site of education. They are considered to be, you know, site that, you want to … [laughs] to have people go to the museum. We want people to protect art, right? When we speak about war against Iran, people immediately are mobilized to protect sites. Right? To protect art. This is why I’m always reluctant to sign these petitions because not because I don’t want to protect, but I want to protect everything, not just art. So still art has this kind of aura of something apart of the imperial project.
Hrag Vartanian: Absolutely. I mean, I know Michael Press, one of our writers, wrote extensively about Palmyra and the fact that we don’t talk about the fact that it was the European archeologist in the ’20s and ’30s that took away all the homes that existed in the ruins and all the people and actually moved the population to make the ruins more pure, do you know? And so, the idea that somehow these ruins have come down to us, untouched through the generations is also a fiction that we sort of propagate, you know? Whether it’s through museums and other institutions. But how do we, in the art community and people who love art, we obviously, you know, you curate it, you put it together. You think about it probably just as much as I do, I’m sure, in different ways. How do we do what we do without contributing to that larger project? With pushing back, but also understanding that people are at different levels, do you know? And some people are just … their eyes are opening to this reality. I mean, if we were to have this conversation 25 years ago, I think this would have been a whole different conversation because people had not been thinking about museums quite that way, or at least not understanding how they connect the dots into this larger imperial project. What do you think? Am I off?
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: I have to disagree.
Hrag Vartanian: Okay.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Little bit.
Hrag Vartanian: Why?
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: I have to disagree about the 25 years ago. And maybe as a way to respond to your question, what do we have to do? I think that rather than asking, what do we have to do? We have to ask what people did in the last 500 years against these processes of looting, and joining them. So this is also, you know, for me the practicing a non-imperial temporality. Rather than thinking that we will invent, we will discover the new ways to resist against museums or that this conversation started only in the last decade rather than was there from the beginning, I insist that from the very moment of the first expedition of Columbus, people resisted this, let’s call it “museal impulse.” That Columbus came there and he thought that everything that is out there is for him to take. And for him to take, this is the museal impulse and they resisted. And we know that they resisted. He even accounts for it in his four letters.
Hrag Vartanian: Right.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: And the same with Amerigo Vespucci. I mean, wherever you read, even the imperial actors, you read resistance to this museal impulse. So I don’t think that we can allow ourself to say that this conversation started now.
Hrag Vartanian: Well, I agree. I don’t think it started now, but I do think it’s hit a threshold, perhaps. Maybe that it’s sort of being discussed in a more, kind of, in different levels, do you know? It’s like, I feel like those conversations we’re having in certain circles, but they never seem to penetrate into a certain echelon.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Only if you keep as the recognizable speakers the people who are recognized as actors in the world of art, you can say that.
Hrag Vartanian: Absolutely. Great point.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: I think that when you consult people, when you consult Palestinians, they will speak about ’48. They will speak about even earlier, they will speak about the British, not expeditions, but the British mandate that already acquired …
Hrag Vartanian: The Rockefeller Museum.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Yeah. And if you will speak to Indigenous people here or there, if you speak to African American communities that their objects were plundered and dissociated from them, I mean, you cannot say that it started today. It’s only if you keep all these people outside of the conversation and you create, you know, genealogies of artists or people who are being considered as part of the world of art that you can offer this chronology.
Hrag Vartanian: Okay. I understand. But I do think, like, maybe then this is what is part of the question here, is that hierarchy … or, I mean, I think it was a very strict hierarchy and I think that hierarchy is now slowly, maybe is not as strict and is not as hierarchical perhaps. So those voices are being heard in a way that I think historically they were so easy to dismiss, whether it was through the centralized media and the idea that unless it got to a certain level, it wouldn’t even be discussed. Now, a publication like Hyperallergic can write about something and people will read about it around the world and learn about it and they don’t have to go to the New York Times or one of these more “official” quote-unquote outlets that become the center of the conversation. And I think that might be also what I’m sort of alluding to. But it’s such a good point. Because I mean, none of this is new. This is all just sort of changing. Now, how about for you as a professor in a university and as a curator in the world. How has that changed your relationships to the institutions?
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: So let’s speak about maybe what does it mean to be a scholar? You know, as a scholar, you are being expected to provide a groundbreaking work, right? A new work. And my entire book is against this newness. Is against the possibility that what I will do will be groundbreaking. Because what I’m trying to do is to say that from … and to take it seriously. I’m not the only one who says that. But to take it seriously as part of the scholarship that whatever I’m saying, people already said that. We cannot invent the anti-imperial position. So none of us can claim to be the author of anti-imperial position. We have to acknowledge that we are part of a tradition and we have to mobilize these voices to speak with us, or ask to speak with them, rather than transforming them into our objects. So I think that as a scholar, or my relationship to the institutions, for example, if as a scholar I’m expected to go to the archive in order to provide a serious scholarship, I refuse to go to the archive. I refuse not to because I’m expected, so I’m refusing; I refuse because in the cases that I’m working on, it makes more sense to go and strike against those institutions rather than to visit those institutions and have this privileged access to the material. And the two examples that I can give you, one of them is Palestine. I will no longer go to state archives as long as my companion in the book, who is a Palestinian who was expelled from Palestine in ’48, cannot go there either. So he’s my companion, rather than my object of research. So rather than studying him, the entire challenge of the book is to create a different onto-epistemological condition under which we can speak together against the destruction of Palestine and the transformation of Israel into a fait accompli. So going on strike against Israel’s state archives makes sense for me in order to reject the scholarship or the scholarly interpolation that I will be the scholar of a person that was forced to be expelled from his land and is still not allowed to go back. So if you will ask me, “but he’s already dead,” this is not the point, right? He is still not allowed. So this is one case. In the case that I started to study when I moved to the US, which is the case of slavery and the constitutive part of slavery in the context of the US, I’m interested in the question of reparations and my argument for going on strike against the archive in relation to reparations is that I’m saying that there is not even a single document that will change our obligation to claim that reparations are due with all what we know now. So we don’t need this extra scholarship in order to justify reparations. So I think that we have an obligation to go on strike against the archive, rather than continue to go to the archive and work like tedious ants in order to generate more and more innovative scholarship about a question that should have nothing [to do] with innovation, which is reparations. I’m not saying that slavery should not be studied. I read everything that is being written about it and I value this literature. I’m speaking only from the perspective of reparations. The case for reparations was justified at the moment when people were enslaved. So we have to withdraw from this interpolation that we will bring the new knowledge to convince the world that reparations are due.
Hrag Vartanian: Am I right to also assume a little bit [that] part of the problem with the archive is who creates them and how they were formed? Is that part of the problem with the archive for you, too? Or, I just want to understand the contours of the issue.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: The problem with the archive — the imperial archive — is that the archive decides … the archive is a verdict for life and death. This is the problem with the archive. Archive is an apparatus of violence that determines that some people are being recognized as citizens and some people are being recognized as undocumented. They do not have the documents. Other people are being recognized as slaves. Others are being recognized as refugees, et cetera, et cetera. So all of these political categories and, you know, I have two hats. One of them is photography, the other is political theory. All these political categories are becoming verdicts through the archive. Without the archive, they will not exist.
Hrag Vartanian: So I just want to read another passage to talk a little bit about what we’re doing to whet people’s appetite for your book. “I’m interested in the ways looted objects did not just happen into cultural institutions, but are constitutive of the various scholarly, curatorial, and professional procedures, of which collecting is but one example, which have transformed world-destroying violence into a decent and acceptable occupation.”
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Yep. [laughs]
Hrag Vartanian: So what … [laughs] Do you want to comment on that sentence or on that idea? You know, I think people are going to have trouble with that.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Why?
Hrag Vartanian: I think because some people’s identities are very much formed within this work, do you know? And I think a lot of people feel like they are doing something good in the world and a sentence like that undermines that sense for themselves. The reason I bring that up is obviously here at Hyperallergic, we’ve been covering everything from the Whitney protest to the Gulf labor protest for years. And one of the biggest confusions for me at first was how people didn’t want to accept that an institution they worked at had serious foundational problems, even though the formation of museums is well-known, of how they formed, do you know? And who was responsible and how they accumulated this loot and all these types of things, which you reiterate in your book. But they don’t want to accept the fact that they’re somehow complicit in this project. And I think that’s why people are going to be hesitating. So the idea of collecting as being part of this larger scheme of violence, for some people, is going to sit in a very difficult place, you know? In their heads.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: I see what you’re saying, but you know, the project of the book is unlearning. But it’s not only the project of the book. I think that the project that we — that people engage with, if they don’t want to be complicit, is a project of unlearning, right? So you cannot unlearn … or you can not learn about the fact that museums were originated in looting and stop there. Because this is, you learn it and you know it, and you move on. Unlearning is an unending process under the imperial condition. Unlearning means once you unlearn that the museum is a benign site where you go to admire art, you cannot stop there. You have to unlearn also your habitus as a spectator. You have to unlearn also the way that you thought that objects were channeled into the museum. You have to unlearn everything. It cannot stop there. Because imperialism — this is one of, you know, the particularities of this particular empire. Violence is mediated with documents and documents acquired or shaped as sites of legitimacy. And I think that we have to unlearn the document. We have to unlearn documentary. We have to unlearn documentation. We have to unlearn all these and we cannot stop by unlearning this. We have all the time to unlearn the foundations of what we thought are the foundations of knowledge.
Hrag Vartanian: One of the photographs you talk about in your book is a pretty well-known photograph from the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in France of the infamous image of one of the heads at that magazine holding up an issue of the new publication in this kind of, like, rebellious or seemingly rebellious way. And you use that as an example to talk a little bit about the idea of the universal position of the artist and what that means. That is going to be, I think, also controversial for some people. And I’ll explain why. Because I think people still see the artist as this kind of cultural trickster that somehow rises above these kinds of political realities and functions in this, kind of, I don’t know, maybe not neutral, but in a much less grounded space about these sort of labels, you know? And they’re trying to … they’re creating something new and, you know, the myth of originality and all these different kinds of ideas. Do you want to talk a little bit about that image and why you chose that to discuss that?
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: You know, what I’m trying to do in this chapter when I’m discussing this particular image, I’m trying to …
Hrag Vartanian: Ah, sorry, can I just have context? I realize some people may not know. So the image came after the terrorist attack in France where a number of the members of Charlie Hebdo magazine were killed. And so this came after that and was unfortunately also tied into a lot of Islamophobia and different kinds of things that were going on at the time. Apologies. Go ahead.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Yeah. So just one thing to clarify this, the Charlie Hebdo offices were attacked before the massacre of, or the killing of, some members of the staff and this image that you refer to was taken after the first attack against the …
Hrag Vartanian: I see, apologies.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Because he is still alive, he’s holding the magazine, challenging, “Yeah. I have an unlimited right to ridiculize the prophet.” And it matters for the story that I’m trying to narrate there because I’m trying to understand how come that an entire community criticized the way the magazine depicted the prophet, and they just don’t care. And he’s defying — with the journal in his hand — he is defying and he says, “I don’t care. I have an unlimited right and you are not going to limit this right. We live in France. We are the Republic.” And what I’m trying to show through this example, first of all, I’m trying to study this gesture of holding something in your hand, or trying to challenge others with saying, “Kill me if you wish, or don’t kill me.” So I’m trying to understand what creates a situation of vulnerability that people can throw themselves or can come forward and say, “Kill me if you wish.” And this is exactly not the case when he’s holding the magazine. It doesn’t … he says, “Kill me if you wish, I’m not afraid of you.”
Hrag Vartanian: Right.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: But he’s not afraid of them, but he has been provided with a body guard. And he was not afraid of them because he was the privileged citizen of his culture. It’s true that he was killed. It doesn’t protect you forever, because we know that colonizers or enslavers are not protected. So I take this delicate case and nonetheless, I insist on the fact that when he challenged the community that criticized the way that he depicted the prophet, he acted as inheritor of the French empire who can decide who has a right to say what in this country. And alongside him, what I’m trying to do is to study another case of a Palestinian who was made into a target of the Israeli army. And I’m trying to reconstruct this as the basis of a different form of making art, because he engaged the photographer in these requests. “Take a photograph of me. I’m not afraid of the army.” And I think that thinking about these two situations in comparison can teach us a lot about what makes the life of a person vulnerable when you’re deprived of your objects, when you’re deprived of the protection of your culture, and when you are protected by your culture, regardless of the end of the story that the Palestinian was not killed and Charbonnier was killed. And the other case that I’m studying is a case from the ’31 Pende rebellion in Congo, where it involved also the creation of a sculpture in relation to the challenge, the threats that the community felt in relation to the tax collector who came to the community to exploit them further.
Hrag Vartanian: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think the Charlie Hebdo is also, what I liked about that conversation was the fact that you sort of go against the accepted, maybe mainstream media knowledge of this, or how it’s often framed within that. But then what does that leave the artist who wants to aspire to the universal?
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Want to aspire to the universe, you know, in this world means want to aspire to forever stay an imperial actor. I don’t have any sympathy for them.
Hrag Vartanian: Wow. Okay. [laughs] Ah, I knew having you on this podcast would be amazing. So now, when you’re working on these topics, I’m wondering …
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Just, maybe can we dwell a little bit about universal …
Hrag Vartanian: Please, I would love that.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: You know, the entire idea of art, history of art, modern art that came after — but we spoke about that it didn’t come after, it came when they accumulated everything so they could organize things in a way that there was a place created for modern art, even though some of the plundered objects were contemporaneous of modern art. The museum created not only the possibility to organize objects along a temporal axis, but also to organize objects as if art was a transcendental category, that all of them were just tokens of this transcendental category. And what I’m trying to do in the book is to show that there were many different formations of art-making. Not all of them have been, you know, generated objects, not all of them generated objects to be interpreted, not all of them generated objects to be displayed. Not all of them were generated to be displayed for everybody. This idea of the universal spectator, it’s such a violent idea.
Hrag Vartanian: I’m with you. I’m not a big fan, but I think there’s … I still, you know, I’ll talk to art schools and other people, and they’re still that idea that still persists. And I think this is what you capture a little bit of in your book, is art is often seen as the opposite of violence, but it’s not.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: It’s not.
Hrag Vartanian: It’s not. So, you know, I’m assuming people push back on this idea with you because, I mean, or do they not? Have you had people push back on this idea of art as very much part of the violence of empire?
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: You know, I lectured in different places before the book came out. I presented some of the chapters in different contexts. And so far, I had amazing conversations with people, including art students. I think that they feel that something is wrong in the way that they’re being educated. The same way that students at the university feel that there is something wrong with the way that they are being educated. There is something wrong about institutions where they are being educated. There is something wrong about, let’s say, the whiteness of the institutions and the fact that institutions are part of settler colonialism and there is a conflict between the more radical courses that are taking, when they’re in universities where you have more radical courses, and the context in which they are taking these courses. And I think that rather than assuming that students are not interested in unlearning these clichés about what an artist is, which are actually, you know …
Hrag Vartanian: Very much clichés.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Clichés, but there are not only clichés. They are imperial fire lines, formations.
Hrag Vartanian: And let’s also mention “cliché” comes from photography.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Yeah. [laughs]
Hrag Vartanian: [laughs] So let’s also, I mean, just to bring it back a little bit to that. And one of the things that you talk about in the book, you talk about some of the images, particularly of African art and how they were denuded, do you know? The nails were taken off. The different sort of objects that somehow accumulated around them were removed. In some ways, it reminded me a little bit of ancient art, how they were sort of made into white objects. And they were often even sanded or the color was removed. And in the same way, African objects were, sort of. So that also pointed out to me, or reiterated maybe, the fact that sometimes in art history, there is this assumption that we don’t see that part, do you know? And is it because it doesn’t fit into the narratives? Or is it a conscious aspect of removing it from its current context fully? You know, what is the denuding? What is that about?
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: The denuding is part of creating a strata of experts that are not the people from whom these objects were expropriated. It’s very simple. They became experts of the objects that they recreated. And they recreated these objects by placing them in their “proper place,” with quotation marks, along the temporal and spatial schemes, they recreated these objects by denuding them of some of their components. They recreated these objects by converting them into the status of a work of art that is to be displayed, to be interpreted, et cetera. And they recreated these objects by making them accessible to peers in other imperial countries, rather than putting them in the context where they belong, which is the context from where they were expropriated. But maybe in relation to the creation of the strata of experts, let me just say something about these objects. What I’m trying to argue in the book is that these objects that were denuded … they were also documented. And how were they documented? They were documented according to a particular taxonomy, but nonetheless, they were documented, they were taken care of, they were protected, they were preserved, et cetera, et cetera. So we find ourselves today with numerous institutions where millions of objects that were taken from other people are accumulated and are preserved. And with documentation from where they were taken. On the other hand, we have millions of people trying to reach to the US or to Europe and they’re being called undocumented.
Hrag Vartanian: Right.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: So, what I’m trying to do in the book is to think about the relationship between the undocumented people and the documented objects. So coming back to experts, we have experts today speaking about the question of restitution as if restitution is of a documented object, to give it with all the documents to another institution in one of the countries in Africa.
Hrag Vartanian: That they approve of.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Yeah.
Hrag Vartanian: That’s the other thing, right? You talk about that, too. The fact that often, that conversation is, like, “an approved museum we like,” or a museum that’s appropriate.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Yeah. Which, by the way, will never happen. But let’s say that the conversation is around this. And what I’m trying to say in the book is that these undocumented people and these documented objects are related. And if they are related, the way to think about their relationship is not to think about the restitution of, or necessarily about the restitution of objects to those countries. But thinking about those objects, documented objects, as the “missing,” with quotation marks, documents of those people that were, through the archive, made into undocumented. So what I’m trying to offer in the book is a different understanding of the rights of those people from former colonies to reach those, you know …
Hrag Vartanian: Objects.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Those objects and the lands where they are being kept.
Hrag Vartanian: Absolutely. Now, that actually ties in also, I think, in your bigger discussion about the role of violence in this. Because I think sometimes the violence is about severing those ties, do you know? Between the objects and the people, the populations. And you talk very beautifully about the fact that, like, some of these objects are ritual objects. They’re not meant to be seen or they sort of function in these ways that, outside of that context, really make no sense to anybody, do you know. Or at least we actually don’t even fully know how some of these objects were used or not used. And all these types of things and, of course, the names of the people associated with them are almost never recorded, do you know? So, it would suggest to me, if this is part of an imperial project, sometimes I would assume that that recording would be an important part of the provenance of an object, particularly in a culture that was obsessed with lineage like imperial cultures are. But was it because they were seen as not human? Were they seen as not important enough to document? Like, I’m trying to understand where that impulse came from initially, as opposed to … 19th-century Europeans were meticulous about documenting so many things, so it must’ve been a conscious decision to not document all those creators and other details about particularly the African objects, I think is probably the most egregious because like you said, many of them were contemporary. They weren’t even ancient objects from 3,000 years ago, or something like that. Where does that come from, you think?
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: From the license of imperial actors to those objects, like they’re licensed to the resources of these people, like they’re licensed to their free labor.
Hrag Vartanian: But it was across the board. That’s the part that perplexes me, meaning there would be maybe individuals or maybe, not every imperial nation is exactly the same, even though …
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: All imperial nations worked along the same lines and the same lines were the reorganization of labor on a global scale, which meant that, you know, people of color were to be forced into slavery or indentured work or very low-wage work, depending on the period. Everything that they had was eligible to be expropriated and to become others’. And I think that it’s very important in this context of objects, or art objects, to understand the strata of experts, to understand the way that academia and museum workers are implicated in this expropriation. If those people who created those objects, the people among whom those objects made sense, would be recognized, their knowledge would be recognized, these experts could not come to the world, could not be shaped, could not emerge.
Hrag Vartanian: So it undermines their own authority.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Yeah. And when you look in the exhibition that I have now at Barcelona at Tàpies Foundation, I have an entire project around extraction of objects. And I’m looking at different images of those people who are called collectors of those objects. And I’m looking at the images where they, you know, situations of collecting. And when I’m cropping images — and I’m cropping many of the images, I don’t show them in their entirety because I’m interested in the gesture of collecting. So you would see an object in the hands of a White collector, and you will see the presence of an African guy, a Congolese guy nearby the collector. And you will see that the White collector is now studying everything that this guy knows about this object. This guy is not necessarily the creator, but he knows the meaning of these objects in his community. So what you would see is the way that people are being forced to become informants. And once they provide the knowledge that they have and the collectors are writing it down in more documents, they are being, you know, transformed into porters and now they have to carry the boxes to the nearby port in order to be shipped to those museums. So of course you don’t have a name, and of course it is systematic because the entire imperial project is to make, you know, non-White bodies into the provider of services and labor, free labor, to those who are becoming experts, those who are becoming the architects of the New World. And the New World is a project. We have to take it very seriously. Since 1492, through different phases, the New World Order is an imperial project.
Hrag Vartanian: And often a very corporate project, too. So, for those that may not know, that was an exhibition at the Fundació Tàpies in Barcelona called Errata that just closed yesterday, for those that may be interested. So now, Ariella, I want to talk a little bit about, you know, both of us are from West Asia, Middle East, and I want to talk a little bit about that because I think that’s kind of one of the regions that very much finds itself as part of the imperial project continuously for the last few hundred years. And the reason I bring that up is because I think the museums are full of objects from the region, do you know? Almost all ancient, almost none contemporary and modern. I would love to get your take on that. Why that is, how you see the region, how imperialism went in and sort of decided that this art would be part of the history of art and very much almost central to the early history of art, but then somehow gets sort of chopped off. And it sort of exists in this vacuum where, you know, Assyrians don’t exist anymore, but they’re in every major US and Western museum, but God forbid, if you ask someone “What is an Assyrian?” they wouldn’t know, for instance, as an example. What is that about in your opinion? Like, how does that fit into the larger history of art and how the region has been sort of co-opted and transformed by imperialism?
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: We spoke about destruction of cultures. This is the the perfect example of destruction of culture. You destroy a culture by the fact that you destroy the infrastructure of producing objects and you take what is called the “best samples,” which is a very problematic category. On the one hand, it’s true. They took really the most precious objects. But I don’t like the idea that they took everything, or that these are the precious and the others are not precious enough. But let’s take this category now.
Hrag Vartanian: Well, they use their own value system too, right?
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Yeah. So they took, you know, the precious objects, the best samples of this culture and they deprived people of the infrastructure to continue to produce objects. So they transform that into a moment in the past in this kind of fantasmatic history of art that moves from one area to the other as if they are consecutive, rather than existing simultaneously. So I don’t think that what you’re describing is typical only of this area. It is typical of different other areas. You know, I think that in the context of the US also we have this kind of distortion. At the end of slavery in the mid-19th century when African Americans were … went on general strike, to use DuBois’s terminology, and freed themselves of slavery, there was not this kind of association between them and the objects that were looted from their cultures in museums, right? Those objects were related in the imaginary of the outward to other people from Africa.
Hrag Vartanian: That’s right.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Not to the people who are here, who are deprived of access to those objects, or, you know, shaped the identity of the US as an identity of a land with many museums. So I think that this kind of making different cultures into past cultures, it was one of the tools of imperialism to subordinate people and to put them in their “right place,” with quotation marks, in this kind of large-scale, world-scale organizational of labor. So you transform these people into laborers and not recognize them as people being capable of creating worlds. Creating worlds, not only creating art.
Hrag Vartanian: Right. But I guess part of what I’m trying to get at is, there’s this very clear fixation on that early history, you know, in the Middle East, the so-called Middle East. I mean, most of the biggest expeditions in that period were done there, do you know? Whether they’re in Babylonia — again, we’re using these terms as if they don’t actually still exist as real places, but that seemed to be a foundation …
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Think about all the scholars.
Hrag Vartanian: Yeah.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Who build themselves out of, you know, taking these cultures and making the people among whom these cultures lived, making them inexistent.
Hrag Vartanian: Oh, absolutely. I mean …
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: So, we’re coming back to the question of experts.
Hrag Vartanian: And I mean, all you have to do is go to any major Western museum and go into their quote-unquote “Near East” department. And it’s almost all White Europeans. Again, it’s like, it gets reproduced even in 2020 that we are in now. I guess I’m also interested because of your interest in writing so much about Palestine and Israel, I feel like having visited both places, which are the same place.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: The same place.
Hrag Vartanian: But I do think psychologically they’re different places very much, or at least it feels that way from someone who’s only visited and didn’t grow up there. That seems to be such a great encapsulation of the bigger issues. Even the Israel museum in Jerusalem was built on top of an Arab village. And that was something that was even celebrated and posters up until the ’60s and ’70s you know? And even the way it’s sort of built like an Arab village in these little pavilion-like ways. It’s very much a part of it. And then you go someplace like Hebron al-Khalil, and then you see the fact that the archeological division of Israel has taken all many of the highest hills, as somehow archeological sites, even though they’re also defense strategic, do you know? And I use that as an example because it’s probably the most stark example I’ve seen of how arts and the arts in institutions are used as a bigger part of that conversation. What insight do you have?
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: You know, I made a film last year that is part of the exhibition called Un-Documented: Undoing Imperial Plunder. And it’s a film that is a critical response, I would say, to the film Statues Also Die by Alain Resnais and Chris Markel. They did a film in black and white at the end of the ’40s. They filmed only objects and there is a very neutral male voiceover on the film. And I was shaped by this film because, you know, Alain Resnais, Chris Markel, we were told that these are the people that we have to look at. And I loved it, but I also hated it. And it took me years to understand why I hated it, why I loved it, et cetera. And the film that I did, I also — following them, the film consists only of objects. I filmed in several museums, at Quai Branly and Musée de l’Homme in Paris, Pergamonmuseum, where, by the way, you have a huge new register and department, department wing or whatever you call it.
Hrag Vartanian: And giant buildings, I mean. [laughs]
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: And, you know, in Barcelona, in different places I filmed. And I remember when I went to the Quai Branly, there are different maps. And of course, Palestine doesn’t exist, as if there were no objects in Palestine, but you have the entire map, you ask, where is Palestine? And on the other hand, in another map, you find the name of Israel. But you cannot have objects from Israel in Musée du Quai Branly, which is Museum of Primitive Arts, right? Because Israel is part of the imperial powers. So I think that coming back to your question, I think that this really encapsulates this paradox. That how you transform, or which culture you’re allowed to transform into primitive arts or into primitive cultures, that you collect them as types of ancient art, and which other countries are being those who are allowed to collect those cultures? So you have the presence and absence of Israel and Palestine at Quai Branly. And this is very symptomatic of what you describe.
Hrag Vartanian: That’s a great example. Is there anything else you wanted to add? I mean, this, we could go on forever. But … [both laugh] I mean, there are so many different aspects of your book that I think … I mean, it’s a deep dive. Do you know? In many ways. If it’s all right, I want to read one more little piece. “False stories about museums as vehicles of the democratization of art obscure their creation as instruments of violence, modern spaces in which others’ material cultures are showcased and stories about the backwardness of those cultures are presented as fact. This alleged facticity was made possible since the objects were detached from their origins, held in foreign hands and removed from those who could counter the meanings they were assigned with imperial taxonomies. The spaces for displaying art had to assure the legibility of narratives of progress and appear as embodiments of their highest phase. Hence, the famous white cube is not a neutral space for the display of art, but rather a setting designed to seem like the peak of progress and therefore able to provide a neutral account of what is.”
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Indeed I wrote it. [both laugh] You asked me earlier, just before you read these, if there is something else that I want to add, and I think that this is really an invitation for me to say something to end maybe our conversation, is that my expectation with the book is that people will work with it. And that people will continue to unlearn with the book, because I think that we have a common project, which is unlearning together. So, what I’m trying to do in the book is unlearning with many other people who are in the process of unlearning. And I think that in order for this unlearning to be transformative, not only on a personal basis, but on a world-sharing basis, I think that we have to commit ourselves to substantial unlearning because imperialism is not going to disappear without us unlearning our roles, our scripted roles, as the operators of imperialism.
Hrag Vartanian: We’ll stop right there. That was a beautiful way to end. Thank you so much, Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, for your new book, Potential History, as well as all the insight you’ve provided in photography and so many of these other subjects that you tackle so beautifully.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Thank you so much for having me here.
Hrag Vartanian: A special thanks to Dried Spider for the music to this week’s episode. You can visit driedspider.bandcamp.com for more information. And we’re going to end this podcast with a minute-long clip of the author reading a passage of her book. I’m Hrag Vartanian, the Editor-in-Chief and Co-founder of Hyperallergic. Thanks for listening and enjoy your week.Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: “Not all forms of relationship should be mediated by the archive. Not all documents and works of arts were made to be collected, classified, stored, shown, or studied. These procedures can be advantages and illuminating in some contexts, but invasive and harmful in others. The prioritization of the documents and artworks, along with the transformation of the modes of handling them into neutral procedures, erase not only the concrete violence exercised here or there when particular archives were constituted, but also the entire context of imperial violence.”