A Project: Beyond Law and Democratic Ideals*
This project draws on Ngūgī wa Thiong'o's Secure the Base (2016), "Words become very important in the power relations between individuals and groups, in the exercise of law and democratic ideals" (5). However, less so explored is the importance of words in cultural texts (in this instance, wall labels, gallery write-ups, artist biographies, art criticism) in upholding colonial consciousness, eurocentrism and white saviourism, all of which are present and activated through language.
The use of words that uphold colonial stereotypes is still manifold in texts concerning both long-standing traditional work and contemporary art of Africa and its diaspora. Visitors often approach these texts before even looking at a work of art or object for understanding. Therefore the importance of these texts cannot be understated.
A project without a deadline, but part of my broader research into decolonising language and institutions, I plan to annotate and write about texts I read in cultural spaces. Every object presented in a cultural space has a social biography, both in itself and that of the text attached to it. There is a strong inclination in British cultural institutions to view and treat the objects in their care as static sources to histories once in the institution. This mould must be broken to ensure these institutions can educate, embrace pertinent narratives, and sustain themselves. In this vein, it is not just the objects that need to be restituted, but the texts of items relating to imperial and colonial histories made in Britain or by the British must be scrutinised and changed. The old texts do not need to be thrown aside, they are a recording of a particular moment, but must be contextualised and have a new text attached. In this way, the texts become part of the object and become a something of note themselves. It also encourages and reminds those working and those viewing these objects, that they are not static and should not be treated as such.
As for contemporary art by artists from Africa and its diaspora, there needs to be significantly more awareness when texts are written, institutions of contemporary and modern art can be just as problematic. This is about being meaningful, committed, knowledgable engagement, which is so often not done.