Media @ McGill

“You can go now”: producing decolonial publics in a globalized art world

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Zoë De Luca


My dissertation project seeks to answer the following question: How can the current move toward global art histories, the historical formation and ever-increasing “biennale-ization” of the global art world, and the related revision of museum collecting and display practices be understood in the context of both artistic production and art history’s formative relationship to projects of colonialism, nation building, globalization, and decolonization?

During the period of the award I will undertake research and produce writing toward the completion of the first chapter of my dissertation on decolonial artistic practices circulating within the globalized contemporary art world. My primary focus will be on Richard Bell’s (member of Aboriginal Kamilaroi, Kooma, Jiman and Gurang Gurang communities) Embassy series (2013- ongoing), which has recently been jointly acquired by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney and Tate Modern, London. In my chapter I look to Bell’s presentation of Embassy within a constant series of internationally-addressed exhibitions, ranging from the 2015 iteration in New York City as part of the Performa biennial, to the Cairns Indigenous Arts Festival (CAIF) and Sydney Biennale in 2016 (and its many stops in Moscow, Jakarta, Perth and so on along the way) to consider how this work mobilizes its place within a now globalized exhibitionary complex to assemble politically active networks.

Bell’s project can be understood as an example of the participatory-based artistic practices that focus on active spectators and have proliferated since the 1990s. However, in my dissertation project I theorize the specific political motivations of Bell’s work in producing what I am terming “decolonial publics.” The present day nation states of Canada and Australia bear striking similarities as major sites of settler occupation and Indigenous dispossession with complex settler-colonial and neoliberal political praxes. (Coulthard 2014, Simpson 2014, Moreton-Robinson 2015, Povinelli 2002, Land 2015.) The work produced by the artists I study is representative of some of the most critical challenges to Canadian and Australian discourses of accommodation and recognition. I approach Bell’s series as a continuation of the Indigenous land rights and anti-racism activism mobilized through the “original” Aboriginal Tent Embassy, established on the lawns of Australian Parliament in January 1972. Forty-five years later, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy remains in place and Bell’s Embassy maintains a global tour as part of the long history of Indigenous diplomacy and action in the pursuit of sovereignty and decolonization. My work will therefore investigate Bell’s Embassy series as a critical hinge between liberal globalization fantasies of complete cultural and financial capital mobility – through which the Embassy form appears readymade for circulation – and the emphatically grounded decolonial future that it pursues.