Is art a universal language?

The first time I saw the Roundabout exhibition was at the City Gallery in Wellington last year. I had mixed feelings about it then. The exhibition brings together work by a range of artists from different nationalities, ethnicities and religious, ideological and political stances, with an emphasis on artists from New Zealand, Australia and Asia. The premise is to create some kind of cross-cultural dialogue:

This exhibition celebrates common threads of human experience – belief, faith, challenge and hope. City Gallery Director Paula Savage says, “This exhibition provides rich and timely considerations of the current state of our world. roundabout acknowledges that the world rotates on a common axis, and many experiences are shared irrespective of geographical separation or differing traditions and languages. The exhibition provides an important platform for conversations to arise between Western and non-Western visual cultures, contemporary and customary practices.”

Promoting tolerance and understanding through the universal language of art?
I think it’s a really appealing concept on one level, but also contains all the usual problems of liberal discourse on multiculturalism and coexistence. It’s based on an assumption that the only difference between conflicting groups (the Western and the non-Western) is, well, difference. That they are two equal groups who just need to learn how to understand each other better.

But the kind of cross-cultural dialogue that is presented here, Western vs Eastern and Indigenous dialogue, isn’t just about separate groups that need to understand each others’ culture better. It’s a cultural confict that is a result of inequality, of Western colonisation and imperialism. One group holds power over the others and controls resources the others can’t access. Fluffy rhetoric about dialogue and understanding, if it doesn’t acknowlege inequality of power, is counter productive. It renders invisible that power inequality and therefore allows it to continue.

So even though I loved many of the individual pieces in Roundabout, I found the premise behind the exhibition frustrating.

Yesterday I went to see Roundabout again, this time at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

I think the piece that moved me the most was this installation by Tony Albert: a wall covered in kitchy Australian memorabilia items featuring stereotypical colonial representations of Aboriginal people. It’s a horrific display.

There were s a lot of artworks by other New Zealand and Australian artists too, like Vernon Ah Kee, Shane Cotton, Lyonel Grant, Rangi Kipa, Kelcy Taratoa and Roi Toia. Artworks which deal with issues of colonisation, racism and cultural appropriation. Neither Albert’s installation or any of the other artworks were given any context aside from the artist’s name and nationality. The audience wasn’t even told whether the artist is indigenous or not.

It made me wonder how these artworks are interpreted by an Israeli audience that isn’t familiar with New Zealand and Australian history, culture and politics.

My cousin Phoebe said that Lyonel Grant’s carving reminded her of the wooden masks my uncle has in his house. I don’t know where those masks are from — at a guess I’d say Africa or the Pacific Islands. But I don’t know enough about traditional artworks from either of those very general areas to be able to say. I don’t know anything about the people who created those masks, or why they made them, or what kind of meaning or purpose the masks have in their culture.

Probably my uncle doesn’t know either. I think he hung those masks on the wall in the way that Western people often hang objects from non-Western cultures on the wall — because they are exotic and interesting and pretty to look at and in a way they symbolise Western domination over the rest of the world, because we can take their stuff and look at it and not have to understand it or the culture that created it. Whereas people from colonised and marginalised cultures are forced to understand the dominant culture in order to survive.

Of course, the Tel Aviv museum isn’t displaying ‘traditional artefacts’ from non-Western cultures. It’s displaying contemporary art by contemporary non-Western artists who address these questions of colonisation and the Western gaze. At least, i think that’s what they’re trying to address. I can’t know for sure what each of the artists was thinking when they created each specific artwork.

But I do wonder — when these pieces are presented divorced of context – other than the ‘inter-cultural dialogue’ message of the exhibition – does the audience understand them as a political commentary on the impact of colonisation? I feel like there’s a good chance that the art ends up being interpreted the same way as my uncle’s mask collection. That it becomes an exotic artefact from an exotic far away people, Indigenous art to be collected and consumed by Western people. So that instead of challenging the colonial gaze it becomes its object.

I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not convinced that art is a universal language. I think sometimes it needs translating. Otherwise people will view it through the lense of their existing prejudices.


Of course there’s also the question of whether international artists should be working with Israeli institutions, when Palestinian organisations have called for a cultural boycott of Israel. I imagine the folks behind Roundabout would argue that boycotting art institutions means missing a chance to create dialogue.

Supporters of the boycott would probably respond that engaging with Israeli cultural institutions helps maintain Israel’s image as a tolerant, open minded cultured society, and whitewashes over the occupation.

I’m not sure where I sit on this question, but I do think it’s an important question that should be acknowleged and engaged with.


1 Comment

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One response to “Is art a universal language?

  1. Kim

    This is a great post, looking at really interesting questions. Thanks again.

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