Rolando Vázquez Melken and the Stedelijk curators
Rolando Vázquez Melken and the Stedelijk curators
May 11, 2023
In this conversation, scholar Rolando Vázquez Melken discusses his decolonial practice on occasion of the exhibition MODERN — Van Gogh, Rietveld, Léger and others. Stedelijk’s curators Karen Archey (contemporary art; time-based media), Ingeborg de Roode (industrial design) and senior research Maurice Rummens sought out to discover how decoloniality positions itself in the history of visual arts and design. Objects presented in the exhibition were analyzed in combination with the social developments of their time. This and more accounts of the exhibition are available in its catalogue, on sale in the museum shop.
MODERN — Van Gogh, Rietveld, Léger and others is on view from 18 May until 24 September 2023.
Karen Archey: Following the many conversations surrounding modernism and modernity, what do these terms mean to you?
Rolando Vázquez Melken: Modernism names a great variety of late nineteenth to early twentieth century movements, from the technologically driven futurism of Filippo Marinetti to the return to nature after the industrial age with William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. Despite their great variety, in my view all modernist movements share a belief in the promise of the future, and that the present is the most advanced moment in history.
Modernity, from a decolonial perspective, corresponds to the Western model of civilization, which is anthropocentric in placing humans above the Earth, and Eurocentric in centering the West in the now of history and here of geography.
Modernisms, wherever they came from, belonged to the present of history, and corresponded to the temporality of modernity.
Decoloniality understands modernisms differently from their definitions in art history, visual arts, and even design.1 For decoloniality these are expressions of modernity, the Western model of civilization, which during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century produces modernisms in various periods and disciplines, also beyond the visual arts and design, like literature, dance or music.
KA: Is modernism and/or modernity then some- what of a condition rather than a period?
RVM: From a decolonial perspective, modernity names the period in which Europe begins claiming the present of world history and the center of geography.
KA: What actions and forms of knowledge are associated with decolonial practice?
RVM: A fundamental decolonial practice is acknowledging the positionality of our artistic practices and institutions by recognizing our position in relation to the modern/ colonial divide. We do not seek to attain a universal position of enunciation from above or at the center of everything. For us, it is important to ask: Who is speaking in the exhibition? With whose eyes are we seeing? Who is the exhibition for? Who are the publics? What are we expecting to produce as artists, curators, critics or institutions? Are we reproducing the Western- centric gaze—the white gaze? Or are we positioning it, humbling it to acknowledge other perspectives? Are we reinforcing the colonial difference or are we undoing it?
Ingeborg de Roode: How could this thinking be applied to the Stedelijk exhibition and its objects?
Maurice Rummens: For example, starting with the mid- nineteenth-century Design Reform movement in England that applied a level of or- der and taste. It was there that Owen Jones wrote The Grammar of Ornament (1956), which he opened with tapas—cloths from Oceania very important to these reformers—two of which are in our collection and which we want to show.
RVM: With books like The Grammar of Ornament, reproductions of art from other parts of the world became resources for European modernisms. For example, primitivism is not a recognition of the voice of the other, but rather a practice where the extraction of aesthetic resources from other cultures, other “worlds” was used to advanced Western modernism not unlike the ex- tractive processes of colonial commercial companies.
Acknowledging the museum’s place in Western aesthetic history is a different starting point from talking at a distance about the history of world art or modern- ism. Positionality tells us that when we speak from Europe, for instance, we need to be aware of how we are implicated.
This exhibition should not claim a narration of the world’s modernisms, subsuming everything under its authority over modernism, but rather see what makes modernisms unique in articulating their legacies, and acknowledging the exhibition’s limitations in understanding the complex relations between modernisms and other aesthetic practices, and the modern/colonial divide. Positionality is not about not speaking, but about acknowledging where we speak from, to whom, and hence also recognizing what we cannot know.
KA: What would your perspective be on “multiple modernisms” since this relates to positionality? What are some consequences of addressing parallel non-Western developments of cultural production in such a way?
RVM: Some postcolonial scholars advocate for multiple modernities, and I see how this works with multiple modernisms. Decoloniality takes another route; we see modernisms and modernity as part of the Western project of civilization, reproducing its anthropocentricity and Eurocentricity.
Decolonial aestheSis responds by hum- bling modernity and recognizing other aestheSic expressions.1There are other, “non-modernist” aestheSis that do not affirm themselves as the present of history, seeking novelty and futurity, though some Latin American or Southeast Asian modernisms do attempt to follow Western principles to become modern or pluralize modernity. Decolonial aestheSis is more focused on alternatives to modernity: that is, alternatives to the loss of the Earth, earthlessness and the loss of the plurality of worlds, worldlessness.
IdR: Does the concept or word modernism work for these alternatives?
RVM: “Modernism” can be a tool to appropriate aesthetic resources and subsume other aestheSis under the dominant narrative. For example, what happens when we call a Surinamese head scarf in this exhibition modernist? Is this a form of inclusion that implies epistemic violence? I think it is important to recognize that some artists or movements may be willingly using the term modernism in order to be recognized while at the same time changing its meaning, resignifying it. Other artists or movements might prefer not to identify with this term at all. These are both valuable responses to the dominant narrative.
IdR: I would be very reluctant to call developments in non-Western cultures modernist. Let the people of those cultures deter- mine the names and contexts of those movements.
RVM: Yes, this is precisely the point: who is naming? We shouldn’t name from the center because we would be implicated in epistemic violence, by naming others in our own terms, without their voice. Various postcolonial strategies are about naming themselves also modern, and these are also valid strategies of struggling for justice and subverting Eurocentrism.
MR: With respect to modernism outside of Europe, could it be emulating or reacting to, for instance, political situations, but not from a Eurocentric perspective, to find a whole different way of expressing yourself in the present?
RVM: Yes, many artists inhabit dominant modernist discourses while keeping non- Eurocentric and non-anthropocentric practices. What is important for decolonial aestheSis is that these practices are not seen as another instantiation of “modern- ism” but rather that they become valued for what they offer beyond modernity. Decolonial aestheSis brings about the possibility of articulating different histories that remain sidelined or muted under the dominant narrative.
KA: Bringing this back to the MODERN exhibition and the context of the Dutch museum landscape, many Western institutions are struggling to correct the balance of representation in their collections. The Stedelijk has a relatively small percentage of makers who are women and people of color, yet there’s a desire to approach art and design history from a decolonial perspective. What do you think of these institutional projects and is there a change in how collections are being built and expressed?
RVM: This is an open debate in all Western institutions after intersectional analysis including gender and race that has shown people of color, particularly women and non-heteronormative persons, are under- represented. It is necessary to be aware of
the structural privileges of whiteness as not a racist category, but in terms of positionality in order to understand privilege and inequality. We need to address whiteness when we ask who collects and is collect- ed, who establishes and is in the canon, and who the curators and publics are. We need to ask why publicly funded institutions have no space for the experience and memories—the voices or aestheSis—of their constituencies who are from different diasporas and experiences of migration; these people who represent the plurality of our societies might not visit museums that hold no relation with them, their histories or communities. Decoloniality asks how our institutions can be a space of social inclusion and plurality. At the 2022 Berlin Biennale, in conversation with Kader Attia, I spoke about how restitution is not just a matter of ethnographic museums returning looted objects. It is a call for change in the order of representation in the West, we need to engage in aestheSic and epistemic forms of restitution.
KA: What would it mean for a contemporary art museum or university to engage in restitution in terms of aestheTics of knowledge? And how could it be applied to our work as curators?
RVM: In the Netherlands, restitution has become even more relevant following national apologies regarding slavery and colonialism.3 We do not seek another universal response. What is important for us is to open up these fundamental questions to which there are only positioned and contextual responses. Restitution has to be done with the people and their constituencies to move away from the dominant model that produces and reproduces epistemic and aesthetic injustice. The practice cannot be only self-reflexive—it needs to be in dialogue with those that have not been heard.
IdR: We will show several pieces by designer Christopher Dresser who traveled to Japan at the end of the 1870s; he was very interested in Japanese culture. His claret jug (fig. 1) shows influences from the Edo period (fig. 2), its objects having been—and maybe still are—seen as mod- ern from a Western perspective. But developments in Japan also show a European influence in the prints we show, the first of which has a linear perspective. European artists, including Vincent van Gogh, were in turn inspired by the two-dimensionality of Japanese prints (fig. 3).
RVM: Many “modernistic things” from Japan ended up in “world culture” museum collections, not in art and design collections; the “other” was placed in the past, the mar- gins of Europe as collections of artifacts, whereas European modernism marked the present of history and was shown in art and design collections. Japan is a particular case, because it was not colonized and had its own impetus toward modernizing in the Meiji period (1868-1912). The colonial difference did not function in the same way as in the “Americas”: for example, Japan’s writing and language was not erased.
However, I would dare say that Dresser’s inspiration is similar to what we find in primitivism, namely the way in which many European artists and designers extracted non-Western aesthetic resources to pro- duce novelty within the Western context. This relation to other aestheSic worlds was a form of aesthetic “inspiration and appropriation” in the search for novelty. But at the same time, for us, it reveals that not all art history and design comes from the West, and that there are indeed other aestheSic worlds.
KA: From an exhibition-making perspective, juxtaposing genealogies and connecting among aestheSis forms outside of normative genealogy is seen as an appropriative practice. The Japan example comes from a different genealogy than what we’ve been discussing within decolonial discourse.
IdR: When you look at how it developed into modernism, these works were seen as very European in the end, even if there was appropriation.
RVM: They were also seen as new.
IdR: What about prints where Japan is influenced by Europe?
RVM: I would be careful to suggest that there is a mutual parallel influence. In the history of Western aestheTics, European perspective became dominant and extended its influence around the world. Perspective is an individual-centered mode of representation; there is only this one central gaze, the famous zero-point of the subject as spectator. The West developed and exported this aesthetic technology, its way of seeing the world and in this way also controlled our ways of perceiving the real. That is why in my work I ask, with whose eyes have we been made to see? Coming back to the Japanese print influenced by Western perspective and European work drawing on Japanese aestheTics, in both examples the power of the West is apparent in extracting resources to create avant-gardes, but also in expanding its way of seeing, its aestheTics around the world. While modern primitivist artists were producing the new, Japanese artists were seen as doing what Europe had already done, and thus uphold- ing the idea of the West as the site of the now of history.
MR: Other textiles from outside Europe are included in the exhibition. We position the tapas (fig. 5, 6) in the context of Western art; another work is the Kuba fabric from the Congo, which we present as autonomous for its own quality and artistic expression. These fabrics had a ceremonial function, and also a lot of individuality and sense of “fashion.” It is especially interesting that the artists were women, and we would like to position their work as world art.
RVM: I would also be careful with vocabulary that reproduces premises of Western aestheTics like the word “fashion,” which tends to be about representation, novelty and the modern. From a relational perspective, these textiles are more than representations.
We need to engage in the difficult task of decolonizing and contextualizing the discourse of Western aestheTics. For example, in talking we often assume that abstraction comes from Western rationality and the Enlightenment. There are in fact many other traditions of abstraction, of conceptual thought that do not presuppose a separation from Earth or are based on the individual and center the male subject as producer of abstraction. Instead, a relation- al abstraction is one that expresses rela- tions, weaves, instead of separations.
KA: Would relational abstraction mean abstraction that’s created among and for many people?
RVM: The relational does not produce something for the masses as public art might do when someone does art for others and remains separate, but rather co-creates abstractions through deep relations with memories, peoples, localities, etc. Relational abstraction is not about subjects at a distance from the world.
The critique of abstraction as separation becomes very clear in relation to modern and contemporary dance (fig. 7). Whereas modern dance creates an abstraction, a body as representation in the black box (the white cube of the performing arts), the dances of other worlds, other aestheSis create movements in relation to memories, bodies, Earth, communities, territories. A deep relation creates; it’s not an individual abstraction that separates or appropriates. Decolonial aestheTics moves away from representation and consumption and toward reception and offering.
Speaking of the Kuba women’s textiles, we may find a similar pattern in a work of M.C. Escher, for example, and say they are the same. But we would be missing the point that they are not. Escher produced as a distinct author using rational abstraction, whereas the Kuba women, whose names have not been preserved, produced communally in relation, through relational abstraction. You can have similar images produced through different aestheTics and carrying different forms of relating to the real, other aestheSis. When the modern primitivist used aesthetic resources from the Global South, for example, they were not concerned with the names of those who made them nor with the worlds of meaning in which they originated.
KA: Abstract expressionists from Willem de Kooning to Jackson Pollock were all sup- ported by many people, especially women. In Western art history the conditions of pro- duction are being scrutinized. Of course, the way in which history is written does not acknowledge how heavily individual artists relied on their network; that support made it possible to do their work, so I understand what you mean in terms of it being seen as this extremely autonomous practice.
RVM: When we speak of positionality, we are not speaking of self-identity. And I think when you speak of the conditions of production of those artists, then we are speaking of their positionality: Who made possible what they did? Where did their aesthetic and material resources come from? By positioning these artists, we begin uncovering who they are in our broad modern/colonial history. This does not mean that they were not trained in the tradition of individuality and the search for the new. But by positioning them, we realize that their work was embedded in a particular modern/colonial order that made it possible. The tendency of modernisms to create authorship and novelty is very different from the orientation of other aestheSis, some of which we might call relational aestheSis. For example, art practices that are in relation with the Earth, community and the living history of a place, instead of being in separation.
MR: Is it possible that some works of “Western” modernism also carry relations? We have a work by Roberto Matta (fig. 8) with a view of social despair, especially of the dehumanizing effects of technology.
RVM: I like your telling of his history, that after studying with Le Corbusier and being close to the ideals of modernism, he shows in this work the dystopia produced by the desire for novelty and hubris of designing the future. European authors like Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze or Walter Benjamin coincide with the spirit of this critique, which is deeply thought in Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of the Enlightement (1944). The decolonial ac- knowledges and contextualizes this critique where the history of one world, Western history, became a global design, as Walter D. Mignolo puts it. In front of Matta’s dystopia, that today seems to be materializing itself with the loss of Earth and climate col- lapse, we realize that modernism, with its promise of the future and novelty, will not lead us toward the plentiful life. Under the dominant narrative, there are other worlds, other histories with other epistemologies and aestheSis. They show us that it is possible to practice other ways of sensing and dwelling with Earth.
Fig. 1 Christopher Dresser, Claret Jug, decanter, c. 1881. Glass, silver-plated metal, ebony, prod. Hukin & Heath, Birmingham. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.
Fig. 2 Tea mill (hand mill for grinding tea, hikiusu), undocumented maker (Japan), 1800-1823. Stone, wood, h 20 × Ø 38 cm. Dutch National Museum of World Cultures, Inv. Nr. RV-360-2118.
The minimalist design of Japanese objects from the Edo period (1603-1868) have an early modern look that was highly prized in Europe in the late 19th century.
Fig. 3 Katsushika Hokusai, Gohyakurakanji Sazaidô (The Turban Shell Hall of the Five Hundred Arhat Temple), from the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, Edo period, c. 1832. Color woodcut, 25.4 × 36.9 cm. Dutch National Museum of World Cultures, Inv. Nr. RV-4067-4.
While Japanese prints were best known for their two-dimensional effect, the influence of European linear perspective with a vanishing point can be seen here.
Fig. 4 Utagawa Kunisada, Kabuki scene, 1850-1851. Color woodcut, 35.7 × 49.5 cm. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, on loan from the Stichting Khardzhiev, Amsterdam, 2001.
Kunisada’s woodcut is characteristic of the flat, decorative Japanese style with shapes that resemble cut-outs, and which had a huge influence on European modern art.
Fig. 5 Unrecorded artists, Kuba Kingdom, now Democratic Republic of the Congo, ntshak (ceremonial raffia textile), 19th-early 20th century. Raffia, woven, appliqued, 370 × 85 cm. © Fondation Dapper, Paris.
The patterns were designed and applied exclusively by women. The heterogeneity of the designs, patterns, forms and techniques is characteristic.
Fig. 6 Unrecorded artists, barkcloth, New Guinea, second half of the 19th-early 20th century. Paper mulberry tree bark, beaten, dye, pigment, 120 x 153 cm. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.
These cloths were instruments in ritual ceremonies in which the entire community took part—in other words, true “art for the people.”
Fig. 7 Agathon Léonard, Le jeu de l’écharpe (no. 4, 7, 1, 11 , 12), design 1898-1899. Cast porcelain, prod. Manufacture nationale de Sèvres, these examples produced between 1904 and 1910, h 32.2-37.8 cm. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.
Fig. 8 Roberto Matta, How-Ever, 1947. Oil on canvas, 217.5 x 363.5 cm. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.
From the 1940s onward, artist Roberto Matta, who started his career as a young architect in the office of Le Corbusier, protested against the dehumanizing effects of colonialism and technology.
Rolando Vázquez Melken is a decolonial thinker who places the question of the possibility of an ethical life at the core of decolonial thought and advocates for the decolonial transformation of cultural and academic institutions. Vázquez Melken is currently Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Utrecht. Since 2010, he co-directs the annual Maria Lugones Decolonial Summer School with Walter D. Mignolo hosted by the Van Abbemuseum. In 2016, under the direction of Gloria Wekker, he co-authored the report “Let’s do Diversity” of the University of Amsterdam Diversity Commission. He has been named Advisor at both the Jan van Eyck Academie and the Rijksakademie van beeldende kun- sten for 2021-2023, and he has been appointed visiting fellow at the Centre for Arts, Memory and Communities, University of Coventry, UK (2022). He is the author of Vistas of Modernity: Decolonial aesthesis and the End of the Contemporary (Mondriaan Fund 2020).
Karen Archey is Curator of Contemporary Art at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. At the Stedelijk, Archey cares for the contemporary art and time-based media collections and organizes the museum’s performance program and contemporary permanent collection display. She has curated major exhibitions of artists Hito Steyerl, Rineke Dijkstra, and Metahaven, and is currently preparing a large-scale overview of the work of Marina Abramović. Formerly based in Berlin and New York, Archey worked earlier as an independent curator, editor, and art critic, and in 2015 was awarded an Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for short-form writing. Her book After Institutions (2022) examines museums as a troubled, rapidly evolving public space and renews discussions around Institutional Critique. A frequent public speaker, she has given lectures at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; and MUDAM, Luxembourg.
Ingeborg de Roode is curator of industrial design at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam since 2001. She has organized various exhibitions including Designing for children: Aldo van Eyck’s playgrounds (2002), Marcel Wanders. Pinned Up (2014), Touch and Tweet: interactive installations (2015), Living in the Amsterdam School (2016), Solution or Utopia? Designing for refugees (2017) and, in collaboration with Pao Lien Djie, Studio Drift. Coded Nature (2018). She was co-curator of the exhibition It’s our F***ing Backyard. Designing Material Futures (2022) with Stedelijk’s design curator Amanda Pinatih. Catalogues accompanied several of these exhibitions. She has written for Het Financieele Dagblad, published several opinion pieces in NRC Handelsblad and articles in catalogues of, among others, the Centre Pompidou, MoMA and Vitra Design Museum.
Maurice Rummens is an art historian and has been a scientific researcher at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam since 1999. He obtained his PhD at the University of Amsterdam on The Seduction of the Decorative, a thesis on the interfaces between design and visual art in theory and practice. He has published about modern art in magazines, including Jong Holland, Kunstschrift, The Burlington Magazine, and in publications of the Open University, Heerlen, and the Stedelijk Museum. He co-curated the ex- hibitions Roger Bissière: ‘La cathédrale’, tapestry (2000), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Tahiti in the Alps, 1918 – 1928 (2001), The Oasis of Matisse (2015), and was curator of the exhibition Chagall, Picasso, Mondrian and others: migrants in Paris (2019-20) at the Stedelijk Museum.
1 Decolonization refers generally to the movement of political independence of formerly colonized countries, whereas decoloniality refers more generally to the work of undoing the logic of coloniality that continues to exist in our societies.
2 AestheTics is used to denote the dominant modern order and control over representation and experience, whereas aestheSis is used to speak of the other ways of sensing of other worlds.
3 On December 19, 2022, the Government of the Netherlands, led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte, “apologized for the past actions of the Dutch State: to enslaved people in the past, everywhere in the world, who suffered as a consequence of those actions, as well as to their daughters and sons, and to all their descendants, up to the present day.” See News item, Government of the Netherlands, December 19, 2022.