Jean Fisher (1942–2016)

Jean Fisher. Photo: James De Quesada.

I REMEMBER GOING AROUND to my dear mentor Jean Fisher’s house on an average bleary London night to get my education. This wasn’t the education of textbooks or customary art history but a journey into the late 1980s and early ’90s in Britain, where many a queer writer and artist had spent time sitting in the very same seat as me. Hamad Butt and Stuart Morgan were but two examples whom Fisher cited as close. After Butt died from AIDS-related causes, she fought tooth and nail, lobbying the art world to get his archive and artworks into the Tate’s collection.

Now that tragic time has come, and Jean is gone. I sit here with a heavy heart, wondering who will fight for her legacy. Certainly, there has been an outpouring from people on social media, especially Facebook, talking about how dearly and fondly they held her, but we know that these moments pass all too quickly, as more of our idols die and as we fall into a state of perpetual dissolution, our everyday world consumed by Brexit and Trump politics.

Legacy, for a writer on art, is something that is often formed through very specific modes of affiliation and citation. Jean, however, spent most of her life working as an adjunct professor at universities across the US and the UK, and it wasn’t until later in life that she gained a permanent position at Middlesex University and a visiting professorship at the Royal College of Art in London. Her writings, because she did not subscribe to the logic of academia—or rather, cared more about erring on the side of the artist—were not in standard, peer-reviewed journals, but in every kind of publication that you could imagine: pamphlets, artists’ books, monographs, exhibition catalogues, edited collections, and in Third Text, where she was an editor for over a decade.

Throughout her life, Jean collected material. She would dig, as Michel Serres would say, and find, and dig and gather; much of it remains unseen or difficult to access. In the final year of her life, Jean created a website to bring back the work that was out of print or produced in esoteric publications. Jean had spent the past twenty years writing about the figure of the trickster in far-flung places; she would speak to me of the subversive potential of such a symbol, of how such a character, as personified in the likes of Jimmie Durham, might lead to a mode of inquiry that could yield true social and political insight and perhaps even change. In her final days, she collected many of these writings into a book-length monograph, as yet unpublished. We must, of course, collectively strive to bring this writing to life through print.

Her research on this topic led her to a variety of places, real and imagined. Jean always spoke of the potential of imagination to conquer the physical realm of reality. She would refer to Jorge Luis Borges and Richard Kearney and the tension of being able to imagine free from the tainted ills of corrupting media bias. However, she was never a pessimist; she loved the rise of the internet and was an enthusiastic emailer, even when she had suffered a hand injury. She loved the instantaneous nature of this communication, the ability to rally and gather online when physical health would prevent one from being able to take to the streets.

I’ve written elsewhere of Jean’s style of radical will and her commitment to human rights. This persistence may well have come from her background. She was no ordinary art historian (in fact, she loathed to be called one!). She held a BSc in zoology and a PhD in medical research, which she attained while also studying for a BA in fine art. One can draw a correlation between Jean’s education and her study into the anthropophagic nature of the violent history of colonialism. She spent most of her life looking at artists whose works dealt with the caging, shackling, and chaining of the colonized voice, which she often fought to unlock through her writings. I told Jean once that her background in zoology gave her a unique lens onto art; she responded that I was a classic bullshitter of the highest order, the kind, she said, who would make it in this harsh world.

I laugh now, but through tears. These are not hopeless tears, of course, but fighting ones. Jean was modest, far too modest. I discussed this with our mutual friend Judith Barry constantly. Jean never laid claim to anything. She never laid claim to being the first to write about artists (though she often was) or of being the one to dig the deepest. She never claimed to change the way that we imagine art writing. (She would say people like Adrian Stokes did that.) Nor would she readily admit that she changed the discourse on art and postcolonial theory.

But the reality is that she did. She chose a clan and she stuck by them: Durham, Steve McQueen, James Coleman, Jack Goldstein, Willie Doherty, Emily Jacir, Tania Bruguera, Hamad Butt, Susan Hiller, Minerva Cuevas, the Black Audio Film Collective, Gabriel Orozco, to name but a few that come to mind. She wrote about many of these artists persistently, championed their work from when they were students to art-world stars, and never wavered in her support. She wrote like no other, merging poetry, political philosophy, and close textual analysis with a lyrical grace and, at times, whimsy, that would make any writer, in any forum, envious of her craftsmanship. She oversaw numerous volumes as an editor as well as a writer on postcolonial discourse and its progression from the ’70s into the ’80s and ’90s, and into the birth of the new internationalism, a tendency that she foresaw.

I am personally indebted to Jean. She wrote more reference letters than anyone has ever authored for me. Not because I wanted to tire her but because she knew me best. She took me under her wing. These were tumultuous times, but she gave me words and courage. We read the Arab poets and writers together, Adonis and Mourid Barghouti being two examples. We talked about generations who had suffered and died, and we talked about queerness as a concept, a concept bound up with dissidence. She always told me not to be afraid: “Omar, your queerness is a liberation into a community.” I simply needed to embrace it.

Over the years, I often reproduced and published Jean’s writings and invited her to speak. When asked for her biography, she would always produce the same single line: Jean Fisher is a writer on contemporary art and post-coloniality, based in London. But Jean Fisher was so much more. I will never forget her, and neither should we. We should open our hearts and minds to her legacy and ensure that it is preserved for another generation. Let us begin to fund projects in her honor, let us endow scholarships and lectures, let us preserve her archive, let us memorialize one of the great figures of twentieth- and twenty-first-century art history.

Omar Kholeif is a writer and the Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

For additional Jean Fisher Passages, see the forthcoming March issue of Artforum.