“The Other Story”

Though this exhibition, subtitled “Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain,” was initiated by Rasheed Araeen almost ten years ago, it is curiously appropriate that it should finally come to fruition at this particular moment. The recent exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, entitled “Magiciens de la terre,” demonstrated the current surge of Western interest in non-Western contemporary art. What Araeen illustrates is that despite this interest, artists of African and Asian descent who live in Western capitals are falling through the cracks. After exhibiting primarily white artists for generations, our galleries and museums suddenly seem eager to exhibit work from Africa and other previously marginalized arenas. Meanwhile, however, black and Asian artists living in the West are passed over. “Magiciens” did not include a single African-American artist (though Araeen himself, a Pakistani artist long resident in London, was included).

Araeen selected works by 24 artists from 13 nations, all of whom live in Britain, ranging in age from Ronald Moody of Jamaica (born 1954) to Lubaina Himid of Tanzania (born 1900). The work varies from Moody’s figurative sculptures and Francis Newton Souza’s cornball figuration (by western standards) to the neo-Minimalist works of Avtarjeet Dhanjal, Li Yuan Chia, and Araeen himself. The integrity of the exhibition lies in its documentation of a lost strain of global art history and its clarion call to a global art-historical revisionism. “Would it be possible,” Araeen writes in the catalogue, “to inscribe this story within the master narrative of modern art history?” He also asks somewhat rhetorically, “Why were things so different for Afro-Asian artists?” His implied answer, which he has repeatedly expressed to the press, is that these artists were excluded from the art discourse not because their work was not good enough, but because they were dark skinned.

Araeen might have been better off leaving the quality question aside. The judgment of quality is notoriously subjective and can be used by anyone for any purpose. The British press had a field day with it. Peter Fuller, for example, in the conservative Sunday Telegraph suggested that: “Araeen’s thesis needs to be stood on its head. The real question, surely, is why, given all these opportunities, is the recent art in ’The Other Story’ so mediocre?” A Sunday Times critic, even more gloatingly asked: “Why have Afro-Asian artists failed to achieve critical notice and establish a London market for their work? . . . [Because] they are simply not good enough.” If Araeen had intended to foreground the issue of quality and then make a case for this work’s viability in terms of mainsteam Modernist criticism then he should have been much more wary in his selection. If on the other hand he had intended an essentially scholarly show, he should have taken pains to deemphasize the idea of quality, and to provide an alternate model for contextualizing this work.

Finally this show accomplished things it never intended. It drove back into the open the anger of a repressed minority at a time when it is all too easy to feel that the age for such anger is over. At the same time it illustrated the complex intercultural problems that any absolutist idea of quality—whether Fuller’s or Araeen’s—must encounter.

Thomas McEvilley