Artists Countering Colonial Archives

I’m going to do a very brief survey of a few artists that are working around the theme of countering colonial archives in different ways. Some of these artists use actual archival material from existing archives as a starting point for their work, while others create alternative archives of their own to surface narratives that are often obscured or hidden from general discourse. All incorporate collecting as part of their creative practice and explore complicated ideas around cultural heritage, acquisition and repatriation when dealing with archival materials from the “global south” that exist in institutions in the West.

The first artist I’ll talk about is Sameer Farooq. He’s a Canadian interdisciplinary artist who creates what he refers to as speculative museums in order to ‘counter what large institutions are telling citizens to think about their past.’

The particular project I want to show you is from a larger series called The Museum of Found Objects, which are kind of these crowdsourced collections of everyday mundane objects. But this particular Museum of Found Objects was an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto and was a reaction to an exhibition happening in the room next door entitled Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts. I want to read a few quotes the curatorial essay for the exhibition because I think it eloquently illustrates the reason for this collection of everyday objects as a response to and also a critique of the Maharaja exhibition:

the narrative of the “maharaja…” exhibition celebrated the opulence of india’s rulers, describing art as a product of royal patronage but also showing how aesthetic power or value was determined by the structures of imperialism… the exhibition as a format for the presentation of this kind of history aestheticises a violent, despotic and traumatic period. moreover, it presents an elite and anglocentric narrative that prompts us to consider how this history is as much Britain’s history as it is india’s.

additionally, presenting the “maharaja…” exhibition in canada in turn makes assumptions about canadian – and specifically indo-canadian – audiences and their relationship to this colonial history. second generation and diasporic indians are often estranged from a critical understanding of this history of india…their relationship to these types of exhibitions, like that of non-south asian visitors, is largely voyeuristic.

… How do museums engage communities in constructing the narratives of history that represent them? How can museum exhibitions exhibit the contingencies of history?”

So the idea for The Museum of Found Objects: Toronto was, as Farooq puts it, ‘to update the colonial exhibition with contemporary, everyday objects from South Asian communities across Toronto.”

Through creating an exhibition of contemporary objects from South Asian communities across Toronto, Farooq is playfully highlighting the irony of the Maharaja exhibition’s failure to address indian and indo-canadian audiences. He’s creating visibility around this disconnect that South Asians and the South Asian diaspora feel towards the representation of their culture and history via the lens of these western institutions. Also it’s important to note that in including everyday mundane objects from these communities, he’s also critiquing the Maharaja exhibition’s centering of royal and imperialistic narratives as an anglocentric practice.

I also just think it’s great that they were able to literally exhibit next to the exhibition they were trying to challenge.

Another artist I want to talk about is Maryam Jafri. She’s a Pakistani artist that I think is now based in New York. But her work is really interesting in that it deals with photographic archives but also touches on contemporary themes around digitization and ownership. I’ll walk you through two of her works.

This particular ongoing piece is called Independence Day 1934-1975. It’s a collection of over 60 photographs from former European colonies across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. And the photographs were all taken on the first Independence Day of the country. The kind of twilight period that marks the transition from colony to nation state. So these are photographs that she specifically pulled from archives in their respective countries, not from archives in the West. And she arranged them according to semantic themes like  Celebrations, and swearing-in ceremonies. In arranging the photographs across these semantic themes, she makes visible the repetition and almost homogeny of these independence rituals. Which is quite interesting considering these are photographs are from very different places right? Like to see such visual similarity in the independence rituals across different places in Asia and Africa I think actually highlights the idea that the Nation State in the post-colonial context is very much a European model and these are simply iterations of this European model around the world. She’s viewing these rituals as not only significant of the transition from colony to country but as an initiation of these places into the Western definition of what it is to be a nation state.

Another project of Jafri’s is Getty vs Ghana. And so basically in doing research for the previous project Maryam became really familiar with a lot of the independence day photographs that were from these national archives in different places. And so she was shocked to find a lot of the same images online licensed under big companies like Getty and Corbis. In this work she presents two photographs, one from the national archive and another from Getty or Corbis. What’s interesting in the presentation of the two photographs is that it creates a strong sense of duality. You could look at it as “Global South” vs Privatized and Corporate West, or offline vs online. But another interesting thing to note is that the digitized photos are often cropped or changed in some way. You can’t really see it well in this example. But in some other photographs from the exhibit you can see that the crowds in the background are often cropped out, or cropped so that the center of the image is on a European figure like the Dutchess of Kent rather than the figures from the actual country. It’s also funny because she had purchased rights to a lot of the archival photographs from the previous project, but found that she still had to buy the same images from Getty and Corbis. I feel like that acquisition process also speaks to the theme of the project in itself.

The last artist I want to talk about is I suppose an emerging artist named Avani Tanya. She’s from India and did a joint residency with the Delfina Foundation and The Victoria & Albert Museum, which I mentioned earlier with Sameer’s work. The theme of the residency was Collecting as Practice, and as part of the residency she had access to a lot of materials from the archives at the museum. I’m going to play a video of an interview with her that I think sets up a good context for the work that I’ll show after.   3:17

I wanted to play that not only to set up a premise for the work i’m going to show you now, which is the result of the residency, but also because I think she makes a nice draw between the more contemporary artifact of the primark jeans and the jammu kashmir shawl. So, she’s thinking about how the value of artifacts in an archive and the relationships that exist between artifacts changes over time. The work that came out of the residency was a publication entitled A Selective Guide to the V&A’s South Asia Collection. So the book features artifacts from the South Asia collection, but instead of looking to the museum for information about acquisition and other meta data around the objects, she invited her peers from the UK, India and Pakistan to share their own interpretations of and responses to the objects. She elevates that subjective response and also in a way gives agency to contemporary south asian and diasporic communities in allowing them to (re)present south asian cultural artifacts from the colonial context.

Sivanesan, Haema. “Annotations to The Museum of Found Objects: Toronto (Maharaja and-).”
“Vimeo.” Vimeo, 13 Nov. 2018,

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