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Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History



East European Art in a Global Perspective

By confrontations, on 28 August 2022

By Tomasz Załuski

The first group seminar at UCL was devoted to the positioning of East Central European art history within a global perspective. The introductory talk was given by Maja and Reuben Fowkes, who proposed a methodological reflection on the current state of the discipline and indicated some of the main problems it must address now in order to critically reinvent itself.

Among the most urgent issues were: a search for new models of relating local and regional art histories which would be different from simplistic schemes of both hierarchical verticality and horizontality; a necessity of decolonizing the canons of Western-centric art history and, at the same time, challenging the production of nationalist narratives of the discipline, this double gesture to provide a way of guarding decolonial critique of Western canons against its interception and appropriation by right-wing populism in East Central Europe; critical revisioning of the history of the very Western-centric canon in terms of posterior historicization and exclusionary purification of an originary intrinsic heterogeneity and multiple emergencies of global art tendencies; a question of avoiding the primacy of the political history in the art historiography and turning to other historical aspects and factors – cultural, social, economic, technological, etc.; and finally, pluralising art under Socialism by transcending simplistic dichotomies like these of the official vs the unofficial or Modernism vs Socialist Realism. The talk echoed many discussions concerning the question of historiography of East Central European art that we had been having during the previous Confrontations meetings and it testified to a strong need, often expressed within the group, of distancing from certain existing assumptions and models of the discipline.

The next speaker was Tamar Garb, who presented a complex case of Ernest Mancoba, a black artist born in South Africa who moved to Europe and spent there the rest of his life participating in the modernist movement, which included being a founding member of the CoBrA group. By pointing out to his long-term erasure from the history of the group but also to certain contemporary attempts at ghettoizing his work as an example of “South African art” and reclaiming him for the cultural politics of post-apartheid South Afrian nationalism, Garb seemed to be making the case against a simplistic decolonisation which could turn a justified and necessary critique of Western universalism into making a way for particularist ideologies. Instead, she proposed to focus on Mancoba’s quest for a transformed, expanded and non-Western-centric universalism and cosmopolitan identity which would allow for a free combination and synthesis of elements drawn from different artistic traditions and cultural regions. In doing so, she invited us to study how non-Western-Europeans reclaimed the very idea of universalism for themselves – and thus for all.

Michał Murawski shared with us his thoughts on how the recent phase of Russian military aggression in Ukraine could impact the study of East Central European art, especially when it is conceived from a leftist perspective which tries to remain faithful to certain spirits of Socialism, Marxism and the idea of Global East. Following the analysis of Polish feminist researchers Agnieszka Graff and Elżbieta Korolczuk, who pointed out that it is the question of non-heteronormativity, queer and transgender which is at the center of the ongoing war, Murawski claimed that the emancipatory tradition of Marxism and certain sociocultural events in the history of actually existing Socialisms might be used as critical tools against Russian conservative neoimperialism.

The final talk of this session was given by Polly Savage, who explored the question of different forms of adeherence to Socialism in Africa with a particular focus on Mozambique and reconstructed certain cultural connections artistic millieus of the country maintained with various socialist countries. She presented examples of aesthetic and stylistic transfers which were received and adapted in Mozambique, and she analysed cases of local artists going to the Soviet Union for the purposes of artistic education. Her research was a fine example of retracing transregional artistic networks of co-operation within Global Socialism.

East European Art in the UK

By confrontations, on 28 August 2022

By Maja and Reuben Fowkes

The final afternoon of Confrontations was given over to discussion of the changing place of Central and East European art in the UK, with guest lectures by David Elliott and Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius, concluding with a public panel discussion with Lina Džuverović, Alicja Kaczmarek and Vlad Morariu as guest speakers.

Curator David Elliott focused in his presentation on two moments in exhibition history, the pivotal survey After the Wall: Art and Culture in Post-Communist Eastern Europe, which he co-curated with Bojana Pejic in 1999, and Balagan, an exhibition that a quarter of a century later explored the chaos and confusion of the subsequent path of transition as suggested by the one word title. This felt like a timely moment to revisit After the Wall, an exhibition that was formative for understandings of Eastern Europe as an artistic region, and to hear about its minor coda, pointing to the destabilisation of the geographical categories of the post-communist era of high globalisation.

The presentation by Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius, lecturer at Birkbeck and author of Imaging and Mapping Eastern Europe, took the form of a personal perspective on the evolution of academic interest in East European art in the UK. Rare archival images of conferences and gatherings of researchers on the region dating back to the pre-digital era of the mid-1990s underlined the embodied quality of exchanges amongst members of the informal network of scholars of Central and Eastern European art, and were reminders of the loss of colleagues such as Piotr Piotrowski. The title of Kasia presentation was she explained a partial corrective to the tendency to constantly enumerate how much work still needs to be done in terms of research into specific artists, as well as in asserting the position of our region in wider narratives and debates. She chose to focus instead on everything that has already been achieved, from scholarly publications and exhibition history to the activity of research networks such as Confrontations, in deepening knowledge and understanding of East European art.

The public panel on East European Art in the UK saw insightful presentations by UK-based curators, academics and institution builders with close ties to the region. Lina Džuverović reflected on the challenges she faced as a curator at Calvert22 in the early Twenty-Teens in bringing the work of prominent East European artists, including Sanja Iveković and IRWIN, to London audiences.

Alicja Kaczmarek, founder and director of Centrala Space, a cultural organisation based in Birmingham that provides a platform for artists from the region, presented the results of the In-between Spaces research project into the Inclusion and Representation of Central and East European artists in the UK Creative Economy. Among the key findings she shared was that artists from the region are underrepresented in art galleries, exhibitions and festivals, in comparison to artists from Western Europe and North America, and that as migrants from Eastern Europe they experience a complex form of racialisation in the UK based on negative media portrayals. Vlad Morariu spoke about the Collection Collective, of which he is a member, and its speculative exploration of the possibility to short-circuit the structure of the art market by constructing a contemporary art collection that is owned and managed collectively by its members.

The panel discussion underlined the overlap between issues around the representation of the region in art historical and museum accounts and the everyday challenges faced by East European artists in gaining visibility in the UK artworld. It also demonstrated the existence of a transnational community of scholars, curators and artists, who through their work and acts of solidarity, continue to raise the profile of East European art and artists across global geographies.

East-West Dinner

By confrontations, on 29 April 2019

A working dinner on our arrival in Ljubljana was an opportunity to engage with the work of renowned Slovenian curator and theorist Igor Zabel (1958-2005) and revisit from a contemporary perspective the historiography of East European art and its origins in the critical debates of the first post-communist decade. Participants took turns commenting on short theoretical extracts of his writing, with Daniel Véri and Magdalena Moskalewicz assigned the following to analyse: “An Eastern artist now becomes attractive for the West, not as somebody producing universal art, but exactly as someone who reflects his particular condition. He is not an only an artist, but particularly a Russian, Polish or Slovene artist, or simply an Eastern artist.”

The participants also had a chance to meet Urška Jurman of the Igor Zabel Association for Art and Theory and receive a copy of Extending the Dialogue, including texts that had already been discussed in our session on defining East European art history.