Do we still need national pavilions? Curating transnationalism, hybridity, and multiculturalism

Shahzia Sikander_Pleasure Pillars_2001

Venice Biennale, major international survey of contemporary art is divided into national pavilions, a model developed more than hundred years ago when the biennial first started; years before the world went truly global and perhaps even transnational. Do we still need an exhibition that represents nations as unique artefacts? What is more, do unique national cultural identities still exist? [image: Shahzia Sikander, Pleasure Pillars, 2001]

Artists today “live and work among a plurality of cultural signs.”[1] Contacts with other cultures – caused by increased mobility of people, ideas, and artifacts – leave more or less conscious influence on their work confusing once fixed national and cultural boundaries. The fusion of the diverse cultural traditions appears in various shapes and hybrid forms are either manifested as battlefields where two or more individual cultures coexist in tension and resistance, or as playgrounds where two or more cultural identities coexist in unison and embrace.[2] The third variant sees hybridity in a much more subdued fashion where all individual cultural specificities surrender and disintegrate in order to create an entirely new identity that is beyond any nation state, hence truly transnational.

The complex and multi-layered nature of contemporary art prompts the question of how are curators meant to present hybrid, multicultural, and transnational works of art. Given that it is no longer possible (or at least easy) to define art through the lens of specific national identity, and that “the culture is no longer understood as the discrete and unique expression of activities and ideas that occur in particular places,”[3] it seems highly impossible and misleading to categorize one’s work as belonging to a particular place. Gennifer Weisenfeld from Duke University argues that major surveys of international art (such as biennales) have not yet found the best model to represent contemporary art and struggle “to function in a transnational way transcending the national/international binary.”[4] So what might be the purpose of such national “departmentalisations” and national labelling that we still find at the Venice Biennale? Is it perhaps the fear that modernization necessitates “westernization;” an anxiety about homogenization and cultural erasure under globalization?[5] In 2013, China-based curator Zandie Brockett expressed her concern that “becoming globalised means becoming modernized towards the western standard. There is no Chinese modern standard of its own. […] Although modernism might have a Chinese exterior to it, inside it is imitating the west.”[6] Brockett believes that “preservation of culture is important in the current environment in China because the west is so rapidly infiltrating China with their ideologies […] that China is very quickly forgetting their own traditions.”[7] These concerns make it difficult to agree on a clear-cut solution for the above raised curatorial dilemma. And while they are to some extent true, it is still unclear how should one curate a work of an artist born and raised in Israel and living and working in New York, such as for instance Mikhal Rovner whose work was presented as part of the Israeli Pavilion at the 50th Venice Biennale. But what is it that makes her work specifically Israeli?

Michal Rovner, Culture Plates

Michal Rovner, Culture PlatesMR

Michal Rovner creates mesmerizing video installations where she “digitally manipulates and distorts images to eliminate specific references to race, nationality, place, gender, and ethnicity, thereby evoking thoughts of illicit border crossings and de-territorialization.”[8] In her work, the individual identities blur and dissolve and we are left with anonymous, abstracted clusters of figures. This work can’t be labelled through any cultural or national identity; it is a form of transcendence, symbioses, and metamorphosis where individual elements disintegrate. Rovner’s work, to use the words by the UK art critic Jean Fisher, “provides no privileged locus in terms of origin or destination and hence no “authentic” or visible identity by which to trap the subject. It is the “no-place” […], and therefore is the space of trans-action from which one can begin again, […], the collaborative work of aesthetic invention, play, and transformation.”[9] Here hybridity, if one can speak of it at all, comes in an unconscious fashion where various cultural influences shape one’s work but are not detectable in the final product. Here the interaction with other cultures results in the creation of an entirely new artistic identity that escapes any specific national or regional classification. This type of hybridity is neither extension nor bridging, but transgression; it does not “produce a loss of cultural meaning, but an elaboration.”[10]

There are a number of artists who refuse to take part in artificial groupings that are seen as irrelevant to their work (i.e. exhibitions of African art, Asian art, or Brazilian art to name a few) arguing that these curatorial structures conform to and encourage marginalisation and stereotyping[11]. Artist Mircea Cantor, whose work was included in the 2014 Biennale of Sydney, refuses to provide curators and audience with his nationality simply professing that he ‘lives and works on Earth’[12].

But what about artists who have unwillingly fled their homeland and find necessity to preserve their unique cultural identity and serve as ambassadors to their country whose reputation has been severely damaged?

The experience of cultural divide and a desire to preserve one’s own cultural identity is evident in the works of émigré artists who have found themselves in a new country by force rather than voluntary decision. Born and raised in Pakistan as an Afghan refugee, artist Khadim Ali currently lives and works in Sydney. Complex cultural transition influences his work that is shaped as an attempt at re-orientation and imbued with a sense of underlying nostalgia. In Untitled Ali superimposes the iconic western image of Mona Lisa onto a traditional Persian miniature painting. The overlapping of two disparate cultural traditions reflects his own feeling of displacement and confused identity; the shifting in between that he personally experiences. Two superimposed elements disturb and counteract each other, preventing either from coming clearly forward. Ali chooses to paint Mona Lisa’s skin the same colour as the imagery she overlaps so she melts “willingly” into the Middle Eastern hillsides. In this way he indicates potential for the two distinct traditions to coexist and co-create something new and exciting. Ali is perhaps suggesting that South Asian cultural identity has something to offer to the western cultural identity. In the common parlour, being contemporary and globalised often means “catering to the western taste.”[13] We are, in fact tempted to judge Ali’s work as traditional and exotic. Untitled recommends a different kind of modernity, the one that does not “imitate west or emulates western beliefs”[14] but is developed through reciprocal assimilation where the Mona Lisa adapts to Middle Eastern standards as much as Middle Eastern standards adapt to the Mona Lisa. This type of hybridity sees east and west, tradition and modernity, meeting on a common ground to generate fluid and multi layered exchange; “a malleable relationship rather than a static one.”[15]

Khadim Ali

Untitled, Khadim Ali

khadim_ali_Documenta 1

Khadim Ali at DocumentaKhadim Ali 1


Khadim Ali’s work exists somewhere on the threshold between hybridity as resistance and hybridity as embrace. It is trying to reach the point of embrace (seen as equality between discrete cultural identities) through the resistance (resisting to be swallowed up, assimilated by the “western standard”). By preserving his own culture, Ali also functions as catalyst for the spread of the South Asian and Middle Eastern values into Australian society. His art dismantles stereotypes, allows for cross-cultural dialogue, and offers opportunity for reciprocal inspiration rather than a one sided influence. The mutual inspiration leads to “hybridity as embrace” where two or more cultural identities coexist, entwined voluntarily. This type of hybridity emerges out of a mutually expressed interest and fascination with the other culture, and a desire to expand one’s own field of practice. But it is  cultural / national segregation of Khadim’s work (i.e. its labeling as Afghani) that allows for this fascination and expansion to emerge.

So do we still need the Venice Biennale national pavilions?

[TEXT: Ira Ferris]



[1] Jean Fisher, “The Syncretic Turn: Cross-Cultural Practices in the Age of Multiculturalism,” in Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985, ed. Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung. (UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), p238

[2] This division between resistance and embrace was inspired by the lecture by Catriona Moore held on October 14th 2013 at the University of Sydney as part of the ARHT1002 Modern Times: Art & Film unit.

[3] “Hybridity and Ambivalence: Places and Flows in Contemporary Art and Culture,” last viewed March 24, 2014.

[4] “Reinscribing Tradition in a Transnational Art World,” published in 2010, last viewed March 24, 2014.

[5] “Reinscribing Tradition in a Transnational Art World,” published in 2010, last viewed March 24, 2014.

[6] “Interview with Curator Zandie Brockett – Transnational Dialogues,” published April 29, 2013. last viewed March 24, 2014.

[7] ibid.

[8] “Beyond East and West: Seven Transnational Artists,” published 2005, last viewed March 24, 2014.

[9] JFisher, “The Syncretic Turn,” p241

[10] Fisher, “The Syncretic Turn,” p237

[11] In 2013, Adrian Piper pulled her work from the NYU Grey Art Gallery’s “Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art” exhibition with the following note to the curator: “I appreciate your intentions. Perhaps a more effective way to ‘celebrate [me], [my] work and [my] contributions to not only the art world at large, but also a generation of black artists working in performance,’ might be to curate multi-ethnic exhibitions that give American audiences the rare opportunity to measure directly the groundbreaking achievements of African American artists against those of their peers in ‘the art world at large.’”
“Art News: Adrian Piper Pulls Out of Black Performance-Art Show,” published October 25, 2013, last viewed March 24, 2014.

[12] “Biennale of Sydney 2014,” last viewed March 24, 2014.

[13] “Reinscribing Tradition in a Transnational Art World,” published in 2010, last viewed March 24, 2014.

[14] “Interview with curator Zandie Brockett – Transnational Dialogues,” published April 29, 2013, last viewed March 24, 2014.

[15] “Gardiner Museum,” last viewed March 24, 2014.


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