I found something recently. I was getting rid of old papers and came across a report typed up by my course director at Central St. Martin’s College of Art & Design at the end of my first year as a student of the Fine Art degree program. His comments made me think of one very memorable conversation I had with the now famous artist Raqib Shaw, who at the time was in his second year of the course:
“These tutors keep criticising my work for being too decorative. They don’t know what they’re talking about, they keep saying painting is dead, but that’s what sells. So don’t let them tell you what to do!”
Word for word, I swear! His self-belief made such an impression on me. So, a few days back, I looked him up and found one interview from 2016 in which he reflects on what being a Kashmiri-Muslim student at one of the whitest institutions was like:
I really don’t give a fuck about the so-called contemporary art world. Even at St Martins, painting was supposed to be out of fashion. It was all about conceptual art and film. And then there is skill, which you’re supposed to shy away from, because skill is horrible. You're not supposed to be skilful! - Read the full interview here.
Yep! That is what it was like, well before “diversity, equity and inclusion” were words in our lexicon. It is such a euro-centric, colonialist way to think about beauty as devoid of intellect, or as beauty not having the capacity to embody intelligence, wisdom, or intention. This was also the year of the YBAs. Young British Art was all about Damien Hirst’s animal corpses, Tracey Emin’s highly controversial unmade Bed had just won the Turner Prize, and anyone from a different cultural background, if not self-orientalising, was shafted as “unsophisticated”.
And now that you have this context, you can see this perfect time-capsule of a report:
The second time I unexpectedly encountered Shaw’s work was when I was on the MA program of the Sotheby’s Institute of Art. As students we were taken to New York on a study trip in February 2009 - where an exhibition of Shaw’s gorgeous canvases were shown in the basement level of the MET.
I knew I should have bought his painting (of which I remember every detail: A nude male figure surrounded by a flat yellow-orange background, with glittering butterflies emerging from his mouth) at his degree show (2001) for the rumoured amount of GBP 2000 — but how was I supposed to possess so much money as a poor student!
Shaw was picked up by the blue chip dealer, Victoria Miro, and was vindicated even before his formal graduation ceremony. What struck me from his 2016 interview was something I did not know at the time — while he was pulling influences from a deeply rich cultural history, using glitter, crystals and enamel paint, I could not have fathomed that he was producing such opulent visual imagery while living in absolute squalor! He always showed up to the studio impeccably dressed, with such a confident stride that I could never have guessed the depth of his personal struggles. All I cared was that he was the first brown artist to hack a very white very rigid art system.
1999 or 2008, Euramerican art made by white men was (is) still the undisrupted canon and in both instances of studying at CSM and later at the Sotheby’s MA program, being an Indian from Nigeria was neither here nor there. The curriculums at both prestigious schools reinforced the notion of a “Conceptual artist” as code for a person who reads and applies obscure French theory, generously references the “panopticon”, mentions Duchamp’s readymade alot, frowns upon aesthetics but either uses just enough to appear exotic yet palatable to Euramerican collectors or neatly cleaves “art” as a form elevated away from “craft” through the display of text. Whether a thing falls in the category of high or low culture - who is making these decisions? Where did these categories emerge from and why do we still consider a certain kind of art or artist relevant?
“What is Modern according to the Euro-American paradigm becomes a pre-requisite requirement for all students of art history to pursue. So we get those innocent brown and yellow faces in classes who obediently and diligently learn the modernist canon which has privileged the work of certain artists at the expense of others.” -Apinan Poshyananda, Conference: “Fifty years of Indian Art”, Bombay, 1997
In 2014, I was commissioned by an Indian art magazine to write a piece on the context of being a brown student passively studying Western art in the UK and later in Singapore. In it I discussed two texts that I found transformative, one was by Thai curator Apinan Poshyananda, the other, by critic and specialist of Southeast Asian art, iola Lenzi (who incidentally did the Sotheby’s program in the late 80s in London, when there was a much sharper class and privilege divide in the art and auction sphere).
2021 to 2022: Invisibility > Opportunity ; Visibility = Plagiarism
Substitute art for perfume, and we are still raising the exact same questions. I don’t mean to, but I find myself constantly on the path of most resistance. In a sense, my British assessor from 1999 is accurate: “[Bharti] does what she likes,…demonstrates no [interest] in Western artists” — At the core of this assessment he highlights my refusal to be compliant with the hegemon and for this, I suspect I shall remain invisible.
I am trying to close this Newsletter and indeed this year with optimism but that’s not happening. So, I will share something that made me rather hopeful! The recent episode of Sarde (after dinner) #93 had Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi lobbing grenades at colonial attitudes towards Arab artists that was most gratifying to watch.
Like many, I began paying attention to Sultan’s twitter feed a decade back for live updates on the “Arab Spring” because news on the Global South from the media arm of the American Empire is always suspect. I did huff the part where he discusses the difficult reality of applying for an American visa in 2021, even for someone as prominent as him, because he had visited several Arab countries (mainly Iraq), just so he could teach a semester on West Asian art history at several Ivy League universities.
This post is soo incredible in so many ways. Thanks for sharing, especially with all the references. Sometimes I feel Art world is so contained within its self, I didn't know what I was missing to articulate my thoughts accurately. The Sultan's talk was extremely fascinating, I can't stop thinking about how it would apply to the Indian milieu, controversy and chaos are the two words that come to my head.
Please continue writing about decolonisation, it is a subject particularly close to my heart. I would also love to know how your Nigerian identity interacts with your Indian one and your international one and the other way around. looking forward to longer reads.