Decolonial Introduction to the Theory, History and Criticism of the Arts
[Ed. note: As the Oxford University Research Center in the Humanities notes, this recent publication “draws on texts from recent picture and image theory, as well as on present-day Amerindian authors, anthropologists and philosophers [to] question the power structure inherent in Eurocentric art discourses and to decolonize art studies, using Brazil’s arts, its theory and history as a case study to do so.” Written by Carolin Overhoff Ferreira, Associate Professor at the Department of History of ArtFederal at the University of São Paulo, we are pleased to host a short synopsis by the author below.]
Since this book was written in South America, its title refers to the decolonial perspective many Latin American scholars adopted at American universities during the 1990s in order to stress the difference of their context, which is characterized by independences during the nineteenth century, to that of the postcolonial theories that emerged in the 1980s after the political decolonisation of the last African and Asian countries, which had been underway since the 1950s.
Decolonial theories question western epistemology and are currently experiencing a revival, given the more pronounced and numerous presence of indigenous and Afro-diasporic authors, as much in scholarly discourse as in the political sphere, as a reaction to persisting racism, sexism, ecocide, ethnocide and genocide. These theories are inspired by critical perspectives on western modernity, since coloniality is understood to be its darker side. While postcoloniality and its theorisers question this mainly on a scholarly level and try to transform academia, decoloniality takes a broader approach and is as much analytical as programmatic, parting from a more political stance. This is to say that it is related, for example in Brazil, to anti-racist movements and fights against institutionalized racism, as well as to the struggle of the indigenous population (in Brazil the term povos originários is now being used, which means, literally, originary people) for the demarcation of their lands and, above all, the respect for this demarcation.
In this sense, this book presents, on the one hand, a critical perspective on the History of Art as an epistemology that has tried to defend Europe’s superiority over the centuries – which has deeply affected Latin America’s Eurocentric art studies until today – and, on the other hand, introduces scholars and authors of indigenous, diasporic, and peripheral populations, recognising and including the importance of their artistic production – which I will be calling “third space.” For the moment, most of this book is still preoccupied with deconstructing the existing theories, histories and criticism, yet its main objective is to point to a new direction for studies to come.
Given the desire for a critical and decolonial standpoint, when I began to think about how to structure this book, all the basic questions regarding art came to my mind: What is art? How has it been defined and how is it being defined today? What are its stories? How have they been told? How are they being told today? What are the criteria for art criticism? How have they changed, or did they change? How do countries that suffered colonialism study the arts? Why are the different arts studied separately? The last question particularly concerned me. I knew from the start that I did not want to reduce art to the visual arts, nor extend it without further reflection to reproducible media, the audio-visual and new media.
By drawing on texts from recent picture and image theory, as well as on present-day Amerindian authors, anthropologists and philosophers, this introductory panoramic survey argues for the need to question the power structure inherent in Eurocentric art discourses and to decolonize art studies, using Brazil’s arts, its theory and history as a case study to do so.
A PDF excerpt of the book can be found here. Prof. Ferreira has created a YouTube channel with her students, here (in Portuguese), which hosts the short videos they produce on contemporary Brazilian art as part of her course son the material covered in this book.