Past Events

London, Asia, Art, Worlds conference: Potential Histories & Solidarities

Conference, Lecture – Parul Dave-Mukherji, Omar Kholeif, Michael Rakowitz, David Morris, Maryam Ohadi-Hamadani

  • 3 June 2021
  • 1:00 – 4:15 pm
  • This event is part of London, Asia, Art, Worlds, a multi-part programme of online events taking place in May and June 2021. It is envisioned as a murmuration, a series of interconnected papers, conversations, performances and interventions.
  • Zoom Webinar

The Potential Histories and Solidarities panel historicises collective actions of artists and social organisations towards shared aesthetic and political projects.

Chair: Parul Dave-Mukherji (Professor, School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

13.00-13.15 Welcome & Introductions

13.15-14.00 Keynote:Omar Kholeif Director of Collections and Senior Curator, Sharjah Art Foundation) and Michael Rakowitz (Artist and Alice Welsh Skilling Professor of Art, Northwestern University).

14.00-14.15 Discussion and Questions

14.15-14.30 Break

14.30-14.35 Welcome back/Introductions

14.35-14.55 David Morris (Research Fellow and Editor at Afterall), ‘Artists for Democracy and the Vietnam Festival (1975)’

14.55-15.15 Maryam Ohadi-Hamadani (Postdoctoral Research Associate, Yale Center for British Art), ‘A Little Too Much “Commonwealth New Vision”’

15.15-15.45 Discussion & Questions

15.45-16.15 Optional breakout rooms for continued discussion


Potential Histories & Solidarities

Discussion between Omar Kholeif and Michael Rakowitz, with papers by David Morris and Maryam Ohadi-Hamadani.

Paper Abstracts

Omar Kholeif and Michael Rakowitz

In this keynote conversation, two friends and long-time collaborators come together to discuss how their divergent practices as artist and curator, as historians and makers, have influenced the ways in which they individually construct their own specific concept of solidarity. The discussion will begin with a reflection by Kholeif, which aims to argue that Rakowitz's artistic practice operates as an act of historical making and unmaking, proposing a methodology for seeing the world through the lens of decoloniality. The conversation will explore hidden histories recited by unreliable narrators. Together, they will explore the possibilities of unfurling and decoding one's personal biography through the practice of art. The duo will untangle notions of imperialism, situating the discussion around Rakowitz's project The invisible enemy should not exist (Lamassu of Nineveh) (2018), which was on view on the Fourth Plinth of London's Trafalgar Square from 2018 to 2020. Restitution and reclamation, disappearance and memory, failure and principle, come together to conclude a conversation that seeks to propose alternative methods for looking – ones that may lead to the formation of a new visuality.

David Morris

Artists for Democracy formed in London in 1974 to give ‘material and cultural support to liberation movements worldwide’. They chose to do this through a festival, The Arts Festival for Democracy in Chile, which took place later the same year – a two-week gathering of performance, exhibition and discussion that emerged as ‘a space of conversation and mutual apprenticeship ... that brought together artists from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas in a multifaceted conglomerate’ (Vicuña 2013). The founding group (including Guy Brett, John Dugger, David Medalla and Cecilia Vicuña) subsequently broke apart, and AFD was reconstructed and found new allies, such as Rasheed Araeen, continuing until 1977.

This contribution will address phases and contradictions in modes of solidarity and collective practice as seen through AFD, with particular attention to their 1975 festival and collective exhibition for Vietnam – described at the time as ‘a series of environments made of simple, often waste, materials’ – the details of which are little-known. The contribution will develop a historical account and analysis of the festival through the perspectives of participants and others with a stake in its legacies.

Considering the festival’s positioning with and towards Southeast Asia, this contribution will also use these accounts and moments to gain perspective on contemporary questions of solidarity, artist organising and the festival-as-form.

Maryam Ohadi-Hamadani

In the 1960s, independent galleries like New Vision Centre, Gallery One, Woodstock Gallery and Indica Gallery gave artists immigrating from the Caribbean and South Asia their first solo exhibitions in London, but as Balraj Khanna put it regarding his own experiences in trying (and failing) to find gallery representation as a young artist: ‘Black has never been beautiful in Cork Street.’ During this decade, the ‘Commonwealth’ proliferated as an organizing principle for group exhibitions throughout Britain of work by émigré artists from the new Commonwealth. Anxiety surrounding Britain’s standing as a world power in the wake of decolonization led to soft power attempts by various governmental organizations including the Central Office of Information to promote the growing Commonwealth abroad and at home, which also included exhibitions of contemporary art.

Official exhibitions held at the Commonwealth Institute including Commonwealth Art Today (1962), or the Royal Academy of Art’s 1965 exhibition Treasures from the Commonwealth contrasted with artist-organized exhibitions such as New Vision Centre’s Transferences at Zwemmer Gallery (1958) and the Commonwealth Biennales of Abstract Art in 1963 and 1965. Borne out of necessity owing to a lack of exhibiting opportunities, these artists, many of them students, would form coalitions like The Young Commonwealth Artists and the Commonwealth Painters Group as platforms to exhibit their work in solidarity and in response to their exclusion from mainstream exhibitions such as the annual Young Contemporaries exhibitions.

By examining these exhibitions and others, and the early career practices of artists including Anwar Jalal Shemza, Avinash Chandra, Aubrey Williams, and Frank Bowling, this paper provides a situational and contextual understanding of these short-lived networks that formed during this period. Focusing specifically on the politics of postwar abstraction and the sociopolitical implications of immigration legislation and Commonwealth cultural production in Britain, this paper also grapples with concepts of the universal and particular which framed exhibiting practices and critical reception during this period of burgeoning globalization.

London, Asia, Art, Worlds is convened by:

Hammad Nasar, Senior Research Fellow, Paul Mellon Centre
Ming Tiampo, Professor, Art History, and Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art and Culture, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada
Sarah Victoria Turner, Deputy Director for Research, Paul Mellon Centre

Image caption: People of the World Learn from Indochina Arts Festival, Artists for Democracy, London, 1975. Poster design: Lynn MacRitchie/David Turner. Digital image courtesy of Lynn MacRitchie

About the speakers

  • Parul Dave-Mukherji

    Parul Dave-Mukherji is professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. She holds a PhD from Oxford University. Her publications include: InFlux: Contemporary Art in Asia, (co-edited with Naman P. Ahuja and Kavita Singh) Sage, New Delhi, 2013); ’Whither Art History in a Globalizing World’ The Art Bulletin 2014; Arts and Aesthetics in a Globalizing World, (co-edited with Raminder Kaur, Bloomsbury, 2014); ’Art History and Its Discontents in Global Times’ in Art History in the Wake of the Global Turn, eds. Jill H Cassid and Aruna D’Souza, Massachusetts: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2014 ; Ebrahim Alkazi: Directing Art – The Making of a Modern Indian Art World (ed. Mapin, New Delhi 2016); Rethinking Aesthetics in a Comparative Frame (co-edited with R. N. Misra), IIAS, Shimla 2020). Her forthcoming publication 20th Century Indian Art (co-edited with Partha Mitter and Rakhee Balaram) will be published by Thames and Hudson, London, by the fall of 2021.

  • Omar Kholeif wearing a suit in front of a plain background. Black and white photo.

    Omar Kholeif (b. Cairo, Egypt), writer, curator, cultural historian is Director of Collections and Senior Curator at Sharjah Art Foundation, Government of Sharjah, UAE. Trained as a political scientist, Kholeif's career began as a journalist and documentary filmmaker before entering into the picture palace of museums. Concerned with the intersections of emerging technology with queer, post-colonial and critical race theory, Kholeif's writing has explored histories of performance art, the experience of mental illness and the interstices of social justice and the aesthetics of the digital. The curator of over one hundred exhibitions of art, design and architecture, they are the author and/or editor of thirty-one books, which have been translated into twelve languages. Recent volumes include, Goodbye, World! Looking at Art in the Digital Age (Sternberg Press, 2018) and Art in the Age of Anxiety (SAF/Mörel/MIT, 2021). Kholeif is currently completing a monograph, Internet Art: The First Thirty Years (Phaidon, 2022) and an anthology of essays, Code-Switchers: The Art of Being Invisible (expected 2022). Dr Kholeif curated Michael Rakowitz's first museum survey exhibition and accompanying monograph, Backstroke of the West at MCA Chicago in 2017.

  • Michael Rakowitz is an artist living and working in Chicago. His work has appeared in venues worldwide including dOCUMENTA (13), MoMA PS1, MassMOCA, Castello di Rivoli, Palais de Tokyo, the 16th Biennale of Sydney, the 10th and 14th Istanbul Biennials, Sharjah Biennial 8, Tirana Biennale, National Design Triennial at the Cooper-Hewitt, Transmediale 05, FRONT Triennial in Cleveland, and CURRENT:LA Public Art Triennial. He has had solo projects and exhibitions with Creative Time, Tate Modern in London, The Wellin Museum of Art, MCA Chicago, Lombard Freid Gallery and Jane Lombard Gallery in New York, SITE Santa Fe, Galerie Barbara Wien in Berlin, Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago, Malmö Konsthall, Tensta Konsthall, and Kunstraum Innsbruck. From 2019–2020, a survey of Rakowitz’s work travelled from Whitechapel Gallery in London to Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea in Torino, to the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai. Rakowitz is Professor of Art Theory and Practice at Northwestern University.

  • David Morris

    David Morris lives in London. He is a research fellow and editor at Afterall, working particularly on the Exhibition Histories series. His work explores different approaches to artistic research, education and exhibition, with a particular focus on experimental and collective practice. He is co-editor, with Sylvère Lotringer, of Schizo-Culture: The Event, The Book (Semiotext(e)/The MIT Press, 2014); with David Teh, of Artist-to-Artist: Independent Art Festivals in Chiang Mai 1992–98 (Afterall Books, 2018) among other publications. With Helena Vilalta he leads a research masters' programme in exhibition studies at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London.

  • Maryam Ohadi-Hamadani is Lecturer in History of Art at the University of Edinburgh. Her research interests include transnationality, diaspora and decolonisation, and the politics of postwar abstraction and visual culture in Britain and beyond. She has held positions at the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland; Tate Liverpool; and the Yale Center for British Art. Recent publications include "Race, Labor and Posctolonial Politics in Frank Bowling's Mother's House series" (Pop Art and Beyond: Gender, Race, and Class in the Global Sixties, Mona Hadler and Kalliopi Minioudaki, eds., Bloomsbury, 2022).