– Colonial Logics Remain in Force Today

Art historian Mathias Danbolt believes that it is necessary to take a new look at Nordic art history from a decolonial point of view.

Johannes Flintoe, Fra Jotunheimen. Hurrungene, 1837. From the exhibition Oppdagelsen av fjellet / Discovering the Mountains, The National Museum, Oslo, Norway, 2008. Courtesy of the National Museum.

As guest editor of a special issue of the journal Kunst og Kultur addressing the theme of ‘Art and coloniality’ (Kunst og kolonialitet), Danish-Norwegian art historian Mathias Danbolt has positioned himself at the centre of what may be one of the most important art history discussions in our time. The discussion is relevant to traditional art history and contemporary history alike, for is it not the case that colonial forces – coloniality – remains active within many parts of the Nordic art field? And do we not find that the images of the National Romantic movement look rather different when considered in the light of the colonial movement and compulsory assimilation politics (‘Norwegification’) seen at the time?

In your article ‘Kunst og kolonialitet’ in the new issue of Kunst og Kultur, you consider the Norwegian National Romantic movement of the nineteenth century in relation to the compulsory assimilation politics aimed at the Sámi people around the same time. Is this connection so strong that we must see National Romanticism in a new light?

Yes, I believe it is important to scrutinise the relationship between art and nation building in greater detail. Not because we should allow National Romanticism to once again dominate the discussions within the field of art history. However, it is relevant to question the role that National Romanticism has played in the naturalisation of all things Norwegian, of Norwegian nature, culture and identity, given that a lot has had to be forcefully forgotten and ignored in order for this mono-cultural idea about Norwegianness to work. This includes Sámi art and culture.

Why haven’t we asked this question before?

Examining these historic dynamics is not a radical new thing. Sámi historians such as Steinar Pedersen have long called for studies of the role of National Romanticism in relation to the suppression of Sámi culture and history. These issues have also been touched upon in the important work done by art historians in Tromsø who for long have worked on Sámi art history. In Southern Norway, however, the interest in these issues have been sparse.

Mathias Danbolt in front of the new National Museum in Oslo. Photo: Mari Torvanger Knap.

Take, for example, an exhibition such as Oppdagelsen av fjellet (Discovering the Mountains) at the National Museum in Oslo in 2008, which addressed the question of how the artistic construction of the Norwegian mountainous regions in the nineteenth century was closely linked to the cartographic and scientific efforts to chart and control the ‘blank spots’ on the map of Norway. However, the exhibition included no reflections on how this artistic ‘Norwegification’ of the landscape may have contributed to erasing the Sámi presence in these southern areas from the annals of history. And I don’t recollect any art historians asking these questions when the exhibition was shown ten years ago. I personally had a major eyeopener in the form of my encounter with Sissel M. Bergh’s video installation Dalvedh from 2014, which is part of her important research project on the structural erasure of southern Sámi language and history undertaken by Norwegian scholars and scientists in the nineteenth century. That work inspired me to begin to earnestly ask questions about art history’s role in the Norwegification processes.

In your article you tussle with curator at the National Museum Øystein Ustvedt, who wrote the important book Ny norsk kunst: etter 1990, published in 2011. Do we see the contours of a struggle for positions within the field of art history in all this?

I’m not that macho by nature, so I have little interest in dogfights. I point to a passage from Ustvedt’s book as an example of what I consider to be a problematic and ingrained habitual thinking in the field of art history. In his book, Ustvedt quite simply asserts that cultural diversity has never played a prominent role within the Norwegian art scene because Norway was never a colonial power and there were next to no minorities in this country before the processes of globalisation gained ground. But that is not true. Norway has been involved in a range of different colonial projects, policies and logics right back from the seventeenth century to the present day, including the ongoing colonialization of Sápmi. And yet, the narrative about Norwegian homogeneity is repeated endlessly, making it appear like an indisputable truth. My point is that these historical assertions are performative: by always already minimising or entirely erasing cultural diversity from Norwegian history, these assertions legitimise the persistent ignorance of all that which does not fit into the image of cultural homogeneity, including Sámi art.

So you believe that Sámi art deserves a more central position within the narrative about Norwegian contemporary art?

Yes, it definitely does. However, I am concerned with a specific perception of history. I am critical of the methodical nationalism that continues to inform sectors of the discipline of art history, where certain ‘obvious’ ideas about the nation seem to decide which questions are regarded as important and relevant in the discussion of art history. Obviously, Norway is not alone in this regard. This is also the case of other countries, including Denmark, where I am based. Let’s take an example: In 2017 we saw a resurging interest in Denmark’s colonial history, including its important role in the enslavement trade, in connection with the 100th centenary of the sale of the Caribbean colony the Danish West Indies to the US. At the same time, Norway was seeing a renewed focus on the persistent colonial issues inherent to the relationship between Sápmi and Norway following the celebrations of the 100-year anniversary of the first pan-Sámi congress in Tråante/Trondheim in 1917. However, these historical conversations were never seen in relation to each other. Norwegian media did not really pick up on the discussions about Danish enslavement and colonialism even though this is very much a shared imperial history: Norwegian traders and seamen were greatly involved in the Danish-Norwegian colonialisation of the Virgin Islands and elsewhere. Similarly, Danish media displayed little or no interest in the long political struggle of Sápmi even though the colonial settling of the borders and the apportioning of control over these areas in the north took place under Danish-Norwegian rule in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The important Sámi collection at the National Museum of Denmark dates back from this time. However, the nation building processes in both Denmark and Norway have not allowed space for discussing these interwoven stories. Even today, the period when Norway was part of the Danish empire remain a low priority within Norwegian art history writing. I, however, am very interested in these trans-cultural and trans-local connections.

Is this perspective also present in the other articles in this issue of Kunst og Kultur?

Yes, in the sense that all four articles take their starting point in works of art that are aimed at colonial connections that cannot be properly grasped within strict national, disciplinary or aesthetic categories and frameworks. David Winfield Norman discuss the Greenlandic artist Jessie Kleemann’s embodied resistance against the tradition that have posited Greenlandic art under the sign of ethnography. Nina Cramer writes about the Danish-Caribbean artist Jeannette Ehlers’s interventions pertaining to Danish-Norwegian narratives about colonialism and slavery. Cathrine Baglo and Hanne Hammer Stien compare Lars Cuzner and Cassius Faldabi’s project European Attraction Limited – the so-called ‘Congo Village’ in Frognerparken in 2014 – to Joar Nango’s European Everything, shown during Documenta 14 in the summer of 2017. And finally, Lene Myong discusses the artist collective UFOlab’s efforts to politicise transnational adoption in a Nordic context.

Questions about coloniality and decolonisation have quickly become prominently featured on the agenda within the field of art and within academia? What happened?

The work on decolonialising the fields of art and academia alike has been going on for a long time – in Norway too. The long struggle to build Sámi art institutions and institutions of education is one example. Several central scholars have long worked with teaching and introducing indigenous perspectives and research methodologies in academia, including Britt Kramvig, Harald Gaski and Niels Oskal.

However, in the heated discussion we have seen in Norway in recent months, the idea of decolonisation has often been presented yet another American import alongside other so-called abominations such as identity politics. A frustrating development, as it reduces these important and difficult discussions to a matter of political correctness.

I am, however, wary of using these terms too lightly, looking towards scholars such as Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang who warn against using decolonisation as a metaphor for all kinds of critique of canons and colonialism. It is no coincidence that this themed issue of Kunst og Kultur uses the term ‘coloniality’ (‘kolonialitet’) instead of than better-known terms such as ‘colonialism’ or ‘postcolonialism’. The so-called decolonial school distinguishes between ‘colonialism’, which designates political, economic and cultural control of other territories, and ‘coloniality’, which describes the underlying philosophical, religious, political and racial logics that facilitate such control. These logics remain in force today.

It may seem as if the idea of decolonisation joins the #metoo movement and the discussion about intersectionality in constituting a new wave within representational and identity politics. Such politics were prominent in wake of 1968 and far into the 1980s. Back then, the struggle was about visibility and rights. In the 1990s the critique of power became more theoretical in nature as the practical and political struggles cooled down. The idea that no-one should be foregrounded or have high visibility due to their identity, but rather due to their merit, became widely accepted. Might one say that what happens now constitutes a third wave within identity politics?

I am not too thrilled about using the wave metaphor in this way, an approach familiar from feminist history writing where the idea of waves are often used to link up specific struggles with specific times and generations. This conceptualization of waves risks to reaffirm simplified ideas about historical progression or regression, as expressed in statements such as ‘didn’t we discuss representation and identity in the 1990s?’ If we are to speak of history in terms of waves, I would rather prefer to approach these different political focus areas as radio waves that one can tune into. It is important to be aware that many of these struggles remain unresolved, and that issues such as visibility and rights most certainly do not feel dated or irrelevant to those who are still excluded and marginalised. Old and new problems coexist, and one of the challenges that the focus on intersectionality has brought up concerns the ability to tune into multiple issues at the same time. If you are used to listening to one political channel only, the sound of the many critical voices raised today can quickly appear as noise rather than a multitude of voices. I am interested in becoming better at listening to dissonance and believe that it is important not to be too quick to reduce all of the various critical conversations out there today to a homogenous, uniform movement.

How should those in positions of power within the field of art respond to this development? Is it enough to endeavour to raise the profile of underrepresented groups, or do we need to delve deeper into ourselves, our institutions and the power structures that surround us?

We all have a responsibility for the institutions of which we are part, and for how we wield the power we happen to have, whether as a tenured scholar like me or as an editor-in-chief like you. And there are racialised, gendered and sexualised logics at play here that we must be aware of and take a critical view of. Working to heighten the visibility of underrepresented groups like you say is, of course, important, but far from enough. Often, people like you and I ought to step aside and let others take centre stage. And by that I don’t just mean allowing more people to speak. There is a huge difference between being invited to take part in a conversation and on setting up the terms of a conversation oneself. Working to ensure that, compared to today, more and other people can set the agenda within the field of art is essential. We have a shared responsibility for changing our recruitment processes and the ways our institutions work. These are not easy or pleasant processes.

Kunstkritikk has been the subject of criticism because our upcoming seminar on, amongst other things, the decolonisation of the Nordic National Museums doesn’t include representatives of the colonised.

Yes, and of course I could be criticised for standing in the way of allowing other minority voices to be heard, such as Sámi art historians. These are legitimate and important criticisms. There is no denying that the conversation gets quite restricted if only those in positions of power lay down the terms for the discussion that supposedly criticise power. This is not to say that the directors of the Nordic national museums shouldn’t address these questions, but if the objective is to determine how institutions should be decolonialised, there is a dire need to allow people other than those in high office to set the agenda.

This issue of Kunst og Kultur will be launched at Litteraturhuset tonight – what will happen on the night?

At the launch, we will discuss methodological questions concerning how to address the relationship between art and coloniality. One of the contributors to the special issue, David Winfield Norman, a PhD fellow in art history at the University of Copenhagen, will talk about his work with the Greenlandic artist Jessie Kleemann and the importance of reimagining the scholar’s role and position in history writing. One of my own major inspirations, Britt Kramvig, a professor at UiT – The Arctic University of Norway, will speak about indigenous research methodologies pertaining to the field. And we have invited the director of collections at the National Museum in Oslo, Stina Högkvist, who will speak about how the museum can respond to the various power dynamics found within the collection and the institution. There is much to address, so I look forward to this evening’s conversations.