Cultural Decolonisation by

by 28. 2. 2023

External perspective defines us as Europeans. Despite the fact that we’re going through different crises, we almost have a superstate, one identity, a bay of prosperity and a peaceful life. The digital borderlines have been erased and geographical boundaries are gradually becoming blurred. Internally, we are still anchored to where we were born, where we have created our cultural stereotypes, and where we are on firm ground. The situation in every country in former East Europe is slightly different and has its own genesises which influence our experience. We often somehow project or mirror this experience into our artistic practice. Romania is a country where – from the liberal perspective – almost everything has failed. It is the land with the highest corruption index, assault, death rate, road deaths, ineffective health care, bad inclusion of ethnic minorities, clientelism and nepotism. Women and men have the lowest income in Europe. Romania has been waiting and waiting on the threshold of the Schengen space. More than 3 million Romanians have fled the country in the last 10 years. It is the biggest, unprecedented exodus in Europe during peacetime. Absolute frustration. This is the context in which we should illustrate the condition of the art scene, public art collections and artists who deal with the basic issue of having a regular income.

If we scrutinize what is happening here in more detail, we will find many differences which have their own genesises and have created diverse art practices. Very roughly speaking we are observing two main sorts of approaches. The first is based on the mining of local specifics and is mostly limited to its field of language and cultural stereotypes and is more or less bound by local consciousness. Secondly, we have a group of authors who are inclined to use and create their own visual universal or global language.

Cultural production in Romania has been impacted by its failed system 1 where the position of the middle-aged and young generation of artists is suspicious. We have watched how the Romanian state has scuffed non-governmental organization live. We have been tracing the lack of the art institutions’ 2 competencies and lack of public financial support via various grants or regular acquisitions by galleries and museums. By circumstance this precarious situation pushes the whole scene – artists with art theoretician and curators – into a state where these groups act collectively. In this constellation these people have more potential to find a temporary solution from unfavourable conditions until the moment self-colonised 3 and broken former East Europe finds the self-confidence to act independently. This means not being reliant on the dominant West’s diction, including the art market and looking for recognition from the Western part of the globe. One of the pioneering initiatives which goes beyond these words is the organisation Collective Collection. It is a culturally active collective based on membership. These people have also constructed a contemporary art collection. 

To understand this phenomenon we need to briefly sketch the Romanian environment of collecting. Primarily it is the duty of the state and its cultural institution to push for public collection. The state should protect the substances of its own society for future generations. If we want to understand the present, we must know our past. The aims here are evident. But the current long-term exhibition at the National Museum of Contemporary Art Văzând Istoria – 1947-2007. Colecția MNAC (Seeing History 1947-2007. Collection of MNAC) is an undignified overview of the cautionless approach of the main Romanian institution. Apart from the fact that the whole 1950s are missing, the collection and the exhibition also disregard already locally established contemporary artists. Perhaps it will be helpful to explore the statement: ‘What we collect, why we collect and what kind of condition do we have’. The private sector of collecting is inauspicious as well and has several layers and aspects. So far the majority of affluent Romanian businessmen haven’t discovered that artwork is better than a poster from Ikea or that an artwork could slowly increase in value over time. 

In this context the Romania Collective Collection emerged, critically responding to the lack of the public institutions’ responsibility while reacting to the narcissistic possession of the private sector and its problematical moments such as the domination of a few selected artists. The Collective Collection is based on solidarity – all members are the collection’s owners. A potential lender should therefore obtain the permission from all of the Collective Collection’s members. In general, the organisation strives to de-privatise the collecting subject and institute the collective as the active agent and a collective socio-political tactic, commonly based on deep research, versus the individual taste of a private collection. If we attempt to summarize these characteristic attributes – under the condition that – visual art should contain complementary visions about us – then we could observe deeply rooted universal and dominant strategies discussed in the beginning in the whole of former East Europe, especially in Romania. These approaches are currently based on simplifying important thoughts. I guess that disposition to create universal work is connected with our tendency towards self-colonisation. Nonetheless, exports and imports of goods with Western EU countries are quite balanced, which is always valued positively in business and diplomacy. But on a cultural level, it is a one-sided relationship in which the Western world occupies the position of a picky customer interested in a few items (cheap labor, cheap goods, primary production, raw materials, services), while we have become consumers of a variety of material and ideological products. One of the obvious strategies of a picky customer is that the Eastern art world is completely parallelized. Only a few representatives have been selected into the worldwide circulation of visual art. The method of choice is based on the so-called patching of empty spaces, i.e. inserting and filling the thought or visual absence into the Western art ‘international’ or ‘world’ context. 

In our context it is an everyday process of comparison with the culturally mature countries or states which have or virtually hold cultural dominance. The most recognized study about our position could be transferred from Edward Said’s Orientalism. 4 We could define our past as a history of the patronizing of the East by the West or the process by which the West rules, restructures and manages the East. Euphemistically speaking we have observed cultural raping. In our Europe we are referring to a softened variant of voluntary and non-critical acceptance of goods coming from illusory mature centres. Parallelly we are forgetting or repressing our inherited values. For some reason we perceive these values as lesser than western ones which have a broader acceptance, recognition and history. We call this non-critical acceptance self-colonisation, a process which has gone through former East Europe and where we can find a significant touch of the West. I am certain of keeping our marginal role until the moment we voluntarily refuse to participate on a dominant pole and educate our public institutions, art universities and collectors to focus on quality. This tendency is growing here, as exemplified by the Collective Collection and its demonstration of one method of cultural decolonisation. 

František Zachoval is a cultural manager, publisher and curator.

1 In the 90s, the Czech Association of Fine Artists was completely dissolved, and we started from 0. This was quite a positive moment. The Romanian organization (UAP), on the other hand, kept their properties and members 30 years after the political change. Paradoxically, we can appreciate this moment because UAP became a social network for the oldest generation or a social meeting point for excluded artists. Nevertheless, this situation is hostile for the younger generation.

2 If we are talking about contemporary art, we have two wealthy cultural agencies in Romania: Arcub and Creart. And unfortunately they produce public events without any kind of vision. They are a sort of form of amusement similar to shopping malls. These city hall‘s organisations are responsible for a long-term vision in respect to culture. But the leaders of Bucharest and of the state are using culture for their electoral means.

3 The metaphor of self-colonisation was invented by the Bulgarian professor of the History of Modern Culture at the Department of Cultural Studies at the University of Sofia in “Notes on Self-colonising Cultures” published in the book Cultural Aspects of the Modernisation Process, Oslo, 1995. Later the concept was precisely formulated in The Self-Colonizing Metaphor.

4 Orientalism focuses on nations and countries in Asia, North Africa and the Middle East.

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František Zachoval