Arts Muse

Art and Imperialism

Sophia Ash explores the imperial routes of the art we create and consume.

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Image Credit: James Currey Ltd

In anything we consume – literature, film, or any other kind of art – we cannot escape the shackles of imperialism and patriarchy. Our world is riddled with contradictions and pluralities, divisions and disorders, brutalities that are often mistaken for beauty. Here, the self splinters, and with it any notion of what is real, what is truth. It is hard to grasp onto anything in this chaos, and harder to discern what exactly it is we strive to grasp onto. At times, the brutalities reveal themselves, in a light much harsher, much more glaring than before. What they reveal is a long and tiresome history of imperialism, on which perceptions and theorisations are unavoidably hinged, perhaps more so than on our own subjectivity. It is here, within the continuation of this imperialism that too many view as the aftermath, that the self splinters. Here, art emerges.

One of my tutors described literature as an imperial discipline forged in the crucible of empire, to which I found myself agreeing, disturbing though the notion is. The intellectual realm as it first emerged distorted perceptions of art in its resituation into institutional settings, where it became a theory to be examined, for instance, in the study of literature, film, fine art. Here, art now becomes a discipline, reserved for the elite, those who are able to study and to engage in its discourse. And so art becomes entrenched in notions of elitism, leading to the effacement of various groups; women, who were denied education, the working class, who could not afford it, and ethnic minorities who, too, were subject to this epistemic repression. Even now, it seems an easier task to list artists and intellectuals who are male, white, wealthy – in a position of privilege. Within the intellectual realm, art is disfigured, becoming less of an expression and more of a political vessel used to instil certain ideas of culture within those granted access.

Within colonialism, educational institutions function to augment the perceived superiority of themselves, providing means by which colonial power can be maintained. And so, however subtle the process may be, art collaborates in the perpetuation of colonialism and imperial outlooks. This can also be seen in colonised states where harsh distinctions are forged between the native languages of colonised places and the English language, where English is recognised as the language of ‘education’, of ‘civility’, of ‘status’, whereas the native language is related to domestic activities and conversational settings. Here, writers under colonialism are faced with an immense struggle that is at once psychological, societal and political; a choice that implicates both their identification within the world and their ability to be known in the intellectual realm.

Art, in the form of literature, can be seen to illustrate this struggle, where writers under imperialism grapple with this psychological and linguistic struggle. What was once a form of identification becomes a constraint of that identity; language is central to ideas of subjectivity, power, voice and when the language of the colonizer is imposed to the extent that you no longer feel comfortable writing in your own language, the liberation of artistic expression is utterly distorted. To Ngũgĩ, language is the enabling condition of human consciousness: "The choice of language and the use of language is central to a people's definition of themselves in relation to the entire universe.” For him, to write in English – a language of neocolonial domination and a marker of elite status – would make him a cultural traitor, and so he rejects it entirely, writing instead in his lesser known native language. To create art in the form of the written word is an intensely subjective, personal experience, and to reject the lingua franca becomes a reclamation of identity, a reaffirmation of this right to express in one’s own form.

But it seems that the power this asserts is somehow reduced if the majority cannot understand the language and so remain in their oblivion, while the struggle is contained only to those immediately grappling with it. Others like Achebe who chose to write in English see it as a tool to destabilise existing preconceptions warped by imperialism. It is a language of globalisation, not simply colonialism, of artistic experimentation and freedom, not only dominance – it enables writers to take command of the representation of their cultures to a world audience. But still, it is a language of violence to those onto which it has been imposed, and its use in artistic expression is forever problematised in this sense, forcing people to engage in a struggle that is at once political and psychological.

And so to look upon art as one of the purest means of metaphysical escape is painfully problematic, for is it freeing or constraining? Is it possible for art to detach from the shackles of imperialism, or will it always be something political? It is a sad vision to think we cannot separate art from the horrors of imperialism, but perhaps there is another way of viewing it. It seems that within the intellectual realm, art becomes an imperial discipline, but in and of itself, removed from institutional settings, it is something else entirely. For art traces back to ancient times, it has not been conceived from the brutalities of imperialism, merely reconstructed, distorted for political gain. As humans, we strive to perpetuate- ourselves, our knowledge. What we desire is to leave traces of ourselves behind, for our existence to concretise itself into some kind of confirmation that we stood here on this earth once, and it is through art that we can do this.

Art is not inherently bound to ideas of imperialism and control, for this is not what propels us to create it in the first place. For us, it is an expression, a reclamation, an instrument with which to memorialise the horrors of the past, and of the present, but also immortalise our existences. This is what makes it such a powerful tool for colonial powers, this is what endangers it. But in recognising this fact, we have the ability to reconcile it with its origin and to prevent its disfiguration.

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