“we are not separated by the sea, we are connected by it” – thoughts on decolonialization with SHIRAZ BAYJOO

When visiting a historical museum, an archive or an art collection, did you ever question the power structures behind the exhibited objects? – Who is collecting and what is made visible? What kind of history is narrated? Which parts might be missing? Currently, the contemporary art exhibition Archives of Resistance and Repair is on view at Neue Galerie Innsbruck (extended until March 26th, 2022). It shows works by Maeve Brennan, Onyeka Igwe and Shiraz Bayjoo, which are focusing on hidden power dynamics that exist within archives. In their works, the artists reconsider the meaning and function of historical records from a decolonial perspective, making visible that archives are not neutral collections and sources of information. Historically, they have functioned as tools for powerful institutions to shape ideology, to maintain power relations and to narrate history in a certain way. 

“Many relicts of the past are left to decay and there are certain ones that are held on to. That is one of the questions that I was really interested in: Where does this choice take place? What is it that we are holding on to and what is it that we are willing to let go of?“

– Shiraz Bayjoo

By visiting Archives of Resistance and Repair, you will get an insight into the topic raised above, however, it might be challenging to understand its complexity without doing further research. Therefore, the exhibition’s additional program provides a deeper understanding of the artists’ works and their thoughts. A couple weeks ago, we were listening to a discussion between Julia DeFabo (who curated the exhibition together with Lexington Davis) and one of the exhibiting artists, Shiraz Bayjoo (you can listen to the whole discussion here). The program was broadcasted on FREIRAD 105.9 Freies Radio Innsbruck on January 7th, 2022.

In the following article, selected excerpts of their conversation are highlighted and explored further to give an insight into the main idea behind the exhibition as well as into relevant questions our society will be dealing with in the future. 

Shiraz Bayjoo | Bild: courtesy of the artist

But let’s start with introducing Shiraz Bayjoo: Born in 1979, the artist grew up in Port Louis, the capital city of the island of Mauritius, situated in the Indian Ocean. Through his multi-disciplinary approach (consisting of film, painting, photography, performance, and installation), he investigates the social, political and historical landscapes of his home region. Bayjoo’s art, which is mostly research-based, is meant to challenge dominant narratives of cultural memory and cultural identity. 

“As a child, when we were on the island, you know, you don’t see yourself as being on the edge, you don’t see yourself tucked down in the corner of the global map. You see yourself as the center and it’s the rest of the world that spreads out around you.”

– Shiraz Bayjoo

From this perspective, his practice also considers the legacy of European colonialism and the dominant Eurocentric worldview that comes with it. 

Deconstructing knowledge regimes 

At Neue Galerie Innsbruck, Shiraz Bayjoo is exhibiting archival material, historical photographs and drawn artefacts. What catches the eye at first sight when entering the exhibition room are small painted geographical maps presented in artistic, golden frames. The drawn landscapes, somehow recalling the style of treasure maps, are surrounded by vivid turquoise colors, representing the water of the ocean. The artefacts’ surreal-magical appearance emphasizes the fact that maps are not realistic, but a human-made construction of outlines, given names and borders. 

exhibition view | Bild: Brigitte Egger

In that sense, these artefacts lead to the question from which perspectives geographical maps are drawn and what impact these perspectives have on how the world is presented – like some places appearing central, whereas others are left to the corners. 

“We are not separated by the sea, we are connected by it” – Bayjoo recalls a statement by his colleagues, when he visited Tasmania, “even for us on the other side of the Indian Ocean, the cultural domination of the Eurocentric vision is still very prevalent and so there is often that instilled idea that the sea is something to be traversed. I found it a very beautiful statement to think that actually this [the sea] is the connector of all of us”. Like many other small islands, in the Eurocentric version of the world map, Mauritius is almost not visible. At the same time, we could imagine a world map that shows Mauritius in the center with all other places around it. 

Mauritius is an environment loaded with colonial history that cannot be escaped. For his exhibition at Neue Galerie, the artist navigates through these histories – presenting its layers from legacies of the past to current histories. Like in a collage, Bayjoo assembles archival material together with personal photographs that he took in his grandma’s house. 

For Bayjoo, challenging the dominant cultural narratives doesn’t mean erasing these narratives. “It’s about the stories that don’t get heard”. With combining different forms of research, including archival and academic research, as well as personal approaches, the artist links different narrations of history together and makes various perspectives visible. “It’s the process of piecing together different pieces of thinking, different pieces of knowledge. Knowledge that either has been lost or was never important enough to be recorded”. 

Thinking archives contemporarly 

„Nicht so ist es, daß das Vergangene sein Licht auf das Gegenwärtige oder das Gegenwärtige sein Licht auf das Vergangene wirft, sondern das Bild ist dasjenige, worin das Gewesene mit dem Jetzt blitzhaft zu einer Konstellation zusammentritt. Mit anderen Worten: Bild ist Dialektik im Stillstand“

– Walter Benjamin (Das Passagen-Werk) 

Shiraz Bayjoo’s work reminds on the term of the “dialectical image” by the philosopher Walter Benjamin. According to him, objects as relicts of the past, are not something final and complete, they are always linked to the present and therefore, in this dialogic relationship, their meaning changes constantly. Archives of Resistance and Repair is pointing out this idea, by showing the powerful tension between the past and the present, while at the same time, as a static exhibition, it brings the artist’s ideas and thoughts to a standstill.  

exhibition view | Bild: STUDIO.West

“It’s a journey and the beginning of that journey is a series of questions”, as Bayjoo states about his working process. In that sense, his work doesn’t aim to give any answers, but to highlight this dynamic process of thinking. Moreover, the artist emphasizes that “there is not one singular reading of the material – it’s important to allow the audience to make up their own readings”. And while reading, being honest to yourself, which means, being aware of your own personal interpretation of stories and histories. 

Exhibiting the past is about the future

Archives of Resistance and Repair is not only about linking the past to the present. It’s about future perspectives. Petra Pölzl, head of Tyrolean Artist’s Association (Tiroler Künstler:innenschaft), titled the year’s program “Dancing at the Edge of the World” which is a reference to the essay collection Dancing at the Edge of the World – Thoughts on Words, Women, Places, published in 1982, by the science-fiction author Ursula Le Guin. In this essay collection, the author outlines alternative social and societal realms of possibility that are not anchored in a colonial, patriarchal and xenophobic narrative structure.

“Ursula Le Guin is a science fiction author but her decolonial perspective does not need to be science fiction. The artists in this exhibition show us how decolonial thought is not about erasing history, it is about understanding how colonial exploitations of the past continue to influence global power dynamics today.“

– Julia DeFabo

Thinking about decolonialization and about how to remember atrocities linked to colonialism is part of the question how we want to live together in the future. Especially countries and regions effected by colonialism, like Mauritius, are nowadays confronted with rebuilding their nation and their cultural identity in terms of self-authorship. However, as Bayjoo states, “decolonialization is not something that only affects the global south, it’s something that actually benefits all people, because it allows us to honestly think about the way we move forward collectively as a society”. With every monument, every historical museum and archive we should reconsider their impact and value for future generations – not in a national, but in a global sense. 

“If we are really trying to create a more just and equal world for our children and for our children’s children — which I believe we all are — then the way we remember history must be more just and equal”, DeFabo points out. The artists in Archives of Resistance and Repair do this through their decolonial approach. “In addition to teaching us about specific places and people that are too often ignored in the West, they also challenge us to question why these histories are ‘forgotten’”.

To resume all these thoughts on Archives of Resistance and Repair: “The future can only be negotiated with reconciliation of our past”, as curator Julia DeFabo concludes her discussion with Shiraz Bayjoo. 

| Brigitte Egger

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