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P. D. Casely-Hayford
Creative people whose cultural heritage has been influenced by colonisation can respond to this legacy through their artistic practice. This undertaking can possibly bring up some difficult realisations on the complexities of identity, diverse worldviews, and the meaning of histories in their lives. For those who wish to create legacy narratives, the first step involves researching and discovering histories. I use the word histories intentionally because there are many perspectives and critical standpoints on our past experience. The notion of invasion verses settlement is an example of the ways in which perspectives of histories push against one another.
As creative practitioners re-discover, and reclaim their versions of the past through their work, their outputs are re-imagined to reflect their critical standpoints on the legacy. One legacy that concerns some artists is the ethnographic gaze. This is the way in which colonial regimes looked at colonised people, and objectified their bodies and cultural practices. This occurred because colonial writers had a limited notion of civilisation, its locality, and misread the cultural and spiritual exchange. This way of looking continues to be perpetuated by the media’s coverage of “Other” places. For example, Africa can be portrayed as a chaotic wilderness.
Artistic responses to the ethnographic gaze and stereotyped representations of Other have been incredibly diverse. One key strategy used by artists is to wilfully position themselves in their work. This self-determined placement by artists responds to the staged the gestures of Indigenous people directed by colonial photographers, and the subsequent documentary and Hollywood filmmakers of that ilk. This canon of artificial representation of Other contributed to the stereotyping of Indigenous peoples of the global south and the legacy of the ethnographic gaze.
Dismantling the ethnographic gaze can be problematic when the artist places themselves into the work. Some audiences immediately appreciate the artist’s intelligence, satire, and political commentary expressed in the work. However, when people are locked into racial ways of looking, they are blindsided to the complexities of the transglobal legacy narratives in the work. As a result, some people miss these narratives and continue to gaze through ethnographic eyes.
This Mystic Othering can also be perpetuated by the press when the artist’s cultural background becomes the focus of an interview, rather than their work on exhibition. Expectations to produce something more “Indigenous” or “Afrocentric” by creative industries can pressure artists to meet these demands. Also, some curators see value in marketing the notion of the exotic mystic artist and redefine the artist’s contemporary work as exotic artefacts. This marketing ploy prompts the ethnographic gaze as it narrows the possibilities of experience for the audience.
Some artists respond to this legacy by creating works that provoke the gaze. For example, this strategy can be found in the works of South Africa’s Berni Searle and Tracey Rose, and Democratic Republic of Congo/Cameroon’s Samuel Fosso. Their evocation sets up a precarious situation. On one hand, there is the risk of perpetuating the exotic mystic trope. On the other hand, the artist unhinges cultural assumptions and histories through their self-determined representation in the work. However, it is an important risk worth taking because it asserts that global artists are contemporary image makers who can reference the past, and explore legacy narratives. They creative eclectic aesthetics reflect the complexities of defining global art. In doing so, they help to diminish the ethnographic gaze, and reverse it back onto the viewer, who is also part of the intertwining culture we experience today.
Finally, responding to legacy through self-representation in artistic practice is challenging for artist and audience because we are asked to consider not what we see, but how we see it, and why we remember it. Also, creative practice does not change legacy, but engaging with legacy is an opportunity for artist and audience to explore their critical standpoint as we rediscover, reclaim and re-imagine histories.
Dr P.D. Casely-Hayford
Learn more: read Casely-Hayford’s research on representation, legacy and artistic responses:
Dr Casely-Hayford has worked across all platforms of creativity. She has a Phd in Visual Arts specialising in post-colonialism, legacy and the moving image, transnational and diaspora visual culture, and film. Casely-Hayford also has a Master of Arts (Research) Creative Writing. She works as a sessional academic at university, and as a freelance educator, consultant and artist. Her key areas are filmmaking, digital storytelling, creative writing, drama and hybrid film-theatre, performance improvisation, media studies and communication, and creative industries. Casely-Hayford enjoys creative research and education and has a passion for creative collaborations with people from diverse cultural and artistic backgrounds.