Evelyne Toussaint

From assignment to agency

24 September 2018. From assignment to agency. Museums and postcolonial theories. Blog article by Evelyne Toussaint, invited by Mucem, Marseille.

Evelyne Toussaint
From assignment to agency. Museums and postcolonial theories


The SWICH programme entrusts to the artists the fundamental role of updating the ideological, geopolitical and language systems that underpin museum decisions (from collection to cultural mediation) and inventing new perspectives by giving visitors a unique aesthetic experience.

In this sense, Fred Wilson’s artistic creations from 1933 (“Mining the Museum”, The Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore) still remain emblematic today, both for their remarkable institutional audacity and for the critical and artistic capacity of an artist who was asked to review museum archives and ethnographical collections. Similar notable actions under the SWICH programme include residencies by Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn at the Stockholm Museum of Ethnography in 2015, Rajkamal Kahlon at the Vienna Weltmuseum in 2016 or Miguel Palma at the Mucem the same year.

For museums to move away from the paradigm of colonialist ideology that has often governed the constitution of collections and design of museographical systems is not without its tensions and misunderstandings. This is especially true for collaborations with representatives of cultural minorities, particularly when determining the status of objects, archive processing methods or, more generally, understanding who is speaking and to whom. The difficulties faced by ethnographic museums when rethinking their roles from a standpoint of critical anthropology based on multi-disciplinary and mutual thinking are comparable to those encountered in art history when integrating data from Postcolonial Studies into its references and methods. This disciplinary turnaround not only implies the loss of a dominant, western-focused position, in which the role of “subalterns” [1] is re-evaluated, but also a switch from an ontological view of “Art” to a cultural and social conception of “the arts”. An entire regime of hierarchies – civilised/primitive, high/low, etc. – and certainties, supported by a powerful rhetoric of enunciation and assignment, is thus thrown on its head to make way for the unsettling idea of “parallel modernities”, for example.

For many decades, Postcolonial Studies has specifically questioned the notions of universality and identity while the history of empires and dominations has been rewritten. This field now provides curators and art historians with useful tools to consider ways of developing and distributing objects, works and images, their status and their function.

In an interview with Jonathan Rutherford, published in 2006 in Multitudes under the title “Le Tiers-espace”, Homi Bhabha declared that “The assumption that all cultural forms can be understood from a specific universal concept, whether of a ‘human being’, ‘class’ or ‘race’, could prove dangerous and limit our capacity to understand the way in which cultures build their own systems of meaning and social organisation.”[2] The question is a fundamental one and Thiphaine Samoyault argues that one of the reasons for reticence towards Postcolonial Studies is its tendency to question universality as used to justify “the foundation of empires.”[3]

Of the many works by key authors on this vast topic, let us list here Edward Said’s assertions that geography and history can be imaginative[4], Arjun Appadurai’s statement that the local is a process[5], Benedict Anderson’s claim that the nation is an “imagined community”[6], and Achille Mbembe’s opinion that we must pursue “criticism of all forms of universalism”[7], as initiated by the postcolonial movement, and invent “the ethical conditions for living together.”[8] Let us also recall Stuart Hall’s belief that hybridity is “a process of cultural translation, which is agonistic because never-ending, but based on its very undecidability.”[9]

For all these authors, the question of identity is reconsidered with the awareness that representations, rather than definitive truths, structure our identity and the imagination that shapes it. Feminist Studies and Gender Studies are clearly relevant as they seek to break with an essentialist conception of identity and with a principle of a hierarchy of values, founded on the authority of the patriarchy and its economic, religious or socio-cultural attributes. An offshoot of this is the theory of intersectionality, developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw in the late 1980s to simultaneously consider class, race and gender in power relations.[10]

Some variations establish postcolonial thought as a forum for debate rather than a total dogma. For example, Gayatri Spivak proposes using the term postcoloniality instead of postcolonialism to highlight the concrete persistence of colonialism[11], and a decolonial movement, mainly developing in “Latin” America, seeks to denounce the colonial hegemony of the “Global North”, which is itself the origin of the idea of postcolonialism. Others have assimilated the contributions of Postcolonial Studies and now seek to add new perspectives under the title Globalisation Studies. 

That being said, some postcolonial authors cited here, and many others, have provided ideas to decolonise thought, shift viewpoints and move from a rationale of assignment to agency, which retains the power of action for minorities. If required, this concept could justify the importance of artists’ interventions in museums, but it also characterises the argument used by Postcolonial Studies to refocus its energies on its original purpose: the real place of the “popular”, a complex question with key issues, whose very formulation – what is “popular culture” or “popular art”? – is loaded with symbolic domination[12] and fundamental misunderstanding.

This deconstruction of knowledge and ideas aligns with a philosophical and literary tradition, alongside the likes of Frantz Fanon and Michel Foucault, which strives to call into question historical, geopolitical, economic, socioeconomic, linguistic and, of course, artistic data. This challenge touches on ethics, politics and ideological positions – a certain view point on colonialism, a means of representing others – and generates reactions – racism, guilt, empathy, distrust, condescendence, etc. which interfere with data interpretation and updates. For art history and anthropology that seeks to establish a meta-discourse, a vigilant and distanced approach needs to be adopted to explain the issues and theoretical foundations, review the patchwork of artistic and cultural transfers and the multiplicity of heritages, differentiate between historical reality and discourse, and take care not to confuse history, memory and propaganda. Constant attention must therefore be paid to the assessment criteria and even to the vocabulary itself as the vocabulary used for descriptions is just as important. 

It is even more difficult when all this falls under the responsibility of the museum[13] due to the presence of multiple, interlinking rationales which constitute the museum’s very status: its purpose is to produce knowledge about objects and cultures, beyond any ideology whatsoever, but in an institutional framework that could always impact its scientific and artistic orientations; to work in stimulating and important international networks, at the risk of upsetting certain local positions; and finally, to reconcile the individual ownership of certain actions – exhibitions and publications – with the involvement of a public body in all productions to which it lends its name. The museum is also faced with the equally complex difficulty[14] of not just addressing history which has already been written, but also history that is currently being written, the present day, and it must learn to dissociate politics, ideology, engagement and militant activism. Finally, it must not sacrifice critical thinking for the spectacular expected by visitors, while also maintaining the conditions for sharing sensitive matter. It remains to be seen whether or not the museum will emerge unscathed from this adventure.   


[1] The idea of subaltern was introduced by the South Subaltern Studies Group, founded in the early 1980s and led by Ranajit Guha for twenty years.

[2] Homi Bhabha, Le Tiers espace. Entretien avec Jonathan Rutheford, Multitudes 26, Autumn 2006.

[3] Tiphaine Samoyault, “Les réticences françaises à l’égard des études postcoloniales”, in Catherine Coquio (ed.), Retours du colonial ? Disculpation et réhabilitation de l’histoire coloniale, op. cit., pp. 296-297.

[4] Edward Said, L’Orientalisme [1978], Paris, Seuil, 2005, p. 71.

[5] Arjun Appadurai, Après le colonialisme. Les conséquences culturelles de la globalisation, Paris, Payot, 2005 [1st ed. Modernity at Large. Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, Minneapolis (Min.), University of Minnesota Press, 1996, 1st French edition, 2001], p. 71.

[6] Benedict Anderson, L’Imaginaire national. Réflexions sur l’origine et l’essor du nationalisme [translated by Pierre-Emmanuel Dauzat], Paris, La Découverte, 1996.

[7] Achille Mbembe, “La République et l’impensé de la ‘race’”, in Nicolas Bancel (ed.), Ruptures postcoloniales, Paris, La Découverte, 2010, p. 213.

[8] Achille Mbembe, “Avant-propos à la seconde edition”, in Achille Mbembe, De la postcolonie. Essai sur l’imagination politique dans l’Afrique contemporaine, Paris, Karthala, 2005 [2000], p. III.

[9] Stuart Hall, Identités et cultures. Politiques des Cultural Studies, Edition produced by Maxime Cervulle, Paris, Éditions Amsterdam, 2007, pp. 311-312.

[10] Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and Bonis Oristelle, “Cartographies des marges : intersectionnalité, politique de l'identité et violences contre les femmes de couleur”, Cahiers du Genre, 2005/2 no. 39, pp. 51-82.

[11] Gayatri Spivak, A critic of Postcolonial Reason. Toward a History of the Vanishing Present, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1999. She also wrote one of the first books on the topic: Can the Subaltern Speak?, 1988.

[12] Pierre Bourdieu, “Vous avez dit ‘populaire’ ?”, Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, 1983, p. 100.

[13] See the Mucem’s cultural and scientific project: http://www.mucem.org/sites/default/files/2017-04/psc_mucem_2017.pdf

[14] As demonstrated by Simone Zeefuik’s article in this blog, under the title “Breaking Towards Repair”: http://www.swich-project.eu/nocache/blog/detail/article/breaking-towards-repair/