How do art institutions in Eastern Europe deal with issues of postcolonialism and decolonialism?

How do art institutions in Eastern Europe deal with issues of postcolonialism and decolonialism?

Postcolonial and especially decolonial discourses have recently become part of the mainstream global histories and politics, drawing attention not only to the past but also to colonial experiences that continue to this day and the need to change them. They bring to the fore a broad range of themes – how traumas of colonial and imperial violence and injustice still continue in the following generations; how indigenous cultures are still part of systemic oppression; the role of anti-capitalist approaches towards knowledge production; and how these perspectives challenge the work of museums, archives, and other memory and cultural institutions. 

Politics of decolonization is necessary as it offers new and critical perspectives on how to rethink the complex relations between past and present and how to think about the impact of colonial, imperial or occupying power even after its apparent end. In the art world the discourses of decolonization challenge the ongoing power structures, exposing and confronting imperial violence and injustice, both involving imagination and as an active agency to truly get free from the colonial burden of the past

However, in these ongoing conversations about decolonization as a critical tool to understand the inequality and the gap between, on the one hand, the rich and powerful regions, and, on the other hand, politically and economically marginalised regions where exploitation and colonialism continue, or the Global North and the Global South, Eastern Europe has been largely absent, even though postcolonial and decolonial perspectives are as relevant in this region. In Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet region, decolonial approaches have gained new urgency with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, whose real aim is to restore the imperial power of the past. These perspectives are also important for understanding the complexities and difficulties of the region's historical transformations, where the past continues to influence the present. 

In this seminar, curators and researchers from Eastern European art institutions share how decolonial approaches, addressed through exhibitions and art projects, can help to understand and work with contemporary political, social and environmental crises. 

Participants: Daniel Muzyczuk, Eglė Mikalajūnė, Eszter Szakács, Ieva Astahovska, Linda Kaljundi, Jan Sowa, Lia Dostlieva, Illia Levchenko. 

Introduction by Ieva Astahovska

Museum Ethics in the Age of Decolonisation – Dynamics of Estonian and Eastern European perspectives
Presentation by Linda Kaljundi, Estonian Academy of Arts

In my talk, I depart from my recent research and curatorial experience at the Kumu Art Museum, Tallinn. I briefly introduce the recent exhibitions dealing with the visual and material histories of colonialism and race (Conqueror's Eye (2019), Rendering Race – project space of the long-term exhibition of Landscapes of Identity (2021), and Art or Science (2022), all at Kumu Art Museum), and discuss what we have learned together with our colleagues about collections-based and artistic research and exhibitions as tools of decolonisation. For the discussion, I would also like to raise the question how the Russian full scale invasion to Ukraine has and will affect the discussions around decolonising Eastern European history and museums.

Linda Kaljundi is a professor of cultural history at the Estonian Academy of Arts and a senior research fellow at Tallinn University. Specialising on Baltic history, historiography and cultural memory, as well as environmental history, she is interested in finding new, transnational and entangled perspectives on the region’s history and heritage. Kaljundi has published and edited collections on history and history writing, historical fiction and images. At the Kumu Art Museum, Tallinn, she has co-curated the exhibitions “History in Image—Image in History: The National and Transnational Past in Estonian Art”(2018), “Conqueror’s Eye: Lisa Reihana’s In Pursuit of Venus” (2019–20) and the new permanent exhibition “Landscapes of Identity: Estonian Art 1700–1945” (2021).

Postsocialist and Postcolonial Sutures in the Exhibition “Decolonial Ecologies”
Presentation by Ieva Astahovska, Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art

The postcolonial perspective is often used to outline the consequences of occupation and colonialism by Soviet and earlier colonial powers in the Baltic states, and the complexity of contemporary transformation process in the region. Elaborating on this perspective, the concept of “suture” seeks to discuss the twisted relationships between internal and external factors in the past and present “as a process of knitting together the inside and the outside and the resultant scar”. 

In the exhibition “Decolonial Ecologies” (2022) the concept of suture is useful to understand how can revisiting the past help to understand and work with contemporary political and environmental crises. The exhibition focuses on issues of ecological and socio-political change in our region, relating them to both global and local processes of decolonisation: human-environment relations, (post)Soviet legacies, the meaning and experience of place, memory, landscapes affected by technology and industry, cultural meanings and social practices of ecological issues, and alternative strategies to overcome the challenges of environmental crisis and climate change.

Ieva Astahovska is an art scholar, critic and curator. She works at the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art, where she leads research projects related to art and culture in socialist and postsocialist period, and entanglements between postsocialist and postcolonial perspective in the Baltics and Eastern Europe. Her research interests also include subjects such as contemporarity and historicity, relations between history and memory, art geographies and question of peripheries, art and ecology.

Presentation by Daniel Muzyczuk, the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź 

Daniel presents some of the recent activities that took place at the institution. He focuses on two recent exhibitions: The Fire and the Ashes. Nikita Kadan and Citizens of the Cosmos. Anton Vidokle with Veronika Hapchenko, Fedir Tetyanych and the Collection of the International Cosmist Institute. The latter project deals with cosmism, which traditionally is considered a solely Russian idea. The exhibition sought to focus on the role of non-Russian contributions and the consequences of this refocused approach.

Daniel Muzyczuk is Head of the Modern Art Department at Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź. Curator of the exhibitions: Sounding the Body Electric: Experiments in Art and Music in Eastern Europe 1957-1984 (with David Crowley), Notes from the Undeground: Art and Alternative Music in Eastern Europe 1968-1994 (with David Crowley), The Museum of Rhythm (with Natasha Ginwala) and Through the Soundproof Curtain. The Polish Radio Experimental Studio (with Michał Mendyk). Co-curator of the Polish Pavilion of the 55th Venice Biennale (with Agnieszka Pindera). He is the winner (together with Agnieszka Pindera) of the Igor Zabel Competition in 2011. Member of Grupa Budapeszt. 

East — South — East?
Presentation by Eszter Szakács, OFF-Biennale Budapest

Eszter Szakács is a curator, researcher, and Ph.D. candidate at the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA) at the University of Amsterdam, where she is taking part in a project IMAGINART—Imagining Institutions Otherwise: Art, Politics, and State Transformation. Eszter is on the curatorial team of the grassroots art initiative OFF-Biennale Budapest, with which they are currently lumbung members at documenta fifteen. She was a team member of the East Europe Biennial Alliance—co-funded by OFF-Biennale Budapest—that collectively curated the Kyiv Biennial in 2021. Eszter worked as curator and editor at in Budapest between 2011 and 2020. Her research and writing revolve around grassroots art organizing outside state art infrastructures. 

Presentation by Anne Thomasen, Malmö Museum

Anne presents the museum's work in the Museum WHY network with a focus on finding ways and new perspectives on Museums of the Future The three key questions of Museum WHY are: Infrastructure, Decoloniality and Sustainability.

Museums in the Nordic region (and around the world) are currently facing challenges and demands for change that comes both from outside political and economic changes, from the observation that western hegemonic ideas of art and culture are no longer valid or socially sustainable, and from internal wishes to create museums that are more inclusive and have relevance to broader sections of the publics they intend to serve.

All in a current state of transition, the three Nordic art museums – Malmö Konstmuseum (SE), Trondheim Kunstmuseum (N) and Museet for Samtidskunst (DK) – together with Copenhagen University’s Research Centre Art as Forum (DK) have founded the creative research project Museum WHY for sharing and developing new perspectives on the art museum of the future.

Monuments' Politics in Vilnius: The Spectrum of Vulnerabilities
Presentation by Eglė Mikalajūnė, the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius

Over 10 years ago, the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius presented an exhibition “Monuments That Are Not. A Walk around Vilnius” (curators Rasa Antanavičiūtė, Eglė Mikalajūnė and Živilė Etevičiūtė, 2011). The exhibition was dedicated to the monuments of Vilnius that have been dismantled and the ones that only existed as ideas but were never built. The historical period spanned over 100 years and included at least four different state ideologies that ruled Vilnius: the Russian Empire (1795–1915), Republic of Poland (1920–1939), USSR (1945–1990) and Republic of Lithuania (since 1990). By revealing this less known history, the exhibition helped to contextualize Lithuania’s contemporary monuments’ politics in historical perspective. How has the politics concerning monuments changed in ten years? How different are the discussions and the actions taken now? How the war in Ukraine is changing the perspective? 

Eglė Mikalajūnė is curator at the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius, Lithuania and lecturer at Vilnius Academy of Arts. Since 2007, she has curated more than 15 exhibitions, video screenings, artistic collaboration projects and community projects in Lithuania, Portugal, Germany, Norway, Iceland, Russia, Latvia, France and UK, including work with both established, rising and young, international and Lithuanian artists. In her practice, she often seeks to research the local within the context of global and to foster collaborations between artists of different fields, scientists, communities.