Unstill Lives: Food, Desire in the Post-Colonial Imaginary

“Ten Negroes, each holding a lily in his hand, gather around a table in a city by the sea, overwhelmed by an indefinable emotion that makes them long to conquer the countries of Europe with a mixture of spiritual yearning and exotic desire.”[1]

(The Futurist Cookbook, 1932)

“Two women standing ankle-deep behind banners in front of cloths shredding maps; fragments float away. Two women sit in a small boat tearing up navigation charts; how many died crossing the water. Two women sit in a theatre box ripping up maps; can the past be replayed. Two women sit at dinner forming strategy; can the future be different better. Two women sit on rugs reliving history and planning the future; magic carpet fly?”[2]

(Lubaina Himid, 1992)

The story of the colonized in Western art has always been one of mere quotation, a footnote at the tail of a grand narrative. It often seems that the omission of certain representations, be they painted promotions of plantation life or abolitionist images, from art historical consciousness is symptomatic of the colonial amnesia with which we are still grappling. While it may be true that the historically traumatic experiences of slavery are un-representable, most depictions that exist within the Western tradition have been consciously erased from visual art history. So often miscast or dehumanized as the primitive “other,” African slaves seen through colonial eyes were always imbued with an exotic glamour of a certain reductive character. Within the halls of European painting, the presence of the “black” subject—visible in portraits, allegorical scenes and stories from the bible—have come to index a social history with an ultimately universal human core3. Lest we forget however, that the genre of “history painting” as a record of “history” itself is often a contradiction in terms.

As the history of art in the twentieth century unfolded, with the world-making intersection of the ethnographic and modernity, the representational strategies of colonial identities were bound up in extreme depictions of racial exoticism. The emergence of modernist primitivism, which radically transformed the trajectory of modernity through its treatment of foreign objects, complicated a dialectical relationship between notions of the “primitive” and the “civilised,” and by extension, between fear and desire. The progression of modernity that saw the subsequent embrace of the “other” in European art, from social Realism through to Abstract Expressionism, runs in parallel with the gradual breakdown of certain colonial and imperial forces, making accessible the cultures that could only previously have existed in the European imagination. By this time, of course, the transatlantic trade had already urged the transmission of black cultures around the western world, creating the instances of what would later be called “cultural hybridity,” occurring as a direct result of slavery and its legacies. [...]

Arts & Foods. Rituals since 1851 | Expo Milano 2015 (Ed. Germano Celant), published by Electa - Mondadori, 2015