« Unpacking Europe ». An exhibition

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This Rotterdam show brought together around forty intercontinental artists and writers in an exhibition and a catalogue which itself constitutes a veritable collection of essays. The event offered a critical vision of both European history in its relation to other peoples and the stakes in defining a European identity today. Salah Hassan and Iftikhar Dadi, two American curators, were behind the project, invited to contribute to Rotterdam’s European Cultural Capital programme in 2001.

The theme is voluntarily but modestly displayed with, as a backdrop, a dark black and white photo depicting a black gentleman dressed in late-nineteenth-century European style. There is no mistaking that the exhibition brings together works of an international conceptual register. There are a lot of installations and multimedia works that all scrutinise a personal relationship with Europe. In the main exhibition spaces, which are often plunged into semi-darkness, the artistic discourses take the form of videos, projections, sound tracks and arrangements of objects that probe the relationship between identity and alterity. Many testify to the contributions foreign civilisations have made to European civilisation. Others question the notion of citizenship by immersing themselves in the urban universe.
Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons (Cuba/United States) constructs a bewitching environment which mixes references to Cuba’s slave system with a fairytale universe recreated through young girls’ games. The installation Meanwhile the girls were playing is part of a series of pieces entitled History of People Who Were Not Heroes.
Rachid Koraichi (Algeria/France) exhibits a series of ceramic bowls covered in calligraphic signs in homage to the grand mystic Ibn Arabî (1165-1240). Purveyor of the Sufi tradition, he became absorbed by the major philosophical questions that marked both Oriental and Western medieval mystical thought.
Ken Lum (Canada) is the only artist to exhibit outside the museum. Parodying urban commercial and political advertising procedures, he has created a billboard advertising campaign in the vicinity of the museum on the theme of immigrant integration.
On the whole is the overriding impression that the questions of alterity and identity are posed more in the content than in the form of the works. The exhibition contributes to giving recognition to contemporary artists with whom the Western public is still largely unfamiliar. Its basic aim is to elaborate a critical view on the contradictions of contemporary European societies, « where the principals of multicultural cohabitation are advocated at the same time as there is a rise in xenophobia and immigration policies are tightened », explains Salah Hassan. He is none other than the Sudanese-born curator behind the « Authentic/Ex-centric – Africa in and out of Africa » exhibition at the last Venice biennale. This was a premier in terms of the representation of contemporary art from Africa and the African Diaspora. He is also the head of the American magazine NKA devoted to contemporary African art, founded by Okwui Enwezor, who is one of the catalogue authors.
Salah Hassan continues, referring to Susan Buck-Morss’ essay, Hegel and Haiti, published in the catalogue. This discusses the influence the Haitian revolution had on the Hegelian master-slave dialectic at the very time that the famous philosopher was formulating this concept. « This approach also echoes Europeans’ own critical analysis of Western thought », comments the curator, « by pointing to the contradictions within Europe, the notion you have of freedom in Europe whilst continuing to exploit and reduce others to slavery… The article thus contributes to grasping European thought’s egocentrism, which refuses to recognise that the resistance cultures that have arisen elsewhere have contributed to the development of European thought ».
The exhibition proves that major cultural projects on controversial subjects can be put on in Europe. Let’s hope that art exhibitions follow the freeing of European trade and that all European residents will soon be able to enjoy works of this quality.

///Article N° : 5571

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