Art has always been political. Cultural practitioners—artists, curators, academics—have time and again responded to the events around them, not just through artwork but also open letters, discourse, protests, and even their presence or absence at certain shows, thus belying the common perception that art needs to exist simply to adorn a space with its pleasing aesthetics.
Years ago, in shades of grey and black, Somnath Hore etched the suffering of the Bengal famine (1943). In his haunting work, The Despair (1954), Satish Gujral revisited the horrors of Partition. In 2021, when artists, musicians and film-makers were forced to flee Afghanistan after the Taliban took power, women artists questioned extremism and female agency in their work.
The art world stands divided again—with deep fissures apparent as never before—following Israel’s attack on Gaza in October. Mumbai-based curator and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote says the Israel-Hamas conflict has caused a great division, largely in the European art world, but with consequences everywhere, including the Global South. “A political critique is being misrepresented as an anti-Semitic attitude,” he explains.
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In November, Hoskote resigned from the finding committee for the 16th edition of Documenta—a prestigious art event held in Kassel, Germany, every five years—after being accused of anti-Semitism. This followed an article in German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung about his signature on a 2019 petition by a Palestinian coalition, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) global movement, which criticised a discussion hosted by the consulate general of Israel in Mumbai on Zionism and Hindutva. Hoskote’s record as a progressive voice—a voice of reason backed by unique sensitivity—against authoritarianism and prejudice is well known to anyone even slightly familiar with his name or his work.
Within days, other members of the finding committee stepped down, and wrote in an open letter to Andreas Hoffman, managing director of Documenta: “Art requires a critical and multi-perspective examination of its diverse forms and contents to be able to resonate and develop its transformative capacity. Categorical, one-sided reductions and over-simplifications of complex contexts threaten to nip any such examination in the bud.”
Writers, academics and artists expressed solidarity with Hoskote. Poet Rachel Spence, in an article in The Wire wrote: “For Documenta to accuse committee member Ranjit Hoskote, the most sensitive of thinkers, of anti-Semitism is to drive out exactly the kind of reflective, nuanced voice that culture needs.”
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Hoskote says: “You will see a large number of Jewish artists and curators, who are in some cases Israeli citizens, call for a ceasefire in Gaza. We have reached a level of absurdity if these people are called anti-Semitic.” This divergence of opinion runs through universities, museums, galleries and cultural institutions across the world. “It is tragic for artists, curators and other cultural producers to be called upon to censor themselves and not express views on such crucial issues,” adds Hoskote.
For nomadic curator-writer Shaunak Mahbubani, the dichotomy around art discourse has been particularly striking this year. “When the war against Ukraine started (in 2022), many large institutions offered residencies, set up funds and grants for Ukrainian artists, all necessary steps. But the same opportunities have not been extended to other people, who have seen war and genocide in their region—such as the Palestinians or the Armenians. Systemic racism within arts institutions has been exposed,” they say.
As a result, curators and artists have been trying to find meaning by hosting events and gatherings for smaller groups with shared backgrounds in safer settings. Since August 2022, Mahbubani has been hosting a multi-city project, Autopoiesis, in Mexico City, Delhi and Berlin as a means to share personal and community stories between populations impacted by displacement and violence.
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Through exhibitions, performances, discussions, parties, the participants “shared stories, held space and also rejuvenated each other to face the public sphere where violence is predominant in everyday interactions,” says Mahbubani. Coming from systemically silenced positions from within these regions and their diaspora, each of the artists, such as Rajyashri Goody from India, Subas Tamang from Nepal, Nicaraguan non-binary artist Elyla, Christopher Udemezue with Jamaican heritage, talked of their own lived experiences and practices of resistance. “Going forward, in the global political climate that we live in, these smaller intimate artistic exchanges are an important way to understand varied perspectives and build alignments,” adds Mahbubani.
One will have to watch the direction that the art discourse takes in the Global South in the coming year: Will art continue to be an inclusive space for contradictions and provocations? Will it still be allowed to exist in greyness or will it have to side with black or white? 2023 ends with more questions than answers.