Power, poverty, equality and freedom (also coffee and cookies), Part I

May 14, 2010 at 3:22 pm

“The first illegal aliens to arrive were the pilgrims and the conquistadors.” —Enrique Chagoya

Today was the first day of the two-day Biennale of Sydney Opening Week Forum, titled “Power, poverty, equality and freedom (and how we relate to art…).” According to the press release, “the Forum relates to the core elements around which the 17th Biennale of Sydney — The Beauty of Distance: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age — has been built.” What those core elements are exactly and how we define them might have been difficult to discern from the various panels and panelists, but the presentations and discussions were, for the most part, interesting regardless — even if it did feel a little odd to be standing in the Art Gallery of New South Wales nibbling cookies, sipping coffee and shmoozing before a panel on poverty and power. (I’m not complaining. I like a nice cookie as  much as the next person. I’m just saying.)

The first panel of the day, “Poverty, freedom and rights,” kicked off with a presentation by Steven Loft, a Mohawk-Jewish Canadian — or “Jewhawk,” as he put it — whose fundamental question was this: Why is it so difficult for art historians and institutions to accept other art histories? He was followed by Leah Gordon (see first post), the co-curator of the 2009 Ghetto Biennale in Haiti, who described what happened when she and some Haitian sculptors decided that because the artists of Haiti can’t get to the Biennale— in other words, they don’t get selected for the big international art shows — they would bring the Biennale to the Haitian artists. Among other things, she said, a lot of the visiting artists were forced to consider their own privileged position.

Enrique Chagoya touched on some key history of the American Southwest, noting that after the Mexican-American War, “hundreds of thousands of Mexicans became Americans overnight.”

“We have a new name (today): illegal aliens,” Chagoya said. “In most countries, you are called undocumented immigrants.” Chagoya called the illegal aliens his heroes, “today’s pilgrims,…bringing a great contribution to the United States,” and said that in the codices on view at MCA, he is paying tribute to illegal aliens. And, he reminded the audience, “you can become an illegal alien overnight.”

The final presentation of the morning panel was given by Amareswar Galla, originally from India and living in Australia, who talked about his work in Afghanistan and about how “we must liberate ourselves from the colonial mindset.” The big question we must ask now, of Galla and of ourselves, is “How?”

– Deborah Sussman Susser

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Angela Ellsworth – Before the 2010 Sydney Biennale Biennale snapshot


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