The Legacy of the Colonial Gaze
Andrea COLLADOS (FAU).
look down at your body
there is no home like you
‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is a popular and vintage proverb that makes reference to the subjectivity of appreciating one quality -beauty- of an object or person. However, a more assertive concept might include the act of ‘seeing’ as the primal process that establishes a correlation between the object or person and the beholder within a specific cultural and geographical context that involves previous knowledge and beliefs.
In the same way history has been written by the winners, the way of seeing and being seen has been determined by dominant cultures. By adopting a neo-colonizing approach and using arguments introduced in by John Berge (2008) in Ways of Seeing, this paper intends to reveal traces of the colonial gaze present in today’s culture and the extent ‘othering’ is still an enterprise conducted by Western hegemony.
The first section provides a historical overview of the relationship between visual techniques and representation that evolved from paintings to photography, the constant presence of the colonial gaze and the impact of mass media and consumerism. This progression will be analyze through the theoretical framework of Edward Said’s Orientalism and Stuart Hall’s The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power to understand forms of representation and the importance of decolonizing the distorted image of the subordinated ‘other.’
Section two analyzes a series of contemporary images demonstrating the still vivid concept of colonial fantasy attached to them. The western projection of fantasies is made evident through the major discursive strategy: ‘stereotype,’ in its various forms. Furthermore, identity formation has a close relationship with the way someone is self-perceived and recognized by others. The western eye has had a determinant role in this formation and the spontaneous and visible recognition of differences is attributed to stereotypes. Even though questions of origin and social status are substantial factors that lead to ostracizing and subsequent discrimination, the issue of ‘skin’ is the key signifier in this discourse. Following Homi Bhabha’s theory, the analysis of the images will be done considering the problem of segregation as the political consequence of colonial discourse and in relation to the question of ‘race’ and ‘skin.’ Moreover, another ongoing and crucial issue will be addressed, considering the portrayal of the so called ‘developing countries’ in constant need of help and ‘paternal’ guidance from ‘Humanitarian’ agencies performing a new and masked form of colonialism in the name of the ‘good’ intentions of ‘developed’ countries.
The last section concludes on a positive note by introducing different forms of decolonizing the way of seeing and deconstructing colonial narratives. By means of the use of various controversial yet effective visual representations, the idea that there is another narrative, one that cannot be found in the hegemonic archive, is introduced. There are other stories that need to be told and fortunately we can see them in the art work of Saba Taj, the remapping of Malala Andrialavidrazana, the photographs of Felix Gonzalez-Torres and the wall poster installation of Sophie Utikal. These artists and activists propose a process of ‘disaidentification’ to rethink not only their identities but also the power nation; urging and demanding a new mapping of the world.
The purpose of this paper is not only to visualize a problem that has been normalized throughout centuries, but also to start a process of questioning especially through the works of artists, activists and scholars. It also proposes different ways of decolonizing this imposed gaze by means of diverse strategies and emphasizing education’s crucial role in this process. It is time to start unlearning the narratives hegemonically told, and by critical thinking, give space to other voices and open our minds and eyes to changes in the way of seeing and being seen.
The ingrained colonial gaze
First, we see; then, we speak. This is the natural condition of human beings who since the moment of birth open their eyes and a reciprocal relationship with their surrounding is established. However, the ways of seeing and interpreting the world change in the course of a lifetime. According to John Berger (2008), “the way we see things is affected by what we know and what we believe” (8). Thus, a dynamic relationship is settled. What starts with seeing and recognition develops into a system in which past experiences or knowledge change the way we see things. Furthermore, the act of seeing is an act of choice. We see what we look at and consequently, we relate to it. There is also this sense of awareness that we can be seen, and we are part of the visible world. This results in the understanding that others may see things differently. Consequently, there is a constant looking at the relation between things and ourselves and this two-way (reciprocal) nature of vision comes before dialogue.
In the first episode of the series with the same name, Berger states that “the process of seeing is less natural than we tend to believe because it depends upon habits and conventions”. He later adds “perspective makes the eye the center of the visible world.” However, not all ‘worlds’ perceive the same kind of visibility and in the same manner. This brings us to the historical conception that the world is divided into two unequal halves, and this dichotomy dates back to the times of the encountering and later colonization of ‘new worlds’. Moreover, this bipartition is not a simplistic geographical west/non-west (rest) construction but a discourse known as ‘The West and the Rest.’ According to Stuart Hall (1990), “[…] it became a very common and influential discourse, helping to shape public perceptions and attitudes down to the present” (188).
Nonetheless, this binary opposition does not imply an equal evolution of the parts. Hall (1990) refers to ‘the West’ as a historical construct representing the developed, advanced and modern. It is described in terms of its allowance to classify societies (i.e. western/non-western), its function as a ‘system of representation’ (verbal as well as visual) and model of comparison, and its function as ideology (production of knowledge). ‘The Rest’ is presented as different but not equal. In his book, Hall analyses the “formation of a particular pattern of thought and language, a ‘system of representation,’ which has the concepts of ‘the West’ and ‘the Rest’ at its center” (187) emphasizing the symbiotic relationship between them (two sides of a single coin) where ‘the Rest’ plays a crucial role in the formation of ‘the West.’
The basis of this discourse is the notion of power that correlates with the fact that through the system of representations mentioned above, ‘the West’ decides the criteria of evaluation for other societies (for example, bad, under-developed) and determines the kind of knowledge that should prevail. Interestingly enough, this conception seems to be more vivid today than ever. Visual representations abound in every sphere of life and thus notably in the academic field.
Although by the twentieth century most colonies had gone through the process of decolonization and formally became independent, most of the national economies today are still dependant on the West. Far from being something of the past, the historical bipartition is more present than ever and it can be visualized (consciously or unconsciously) in designs like Figure 1. Even though a clear line is traced in the middle of what intends to represent the globe, a hemispheric division seems to not be accurately done. In geographical terms, Mexico is situated in the northern hemisphere, however, due to a criteria of evaluation exercised by dominant powers, it was located somewhere else due to its cultural, political and economic characteristics. There is a visible model of comparison where the advanced, developed and environmentally responsible is juxtaposed with a rudimental sketched map of two continents in the lower half.
It is undeniable that interpretations may vary according to many factors, especially knowledge and beliefs. While some people may just see a visual with the purpose of raising awareness about climate change (the green colour and the word ‘Klima’), others would see the predominance of the hegemonic discourse that has been perpetuated all along the centuries where the West has been developed and shaped in detriment of the Rest. Oddly enough, the picture has been selected as the cover of a language program booklet for an adult education center in a German city whose main objective is the ‘integration of people of different origins.’ What’s more, this design was selected among two other motifs and elaborated by schoolchildren. Evidently, ideology is a powerful weapon and ‘the West’ as the dominant construction determines not only what makes the truth but also the thinking and learning processes. The disentanglement of deep-rooted knowledge is a process that takes time and requires a combination of diverse strategies; however, there are alternative ways that will be analyzed in the last session of this paper.
At first glance, Figure 1 shows a division, a distinction, a ‘difference’. This differentiation is not solely attributed to the mapping of the world that is made up of two unequal halves; it also delineates the role of societies and their inhabitants in relation to the dominant ‘Other’ half. This process of ‘othering’ is embedded in the colonial discourse and it has first been coined by Gayatri Spivak. In Spivak’s explanation, “othering is a dialectical process because the colonizing Other is established at the same time as its colonized others are produced as subjects” (156). There is interdependence between them as well as a preconceived hierarchy and fixed roles. The ‘Other’ is presented at the center of civilization, development, and modernity whereas the ‘other is placed at the other end of the continuum as a rigid opposing construct, with all its implications. The manifolds of othering are ingrained in the discourses of colonialism; thus, new rhetoric still carries many of the same old premises that are visible in today’s world, most evident in the ways of seeing and being seen.
The perpetuated Western gaze in contemporary visual representations
History has illustrated the rise of the West as a global story. As John Roberts observes, "'Modern' history can be defined as the approach march to the age dominated by the West" (1985, 41). The inevitable westernization of the world has consequently impacted the way cultures and individuals are represented (or misrepresented). Furthermore, the conception that Eurocentrism not only influences and alters but also produces other cultures is examined in Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’. Published in 1978, it is a commonly-cited moment of origin for what was then known as colonial discourse analysis, and later as postcolonial theory.
The ‘Orient’ is the most representative image of the other and according to Said, it is a European invention. His aim consists in trying to demonstrate that the European culture obtained its identity by counterposing the ‘Orient’ and also discusses it in terms of discourse since Orientalism is “a way of coming to terms with the orient that is based on the orient’s special place in European Western experience” (1978, 1) or “the western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the orient” (3). The relevance of Orientalism is that it is a construct, a form of knowledge developed by generations of intellectuals, writers, politicians, and, more importantly, constructed by the naturalization of an ample range of Orientalist assumptions and stereotypes.
It is noteworthy that the discourse of Orientalism persists into the present, particularly in the West’s relationship with ‘Islam’. This construct has been perpetuated over time mutating into an obsession that takes different forms. The exotic image of the western imagination has created a body of characters who embodies the three B’s: bombers, billionaires or belly-dancers. Undeniably, this generalization has had a greater impact on Arab womanhood whose western projection reduced them to mere symbols devoid of rich culture and history. The exotic, the sensual and the oppressed converge into the idea of an ‘other’ that generates contradicting feelings of desire and repulsion by the western gaze. Furthermore, the image of Arab women today is being fabricated by a new Orientalism whose narrative about the ‘hijab’ (headscarf) comes in the form of powerful symbolism: ‘terrorism’, female genital mutilation, forced marriages and forced veiling.
While western media perpetuates the fetishization of the hijab, the advertizing industry commodifies Muslim women and their look. With the advancement of technology, the world today is ruled by a constant bombardment of publicity images and the enactment of consumerism. John Berger (2008) defines ‘publicity’ as “a competitive medium which ultimately benefits the public (the consumer) and the most efficient manufacturers – and thus the national economy.” He later adds, “For many in Eastern Europe such images in the West sum up what they in the East lack. Publicity, it is thought, offers a free choice” (130-31). However, that freedom is delineated under a system that determines what to choose from according to western standards. Women tend to be objectified when portrayed in publicity images and tokenism usually takes an integral part in this practice. The westernized version of a Muslim woman (Figure 2) is a clear example of this because she does not represent a threat anymore. She has become the ideal that many other women (Muslim or non-Muslim) aspire to be because she is glamorous, beautiful and successful. “Publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour” (131) generating enviousness and dissatisfaction, and an insatiable need to posses (purchase) that object to achieve happiness. This representation raises two disturbing problems, on one hand, the distortion of the real image that generates a positivistic focus; and on the other, the inaccurate portrayal of Arab and Muslim women’s appearances and lives.
As ironic as it may seem, while everything seems to have changed due to the digital revolution of the 21st Century, the way of seeing seems to be unaltered. Images, from European oil painting to photography and modern advertising, inform and sneak in everyday life constituting its inequities. In his book, Berger states that today the attitudes that created the nude can be seen in the mass media, and “[…] the essential way of seeing women, the essential use to which their images are put, has not changed” (64). The ideal spectator is still male (and white) and the image is designed to flatter him. Naturally, the way female bodies are presented culturally as objects to be looked at has an effect on women and on the way they came to see themselves: as a sight. The goddesses of art became the models of contemporary advertising, and the process of objectifying is inevitably accompanied by that of othering enforced by the western gaze.
Exotism of the Latinx
In 1972, Berger wrote that “publicity increasingly uses sexuality to sell any product or service” (144), almost fifty years later, the same advertising strategy is not only still used, but has also been boosted by the different advertising options the development of technology and social media has introduced. Figure 3 as a publicity cliché evidences in what way the colonial legacy is still alive projecting the western fantasy and coding Latinas as exotic and sexually available. She is the embodiment of joyfulness, warmth, and color. She is there to be looked at, posing in such a way that her body is displayed to the eye of the viewer and whose skin color traces the difference but not in an uncomfortable way. Because she is a westernized version of the Latina whose skin is tanned (not dark) and who is there only to be consumed.
It is no longer only about men looking at images of women lustfully. Advertising promotes the illusion of a transformation by showing pictures of successful individuals who have already been transformed by it. Additionally, it generates the promise of a dream: The dream of being surrounded by what brings pleasure and becomes the object of desire; or the dream of possessing that exotic object of fantasy. Undoubtedly, the foundations on which the fashion industry and social media obsession rest are glamour, envy and the act of seeing. Adversely, Latinas and women of color are daily forced to encounter a double othering process: given their gender condition on one hand, and due to their skin color, on the other.
The skin fetish
Stereotyping is not a practice exclusively ascribed to women. Any individual who undergoes an idealization in an exaggerated and simplistic way and is assigned certain unrealistic characteristics that become their essence is stereotyped. More so, it constitutes one of the processes that construct the theory of colonial discourse. Another key feature of the discourse of “the Other” is that the stereotype is split into two halves: "good" and "bad" sides, a dualism (Hulme, 1986, 49-50). Thus, racialized masculinity is deeply entangled with slavery, colonialism, and historical and political events as well as with the sexualization of the image of the black man.
Today, the film and music industry together with mass media perform a crucial role in the construction of preconceived masculinities of certain ethnicities. For instance, black men are constructed as hyper-masculine, Asian men as feminine, and Arab men as less trustworthy. These forms of discrimination and hyper-visualization constitute some of the most ferocious advertising strategies. In Figure 4, the do-rag, the jacked body, the gun, and the facial expression compose the perfect image of the tough and dangerous gangster that the publicity industry profits from, contributing to the perpetuation of distorted representations of black men. Furthermore, black men are not only seen as hyper-masculine and threatening but also having an extra charge of sexuality attached to them turning them into stereotypical sexual objects. In this example, a clear projection of fantasy and stereotype is again evident. However, Homi Bhabha (2007) distinguishes:
“[…] some significant differences between the general theory of fetishism and its specific uses for an understanding of racist discourse. First, the fetish of colonial discourse - what Fanon calls the epidermal schema – is not, like the sexual fetish, a secret. Skin, as the key signifier of cultural and racial difference in the stereotype, is the most visible of fetishes, recognised as 'common knowledge' in a range of cultural, political, historical discourses, and plays a public part in the racial drama that is enacted every day in colonial societies. Secondly, it may be said that sexual fetish is closely linked to the 'good object'; it is the prop that makes the whole object desirable and lovable, facilitates sexual relations and can even promote a form of happiness. The stereotype can also be seen as that particular 'fixated' form of the colonial subject which facilitates colonial relations, and sets up a discursive form of racial and cultural opposition in terms of which colonial power is exercised (112).”
The biggest danger of fetishism as another form of stereotyping is that it is a successful strategy of the advertisement industry which conceals the dramatic impact it has on the identity of ethnic groups. In modern society, stereotyping is as common as making a value judgment of any sort. It is sometimes seen as positive, especially when the subject is hyper-visualize; other times as negative when the subject is made invisible and their identity diffused by means of homogenization. For example, the statement that all black people look the same.
The way Arabs, Latinxs, black people, and other minorities are seen is a projection of western belief systems embedded in the history of a colonial past. Forms of stereotype, cliché and fetishism represent different ways of ‘othering’. Categories are created where a western self clearly differentiates themself from the non-western other establishing hierarchies that inevitably lead to racism.
The commodification of philantropy
The whole world is a setting for publicity, and photography has largely contributed to this new paradigm and has significantly changed the way of seeing. Since the writing of Ways of Seeing there have been significant changes in the advertising world. According to Berger (2008), the mirror was a symbol of vanity in classical European painting, reminding the subjects (women) of how they look or how they should look. Glances act as mirrors and behind every look, there is a judgment. In a contemporary world, this object has been replaced by the concept of ‘selfie,’ a photograph taken by the person themself no longer attributed solely to women. Through the selfie, the spectator is seen looking at themself and the condition sine qua non is to share it via social media. Therefore, it reflects their own (distorted) image like a mirror.
With the advent of social media, the advertising industry has expanded the illusion of a dream to different social spheres. Social networking websites, such as Facebook, function as an ego enhancer and dream generator with a constant confrontation of ads. In episode 4, John Berger refers to the rules of the dream promoted by publicity. He states that “Publicity works on imagination because it pretends to interpret the world around us and to explain everything in its own terms. Publicity adds up a kind of philosophical system. The things which publicity sells are in themselves neutral, just objects and so they have to be made glamorous by being inserted into contexts which are exotic enough to be arresting.” Following this thought, the dream of distant romanticized places is nowadays reinforced by the commodification of philanthropy. What holds the highest value in today’s society is the individual ego and the image of the good Samaritan traveling to exotic places reaching out to the poor and vulnerable is a trendy and profitable tactic of today’s advertisement industry.
The stereotyped image (Figure 5) of impoverished non-western countries depicting malnourished children looking at the spectator with big pleading eyes has become the recipe for a successful enterprise: the humanitarian aid system. Figure 5 is a Facebook ad and its impact may depend on a number of factors. Firstly, the text that accompanies the photograph says that this child deserves more help than any other in the world. The aim is to appeal to the spectator-consumer’s consciousness and emotions. Secondly, Facebook algorithm may do the rest, juxtaposing a harsh and moving photo alongside publicity images of various sorts depending on the Facebook user’s pre-established preferences. Finally, theses kind of ads are mainly targeted to those people experiencing the ‘white savior complex’; mostly individuals who want to live ‘life-changing’ experiences in remote places to then be shared on social media displaying a fabricated altruistic image of themselves.
Although there seems to be nothing wrong with helping others on the surface, it is no sole person’s, entity’s or country’s duty to save any country. On the contrary, it may be even more damaging to the community because they are removed from their right to speak up for themselves. “In reality though, white saviourism is another form of white supremacy. […] That without white intervention, instruction and guidance, BIPOC will be left helpless. […] It puts BIPOC in the position of helpless children who need to be saved by the supposedly more capable and wiser white people.” By means of westernized methods, these philanthropists and organizations aim at bringing sustainable solutions that may not necessarily be what is best for the community.
Interestingly, John Berger’s book and TV series not only changed the way people think about painting and art criticism, but it also helped to start a quiet revolution in the way to view the world. In addition to that, the way to see and be seen is not only influenced by knowledge, beliefs and assumptions; it shapes a person’s as well as a community’s identity. His work is also a legacy to continue questioning the images which have been the foundation of our culture.
Decolonizing the gaze. Reconstructing identities
In the course of history, the way to see and be seen has depended on many factors including a closed narrative with fixed characteristics imposed by the western gaze. Arabs, Latinxs, black people, people of color and indigenous among others have undergone the process of othering, which assigned them a specific place and identity. However, numerous artists, writers, poets, painters, travelers and activists have understood that it is essential to question the identity representation of minorities in images and start moving towards a deconstruction of preconceived identities by decolonizing the western gaze. Several approaches can be implemented to work against a hegemonic ideology, to deconstruct stereotypes and find different ways to express identity. This section will highlight the work of artists who successfully accomplished this complex task.
The deconstruction of identity is a long process. It requires mental, discursive and visual strategies to create a new concept of the body that is being reborn. According to Jose Esteban Muñoz, ‘‘Disidentification is meant to be descriptive of the survival strategies the minority subject practices in order to negotiate a phobic majoritarian public sphere that continuously elides or punishes the existence of subjects who do not conform to the phantasma of normative citizenship” (Muñoz, 4). Thus, through disidentification, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Saba Taj expressed active rebellion against any reproductive understanding of how their identity affects their cultural production and focusing on the complexity of contemporary hybrid identities. Additionally, both artists are distinct representatives of the queer movement.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres used the minimalist style to reach out to society and address the issues of identity. His work was influenced and shaped by a vision structured through his own experience and characterized by a refusal of participation in representational manners. His works of art achieved a tactical misrecognition of dominant publicity’s public/private binary and a critique of the universalized individual subject (Muñoz, 9). The disidentificatory aspects of his work can be observed in Figure 6 where he approached themes like exile and ethnos. This work of art consists of two adjacent jigsaw puzzles in cellophane bags. The first picture displays a photo of the artist as a young boy and the photo on the right shows a monument shot from below as if the person taking it is small or even a child. Drawing on Figure 6, Muñoz states:
“These images connote memory’s fragility and permanence. The small puzzles remind us of a few things: the ways in which images form memories and, in turn, memories themselves fall together. They foreground the fact that memory is always about the collection of fragments. The constellation of memory is also made through an active spectator who pushed pieces together, like a child with a puzzle. The image of the self alongside the imposing statue connotes the feeling of being small, helpless. The statue looks like a memorial to another place and time. Memorials work to make cogent the fictions of nationalism and individual national culture. The pairing of a photo of the artist as an innocent and sweet looking boy next to a cold metal sculpture performs, through a calculus of contradiction, the vulnerability of a dismantling of the public/private binary. (14)”
These two images are arranged in this way to form an important part of the artist’s biography conveying a powerful message of exile and ethnicity. Gonzalez-Torres was forced to leave Cuba for Spain at an early age and when interacting with both pictures one can feel the despair and fear that his gaze transmits, the same feeling experienced by immigrants and refugees who are forced to leave their countries and whose identities are shaped by such a traumatic event in their lives. What is more, the contraposition with the imposing statue generates a powerful effect. The perspective does not only connote smallness but also a feeling of inferiority and helplessness.
Through the emergence of new forms of art, minority groups and communities are represented and given a voice. Markedly, through art new identities are built and the different ‘other’ finds a space where they can communicate and be heard. In a TedTalk, Saba Taj argues that ‘‘we have an assigned role that’s very specific, very limited [...] ‘we’ - the ‘other’-have to accomplish ritual, exotic performances to satisfy the needs of the majority.’’ She is an artist and activist who creates symbolic paintings and refuses to follow the dominant narrative. In short, she fights for the creation of her own identity, and by means of her art, she seeks to deconstruct the way of seeing.
Figure 7 is a collage named ‘The Cleaving’ showing a big eye at its center. The eye is an Islamic symbol that represents ‘‘the idea that harm can be caused from another’s gaze even if their intentions are neutral that just their witnessing of you can cause actual physical harm and misfortune and one mode of protecting yourself amongst many is to wear a representation of the evil eye.’’ The evil eye of society judges everyone but it is different for women. The eye is looking for something more, society is seeking ‘perfection’, the image of the perfect imaginary body; the perfect woman is ingrained in the retina. This eye that at first sight looks like an earth globe is being pierced by a sword coming from an open female mouth. Tired of years of oppression the female mouth is finally opened and her voice is so powerful that it perforates and bursts this dominant eye making the blood gush out. Next to the big eye, there is the image of a silenced Muslim woman who is fetishized and ornamented with accessories. She has an al-‘ayn on her forehead since it is also a symbol of protection while a line of blood is pouring down from her head. “It [the evil eye] comes inside our bodies, become part of how we see the world and finally is worn on the forehead of the revolutionaries of this story as at this position of the third eye, as a symbol of wakefulness and awareness.”On the lower right corner, there are two hands holding the tears that come from the eyes of the awakening woman in the form of diamonds.
Saba Taj uses different shapes of bodies because there are different ways to be represented. The evil eye that is portrayed in many of her pieces does not only judge the body for its gender condition, the female body is also demarcated for not conforming to the norm imposed by a society dominated by white discourse. Her main objective is to construct a narrative for the oppressed body and empower it. Hence, she denies the idea of seeing herself as a social construct and reinforces the idea of self-validation.
In a similar fashion, Sophie Utikal is seeking to revalidate her body for not complying with white/European beauty standards. Figure 8 is a wall poster displayed in an exhibition in Vienna and later documented in a book. In the center, she affixed a love letter to a part of her body she had a difficult relationship with. “The work is an apology and a rebounding” (93) for so many years of oppression and discrimination. In this unconventional form of art, she is apologizing to her ‘culito’ for accusing it of being the cause of her unhappiness for being othered.
Departing from her own body she is challenging the Eurocentric beauty norms that perpetuate the racialization and ostracization of the non-white body. “It is a vision of self-validation; of uncovering our true faces, our dignity, and self respect ourselves anew in light of our history: to see ourselves no longer through the fictions of white supremacy as the false racial personality that has been given to us and that we have given to ourselves”. What is more, through her art she is raising new consciousness encouraging other individuals to break the stereotypes projected on their bodies deconstructing the gaze of the dominant culture.
As this paper has previously argued citing works of diverse artists, there are various strategies to decolonize the western gaze. Photographer Malala Andrialavidrazana introduces an innovative form of remapping the world to give countries (and cultures) the opportunity to express themselves, as they could not when under the control of western empires who censored their platform for expression. Her work revolves around the exploration of culture and nature influenced by cartography. Her work is considered a form of printmaking, of digital collage, and of historical recovery.
Figure 9 belongs to a body of work called ‘Figures’ (2015) which “combines these various fields [archives and alternative identity or geographical representations] by using materials such precolonial maps and currency notes. We should always remember that cartography was among the most powerful political and ideological tools during the nineteenth century. In the same way, banknotes often conveyed stereotypes promoted by consecutive regimes and leaders. The roles of these printed documents are not so far from those of photography.” The colonial world told by Malala Andrialavidrazana is stunning as well as painful because in each and every piece of work there is the troubled history of the southern hemisphere: An intricate tangle of invasions, violence, abuses that over the centuries has characterized the life of the areas inhabited by the poorest.
Her choice of colors was very earthy and natural, but still vivid, demonstrating the vibrancy in the African and Asian cultures she explored. Figure 9 shows a blend between western and southern worlds by showing a clear conflict between color, pattern and subject. This is shown by the aesthetic of the imagery she uses as it has the appearance of printed western stamps and money. The continents are clearly delineated and bright colors are used to differentiate one from the other. In the center there is a figure standing holding onto what seems to be a banknote. To the left, there is another figure kneeling in a submissive posture. This image clearly depicts the relation of power that the ‘West’ has historically inflicted on the ‘Rest’ (developing/southern countries).
She redraws maps, objects used as weapons of political propaganda and economic power, to construct images, but also to deconstruct the exotic stereotypes about the ‘other’ and the ‘elsewhere’. By making use of the archive, she transforms fixed conventions to start telling the other part of the story, the one that history and the dominant discourse of the West have made invisible. In a contemporary world, “it is not about lands to be conquered but about culture to be exported. […] The rich nations impose their social, technological and financial heritage on the poor ones in an equally arbitrary way, further widening their borders beyond measure.” Colonialism has never ended; it has evolved into new and different forms. However, artists like Malala Andrialavidrazana by dint of their works of art, visualize, denounce and fight against this neo-colonialism by deconstructing the western gaze.
The importance of perspective has been greatly debated, placing the eye in the center of the visible world. It is also believed that the process of seeing is a natural act that depends on conventions. However, this concept becomes problematic when evaluating who dictates such conventions. The colonial discourse has been perpetuated over time establishing a relationship of power between the ‘West’ (developed countries; oppressor) and the ‘Rest’ (developing/southern countries; oppressed) that continues into modern and contemporary times. The narrative of this discourse is clearly observed in the depiction of the inferior ‘other’ in its several forms of misrepresentations such as stereotyping, fetishizing and tokenizing. In today’s world, the colonial fantasy can be seen in the exoticization of the Muslim woman, the sexualization of the Latina and the fetishism of the black skin among many other forms. Evidently, the body is still being validated by the western gaze and the process of decolonization remains an urgent task in the present.
In his book and series, John Berger criticizes traditional Western cultural aesthetics by raising questions about hidden ideologies in visual images. His revealing analysis of painting, photography, the publicity industry and society, in general has made a valuable contribution to the main intention of this paper. The way of seeing and being seen today carries the legacy of colonialism and replicates the narrative of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy. Thus, the danger of the western gaze lies in the fact that the non-conforming body is alienated, humiliated and violated shaping traumatic identities.
The second section of this paper analyzed several images where non-white bodies are portrayed by the advertising industry perpetuating the colonial narrative and reinforcing the unshakeable white supremacy. Furthermore, a new actor, social media, has become one of the key players in the game of power as a new and effective platform for advertisement. The commodification of philanthropy made the humanitarian aid system a profitable business selling a new discourse: the discourse of development. Humanitarian agencies and volunteer organizations became the new romanticized idea of the old colonialism that brings development and welfare to the poor countries imposing the westernized conception of how to live and how to solve problems.
In the last section of this paper, four different but groundbreaking art pieces were introduced representing different ways to decolonize the western gaze and deconstruct the colonial narrative. These artists use different strategies to disidentify themselves from that gaze and to represent those who are oppressed and marginalized. Their work represents a hybrid identity and since they are hybrids themselves, they propose a reconstruction of the self. They challenge the hegemonic norm and rebel against the system by means of self-representation, self-validation and misrecognition. They are ‘critical creative agents’ who metaphorically destruct the dominant narrative to create something completely new from its parts offering multiple readings to see the world anew.
Decolonizing the western eye may not be an easy task but it is definitely not impossible. It is a long process that requires the participation of the society as a whole. Artists such as Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Saba Taj, Sophie Utikal and Malala Andrialavidrazana lead the way by being actively involved in this process of deconstruction through workshops, gallery exhibitions, speeches and lectures where they present their art and inspire people of all ages to do more and break with stereotypes. To my viewpoint, education plays a crucial role in this process. It is absolutely necessary to start an unlearning process of the colonial myth. In a similar fashion, we should learn to deconstruct our way of seeing and learn how to see outside the norm.
Similarly, ‘conscious’ travelling is another valuable and effective way of debunking stereotypes by giving the possibility to read the other as accurately as possible and to experience and understand the manifold aspect of cultures and the environment. This valuable concept can be seen in Malala Andrialavidrazana’s redrawing of maps “I don’t really wander by accident … I wander where I can find attractions [laughs]. Traveling is the key to meet the Others and to better understand specificities, differences, and eventually to find commonalities between the Others and myself. In French we say, On n’apprend jamais autant qu’à travers nos propres expériences (The things that you really know are the things that you’ve learned from your own experiences).”
Last but not least, I consider that one of the best ways to decolonize the western narrative is by rewriting the archive creating new ways of seeing outside of the canon and placing the value of culture as a factor of resistance to foreign domination. The importance of making other voices heard is imminent and the urgency of opening new spaces for these voices has turned into a political act.
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