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Many ways to be Modern

Frieze Masters shows that the Western school is not the only school

The Modernism of Ibrahim El-Salahi (Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams 1)

Visitors to Tate Modern this summer could not have failed to notice that, of the museum’s four exhibitions, three were dedicated to artists from outside traditional Western art centres. Two of them, Saloua Raouda Choucair and Ibrahim El-Salahi, are key figures in the development of Modernism in their respective countries, Lebanon and Sudan. Crucial to both artists’ work was their experience in European cities—Choucair studied with Léger in Paris, El-Salahi at the Slade in London—but both artists developed their own versions of Modernism in their homelands, informed by local traditions.

They were illuminating shows, not just in presenting unfamiliar artists to a wide public but also in reflecting a major shift in the Tate’s programming and collecting. And it is a wider trend: in a discussion organised by the Art Fund in London last year, Alain Seban, the president of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, suggested that, in the globalised world, Modern art museums could “redefine the concept of a universal museum” for the 21st century. As Chris Dercon, the director of Tate Modern, hinted as the El-Salahi exhibition opened, Tate Modern has already begun to redefine itself—curators are encouraged to consider the museum as Tate Moderns, addressing numerous Modernisms rather than a singular, linear progression. The nature of this global modernity is the subject of a Frieze Talks panel discussion, “Migrating Modernisms”, on Sunday.

Failing to represent

The belief that museums were failing to reflect an accurate picture of international Modern art gathered strength in the 1990s. “It was an acknowledgement really that when we said ‘international’ what we really meant was Paris, London, Düsseldorf and, primarily, New York,” says Iwona Blazwick, the director of the Whitechapel Gallery and a key player in Britain’s development of a more expansive definition of modernity.

Blazwick was the head of exhibitions and displays at Tate Modern when it opened in 2000, and oversaw its first exhibition “Century City”—“a giant experiment”, she says, which featured nine cities that were “crucibles” of the avant garde in the 20th century, among them Lagos, Rio de Janeiro and Mumbai. “Exhibitions are a kind of journey, and they’re a way of trying to discover more about an artist or period, so it was an adventure for everybody,” she says, “but it certainly signalled a shift in the ideology of the museum itself and we’ve seen that born out in the decade that’s followed.”

There were “lots of different impulses”, Blazwick says, for an expanded view of Modern art in that era. Shanay Jhaveri, who leads the “Migrating Modernisms” panel discussion, says “one has to take into consideration the economic rise of non-Western nations, and how power relations have started to be reorganised—that’s one of the major factors in forcing institutions to look at a history going much further back.” Another factor is the global influence of biennials and other cyclical exhibitions. Blazwick particularly singles out the first Mercosul biennial in 1997, which gave a “mind-blowing” account of Latin American Modern and contemporary art, as well as the Documenta exhibitions curated by Catherine David, in 1997, and Okwui Enwezor, in 2002, which “repositioned the scope of Documenta”.

Africa has always been at the heart of the debate. Elvira Dyangani Ose, the first curator of African art at the Tate, suggests that Enwezor’s exhibition “The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-94”, which began in 2001 at the Museum Villa Stuck, Munich, and toured to Berlin, Chicago and New York, “proposed a different approach to the history of African Modernisms. Then, his Documenta offered some of those histories to an international audience and incorporated them into the mainstream in an unequivocal way.” A Whitechapel show in 1995, “Seven Stories of Modern Art in Africa”, organised by African artists and scholars, now seems remarkably prescient. It is “ill-treated by history, but worshipped by art historians and curators in the field”, Dyangani Ose says.

But it is one thing to mount exhibitions, commissioning and borrowing works to reflect this broadening consciousness, and quite another to change museum collections for good. Jhaveri warns of what he calls “catch-up Modernism”, where “you put together a list for revision and recuperating and restoring, and fill in the blanks. That’s a very dangerous place to be. Rather, one has to recognise that there were differences across the world, in each of those art-producing centres, which need to be reflected. One has to acknowledge that there can’t just be an absorption and a celebration of inclusion. There has to be a foregrounding of the differences which made each of those art-producing centres quite distinct in themselves.”

To explore those differences fully, museums need a comprehensive and often costly structure. As with its collecting in other non-Western territories, the Tate has an Africa acquisitions committee and a fund specifically for African art, as well as a dedicated curator in Dyangani Ose. “A key factor is to be able to present those modernities in their own right—and that already means an enormous shift in Western historiography and museology,” she says. “Whereas it’s true that for decades we have seen that transformation in exhibitions and ephemeral projects, it’s only recently that major Western galleries and institutions [have started] building more inclusive, broader collections. In that regard, in-house expertise is crucial and just as imperative is to recognise the existing expertise and knowledge production in those areas.” She stresses that museums “cannot simply decide to bring a work of art or an artist to a collection or to an exhibition without providing a larger context for their understanding”.

Influence across borders

Among the key questions as definitions of Modernism broaden is what Jhaveri calls its “periodicity”, meaning its shifting time scales according to the social and cultural changes in the various centres. The process of mapping influence across borders is also crucial. Earlier this year, Jhaveri organised “Companionable Silences” at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, which looked at non-Western women artists, including Choucair and the Indian painter Amrita Sher-Gil, who lived and worked in Paris in the early to mid-20th century. “I’m very interested in this history of cross-cultural exchange, the cross-fertilisation of ideas,” he says, “and that dovetails very nicely into a discussion of Modernism, because the question of influence and the movement back and forth of ideas is very important.”

Jhaveri saw “Companionable Silences” as a chance to reflect “constellations and networks of exchange”. This term “networks” is also used by Achim Borchardt-Hume, the current director of exhibitions at Tate Modern. “One way that we’d like to think about it is to get away from the idea that there is one centre and then a periphery around,” he says. “It’s to rethink this idea that there’s one hub, and everything else is a question of influence. Because influence is very often simplified. What’s more interesting is to think: what do artists choose to look at? What makes Picasso choose to look at African art in the first decades of the 20th century? And equally, then, what makes an artist in Sudan [El Salahi] choose to look at Picasso in the 1950s? And that means that instead of the idea that there’s one central model which all the other ones simply feed off, or respond to, or are influenced by, it’s much more a set of networks where people are engaged in conversations. And that means that there isn’t one version of Modernism but there always have been multiple versions.”

China’s missing Modernism

While the Modern art of many non-Western countries gains growing significance, China’s prominence in globalised contemporary art is not matched by a Modernist history. “There were the inklings of Modernism in China in the 1920s and 1930s,” says Philip Tinari, the director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. “You had a generation of artists who were studying in Paris and in other European centres, most of whom went back to China around the time of the ‘War of Japanese Aggression’, or the Second World War, when they heard the call of the nation.” Those who spent time in Europe did not fully engage with Modernist practices—Xu Beihong was particularly against Impressionism and its legacy, instead focusing on linking Chinese traditions to French academic painting, while his rival Lin Fengmian began to modernise ink painting and Pang Xunqin “got closer to Modernism than anyone else of that generation, only to be stifled upon his return and shoehorned into politically correct academicism”, Tinari says. “You don’t have a Modernist flowering in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s like you do in, say, India, or parts of the Middle East.” Neither is there significant evidence of under-the-radar Modernist experiments of the kind that were widespread in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. “It was the late 1970s before anything resembling Modern or contemporary art emerged again,” Tinari says, but Chinese avant garde artists like Ai Weiwei then leapt quickly into disciplines… like Conceptualism and Post–Minimalism. “By the time they’d entered the game, that [Modernist] moment had already passed,” Tinari says.

“Migrating Modernisms”, Frieze London, 20 October, 4pm

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