'Mapping past and present' workshop by Molly Millar Saranka Maheswaran for Varsity

History of Art as a discipline is often considered in relation to the Renaissance or the Impressionists, through an exclusively white lens. In wider discourse, we rarely consider the people of colour involved in these movements, or non-European art forms and theories which highlight this disparity. ‘Decolonise Art History’ (@decolonisearthistory on Instagram) has been aiming to change this by working with the University of Cambridge’s History of Art department to ensure sustainable efforts are made to widen the curriculum and the resulting dialogue around art. Originally, it began in the form of a 2018 open letter which spoke about the lack of diversity within Cambridge’s curriculum and a need for substantial teaching on decolonial theories. It has flourished now into a society which aims to work with the department, holding open meetings with students to see what changes they want to see brought forth and communicating these ideas between staff.

“Discourse between staff and students can ensure the longevity of the decolonising movement”

Currently running the society, Oluwakemi Akinrele, a final year student at Jesus College, and Uma Horder, a second year student at Magdalene College, spoke to me about their aims and what the future of the society holds. While originally “the foundation of the society was predicated on this critique of the department … right now we are much more focused on what we can get from the department, because obviously they have a wealth of resources”, Uma highlighted. Since last term, they have been working on a project with the department library called ‘Disentangling the Document.’ The project recognises the current genocide in Palestine and the lack of scholarly engagement from the department; as part of this, they have ordered a series of books which highlight histories of erasure.

"The society underlines the value of literature in decolonising History of Art, and the power it has to reclaim stories and reposition the way events are viewed"Saranka Maheswaran for Varsity

One of these books is Zong! by Marlene NourbeSe Phillip, a book-length poem which looks at the slaves who were killed on the Zong ship from West Africa to America in 1781. To account for the lives of the enslaved Africans massacred on the ship, only a 2-sided insurance document had survived. Zong! consists only of the words from this document, and through it emulates “the idea of reverberation and constancy and the presence of those voices and screams that will always be in the ocean and in our hearts”, Oluwakemi explains. The society underlines the value of literature in decolonising History of Art, and the power it has to reclaim stories and reposition the way events are viewed, as Uma went on to speak about how they are “using the library’s resources to have more of a permanent impact in the space”. This is in part why the collaboration with the department is far more central to the society’s approach than when it began. By working with the department, they can ensure that their reach extends beyond the odd ‘fun event’, consolidating the society’s permanency. Another example of these efforts is their collaborative reading list, which is open to access and welcomes contributions.

“Oluwakemi and Uma are voicing important ideas pertaining to decolonisation and building a ‘tangible foundation’ for definitive change”

We also spoke about the significance of distinguishing between diversity and decolonisation. Often people and institutions conflate the two, allowing the concept of decolonisation to “get watered down into diversity”. While of course attempts to diversify the make-up of the discipline remain important, Oluwakemi elaborated that “it can be quite performative when it gets done … We are students and it is not up to us to do the work of the department”. The society is clear in its aims to be rooted within the study of the subject itself at the University and the attendant pursuit of a decolonial lens in teaching.

Creativity was boundless and generated "insightful conversation in a relaxed space"Saranka Maheswaran for Varsity

Uma’s favourite event has been a film screening of White Cube by Renzo Martens, which attempts to use contemporary art to highlight the plight of palm oil workers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. What’s most important about the film screenings the society holds, is the fact that there is a portion dedicated specifically towards discussion after. Although on the surface this seems simple, it is through such discourse that staff and students — this particular screening being facilitated by Dr Kareem Estefan — can collaborate to ensure the longevity of the decolonising movement. It means that the ideas do not stop once the film is over; instead, audiences are exposed to perspectives outside their own, enabling these ideas to develop over time through variously angled conversations.


Mountain View

Decolonisation, democratisation, and the truth behind the buzzwords

Recent events by the society include a workshop titled ‘Mapping Past and Present’ on March 4th with Funmi Lijadu, a writer and collage artist. The workshop looked at creative forms of intervention in the wider project of decolonising Art History. Various magazines such as Transition: The Magazine of Africa and the Diaspora and Black Orpheus were a few among the many that were available for us to look at before using copies to create our own collages. Themes about colonial mentality and love were explored through these collages, the creativity being boundless and generating insightful conversation in a relaxed space. The society holds serious promise in its impact on the department and the way in which Art History is studied at Cambridge. In their rewarding but often difficult work, Oluwakemi and Uma are voicing important ideas pertaining to decolonisation and building a “tangible foundation” for definitive change.