The Barbarians are Here
EVA International in Limerick, curated by Koyo Kouoh, took the centenery of the Irish Easter Rising as a starting point for an examination of a post-colonial condition. Emma Geliot makes a journey through some difficult terrain.
The city of Limerick, in the West of Ireland, has all the halmarks of the Celtic Tiger economic boom – a glossy shopping district, filled with the usual global chains, smart hotels and a regenerated river front, beside the River Shannon, snaking through the town under the ancient bridges. It has its historic pedigree, including a castle and the buildings erected during the long period of the british dominance. But walk for just five minutes from the city centre and more modern deprivation and decline are immediately evident with the symptoms of recession – the bargainand charity shops – creeping in to replace failed swankier boutiques. Every other window has a sticker for Limerick2020 in it, supporting the bid for European Capital of Culture, freighted with all the attendant regenerative hopes that a successful bid might bring.
EVA International, originally EV+A (Exhibition plus Visual Art), has been running as a biennial celebration of contemporary art for nearly four decades. It was instigated by artists and academics and has an impressive roster of internationally acclaimed artist and curators to its credit, and this year's crop is no exception.
I asked EVA International Director and CEO, Woodrow Kernohan, why biennials are important to places, often perceived as being outside the usual centres for contempoary art activity, or away from market place? "Biennials and periodic exhibitions create very particular opportunities for artists and curators to experiment, challenge and develop new work. These oppotunities are greatest where artists and curators are freest and the usual centres are no longer where artists and curators are most free."
"EVA International was originally founded in 1977 – the same year as Skulptur Projekte Muenster – to bring contemporary artistic practices to audiences in the west of Ireland. Alongside this exposure to contemporary and international art, artists and curators from all over the world are invited to come to Limerick to make new work, engaging with the city, and building bridges to other personal, social, political and environmental contexts."
"Outside of the centre, or on the periphery, is often becoming the frontier, where most experimentation and innovation can take place. EVA International is on the north-western edge of Europe, away from the centre, away from the market, and artists and curators are free to experiment outside of their normal constraints."
"As with biennials and periodic exhibitions, this is also becoming the case with institutions, where many of the most interesting, experimental and innovative programmes are taking place outside of the centre. In the UK you only have to think of the Liverpool Biennial, Glasgow International, Folkestone Triennial and spaces like Mostyn, Nottingham Contemporary and Eastside Projects."
"As well as being important for bringing audiences to locations – like the biennials in Liverpool, Sharjah, Marrakech, or Documenta in Kassel, Sculptur Projekte in Muenster, Recontres in Aries – these projects also define places to audiences. Biennials and periodic exhibitions are often cited in terms or regeneration and economic impact, however the social and psychological legacy within communities and local populations is far more important. Through a biennial you are able to to epxplore the possibility to engage with public space, how to use institutions, what shape education can take, what protest can be, take ownership of the city etc.,"
The invitation to Cameroon-born and Senegal based curator, Koyo Kouoh, to examine the idea of post-colonialism, for the 37th edition of EVA International, developed a fascinating, multi-faceted offering. Thoughtful, with endless subtle but powerful connections between works, her exhibition covered numerous sites and contexts. From King John's Castle to Cleeve's, a former condensed milk factory, to the near derelict former Sailor's Home, to the beautiful City Gallery and the Museum and many other temporary venues and interventions besides. Still (the) Barbarians doesn't flinch in its examination of the consequences of colonialisation, exploitation, subjugation, discrimination and oppression. But while some works mine archival material, many more are oblique distillations of this idea. It never feels as if didacticism eclipses aesthetic and artistic ambition.
Kouoh has become a champion for contemporary art practice and the dialogues around it, in Senegal. She is the founding member of RAW Material Company, a centre for art, knowledge and society in Dakar and, through her curatorial practice, strives to subvert the received narratives around African culture, as told by the once-colonising European powers. Ireland, to a certain extent, mirrors those African narratives. As Kouoh says, "Ireland, which I consider first and foremost the laboratory of the British colonial enterprise, has always been a fixture in my thinking on the psychological and political effects a system designed to humiliate and alienate can have on peoples' souls."
Contemporary Ireland has evolved from a moment of revolution, a throwing off of colonial oppression, but, as with the other post colonial nations, its future is inevitably bound up with its past. Still (the) Barbarians is articulated by EVA International as, "to draw a concentric artistic and political cartography, mapping the conflations and confines of the global post-colony typology with Ireland as its central starting point", as it coincided with the centenary of the Easter Rising, in 1916. For UK visitors, seeing an early British colonial project within a wider framework of subjugation and racism is a real education, particularly as the EU Referendum began to throw up some ugly national characteristics and rhetoric back home.
Kouoh's skill as a curator is to offer multiple perspectives and points of view, bringing together disparate narratve versions of world history. It would take a very dull mind not to grasp the connection between the enforced adoption of a European language in a colonised African country and the suppression of the Irish Gaelic. As a visitor from Wales, this issue is still raw for a nation whose culture is so bound by language, which only a small percentage of the population speak as their mother tongue.
These complex perspectives are illustrated by the works of, amongst many others, Larry Achiampong and David Blandy (in Finding Fanon 1 and Finding Fanon 2), Kader Attia's Reasons Oxymorons (2015), Journal Rappé and Naheem Mohaiemen's Abu Ammar is Coming (2015). Notions of explotation and commodification in relation to historical narrative are also explored in many of the works, including: A History of Stone, Origin and Myth (2016) by Tom Flanagan and Megs Morle; Godfried Donkor's Rebel Madonna Lace Collection (2016) and Jeremy Hutchison's Fabrications (2013-16), where indigo plays a central role in a fictional history of Palestine.
Other works are more ambiguous and could be read differently in another context but here, for example, Alfredo Jaar's The Cloud (2015), becomes more than a symbol of temporality – it hovers darkly, threatening a hard rain to come – while Criodhna Costello's Murmurations (2014), can't help but invoke the current refugee crisis and anxiety around economic migration.
Mary Evan's, Thousands are Sailing (2016) humanises what is often see as a homogenous mass of humanity, fleeing persecution, in a series of featureless but characterful cutouts. The work shares a room in the City Gallery with Hera Buyuktasciyan's, Destroy your House, build up a boat, save life (2015), in one of the many beautiful curatorial connections.
While there was work that was painfully moving, including the stories of individuals affected by the Northern Ireland Troubles, in Jonathan Cummins', When I Leave These Landings (2004-09), Go Home (2010-13) and Out the Road (2012-16), there are also works with a lighter touch, with no less a strong message. Ulrike Ottinger's die Eroberg der Gluckseligen Insel, Fuerteventura (1983), is one such – an elaborately staged opera, wonderfully illustrating the misguided intentions of those colonists, who saw themselves as benign educators rather than subjugators.
There was much more to absorb. A riot of information to take in on a two-day visit and I got ready to leave convnced that somehow work should be enshrined in school curricula everywhere. What, I wondered, did EVA International mean to the city of Limerick? Kernohan considers this, as he sets his sights on the 38th edition.
"EVA International is part off the cultural fabric of Limerick, contributing to how the city understands itself and imagines the future. Through the Biennial exhibitions, EVA can be an opportunity to explore the city's histories – like the divisons of Irish Town/English Town. Limerick Lace, or the 1919 Limerick Soviet – or uncover sites of architectural interest – like the Cleeve's Condensed Milk Factory, first used as an EVA venue in 2014, that was subsequently purchased by the city and as an EVA venue again in 2016."
"Limerick is a city with some economic and social difficulties, but it is also a city with passionate, engaged communities and incredible opportunities. Artists and curators embracedby the city and its people, so that extraordinary things take place in all corners: from installations by high profile international artists in local pubs, huge architectural installations in public spaces, discreet interventions in city museums, to life-changing workshop series where artists engage with young participants. EVA International is pleased to be part of the process of place-making in Limerick – not in terms of transformation, but in terms of reflection, consolidation and deepening relationships with location, communities and histories."
As I left Ireland, to race home and fill in my ballot paper for the EU Referendum, with the words "please vote to stay", ringing in my ears, I was more conscious than ever of the interconnectedness of national (his)stories and of the challenges, for nations evolving away from their colonial pasts – to fix a narrative that has meaning, while healing the scars of collective suffering and cultural dispossession. The EU leave campaign had been employing a lot of disturbing rhetoric around British supremacy, while denying Britain's role in undermining those very notions in its former colonies. In dismissing its debt of gratitude to the cultural impact of so many incoming settlers (invaders and migrants), there was no recognition of the contribution or influence of those incomers.
So I leave you with some lines from Constantine P. Cafavy's poem, Waiting for the Barbarians, from which this year's project draws its title: