Read Chris Clarke's review in Art Monthly
The centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, the failed revolutionary insurrection that nevertheless led to (eventual) Irish independence, is ever-present throughout the Republic this year. There has been a barrage of documentaries and dramatisations, parades and pageantry, invariably reverential towards the martyrs of 1916, even if only in comparison to the current government. It is therefore unsurprising that EVA International, Ireland's biennale of contemporary art, also addresses this moment of national significance. Yet, rather than attempting to dig deep into the repercussions of the rising itself, the reach here is geographically far broader, as likely to engage with the legacies of contemporaneous events such as the Sykes-Picot agreement, the dissolution of the Second International or the tectonic shifts of an unfolding Great War. As curator Koyo Kouoh sees it, Ireland's significance lies in its 'being the primal testing ground of the British colonisation system (before its global expansion)', and, as such, is as relevant to the postcolonial conditions of Africa, Asia and the Americas as it is to Europe.
Infact, as a keystone for the exhibition as a whole, Samuel Erenberg's mementoes, 2012, a series of modest canvases nunning alongthe interior terrace of Limerick City Gallery of Art, lays out some of the terrain to be covered. Each painting bears a place and a date, etched in white against a pitch-black background: Budapest 1956,Vietnam 1963-75, Selma 1965 etc. The litany of uprisings and interventions, stretching back into the 19th century and looming over the gallery spaces below, finds counterparts in other works here. One might, for example, take note of Saigon 1954 when encountering Tiffany Chung's An archaeology project for future remembrances, 2013, a three-channel video that looks at Thu Thien, a district of Ho Chi Minh City currently being redeveloped as a 'new urban area'. An array of accompanying materials, including maps, texts and a reclaimed slab of tiled flooring, outline the processes of gentrification and displacement that underpin such regeneration projects while, at the same time, evoking artefacts dredged up from a distant era. A similar sensation pervades Michael Joo's off-site installation This beautiful striped wreckage (which we interrogate)... 2016, located in The Sailor's Home, a dilapidated historical building that once served as a military barracks. Salvaged decorative pieces from the site's current restoration are presented as sculptural interventions while filmed images of a Buddha figure, originally from the 3rd-century Kushan Empire in what is now Pakistan, are projected onto layered screens on the top floor.
The persistence of the past into the present also informs Pio Abad's The Collection ofJane Ryan and William Saunders: Postcard reproductions of Old Master paintings sequestered from Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos and sold by Christie's on behalf of the Philippine Commission on Good Government, 2014. As itsexhaustive title implies, the work comprises stacks of free postcards alongside shelves of photographic prints of ornate antique silverware and refers to the kleptocratic regime of Marcos,ousted by the People Power protests in Manila in the 1980s. To some extent, Abad's gesture represents the realisation of the democratic revolution as these precious items, once hoarded for personal gain before being auctioned for $15m to fund the government's policy of land distribution, are now freely distributed. However, it is worth reminding oneself that, just this year, Ferdinand Marcos Jr lost the Philippines vice-presidential election by a whisker. Democracy can easily backslide, political development can always turn into political decay.
The core of the colonial impetus was the pursuit of wealth and, in a thoughtful juxtaposition of individual works by Otobong Nkanga and Willem de Rooij, one sees how little has changed. Nkanga's The Weight of Scars, 2015, weaves photographic plates into a four-panel tapestry, a constellation depicting the scoured landscapes of Namibian mining sites against a vibrant topographical field of blues and browns. De Rooij presents two hand-printed batik fabrics, laid side-by-side and entitled Blue to Black, 2012, and Black to Blue, 2016. Their similarity belies their provenance, with the former work having been printed in Ghana and the latter in the Javanese city of Yogyakarta. Both instances reveal the influence of Dutch traders, whose longstanding commercial relationships with both Africa and Indonesia are exemplified in the choice of colours: for the traders, 'black people' and 'blue people' referred respectively to the inhabitants of these locations.
These preoccupations extend to the other main venue of EVA International, the former Cleeve's Condensed Milk Factory. Set within the grounds, nestled between warehouses and looking back over the River Shannon, is an advertising sign that simply reads 'Leopoldville'. Alan Phelan's piece draws on the interplay of history, economy, commerce and revolution, presenting the former colonial name of Kinshasa in the font of the Cadbury's chocolate company logo. William Cadbury had been a supporter of Roger Casement's pioneering humanitarian work in the Congo, uncovering the atrocities of the Belgian rubber trade backed by King Leopold 11, and, in this way, offers an early example of corporate philanthropy, countering current assumptions of 'business-as-usual'. In their video work Journal Televise Rappe, 2013-16, the Senegalese hip-hop duo of Keyti and Xuman also reflect upon western readings of Africa, delivering news reports that skilfully puncture the biases of mainstream media coverage as well as figures such as Chad's deposed president Hissene Habre (just days before writing this, it was announced that he had been convicted in Dakar of rape, torture and crimes against humanity). 'I am the victim of a neo-colonialist conspiracy... Senegal has also violated my right to exile, next time, I'll find refuge in Brazil!', Habre raps, clad in a white turban and boubou, surrounded by microphones. Larry Achiampong and David Blandy's Finding Fanon 1,2015, adapts Chris Marker's seminal 1962 film La Jetee, with the artists psychically plunged into a past 'before the outbreak of war inthe 1980s' in pursuit of Frantz Fanon, 'a man who predicted much of what we see now'. Through a sequence of photographic stills, historical footage, animation and inter-titles detailing the formative experiences of a black protagonist, their immersion invokes the collective unconscious that Fanon denounced in his 1952 book Black Skin, White Masks as 'purely and simply the sum of prejudices, myths, collective attitudes of a given group'.
In titling the exhibition 'Still(the) Barbarians', Kouoh has cast her net widely, employing a particularly dialectical methodology that refuses to clearly distinguish between 'ours' and 'other's', and, in this sense, her citation of Constantine P Cavafy's poem 'Waiting for the Barbarians' seems especially apt: 'And now, what's going to happen to us without barbarians? They were, those people, a kind of solution.' In extending this definition to encompass all its players – 'the colonisers, the postcolonial condition and its effects, and the rebellious strength of any colonised subject whose desire to restore his or her national identity or sovereignty cannot be destroyed' – the exhibition asserts the very essentiality of the barbarians. After all, without them, how would we, the civilised, recognise ourselves?