‘Self-Determination’ and Art After Empire

Banu Cennetoğlu, right?, 2022 (installation view, 58th Carnegie International, 2022, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh). Courtesy the artist

A new show at Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin is less a celebration of independence than an exploration of the troubled aftermaths of colonialism

After the First World War, the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman and Russian empires, and the incipient breakup of the British Empire produced several new states in Europe and the Middle East. This ambitious exhibition marks the centenary of the founding of the Irish Free State in 1922, deprovincialising the history of Ireland’s decolonisation by presenting it as part of an international movement – thus doubly distinguishing the country as free from the dominance of the UK, and spiritually closer to mainland Europe. Favouring a revisionist approach to history over a triumphalist one, this show is less a celebration of independence than an exploration of the troubled aftermaths of colonialism. The term ‘global’, though, seems a bit of a stretch. The 200-odd works consist primarily of paintings and archival material from the 1920s and 30s, interspersed with contemporary videos, installations and sculptures reflecting on the legacies of this period, but almost all of the paintings are from countries in Europe (Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Poland and Ukraine, among others), with just one work from Turkey, while Egypt features only via a photograph of Mahmoud Mokhtar’s 1928 allegorical statue Egypt’s Renaissance, pasted on a wall.

The exhibition is framed as a study of ‘self-determination’, and the term is here largely synonymous with nation-building. Sometimes the art can feel shoehorned into the show’s didactic clusters, which range thematically from monuments and industry to print, language and education. The section titled ‘The Builders’, for example, asks us to compare paintings of labourers from Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Slovenia and Ukraine, interpreting the images as metaphorically constructing those nation-states; yet it’s unclear that the original intention of the works was always so nationalistic. In the Ukrainian painter Onufriy Biziukov’s Sawmills (1930–31) and On the Raft (1932–33), and the Estonian Kuno Veeber’s Sepad (Blacksmiths, 1926), nation-building is evoked in the idealistic merging of labouring bodies with progressive cubist forms. Yet Ukraine was already part of the Soviet Union when Biziukov and most of the other Ukrainian artists included in the exhibition were painting; in the accompanying ‘reader’ we are told that most of these artists were suppressed by ‘Stalinist crackdowns on expressions of Ukrainian identity’. How this might nuance the narrative of the ‘construction of the new state’ in Biziukov’s possibly state-censored paintings is unanswered.

The show gives equal if not greater attention to the bleaker aspects of this history. Two clusters – ‘Dividing Lines’ and ‘Out of the Ruins’ – highlight the violence that preceded the formation of the new states and the devastation from which they emerged. The trauma of war is remembered in works such as the Slovenian painter Tone Kralj’s By the Sweat of Thy Brow (1919), in which dejected naked figures, appearing barely alive, crawl abjectly amid thorny roots. With hindsight, some of the most optimistic images now seem the saddest, the Ukrainian paintings especially poignant in the present context: it’s hard to look at Antonina Ivanova’s rendering of cabbage harvesters in Work in the Field (1920s), already emotive in their barefoot, dignified poverty, without imagining the state of that field now.

Alan Phelan, Mosquito Man Arthur, 2007, mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Dublin City University

On the whole, the contemporary artworks are deployed to reframe past hopes. Niamh McCann pokes fun at nationalist hero-worship with Stream of Consciousness (2022) – its title referring to Ireland’s giants of modernist literature – which consists of a bronze cast supposedly of the republican revolutionary Michael Collins’s nose, supported by Malacca canes ‘streaming’ from his nostrils. Array Collective’s embossed prints, Modern Church Design – a cross centring on an egglike form – and Bed Design (both 2023) – a template of harder-to-define, possibly foldable triangles – we’re told symbolise the marginalisation of women in the Irish Free State. Their ghostly, avoidant blankness could recall the Catholic idealisation of women as ‘immaculate’ and politically invisible, perhaps also hinting at Ireland’s history of hiding injustice; for instance, the abuse experienced at the Magdalene asylums for ‘fallen women’ was long ignored, until their dissolution in 1996. The persistence of such misogyny goes unmentioned in this show, though; with abortion only legalised in Ireland in 2019, it took almost a century for Irish women to have ‘self-determination’ of their own bodies.

In her wall piece, After (2016–23), Iz Öztat incorporates a black square that Zişan – her ‘alter ego’ – is said to have designed in 1923, the year the Turkish Republic was founded. The square appears on a framed sheet of paper with the caption Felaket, Turkish for ‘Catastrophe’, in Arabic script (echoing the Arabic word with the same meaning, nakba, synonymous with the dispossession of Palestinians after the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948). It recurs, without the caption, within a pattern of red triangles, in reference to the ‘Saturday Mothers’ who, since 1995, have been gathering in Istanbul to protest against the state abduction of mainly Kurdish individuals during the 1980s and 90s (the protesters tend to be dressed in black, carrying red flowers and black-and-red placards). In this context, the void of the square and the work’s opacity could signify the impossibility of mourning the unaccounted-for, implicating the catastrophic displacement of marginalised peoples at the hands of the ‘modern’ republic. Equally, as Zişan’s own ink-on-paper answer to Malevich, the shape could refer to the Middle East’s overlooked output of modernist art. Throughout this show, such scepticism among the contemporary artists is less directed at self-determination as an ideal in itself than the realities of its lastingly unequal consequences.

Self-Determination: A Global Perspective at Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, through 21 April

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