This article was published by PETRIe Inventory at http://www.petrieinventory.com/not-exotic
This year  marks the 16th, and last, edition of the Images biennale of contemporary visual art in Denmark – a year-long event, involving 21 Danish art institutions and nearly 100 artists from Africa, the Middle East and Asia, all under the coordination of CKU – Centre for Culture and Development.
A particularity of this edition is that all institutions worked with a non-Danish curator, with a deep knowledge of the art scenes in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. In fact, in order to be part of the biennale, the institutions had to work with a foreign curator, and the collaborations were facilitated by speed-dating sessions organised by CKU.
One can’t help but applaud this attempt to accelerate the dialogue between cultures, despite the evident challenge to find the middle ground between local community logic and global logic. However, from concept to execution, this event might be in danger of chasing its own tail, in the paradoxical reaffirmation of difference and foreignness that it sets out to counter.
Curating non-Western art in a Western context, and for Western audiences seems to be, despite of the laudable collaboration with non-Western curators, a one-way street. Organised and sudden visibility of non-Western artists does little to build the bridges this type of event aims to build. The biennale opens a space for highly talented artists from Africa, the Middle East and Asia, but it is exactly the necessity of this effort that proves that this space was closed before this event, and it will probably close again after it ends.
Images brings foreign art to Danish audiences, embracing the role and responsibility of Western societies to engage in collaboration and cross-cultural conversations, but just by calling it “responsibility,” Western societies undertake an imaginary position of superiority: it is through Western resources and Western initiatives that non-Western artist have a voice and access to Western publics in a Western context. The door is not naturally open.
Many westerners experience contemporary African art, for example, in African contexts – what does it mean to them to experience the same art when it is brought home? Clearly, the reception of and reflexion of these works cannot be detached from this acknowledgement of Western agency over non-Western objects and processes.
The question of genuine dialogue is also a problematic one, as the possibility of a returning gaze or commentary is uncertain. This builds on the very idea of context – what is the Western context? Is the international art scene a context or a dialogue? Is the very concept of context a faulty starting point for genuine dialogue? Do people enter a context? Do they adapt to it, or does it adapt to them?
Another essential aspect is reception – the readiness and capacity of audiences to go beyond immediate inherited labels of foreigness or Africanness. Danish curator Christian Skovbjerg Jensen reflects on this challenge, in relation to his work on a group exhibition, initially an independent project, later introduced in the biennale. About his process, he says: “My thematic starting point or initial interest was in questions of mobility, migration and belonging, in a way that could broaden and create more complex, or simply, other narratives than the dominating stories that we hear on migration in media today.”
The exhibition was called Merchants of Dreams – Moroccan Contemporary Art, and this national flavour came to define this show, much to the critical observations of the curator himself: “a lot of the critics and audience of the exhibition are so focused on the fact that the artists are from Morocco … You would never approach an exhibition with say French artists in the same way. How do we move beyond this and toward the questions the artists address?”
So, how do we look when we look at African, Middle Eastern, or Asian art? Do we expect anyone to look back? How do we speak of these art scenes? As Christian Skovbjerg notes: “words like beautiful, dreamy, peculiar, humoristic, engaged and complex should be used, and not exotic.”
Words: Elena Stanciu