Rasheed Araeen: I was honoured, as The Courtauld Institute of Art is one of the most important art institutions in the world for the teaching of art history, and I was delighted to accept its honorary doctorate
The Courtauld is indeed a special institution, not only because it is one of the major schools for the teaching of art history but also it has now recognised its Eurocentrism and wants to change. The Courtauld had been aware of my work against Eurocentric art history and it was perhaps for this reason that I was recently offered the honorary doctorate. However, while I was happy to accept it, I faced a disturbing paradox. I had in the past criticised The Courtauld for its being Eurocentric; and I thus faced the difficult problem of resolving this paradox. The only thing I could then do was to make my acceptance conditional. My condition was that I would be allowed to intervene in the teaching of art history, as it had now become necessary to question and confront what recognises and legitimates only white artists as the agents of modern art history. This is a legacy of the Empire, and we should be replacing it with an art history which accepts and recognises within its genealogical discourse or historical narratives all artists, irrespective of their different racial or cultural backgrounds. In fact, if the concern of The Courtauld is with the true knowledge of art history within a multiracial society or the world, then the teaching of such an inclusive art
history would be fundamental to the change it now aspires to.
I’ve not yet started doing what I wanted to do following my acceptance of the honorary degree, as I’ve not yet discussed this matter with your director Professor Deborah Swallow. However, the work comprises revising and re-writing the history of art in post-war Britain, from which non-white artists are excluded, even now. But this work can only be done collectively involving many art historians. I have in fact already commissioned, with some money from the Arts Council, twenty or so writers; and what I want to do now is to introduce their work as a series of talks as part of the teaching of art history at The Courtauld.
My main activity now is to continue producing artworks; and I have in fact recently finished a large commissioned work for The Aga Khan Centre in London. It comprises a 112-foot-high structure mounted on the end wall of the atrium in the centre. Those who have seen it have declared it as an extraordinary work; and I think the students of The Courtauld must see it. However, as I’ve explained in my book Art Beyond Art, I want, eventually, to integrate my work with what happens in the everyday life, such as eating, reading, playing, and so on. In this respect I have many projects taking shape, but it is difficult to go into them here.
As I faced the racism of the art world when I tried to show my work in the early seventies, I became disillusioned and disenchanted with art. It was then that I joined the Black Panthers Movement (BPM), thinking it might help me in my crisis. The BPM didn’t help me much in my pursuit of art as something aesthetically beautiful, but my involvement in its politics helped me a lot in the understanding of the society I was living in; which in fact led me into doing a kind of work which also involved politics, particularly the continuing imperialism of the British state within which its institutional racism was, and is, still enshrined and embedded. I was actually responsible for doing BPM’s weekly newsletter, which taught me how to produce publications; and which in fact helped me a lot when I started doing my own publications: Black Phoenix (1978-79) and Third Text (1987-2011).
Diversity is now the buzzword of the art establishment; it doesn’t represent a real change but the government’s official agenda to appease those who are happy to be part of its neo-imperialism (in turn, they are rewarded with MBEs, OBEs, etc.). It has also now become necessary for flagship art institutions to use diversity as part of their window-dressing or a smoke screen to cover up institutional racism, which was in fact responsible for almost 70 years of neglect and exclusion of non-white artists from the mainstream art discourse and its history.
The question of The Courtauld supporting non-white artists actually does not arise, because it is not an art institution in the sense of recognising and promoting artists. The Courtauld teaches only what is already recognised by art institutions and then what is written and legitimised by art historians. The question here is really about art knowledge: how it is produced, legitimised and disseminated. And since British art institutions, who promote art, have failed, due to institutional racism, to tell us what British society as a whole has achieved in art in the last seventy or so years, it may now be the task of The Courtauld to do this.
The project of The Other Story (1989-70) was only a first step towards what would have somewhat deimperialised the prevailing knowledge of art. But, although it did give us information about what was missing from the institutionally legitimised knowledge, it did not achieve all its objectives. The next step would have been the production of a revised, inclusive history of art in Britain, so that those who were excluded from it were recognised within it. I’ve been trying to achieve this for more than fifteen years, but I have so far failed as there has been a constant resistance against my attempts. Is it not extraordinary that even after The Other Story, which took place almost thirty years ago, no individual or institution has questioned the fact that art history in Britain is still based exclusively on the work of white artists, and which is still the basis of mainstream art teaching in all British institutions? How can this complacency be explained within what is a very multiracial society? The task of de-imperialising and telling the truth now seems to sit with The Courtauld, and I very much hope that it will take this task seriously.
Rasheed Araeen is a London-based conceptual artist, sculptor, painter, writer, and curator. He graduated in civil engineering from the NED University of Engineering and Technology in 1962, and has been working as a visual artist since his arrival in London from Pakistan in 1964.