In popular imagination, art is a thing of beauty. We are familiar with the idea of an artist, a creative genius in a studio, expressing one’s mood through a chosen medium. This particular view of art as an expression of an individual, sometimes makes them dismissible in the grand scheme of things, where art is misperceived as a luxury, not an innate human need. However, we see much more than the fleeting moods of creative individuals in a collection of world art. Art bears witness to life and death. Art records the interaction of the individual with both the interior and the exterior world, in a way that history books don’t. Reports record numbers, names, events. Only art, in its many forms and mediums, records emotion.
A Change of Perspective
3rd May 1808
Francisco de Goya, 1814, Oil on Canvas
Museo del Prado, Madrid
Departure from the norm. For the first time, the victims, not the victors are at centre stage. A huge change of perspective in art history. Victors have become faceless perpetrators.
For instance, when Francisco de Goya painted his now celebrated painting 3rd of May 1808 in the early 19th century, the world was steeped in the traditions of courtly and religious paintings, (of which Goya himself was considered a master). 3rd of May commemorates the events surrounding Madrid Uprising against the occupying French from a totally different – or more accurately, ‘modern’ perspective: the painting has no celebrated heroes, only nameless victims; it records no brave deeds, simply a gruesome massacre of captives from the protest; it is not a painting of valour, merely what Goya actually saw – blood, fear, suppression and darkness. We do not know how the painting was received at the time or if it was ever displayed in public at all. It could have been rejected by his contemporary society as it flouted too many of its aesthetic rules. Hundred years later, the painting went on to inspire modern artists, such as Picasso’s in Massacre in Korea (1951) and the famous Guernica(1937). Was Goya preparing us for the anonymous mass murders of the 20th century? We still have questions to ask Goya, today. When artists simply bear witness to the world around, the most transcendental of art is born.
Massacre in Korea
Pablo Picasso, 1951, Oil on Plywood
Musée Picasso, Paris
Echoes of Goya’s iconic painting in addressing tragedies contemporary to the artists. Guernica is foreshadowed.
Memory as Method
‘We lost history once, and we are killing each other off trying to find it …
When memory dies, a people die’
(A. Sivanandan. When Memory Dies. 2007)
Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz
François Gerard, 1810, Oil on Canvas
Gallerie des Bastilles, Versaille
Most visual traditions around the world have been dominated by narrating the story of heroes and victors. In European classical paintings, well-known heroes dominated historical paintings.
Gerard’s historical painting is a typical representation of the manner in which one looks back at history. It is usually grand, with heroes on horseback who are the victors shining in the limelight. Increasingly, this view of the past is contested all around the world. What about those who do not make into history books? Or remembered in historical painting in a museum like Napolean in the above painting? What about those who loose, those who are repressed, erased, forgotten purposefully? What about women and children? Besides, should reflecting on the past be a mere act of nostalgia, national pride or an ego-kick?
Today, the academic discipline of Memory Studies, and the more practical applications of Memory Work have emerged as a way of contesting the one dimensional representations of past. Memory, in theory and practice, is actually more than just a personal memory in this context. It can be considered a ‘tool’, a ‘method’ or ‘an approach’ of remembering the past, for individuals and communities. It is an approach that puts people and the way they remember at its centre, encouraging multiple stories and perspectives, rather than only the story of the powerful and the victorious. It also involves much more than facts and figures and the bare outcome of an event. Ethics and emotions play central role in memory work. The process of remembering is also an important aspect of memory work. Forgetting is at the other end of the spectrum, and remembering and forgetting can be co-related, often leading to selective memorialization, where other ‘less important’ memories could be marginalized, suppressed or totally erased. Especially when it comes to traumatic experiences, both at individual or social levels, and when studying how these experiences are transmitted across generations, memory work can be overwhelmingly complex.
All of this together makes Memory Studies/Work a fascinating area for engagement. Far from nostalgia, it is critical form of engagement helping societies to reflect on their pasts in order to charter their way forward, and avoiding the mistakes they have committed before. Thus, one finds that Memory Work usually addresses topics that are not discussed in public or are not considered pleasant topics, such as slavery, the Holocaust, rape, war rape, the bombing of Hiroshima, AIDS, homelessness, immigration, the destruction of Palestinian villages, and the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, among others.
If you are intrigued to find out more about Memory Studies/Work, we highly recommend some of the following articles/books/resources:
- Grunebaum, H, Replacing pasts, forgetting presents: narrative, place and memory in the time of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Indiana University Press, 2001
- Ricouer, P, Memory, history, forgetting, University of Chicago Press, 2004
- Stoler, A(ed) Imperial Debris, Duke University Press, 2013
- Schindel, E and Colombo, P(ed) Space and the memories of violence: Landscapes of erasure, disappearance and exception, Palgrave Macmillan memory studies, 2014
Art as Method
Art should comfort the disturbed
And disturb the comfortable
Cesare A. Cruz
Similar to history, memory or any interpretation of the past, art too is a representation of reality. To ‘represent’ is to speak or act on behalf of someone, or to portray someone or something in a particular way.
Art has a powerful way of drawing people in and making them reflect in very particular ways. It makes us notice, register and acknowledge things that we otherwise would not. Even something as natural as a water lily can lead us to deep contemplation, simply because of the very special way in which Monet portrays, in other words, ‘represent’ the water lilies.
If representation is one of the magical powers of art, (though not without its dilemmas and contradictions!), it is only one of the countless number of ways in which art wields power. In its broad sense, art is a powerful tool of education, contemplation, dialogue and activism. The ‘functions’ of art are many; some personal, some social, some aesthetic, and some clinical. Individuals and their society are dynamically related. Thus, art can have powerful transformative and restorative effects within a society as well as individuals.
Towards curating a museum of art and memory
The curatorial vision of World Art and Memory Museum (WAMM) is based on transcending borders: of art and education; of innermost personal turmoil and tumultuous public tragedies; of history and memory; of ugliness and beauty and ultimately of time and geography. Our goal is to bring together art from different corners of the world responding to matters of personal and collective memory. WAMM is a singular platform offering a wide assemblage of art dealing with contemporary and historical issues, such as war, discrimination and human suffering from Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America. Collectively, the curators have explored the ways in which art activates memory, archives memory, heals traumatic memory, challenge partial memory and, even becomes memory.
The artists here often work in life-threatening situations, confronting dire situations of war and human rights violations. They find themselves struggling alone, putting their lives at risk in vocalizing their realities through their work, as their work is often seen as instigating conflicts, revealing ‘ugly truths’ that are ‘better forgotten’. They receive little support from governments, corporate industries, or even people themselves, as they bring painful issues of the past to the table. However, in doing so, they become valuable and ‘beautiful’ records of human circumstances for those who wish to reflect and learn from them. We believe that this collection of world art offers a wealth of ‘modern’ insights and nuances overlooked by history books and news headlines. In South Africa a Xhosa saying goes, “kufuneka usike inxeba ukuze liphiliswe’: We have to cut the wound to have it heal!
Promoting arts education and arts integrated education
Promoting a form of education based on artistic appreciation, reflection and dialogue is a cornerstone of our curatorial vision. Modern education is falling short of addressing the most important aspects of global challenges, simply because it reveres information above values, generalities above nuances, productivity over creativity and competition over collaboration. Art, if considered a form of education, has the power to transcend these dichotomies and push human thinking ‘ahead of our times’. It can counter power, survive their creators and become guiding lights to those who are able to connect with it.
Promoting inter-cultural understanding and cross-border collaboration
From day one, WAMM was owned and driven by a group of individuals from different parts of the world dedicated to establishing a platform for exchange of ideas, learning from each other and working together to celebrate diversity, creativity and humanity.
How to use the resources in this website
We have tried to showcase artists and their works from different countries under their own countries. To help audiences to look across the border we are also presenting them under eight thematic categories:
- Personal Identity
- War + Violence + Militarization
- Colonialism + Slavery
- Immigration + Displacement + Homelessness
- Dictatorship + Political Oppression
- History + Culture + Religion
We also have filtering possibilities according to mediums.
Country pages and introductions to artists are there to facilitate your exploration of different cultural contexts. To facilitate a dialogue between the audience and the artwork we have tried to present curatorial notes regarding aesthetic, socio-political or historical aspects of art.
In future we hope to introduce a teachers’ corner, a series of virtual exhibitions, webinars and multimedia content to keep our audiences engaged.
Working towards a common vision with cultural differences
All societies have their own unique ways of transmitting knowledge and experience to the next generation and the collection that is presented here illustrates this point well. Within our general vision of art bearing witness to history, we have allowed each and every individual country to work with a curatorial vision that works for their specific context. Therefore, country pages give you an introduction to the country, the art scene and socio-political history. Each country works with a slightly different set of topics, which is carefully reflected upon by our team of curators, who live and work in the countries they represent. In fact, they are also activists, educators and artists themselves. They have been working, communicating closely with the artists featured here and came together at the workshop ‘Curating Cultures of Remembrance’ in 2019 to jointly curate this collaborative initiative.
A museum without a physical space or a physical collection
We are not a museum in the known-sense of the word. We only have virtual space which brings us together. Our curators work from their offices, homes and studios across the world.
We do not own the art featured here. All artists are represented by their galleries from across the world. We are merely bringing them together at WAMM, so that we have an archive of art that records, bears witness to our unique but similar circumstances. Most importantly an opportunity to jointly reflect and imagine our shared futures.
We hope that eventually, more artists, educators, activists and countries will join WAMM.