Using art to explore Ireland's post-colonial identity

The EVA event in Limerick is curated by a Cameroonian who realises that Ireland’s experience as a part of the British Empire raises some interesting questions, writes Alan O’Riordan

Curator Koyo Kouoh.

IRELAND’S postcolonial identity is a complicated one. Isn’t everyone’s? Perhaps so — yet Ireland’s very status as a colony is a relatively recent assertion among historians and critics. It’s a contested idea that seeks to unpack such factors as the country’s interconnectedness with the colonial centre and its culture, and how our status as Europeans clouds our view of possibly shared colonial experiences in the wider world.

There’s also our part in the imperial enterprise itself, as both coloniser and colonised — an imperial domain that nonetheless was once part of the United Kingdom, sending MPs to London and with a decidedly British metropolis of its own.

Yet, postcolonial studies, if anything, are a broadening discourse, which seeks to compare the traditions and experiences of colonised countries, and critics would argue that Ireland could seek its frame of reference with such countries, rather than only with its European allies: a suggestion rarely uttered outside the halls of academe.

Disco Africa by Eshetu

It usually takes an outsider to point out your blindspots, so, it is an intriguing prospect that EVA 2016 is curated by Koyo Kouoh, a Cameroonian curator and producer, and that it will, using the centenary of 1916 as its impetus, seek “to investigate the post-colonial condition of Ireland as a point of departure.”

For Kouoh, concerned as she is with “colonialism worldwide, with particular focus on Africa, southeast Asian and South American countries,” Ireland has always seemed “a very interesting place”. Of all the territories that have been occupied and dominated by the British colonial enterprise, she says, “Ireland has been the one longest occupied and at the same time doesn’t want to really deal with it directly somehow, which is not really the case in Africa.”

The responses of 57 artists, from some 2,000 who responded to a call for submissions, will be presented at various locations around Limerick from April 16. The range of work takes in video, performance art, textiles, painting, archival works and more. Several spaces across the city will be repurposed and EVA will take art to the community via projects like Nice Screams, wherein a newly chosen national anthem will be played from an ice cream van through the city.

“There are many works in the exhibition that deal with the imprint of history on the landscape,” Kouoh says, “through architecture, through the physicality of the landscape, through monuments for instance. There are many works in the direction of language, particularly in the context of Ireland losing Irish and trying to regain it. There are works dealing with trauma, with memory, there are works dealing with identity politics, which I think is a very postcolonial feature.

“It is always the dominated person or community that needs to assert himself against the other.”

Smudge by Kostas Bassanos at EVA 2016 in Limerick

EVA 2016 is titled ‘Still (the) Barbarians’, a play on Waiting for Barbarians, a sardonic poem by the Greek poet CP Cavafy, where the reader is invited to imagine the scene as barbarians approach some city state:

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?

Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.

In the end, the barbarians don’t come, and the poem’s final question and answer couplet goes:

Now what’s going to happen to us without the barbarians?

These people were a kind of solution.

Cavafy suggests the need for outsiders by which to define ourselves, the need for enemies to impose order. Kuouh’s twist on the title is playfully suggestive: are the barbarians here yet? Who is “still” a barbarian anyway, and what does that mean? That ambiguity is fertile terrain, offered the artists by the curator.

“Artists,” says Kuouh, “have elaborate ways of enlarging the imagination, so I think that a theme is an invitation for the artist to take it and run with it.

“And the fact that my edition of EVA coincided with the centenary, it was very interesting to look at this material.”

EVA 2016 opens next Saturday, April 16. See www.eva.ie 

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