- Worldly Affiliations: Artistic Practice, National Identity, and Modernism in India, 1930–1990 by Sonal Khullar, and: Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria by Chika Okeke-Agulu
In this essay, I explore the state of the study of visual modernism in geographical areas outside of its ordained point of origin in Europe, using as a point of entry two volumes published in 2015, Chika Okeke-Agulu’s Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria and Sonal Khullar’s Worldly Affiliations: Artistic Practice, National Identity, and Modernism in India, 1930–1990. Okeke-Agulu and Khullar both contribute to a growing body of local and national histories that recast modern art’s relationship to the nation and nationalist discourse as a productive site of meaning-making in colonial and postcolonial contexts. Nonetheless, because of the intimate relationship between modernism and the narratives that define it on one hand, and colonialism on the other, a number of assumptions continue to plague the perception of non-Western modernism, “all of which are connected to its relationship with […] Western art traditions, its apparent inauthenticity and derivativeness, its supposed lack of comparative sophistication, [and] its troubling intimacy with cultural nationalism” (Okeke-Agulu 6). In the pages that follow, I explore how Okeke-Agulu and Khullar deal with these assumptions, situating their accounts of Nigerian and Indian modernism within the context of art history’s “global turn.” I argue that these authors offer avenues for the expansion of art history’s geographical reach without reducing disparate practices and the discourses that define them to a single modernist temporality.
Two common threads run through their books: on one hand, both authors emphasize the local and national discursive parameters of the contexts under investigation as constitutive of modern art; on the other hand, both establish continuity between the modern and the contemporary, in Nigeria and India respectively, [End Page 338] against a prevalent narrative of colonial rupture. In Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria, Okeke-Agulu focuses on Nigerian art in the decade of political independence, between 1957 and 1967, and in the decades leading up to it. In particular, the author pays close attention to the terms in which visual modernism was imagined by the artists themselves, and by contemporary Nigerian critics and writers, and uses these as a framework for understanding their practice. Against commonly held assumptions of abject dependency on nationalist ideology or on European models, the author reframes the relationship between art and nationalist ideology as discursively productive. Cultural nationalism was indeed central to the ways in which artists conceived of their work, and “the conjunction of art and nationalist ideology is an important characteristic of postcolonial modernism as an international mid-twentieth-century phenomenon” (2). Furthermore, Okeke-Agulu reframes the relationship of Nigerian modernism to European art in terms of the idea of “natural synthesis,” deployed in Nigeria at the time, which he defines as “the selective use of artistic resources and forms from Nigerian/African and European traditions” (1).
In Worldly Affiliations, Khullar adopts a comparable approach, attending to the terms of the debates that surrounded art in India between 1930 and 1990. She takes the binary between East and West to be a central fact of Indian modernism, and argues that in India, as in Europe, this binary must be taken seriously, as “East and West were marshaled as formal and social attributes in art history’s most crucial debates on naturalism and abstraction, line and color, art and crafts, masculinity and femininity, nature and culture” (12). In the context of colonialism and decolonization, national identity was always framed in terms of India’s changing relationship to Europe. These cross-cultural negotiations, whose principal terms were a dichotomy between East and West, provided “the structural conditions for modernism in India” (11–12).
Worldly Affiliations is anchored in a critique of narratives that pose the relationship between the colonial and...