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What are global modernisms?

You might be wondering why this topic is called Global modernisms, as if there is more than just one type of modernism in the history of art. When we talk about art history, it's easy to look at that art through the lens of where we live and come from–and in this case, a great deal of that history has been written from the perspective of art historians and specialists living in Europe and North America.
What's important to remember is that there are, in fact, manydifferent modernisms that have sprung up in all different places around the world–and not just in what we call "the West." Regions like Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East have seen their own artistic responses to modernity, and while some of them might share themes and visual qualities with Western art, others have taken radical new paths.
There are many different voices in art history, and museums like Tate are striving to make them heard as exhibitions develop and collections grow. And while you won't find the whole history here, you can begin by getting to know these modern and contemporary artists, taking a look at their work, and hearing their stories.

Global modernisms: Africa

Meschac Gaba, Museum of Contemporary African Art in London, 2013, Fabric, cotton thread and metal coins, 220 x 154 cm (Tate)
While artists like Lucian Freud were flourishing in '50s London, Ibrahim El-Salahi was pioneering a distinctly African modernism. Having studied in London, El-Salahi returned to his native Sudan and forged a visual vocabulary by fusing his own experience of Islamic, African, Arab and Western artistic traditions. In 1975, El-Salahi was wrongfully imprisoned by the Sudanese government for six harrowing months, and this period as a political prisoner deeply informed the artist's relationship to spirituality and trauma. Using the ochre–or deep yellow–colour of the Sudanese earth in his paintings, El-Salahi has maintained strong links to his homeland while experimenting with modern forms. While staying rooted, he stands as a global example by using his art to address, as he says, "your self, the people of your own culture, family, and neighbourhood, and [finally] all human beings, wherever they might be." Only recently has this major figure in African modernism been brought into a more global art history through the efforts of major exhibitions.
In terms of contemporary art, many African artists have followed El-Salahi's lead by making works that speak to their own experience as well as a global audience. Meschac Gaba, for example, draws his greatest inspiration from his hometown of Cotonou, Benin, in West Africa, but uses this African city as a workspace for posing questions about global contemporary art. His _Museum of Contemporary African Art in London_ (2013) creates what he calls "a new reality" by staging an exhibition that speaks to his experience of Africa set within the space of a European gallery. By doing so, he invites the Western art establishment to engage with African art, but also to question why dedicated spaces like this don't exist already.
William Kentridge, still from Felix in Exile, 1994, Film, 35 mm, shown as video, projection, black and white, and sound (stereo), duration 8 min 43 sec (Tate)
Some artists, like South African William Kentridge, investigate the big questions around colonialism through their art. In his animated film Felix in Exile, Kentridge explores the relationship between a black woman and a white man through a dream-like lens. Using charcoal drawings, Kentridge tells the story of Felix and Nandi but also that of South Africa's violent and divided history. Along with the other black figures in the story, Nandi is tragically shot. Her body and those of the others melt into the landscape, becoming hilly fields, ponds, and other geographic landmarks. What do you think Kentridge is trying to say through these images? Is he trying to memorialise the dead, or is he telling us that this terrible history has become part of South African life and landscape?
Marlene Dumas, Magdalena 1, 1996, ink on paper, 125 x 700 cm (Tate)
Meanwhile, American artist Doug Fishbone's _Elmina_ (2010) invites us to think about race and storytelling by inserting himself into a Ghanaian film as the main character. As you'll see in the Contested Terrains videos, artists like Adolphus Obara, Michael MacGarry, Kader Attia, and Sammy Baloji create a dialogue with Western art history and theory through projections, collages, and photographs. Obara and MacGarry look at the fetishisation of objects and work to subvert those messages, putting them back into a global context. Baloji creates collages of images from Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo, creating parallels between the industrial heritage of that city and similar cities beyond Africa.
South African artist Marlene Dumas, on the other hand, explores issues of gender and sexuality in her paintings, as evident in her Magdalena series. Dumas uses nakedness to explore themes of love and fear, intimacy and distance. Her female figures take on subtle male qualities, and vice versa, blurring boundaries and creating a real sense of vulnerability in her paintings. The name Magdalena refers to the biblical figure of Mary Magdalene, a popular reference that viewers from different cultures could potentially understand.
Nicholas Hlobo also tackles themes of sexuality and race, but in this case through the materials and language he uses. By utilising techniques traditionally used by women in South Africa such as stitching and weaving, like in the artwork below, he challenges gender-based assumptions. The artist layers references to the Xhosa culture of South Africa through his titles while using similarly charged materials. The old and punctured inner tubes of car tyres that he gathers from repair shops in Johannesburg refer to the urban experience of life there. In this case, Hlobo uses the abstract qualities of modernism to get us thinking about real issues around art in culture, in Africa and beyond.
Nicholas Hlobo, Macaleni Iintozomlambo, 2010, ribbon and tea on paper, 77 x 105 cm (Tate)

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user Ksenia Kosheleva
    I have a definition question. The article talks about modernism, while all the artworks that are listed are dated 2010, 1994, etc. Isn't is already postmodernism then? Or global modernism has a different time frame? I really want to understand, thank you for any clarification!
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Daniel Rigal
      I think it is a mistake to try to fit things exactly into timeframes. Picasso did not wake up one morning and think "Ah. It is 1907. It's Cubism now." Different things overlap and carry on in parallel. Not everybody knows what everybody else is doing at the same time and some artists don't really care what their contemporaries are up to anyway.

      Also I think there are narrow and broad definitions of modernism. There is the original rather narrow idea of modernism that is a set of movements and styles looking to the future enthusiastically, optimistically and naively which started in the late 19th or early 20th century and which took a series of very hard knocks as the future failed to live up to its fast, shiny, optimistic, almost sci-fi billing. Those knocks were historical (the World wars etc) and artistic (Dada etc). I think that Tate is using modernism in a broader sense that encompasses all that is modern and contemporary, not just classic modernism.

      Postmodernism is not just the stuff that happened after classic modernism, it is a specific approach to art that leads to a style, or set of styles, that falls within the wider use of the term modernism. So how can the postmodern also be modern? Isn't that contradictory? I guess it is just another example of how art movements and styles are often given misleading or confusing names, often by critics who don't approve of them, but the names stick and we have to see through those labels to the ideas behind them.
      (1 vote)