Decolonisation in art: 'That darkness says: up to here and no further'
It was not light, but its absence that caught Stephanie Noach's attention a few years ago. With her research on darkness in art, she aims to show how darkness can question and sometimes even undermine colonial imagery.
Noach conducted her research on six Latin American materially dark artworks. 'Many of these countries were colonised by people who arrived with the idea of mapping everything there,' Noach explains. 'They wanted to put everything they found into diagrams, make it their own, take it back with them even.'
Bringing darkness into the light
Underlying this colonial appropriation was a world of thought that made extensive use of concepts such as 'light, dark, black and white'. Noach: 'The colonised peoples were characterised as uncivilised, but also as obscure in their customs. Their darker skin also contributed to Europe being able to exalt itself as (far) light and even enlightened, thus justifying the conquest of overseas territories and the subjugation of peoples. Europe was doing the right thing in bringing its light, and thus reason and progress, to the rest of the world.'
'That way of thinking is racial,' says Noah, 'but it also suggests that darkness can offer some form of freedom. If you protect darkness, you prevent ideas or conceptions from being known and therefore also from being appropriated. You can see this in art. The darkness in the artworks actually says: up to here and no further.'
This refusal to make the viewer entirely part of the artwork is noticeable, for example, in the work of Cuban artist Belkis Ayón who Noach researched. 'She works with the creation myth of an Afro-Cuban secret brotherhood. As a woman, she was not allowed to be initiated into it. By working with that community anyway and creating select images, she offers insight on the one hand, while at the same time making it clear that not everything may be known.'
Focus on darkness
Noach hopes her focus on darkness will be emulated by other art historians. 'As academics, we have always been very interested in what we can discern. We can understand that, interpret it, but there is also a proportion of artworks where that isn’t possible. What would happen if we focused our attention on that?'