Belonging to Europe means understanding its colonial past

Kumu Art Museum’s exhibition
Kumu Art Museum’s exhibition "Rendering Race" (2021). Source: Stanislav Stepaško

The authors of a study on the relationship between colonial heritage and art argue that if we identify with Europe and appreciate its benefits, we should also understand how we relate to the peoples colonized by European countries and critically reflect on the role of colonizers.

"Estonia has a strong victim narrative, meaning that we view ourselves as colonial victims. Therefore, it is extremely difficult for us to view the colonial discourse from a broader perspective," Redi Koobak, senior lecturer at the University of Strathcly, said. "Countries in Eastern Europe that have adopted a Western orientation tend to idealize Europe and ignore its colonial past," he emphasized.

Western nations, which in recent years have begun to examine the role of colonialism in enhancing their own wealth and knowledge, are now contemplating how to compensate for the harm caused by colonization.

Several nations, including the Netherlands, Belgium and France, are beginning to return looted artworks from colonized territories. "These issues have gained prominence in Estonia in part because they are global trends. For instance, we could also think about the Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall movements," Koobak said.

Margaret Tali, a postdoctoral researcher at the Estonian Academy of Arts (EKA), also said that Estonia has a long way to go in making sense of colonialism and colonial history and that this must be accomplished with the utmost sensitivity.

Colonial history in Estonian art

The exhibition "Rendering Race," curated by Bart Pushaw at the Kumu Art Museum two years ago, examined colonial history in the interwar period through the lens of Estonian artists' work.

"Independence gave the opportunity to establish connections with colonial centers such as Paris and Berlin, which nurtured an appreciation for other nationalities and races. The exhibition, according to Tali, explored how colonial history manifested itself in the Estonian context and how visual culture reflected perceptions of cultural distinctions and practices of "exoticisation" at the time.

In their recent research article, "Rendering Race Through a Paranoid Postsocialist Lens: Activist Curating and Public Engagement in the Postcolonial Debate in Eastern Europe," researchers reflected on the controversy surrounding the exhibition.

"Until now, no art exhibition [in Estonia] had ever sparked such a heated public debate among politicians, artists and the broader cultural community. The discussions revealed many misunderstandings," Tali said. "We wanted to investigate further the most prevalent issues."

The exhibition was novel in that it dealt with colonial history in a broader context than the Soviet occupation, which is the customary context in Estonia and Eastern Europe for understanding colonial relations. It attempted to examine colonial history from the perspective of those who were not colonizers but who were influenced by the colonial worldview in some other way.

"The history of art reveals the contacts Estonians had with the Western world, its colonial territories and its inhabitants. Through these contacts, the concept of Estonians as white people came to stand, which Bart Pushaw wrote about in the magazine Vikerkaar prior to the exhibition (link in Estonian), and which was also incorporated into the narrative of this exhibition. Margaret Tali pointed out that the controversy centered exactly on what such narratives imply about Estonians and how to relate to them.

The controversy around renaming

The renaming of the artworks, in which the exhibition's organizers altered titles that could be perceived as racist today, was harshly criticized.

The curators believed that some of the titles were insensitive and sought to exhibit the works in a manner that would not offend various communities. The curators were accused, among other things, of changing the titles of works as part of a culture of cancellation and of self-censorship based on Western models.

"Many of the participants in this debate did not come to see the exhibition," Koobak explained, "but they did take part in the discussion because they felt that the renaming affected their own identity and understanding of the past." Koobak added that curators placed newer, more neutral titles next to old ones.

Different forms of colonialism

In contrast to the recent controversies surrounding the Soviet Monuments and Juhan Smuul's bas-relief, which also involve the reevaluation of the past in light of contemporary values, the exhibition's problematics remained relatively obscure to the general public, according to the researchers.

On the one hand, the "Rendering Race" exhibition introduced new connections to Estonian art history, emphasizing new themes and highlighting a more sensitive approach to minority communities. On the other hand, the exhibition's limited context prevented a deeper comprehension of postcolonial European narratives in Estonian art.

The concept of colonialism was also a topic of further discussion. "In the Baltic countries, colonialism is primarily associated with the Soviet occupation, whereas in the West it is primarily associated with the conquest of distant lands and the slave trade. Moreover, in the Western context, the narrative of Baltic history is also frequently misconstrued," Koobak explained.

Although the exhibition left little space for reflection on the various forms of colonialism and Estonia's role in Western colonialism, "Rendering Race" was influential in sparking public debate and expanding the narrative of Estonia's national history, scholars said.

"It demonstrates that museums have become increasingly important in contemporary society by critically linking local, national and global discourses and shaping public opinion," Tali said.

Redi Koobak and Margaret Tali's research publication on representation of colonial relations in Estonian art appeared as a chapter in "Postcolonial Publics: Art and Citizen Media in Europe."

The exhibition "Rendering Race" was held in the National Art Museum Kumu's temporary project space as part of its permanent exhibition "Landscapes of Identity: Estonian Art, 1700-1945."


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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