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Often subsumed within narratives of political “transfer of power” from colonial empires to postcolonial nation-states, decolonization was a longue durée sociocultural process that traversed the long 20th century. Its trails were global and intertwined with parallel metapolitical processes like the Cold War, and it cast long shadows that revealed the afterlives of political decolonization beyond the events that marked the arrivals of independence. South Asia is a particularly fertile ground for studying such expanded temporalities, sociocultural structures, and shadows of decolonization. While the late 1940s saw the retreat of the British Empire from India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka after 1972), as well as the climactic partition of India and creation of Pakistan, decolonization itself remained an unfolding process. It manifested in continuing struggles around cultural sovereignty and the liberation war of 1971 that birthed Bangladesh from the former East Pakistan, and continued in unresolved ethnic conflicts and regional struggles for autonomy and social democracy. The cultural field offers a unique lens for reading the more quotidian and less spectacular sites where such longue durée trails of decolonization were experienced, negotiated, and imagined via artistic forms. Aesthetics of decolonization can be read as the sensorial, imaginational, and ethical negotiations of postcolonial freedom, as well as the micropolitical and contradictory dynamics that lay therein. It can loosen the metaframe of the nation-state and the nation-form to reveal both locational and subnational differences, as well as the multiple ways in which the global itself was filtered, invoked, or negotiated from below. Aesthetics of decolonization, in other words, is the imagination of a new historiographical modality for thinking through how freedom was visualized in the postcolonies, how such visions produced new cultural modernities unique to such transitional polities, and how such modernities can be read in their transnational trails in the long 20th century.

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From the first establishment of a museum in 1905 to the early-21st-century drive to build local museums, Chinese elites and officials have recognized the role of exhibitions in shaping the modern nation. Across this long 20th century, China’s exhibitionary culture has reflected three themes: the deployment of antiquity and tradition to inculcate national consciousness, the creation of revolutionary narratives to model political participation, and the presentation of modernity to inspire a vision of national “wealth and power.” During the Republican period (1912–1949), the Nationalists protected the imperial collection and established revolutionary memorial halls, and elites built local museums while businessmen championed native goods in national product fairs. The Communist Party, which came to power in 1949, created a Museum of the Chinese Revolution while also developing a cultural bureaucracy to preserve cultural relics. During the Mao years (1949–1976), exhibitions were part of everyday life, from rural exhibits about agricultural production to propaganda displays that justified class struggle. Since China’s period of “reform and opening-up” in 1978, exhibitions have played a central role in cultural diplomacy while also serving national aims of domestic tourism and “patriotic education.” The enterprise of the Chinese museum has always had a dual aim: to make the modern nation and to serve the pedagogical state.