One of the greatest difficulties we face as human beings –especially if we are prone to reflection and self-analysis– is perhaps to live coherently; that is to say, acting in accordance with the values and principles we follow, so that there is a cohesion between them and our actions. Art, as a space for the production of critical thinking, encounters the difficulty of coherence; or, in other words, the problem of the lack of coherence that appears when theoretically advocating some postulates that very often do not operationally find a consistent transcription. The list of contradictions between thinking and acting, between talking and doing is remarkably long in the sphere of art, and although we endeavour to make it shorter by analyzing such inconsistencies to solve them, the time we require to reduce them is always much less compared to the quick pace at which we add new contradictory aspects between theory and practice to this list.
One of the critical lines of discourse that has been more present in contemporary arts and thinking over the last few decades has been that of postcolonialism or "postcolonial condition", as it has been alternatively named by some theoreticians to pertinently make it clear that this "post" does not at all indicate having overcome or being "beyond something". It is along this line of discourse, in this critical review of the persistence today of those logics of dominion and exploitation that are characteristic of the colonial project, where we are to find, in the field of art, one of the most resonant and capital inconsistencies between practice and thinking. The contradiction lies in the fact that this line of "decolonising" discourse materialises almost always –in essays, articles, conferences and debates– in English.
An utterance, a language is not only a system of communication, it is also a system of thought, the linguistic coding of a way of seeing and thinking the world. By fostering English in the sphere of global art as the only really legitimate language we are strengthening a contemporary imperial politics based on language, something that is especially striking, even cynical, when the debate focuses on the critical review of coloniality.
In her text, Hablar en Lenguas. Una carta a escritoras tercermundistas,1 the American author and activist of Chicano origins expressed it forcefully by recovering the verses of the poet Cherríe Moraga:
Me falta imaginación dices
No. Me falta el lenguaje.
(You tell me that I lack imagination
No. I lack the language.)
Anzaldúa's letter reports that discrimination and the building-up of subalternity is also practised by means of linguistic uses. "Our language is also inaudible. (...) Because the eyes of the Whites do not want to know us they do not make any effort to learn our language, the language that reflects us, our culture, our spirit." Anzaldúa also expresses how the fact of denying someone the possibility of studying in their own language may be a form of violence. "I have not yet unlearned the esoteric bullshit and pseudo-intellectualizing that school brainwashed into my writing. How to begin again. How to approximate the intimacy and the immediacy I want. (...) The schools we attended or did not attend did neither teach us the skills to write, nor give us the confidence in ourselves as being right to use the languages of our class and ethnicity. (...) And we did not learn Spanish in primary school either. And it was not requested of us in secondary school. And although now I write my poems both in Spanish and English, I feel that my native language was stolen from me."
I am not writing an allegation for each one to speak their own language and that's all, locking us up inside the architecture of just one language, but quite the opposite. I advocate for the epicentres of art to be more sensitive and open to the languages of the world, particularly those that are not hegemonic, so that they do not take it for granted that the artist, the theoretician or any other agent they invite to speak or write must do it in English. They should make available to these agents the means to translate and interpret so that they may do it in the language of their choice.
And not only in English-speaking contexts; in those that are not, we should give priority to these other languages. Catalan, Spanish, French, Italian..., all of them are Romance languages, deriving from Latin. They have many more elements in common than any of them with English. Why when we invite an Italian theorist or a French artist in the Catalan or Spanish context we all quickly adopt English as a way of communicating? Yet, on the other hand, why when we invite an Anglo-Saxon agent we do not expect them to speak or try to speak in the local language? All these attitudes only strengthen an idiomatic centralism that impoverishes the richness of the cultural diversity that we so much advocate for in our speeches.
In 1992, the artist Mladen Stilinovic criticised the hegemonic position of English in the global art system by means of a placard of pink cloth where, in capital letters, he stated that an artist that cannot speak English is not an artist. Such a sentence, despite the fact that Stilinovic was Croatian, was written in English, which makes his statement highly ambiguous: although it is a critical statement, it is also a proof of the artist's compliance with this dominant and discriminating linguistic paradigm. But, beyond the irony, play and complaint that Stilinovic's work may conceal, the truth is that the reason why this placard has become a reference work in contemporary art is, among other reasons, because the message is written in English. Were the sentence to be written in Croatian, most probably we would not be speaking about it.
The emergence of the Internet and digital technology has extremely strengthened this linguistic imperialism. The Net charms us with the promise of achieving an international reach, but this internationalisation almost always requires for us to use English at the expense of other languages. In a debate at the Bienal del Pensament de Barcelona (Barcelona Biennial of Thought), the journalist Claudia Rius spoke about the linguistic loss resulting from the consolidation of large digital structures.2 Rius mentioned the fact that in 2020 Google was only available in 164 languages from the approximately 6,000 that are spoken all over the world, and quoted Mark Graham, researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, who claims that this inequality "has the potential to strengthen production and representation of information patterns that were characteristic of the colonial era."
The writer Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, one of the most renowned African authors, made the drastic decision not to use English in his books anymore and only write in Gikuyu, the language of his ethnic Kikuyu group. "An African government put me in jail for writing in an African language. Once in prison, I asked myself why this happened. And then I started to think about the issue of languages in history, the colonial basis of power inequality between languages. I became aware of a very interesting phenomenon: wherever there has been colonial power, the first thing it destroys or controls is people's language. Language is crucial for colonialism and imperialism. And I wanted to write a novel in jail in the Gikuyu language as an example of my resistance."3
In these well-meaning speeches that urge us to decolonise history, we, museums and academics must also begin our own resistance; a linguistic, multilingual resistance that lays open to discussion the discursive centrality of English and enrich it with other languages, with other turns of phrase, with other intonations that not only convey the world in other ways but also think it differently, showing that reality is not just a single and univocal one, that not everything can be translated and that the culture based on which we think and speak is also a heritage, a place of subjectivity and differentiation that cannot be expropriated. In this way, perhaps, we will achieve for an artist that does not speak English to be an artist, and that a theory of postcolonialism that does not use English may be a theory of postcolonialism.
(English translation: Beatrice Krayenbühl)
1 Originally written for (ed.) West, C. (1985), Words in Our Pockets, San Francisco: Bootlegger Press.
2 Rius, Claudia (2020). El català i el colonialisme lingüístic digital. In Núvol digital. Consulted in June 2020. https://www.nuvol.com/llengua/el-catala-i-el-colonialisme-linguistic-digital-128001
3 Wa Thiong'o, N. (2019), Ngugi Wa Thiong'o: "Yo quiero competir con Cervantes" / Interviewed by Pedro Alonso, La Vanguardia. Consulted in June 2020. https://www.lavanguardia.com/vida/20190416/461692399499/ngugi-wa-thiongo-yo-quiero-competir-con-cervantes.html