What it means to walk through The ABC of Racist Europe by Daniela Ortiz.
Exhibition spaces are places of learning and open forums of discussion. They are political places and therefore not inherently neutral. Quite the opposite. Every exhibition space – including places that focus on history, technology, science, or art and so on – carries an institutional past, present and future that needs to be addressed in order to stay flexible and agile as a site of discourse. Through their exhibitions, spaces transfer opinions, usually well researched, either in line with ideas that are mainstream, traditional-conservative positions within a certain art historical canon (white, cis-male, North American-European) or that propose change in delivering activist, thought-provoking, alternative ideas to their audience, focusing on non-white, female/non-binary, non-North American-European artists. How deep those different stances are rooted, tends to depend upon where funding is coming from (public, private), who is planning the programs (director, management) and to which extent local/virtual communities are involved; how audiences are encouraged to interact and respond to the space (education, outreach, communications).
All these factors considered, as an educator I always enter an exhibition with a curiosity to learn something new, to be challenged, provoked and offered a perspective outside my comfort zone. In the best case scenario, I take a piece of Information, an emotion, a certain upset, away from the exhibition in order to inform my practice.
As an example, I want to look at Daniela Ortiz’ (b. 1985, Peru) exhibition “They Will Burn with the Flame of the Mother’s Torment and in Ashes Transform” at Sirius Arts Centre (SIRIUS) in Cobh. While I am somewhat biased since I have delivered educational programs there in the last year, these programs run independently from this exhibition. Nevertheless, SIRIUS has become a home to me.
My visit to the exhibition starts when and how I enter the building, and what it tells me. I want to repeat what I have already said: exhibition spaces are political. That includes the building, and that is also where the exhibition and my thoughts and questions about it start: what does the building tell me? Where is it located, and who was it built for? What does it represent right now? The gallery is an architectural space that has been transformed from a very private, members-only place, to a public building, accessible for everyone who steps through its red door. It’s important to acknowledge that it carries a certain form, has had its multiple functions – Royal Yacht Club, tourism office, place for theatre and concerts – and resembles a living experience for the community of Cobh and its visitors. In Henri Lefebvre’s words, who spent his lifetime researching everyday life, the social space and the people’s right to the city,
[…]social space ‘incorporates’ social actions, the actions of subjects both individual and collective who are born and who die, who suffer and who act […] their space is at once vital and mortal: within it they develop, give expression to themselves, and encounter prohibitions; then they perish, and that same space contains their graves. (Lefebvre 1991:33)
As a visitor I become part of this social space, and its history, present and future. And so are the artworks of this exhibition, and Daniela Ortiz, the artist herself.
My focus lies on the work that is located in the center gallery space, The ABC of Racist Europe (2017) that is accessible online here. The series consists of 26 individual panels, each panel representing one letter of the Latin alphabet. Each panel contains its own story, depicting the letter in the right upper corner, followed by a collage of cutout figures and text at the bottom. Some words are highlighted in bold, that carry a symbolic weight, inscribing that language and its interpretation matters. Daniela Ortiz appropriates a childhood memory of many, an educational tool for children – the children’s Alphabet book. With her critical view, she proposes a possible anti-racist and anti-colonial narrative of European history and its power structures informed by systemic racism, patriarchy and white supremacy. She sends a signal with her work that there is a muted, alternative history that is neglected, and obscured through white-centric and euro-centric language and imagery. With this work, Ortiz opens the conversation about anti-racist education, critical media literacy and critical pedagogy.
When looking at the letter N, white supremacy and Eurocentrism are represented in white children sitting around a map of the African continent, colouring their borders. Questions that instantly come to mind, and should be asked in every Geography lesson incorporating maps: Who drew geographical, political borders? Who created nations? Why is it called “New World”? What does an alternative map look like? Another variation of a map from the oppressors’ position is shown for the letter C, paired with the following text:
COLONIALISM created the global CONDITIONS for having detention CAMPS for migrant people from ex-COLONIES in European COUNTRIES.
Immediately, I think of the unacceptable conditions in the Irish Direct Provision system, that is a form of detention camp secluding migrants, asylum seekers and refugees from the rest of the country, putting them in a place of limbo. It is a place that does not value human conditions and disregards humans due to their country of origin. Again, questions can help to decode this system: Who represents the powerful? Who is making the laws and enforcing them? What are ways to overcome oppression and brutality within the system?
Some letters lay open the remnants of historical oppression, others encourage strategies of ongoing resistance, such as in the Letter E showing a Native woman withstanding the white mob that runs towards her; or the Letter Y, illustrating the strength and vision of young women leading the way. Towards a future that bell hooks describes for all of us so vividly,
Imagine living in a world where there is no domination, where females and males are not alike or even always equal, but where a vision of mutuality is the ethos shaping our interaction. Imagine living in a world where we can all be who we are, a world of peace and possibility. Feminist revolution alone will not create such a world; we need to end racism, class elitism, imperialism.
Open questions are one way leading to valuable discussions about colonial powers, white privilege and power of resistance. They open doors to alternate social spaces that are more critical, thought-provoking and accessible, and potentially offer a more multi-faceted, layered, and truthful history. Daniela Ortiz’ The ABC of Racist Europe is an example of creating a space for a history that has been purposefully muted. SIRIUS gives this narrative a public space to grow beyond the imagination and be discussed, questioned and interacted with. Exhibition spaces remain political.
Bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody, Pluto Press, 2000.
Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (La production de l’espace), Cambridge MA. USA, 1991.
About the author
Lucia Taeubler works as independent curator and art educator. Her main fields are in audience engagement and community projects, such as working with marginalised communities. Museum education and digital storytelling has been Taeubler’s focus since 2013 as facilitator and project leader, and as Head of Museum Education and Visitor Experience at Kunsthalle Krems from 2015. From January 2019 to March 2021 as Assistant Curator Engagement and Digital at The Glucksman, Cork, she created educational resources on-site and online for audiences at all ages and all abilities and developed community programmes and research-based projects. Lucia Taeubler is a graduate in Art History at University of Vienna in 2012, and she is currently studying an MSc of Digital Education at University of Edinburgh.
In 2020 Taeubler was a MCN (Museum Computer Network)-Scholar for digital sustainability and museum technology. She received a grant at Victoria & Albert Museum for Creating Innovative Learning Programmes and contributed to ICOM CECA Austria to publish From the inside: cultural mediation in Austria — Definition, tasks and working conditions in the field.