Brown University professor of comparative literature, modern culture, and media Ariella Azoulay delivered the 2017 Stephen and Sandra Glass Humanities annual lecture in Benson Auditorium at Pitzer College on Feb. 21.
The Glass Humanities program, established in 2005 through the generosity of Nancy and David Bushnell, brings a leading figure in the humanities to the campus each year.
Professor of studio art Sarah Gilbert said that Azoulay brings a unique attitude to art as a field of study.
“In many institutions, art is considered separate from humanities, while here at Pitzer College it is not,” Gilbert said. “Ariella Azoulay is someone who, likewise, doesn’t just consider art as a neutral thing, but sees it as part of something else. Her creativity in seeing the connections surrounding art—for example, the connection between African art and the history of colonialism and imperialism, is what drove me to invite her here today.”
Azoulay, who investigates the communication of historical knowledge through visual media, spoke about the importance of acknowledging the wider historical context of artwork displayed in museums.
In her lecture, she challenged contemporary conceptions of art, especially when it comes to items looted from Africa that were later displayed in Western museums.
“We often think of forced migration of people separately from forced migration of objects,” she said. “These are not only interlinked, but the expropriation of objects from different people is the basis of the transformation of displaceable people into disposable people.”
Azoulay also asserted that the talk’s purpose was to discuss the link between art and rights.
It is generally believed that when a museum displays an artifact, the museum has the authority to express judgement of the art. However, Azoulay argued that it is actually the other way around.
“Those looted objects—from India, from South America, from Africa—endowed the constitution of the Museums of Modern Art, which we associate with neutrality, with the presentation of those objects as works of art; those looted objects endowed the museum with this authority,” she said.
Azoulay also talked about our roles as cultural consumers and the impossibility of displaying expropriated objects with ‘neutrality.’
“Exhibiting and displaying artifacts which are used as neutral categories is not a neutral position. It socializes the spectators into imperial violence,” she said. “They do not recognize the art of looting, but they appreciate the value of the displayed object.”
In an interview with TSL, Azoulay said she hoped people, especially students, will think critically when they attend museums.
“I hope they engage with other people, contemporaries and past, that are tempted to resist the imperial colonization form,” she said.
Carly Michelle PZ ’18 was especially interested in this.
“I thought this was a great lecture, and I loved Azoulay’s new perspective to art, specially when it comes to highlighting issues of colonialism and imperialism, which most artists don’t talk about,” she said.