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Carlos Garrido Castellano: Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press 2021, X + 337 S., 24 s/w-Abb., ISBN 978-1-4384-8572-0, USD 33,95
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Rezension von:
Evelyn Kwok
Academy of Visual Arts, Hong Kong Baptist University
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Anna K. Grasskamp
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Evelyn Kwok: Rezension von: Carlos Garrido Castellano: Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press 2021, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 5 [15.05.2023], URL:

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Carlos Garrido Castellano: Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future

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In Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future, Carlos Garrido Castellano asks questions and opens apertures into possible new futures. In these futures, socially engaged art serves as a collaborative tool for progressive action, activists and artists learn from each other, and groups from the Global South are acknowledged as directly engaged with each other and their home societies as a network of locally grounded yet globally connected processes of resistance against colonial violence and hegemonic consumerism of art and culture.

Garrido Castellano leads the reader into this new world by first setting the goal to identify socially engaged artists as active practitioners of decolonisation. With that, he asserts, by putting socially engaged art and decolonial discourse into dialogue, there is potential for generating praxis-based tools for social transformation or, in other words, impact that reaches beyond the already captive audience.

In nine chapters divided into four parts, plus a compelling Open Coda, the book asks the reader to unlearn what might have been known to be true about socially engaged art; its colonial, capitalist conceptualisation, its performative actions, intentions and impacts, and to relearn its non-Western origins and the active potential of its contemporary configurations especially when aligned with activists' initiatives from the Global South. The book enlists a range of postcolonial theorists and artists to explore collaborative practices linked to different anticolonial movements in South and Central Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It argues that people's appreciation of what socially engaged art can do would be quite different if that art was examined through the different ways it has been used as a testing ground for alternative social and cultural relations and highlights how much there is to be gained from addressing radical artistic practices from a decolonial position.

With this unlearning and relearning in tandem, Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future shares the conceptualisation of coloniality "as an underside of modernity, which is an ongoing, unfinished project, much like racial marginalisation" (10) and class division in capitalist expansion. It reveals that socially engaged art can be much more than an artistic expression with a socially engaging outcome or intention. It can be an appropriate form of activism that "revitalizes past emancipatory actions in new and unexpected ways", "tackles ongoing, not-so-visible forms of epistemic and systemic violence", and it can "revise the role of individual authorship in the configuration of art histories, which consequently expands art's social relevance to new limits" (196,16).

Part One of the book invites the reader to unlearn through "undisciplining" socially engaged art and begin the reimagining process. It does so through a presentation of the shortcomings of universalist approaches to social transformation, particularly through focusing on how art biennials across the globe have been challenging the Eurocentricity of contemporary art. Global art biennials have shaped a "postcolonial artistic constellation" and are continuing to undermine the dominance of the European art museum, however, they are still an expression of global capital with restricted agency and privileged obligations. The questions that this part poses and the possibilities it brings to the reader begin to shape a new world where agency-informed genealogies of postcolonial visual creativity could survive and thrive.

To unlearn is not to erase, rather it is a considered process of understanding, recognising and re-understanding. With the sketch of the possibility to unlearn, relearn, and create anew, Part Two takes a stand for the relevance of the practices and praxes of Amilcar Cabral (1924-1973) and C.L.R. James (1901-1989) in the present. It familiarizes the reader with the two intellectuals' voices and their development of cultural theory and radical criticism that articulated the indispensable allyship of anticolonialism in the decolonisation of socially engaged art's histories and futures.

Part Three picks up on the historical foundation and speculative future created and sends the reader to different case studies in the Global South in places like Indonesia, Uganda and Lebanon that are confronted by the incompletions and aftermaths of civil conflict and states of political instability. In each of these chapters, the author provides detailed discussions of the history and politics of each place and the forms of anticolonial activism that have emerged there. For example, in chapter 7, a tool guide for how to create art projects in the public spaces in Beirut can be seen as an apolitical, bureaucratic object. When in fact, its creation is prompted by the very fact that public space has been used as a commodity to rebuild the city with consumerist projects since post-war Lebanon, and the diplomatic approach and open access to engage with this guidebook provides fertile ground for people to discover and contend with the contradictions in the public sphere of Beirut through artistic avenues. The cases in chapter 5, 6 and 7 demonstrate localised, pressing concerns that artists approach and respond to, revealing socially engaged art's untested, unforeseen actions that have been developed by many communities around the globe in non-Western spaces and contexts. With the possibility of socially engaged art as a universal tool that can be applied in different situations that are pressing and present, Part Four moves from the importance of the decolonial legacy to the humanistic drives in art activism. Using Sara Ahmed's framework of affects and emotions in art activism [1], the last part of the book brings the reader to an understanding of how feelings of anger, hate, fear, or love are present in activist movements through art projects that have been mis/understood by the public and weaponised by far-right groups to resist progressive discourse. Furthermore, these studies raise issues of place of speech, racial citizenship, and collective ownership, which reveal the undeniable causality between colonial relations, power, and violence.

The book finishes with a galvanizing Open Coda, using a critical theorization of Black Lives Matter to highlight the importance of practical and strategic uses and circulation of information in the making of subversive public spheres. It brings immediate relevance to the reader, addressing the urgent and ongoing need for the articulation of responses against state violence and racial dehumanization. Socially engaged art is by definition a creative practice that blurs the line between social activism and art. It has the potential to challenge, transform, transgress, and generate new speculations that are radical and emancipative, and this book consistently reminds the reader of this. It makes clear that socially engaged art must not be seen as a recent phenomenon, or a western, colonial product. Rather, it is paramount that it is understood as a collaborative art practice that can engage people in processes of social transformation and, in so doing, open spaces for cultural agency to become a collective tool. Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future is a unique and rich resource, as it provides insights and possibilities for action to collectively create a future that is free from the current normativity of racial capitalism. It is beneficial for scholars and creative practitioners alike and it would especially be a compelling read for those who think they know enough about the world of socially engaged art, to rethink its possibility in shaping an anticolonial future within art's politics and beyond.


[1] Sara Ahmed: The Cultural Politics of Emotion, London: Edinburgh University Press and Routledge 2014.

Evelyn Kwok