To paraphrase philosopher Hamid Dabashi, I shall begin by asking ‘can non-Europeans make art?’ (Dabashi 2015) This question may sound quite offensive – of course they can! However, the purpose of the question is to reveal the Eurocentricity of the ways in which something is ultimately defined as art, and not, for example, as craft, ritual, or as culture in general. Who can call themselves an artist, art-maker, art professional – and why? Whose art is generally discussed in artistic research or in art research more generally? Whose theoretical frameworks or artistic thinking are referred to? Whose art is in focus and who are marginalized or presented as exceptions that confirm the rule?

As if by chance, both art research and artistic research continue to uphold colonialist, Eurocentric modes of thinking, according to which certain cultural products are, for example, ‘music’ and others ‘dance’ and still others ‘theatre’. Also how ‘a work’ and ‘an author’ are identified contribute to the maintenance of these broader categories. Even commonly used notions such as ‘contemporary art’ or ‘performance’, or qualitative attributes such as ‘originality’ or ‘novelty’ are ultimately not neutral because they rest on a Eurocentric presumption of what ‘art’ is. Decolonisation – the dismantling of colonial structures – always requires in-depth reflection on the level of concepts. The language we use to describe and define the world both replicates and produces power structures, including who we understand as ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Art, Philosophy and Otherness

The practice-led orientation of artistic research enables questioning, not only the relationship between art and research, but also how ‘art’ and ‘research’ are defined. Thus, by bringing art and research together, artistic research creates an opportunity for decolonising both art and research, dismantling the Eurocentric modes of thinking described above. Artistic research challenges us to ask what art actually is, according to whom, on what grounds and for whom.

In different branches of philosophy, questions about the distinctive qualities of art have been answered in different ways. Often these answers presume that as the study of knowledge, philosophy ultimately has the right to determine what art is. In other words, the philosopher knows better than the artist how the artist knows, what they accomplish and what is the value of that accomplishment. In principle, this is simply division of labour: the philosopher thinks, whilst the artist makes art. In practice, however, art has been subordinated to the use of power in philosophy: in the humanities, philosophy has a central role much as mathematics in the natural sciences. In artistic research, by contrast, artists usurp the right to articulate their own practice and its relation to that of others, to theorize about and in for other artists and the broader public alike.

In many universities of the global north, however, only the traditions and genealogies of (mainly European) thinking arising from Graeco-Roman Antiquity qualify as philosophy, because all philosophy has to refer to earlier philosophy. In the Eurocentric university institution, the thousand-year-old philosophical traditions of China or Persia have been placed outside philosophy, into departments of comparative religion or anthropology. In addition, philosophy orients towards text, its thinking defined in and through commenting on written texts. This emphasises the importance of writing systems and languages at the expense of other types of knowledge and thinking (Dabashi 2015; Mignolo 2015).

Eurocentric thinking in arts and in art research similarly places artists following the tradition that traces its roots to Europe front and centre of both practice and knowledge production. If you take a moment to think about your own art form and list role models important to you – what are their backgrounds? How many works, authors or institutions can you name from, for example, Ghana or the Philippines? Who told you of them – was it your family, your friends, your teachers or perhaps your colleagues? Which festivals or events are important to you and who perform there? Or perhaps more importantly: who curates these events and for whom? What about styles, techniques or histories of art forms: when you walk through the exhibitions in a large art museum, how are the objects arranged? Regrettably often, the discourse of art and, in particular, its canon (exemplary works, authors, phenomena, styles, modes of thinking, institutions, etc.) are as narrow and deeply entrenched in European cultural heritage as philosophy is. One cannot enter the field of art without referencing one’s white predecessors, because art is valued through its Eurocentric past. Novelty, significance, or originality are defined in relation to the past, but of the past only the white, Eurocentric canon and its operating methods are acknowledged and reproduced.

As Dabashi says, there is nothing inherently wrong about this Eurocentrism: each country and continent is entitled to be self-centred, as that which is near to one’s self always feels closer, more recognisable and therefore also more relevant (Dabashi 2015). The legacy of colonialism is reflected in the presumption that only European thinking or definitions are truly universal, legitimate for the whole of humanity – that it is not possible to participate in discourses about the state or future of humanity without in-depth understanding of these Eurocentric ideas. Philosopher Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze traces this presumption of universalism back to the Enlightenment philosophers and the role of the Enlightenment in formation of the so-called scientific worldview (Eze 2008, esp. 6–7). Eze himself challenges the idea of ‘pure reason’ and demonstrates, through African philosophy, that rationality of action or thought is always historically and culturally specific – especially so when making universalist claims about everyone and everything everywhere (Eze 2008, esp. 178–180).

Using the old metaphor of a map, it could be said that the gatekeepers of art draw the borders on the map between different art forms, styles, traditions and, ultimately, define where individual authors and groups are placed. Although gatekeepers change and borders are constantly being redrawn, the map itself or the need for mapping are never questioned. Just as the map does not correspond to the multifaceted world of art but is a simplified representation of it, the decolonisation of art requires more than the placing artists previously missing from the map inside old borders, or even redrawing borders or shifting the scale of the map. The very act of mapmaking, the use of power in the process, must be questioned – why is the map drawn in the first place, by whom and whose interests does it serve? How is the map and its making justified, and what does the process of mapmaking forbid, destroy, or distort?

From the perspective of post-colonial art theory, the various artistic appropriations, through which white artists have appeared as bold reformers in their own culture, are questionable in many ways. These issues culminate in contemporary art and performance, as the careers of many artists span several decades, changing more or less over time. As dancemaker and scholar Thomas F. DeFrantz has pointed out, contemporaneity is usually defined in and as the marketplace of certain galleries and festivals, the graduates of certain art schools – much as only the ways of thinking built upon the foundation of certain European tradition referred to as “Western philosophy” qualifies as thinking. DeFrantz notes that this definition of contemporary dance displaces progressive minoritarian practices to construe a standard for artistry that is unmarked as white and precisely for this reason so normative. (DeFrantz 2007).


The late Trinidadian playwright and scholar Tony Hall once pointed out to me that the problem with ‘post-colonialism’ and ‘decolonisation’ lies in how they make colonial power and colonialism tantamount to the origin, an inevitability, almost a law of nature. It is as if the pre-colonial period does not exist at all; as if there were no human communities that preceded the colonists’ arrival. The worst consequences of this kind of politics of forgetting result in the colonial period, its written history and the institutions formed during it all become ‘virtues’ of Europeanness – in themselves, they justify colonial power. In the end, focusing on colonisation on the level of concepts means that a colony can never be anything but a ‘former colony’.

Neither colonialism nor its consequences have disappeared from the world, even though various empires built by colonial powers collapsed in the middle of the last century. The United Nations still keeps track of the dismantling of colonialism and the sovereignty of the various regions of the world (United Nations 2022), but in the 21st century, this international community has not recognized the demands for independence of all who desire to govern themselves. At the time of writing this text in the spring of 2022, Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain is still the head of state of Canada and Australia, for example, as the Commonwealth continues the colonial period proper. On 30 November 2021, Barbados withdrew from the Commonwealth on its 55th Independence Day, but the European Union retains a number of remnants. The European Union has 9 so-called Outermost Regions (ORs) e subject to EU law (Canary Islands [Spain], the Azores and Madeira [Portugal], French Guyana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint Martin, Mayette and La Réunion [France]); 13 Overseas Countries and Territories (OCTs) not included in the Free Trade Agreements; and 10 special territories, one of which is the Åland Islands. Colonialism is not something distant in time and space – it is also part of the history of the Finnish state and its present.

The right to political autonomy is only one indication of the erosion of colonial power. Post-colonial scholarship has shown that gaining independence from a colonizer does not mean the immediate disappearance of colonial status. Just as with abolition of slavery, white powers financially compensated not the enslaved, but their enslavers, i.e. rich white people, most of the former colonies have remained subservient to their former colonizers, forced to concede to the colonizers’ economic and security policy interests and to make concessions as a condition for independence. For example, François-Xavier Verschave, president of the Survie association, referred to French neo-colonial policy in Africa as “Françafrique”. Undermining the official status of African states, the characteristics of this neo-colonialism include corruption based on personal relationships, a monetary union tied to France, and military operations by which the former colonizer pursues its interests bypassing all democratic processes (see e.g. Diop 2018).

In April 2022, the Government of the United Kingdom announced that it had agreed with the Republic of Rwanda to deport illegal asylum seekers to Rwanda. The Cabinet of Boris Johnson paid the Rwandan government 120 million pounds for the right to fly those seeking asylum in Great Britain to the West African country 6,500 kilometres away. According to a reportage in Time magazine, Boris Johnson claimed Rwanda could house tens of thousands of asylum seekers (Barry 2022.) After the civil war in the 1990s and the genocide of 1994, Rwanda has invested in infrastructure, public welfare, and trade relations, but the country is ruled by a dictator and is already dependent on food imports. The UK decision imitates Australia’s approach to outsourcing its refugee policy to the Nauru at an annual cost of one million Australian dollars and continues UK’s previous policy of refusing entry to asylum seekers from the European Union. Although international human rights organisations and the European Court of Human Rights condemned the UK’s actions as human trafficking and despite there being no evidence that the deportation policy will have any impact on the number of refugees arriving in the country, the deportation flights will continue and the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom deems the arrangement legal (see e.g. NPR 2022a and NPR 2022b).

Discourses of post-colonialism have sought to draw attention to the significant similarities between different countries and regions that have gained their independence from colonial powers as well as to build solidarity between these countries. In the area of culture called art, post-colonialism has emphasised the need to diversify thinking about the role of art and its relationship with the world beyond the Eurocentric perspective of philosophy. Unfortunately, dismantling the legacies of colonial power, or decolonisation, has also become a buzzword, which does not always really mean a concrete dismantling of colonialism.

Metaphoric Decolonisation

As a term, decolonisation has become increasingly fashionable in a world still dominated by overwhelmingly white universities and centres emphasising ‘excellence’. As a consequence, scholars who are actively working toward decolonisation are rightly concerned about the metaphorisation of the term. Already in 2012, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang wrote about this development in their article “Decolonisation is not a metaphor”, in which they identify six “settler moves to innocence” through which white settler colonialism evades the demands of Indigenous peoples, such as the right to land or equal treatment. Over the past decade, this metaphorisation has exacerbated. At times it seems that every other Euro-American institution has some kind of declaration made by an advertising agency on its website that presents the institution as an ‘ally’ of racialised or Indigenous peoples, even though the leadership of the institution is, as a rule, white.

In Finland, including Uniarts Helsinki, a particular kind of colonialist evasion is hegemonic. In it, the history of Finland under Swedish and Russian rule is foregrounded and Finns are victimised by emphasising their subordinate position. This ‘But Finland was also a colony!’ evasion is often used when talking about Finland’s continuing and aggressively colonising attitude towards the Saami. Tuck and Yang call this colonial equivocation, or homogenizing inherently different and unequal forms of subordination (Tuck & Yang 2012, 17–19).

The victimization discourse utilises the openly right-wing narrative of the first years of Finnish independence, which painted the last years of autonomy under the Russian Empire as ‘years of oppression’. What is lost is that this particular narrative was created by the victors of the 1918 Northwest Front of the Russian Civil War. Everyone in Finland knows Eetu Isto’s painting The Attack (Hyökkäys) and remembers school history lessons about the murder of Governor General Bobrikov, but not how the building blocks of Finnish independence were rewards from the Tsar whenever others oppressed by the Empire fought against colonialism. Autonomous Finland was the “teacher’s pet”: a semi-independent model region of high levels of education and industry. This system of power benefited those who ruled Finland on behalf of Russia and later became national heroes. These people were mainly from the Swedish-speaking middle class.

As part of the same narrative, the period under Swedish rule became ‘Sweden-Finland’, a country that only existed in right-wing histories of Finland in the 1900s. Through the history of Sweden, Finland and Finnish-speaking people were literally whitewashed: the ‘Eastland’ moved towards the West, the Finns converted from a ‘yellow race’ of pseudo-scientific racism into white Europeans. This national, ethnonationalist history of Finland as a white, European country is still being written. Like all ‘imaginary communities’ – to use Benedict Anderson’s terminology – this identity rests on othering, the exclusion from ‘us’; an exclusion that not only encompasses Russia but also all faiths other than Christianity and all people not seen as white. In this use of power, criticism of, for example, colonialism by Finns is not denied but rather it is fused into an overarching narrative about the self in which that self has never done anything reprehensible or wrong. It is precisely this fusion that is at the heart of the colonialist evasion. When ‘we’ know what ‘they’ need – if only because ‘we have also been oppressed’ – the white saviour-hero is once again placed at the centre of everything.

In the anti-racist discourse, anyone believing in colonialist evasion typically declares themselves an ‘ally’ without asking whether such an alliance is wanted, or if the alliance is formed on the terms of anyone other than that of the hegemonic ‘us’. However, ‘an ally’ is more a title that can only be conferred on merit – it is not something that one can take for oneself. One example of this kind of problematic action is the way that Uniarts Helsinki participated in the ‘I Am an Anti-Racist’ campaign by the Ministry of Justice in 2021 (Ministry of Justice 2021; 2021). At the beginning of the campaign, Uniarts Helsinki specifically declared itself anti-racist (see Väkevä 2021), even though the campaign guidelines deemed making such declarations inadequate and, specifically, an example of a course of action that the campaign opposed. In other words, Uniarts Helsinki may have wanted to make a worthy effort, but the appeals to guidelines and plans mainly revealed an inadequate ability to identify and recognise one’s own role and past mistakes necessary to effect change. Concrete actions are always much more difficult than words and more expensive as well.

Despite its good intentions, over the next year, Uniarts Helsinki’s social media mainly foregrounded individual white actors declaring themselves anti-racist. As the campaign did not result in concrete resources for grassroots level of teaching, any responses to requests from the employees of Uniarts for further training, mentoring or support in dealing with difficult emotions were left to the discretion of the degree programmes. From the students’ perspective, this means inequality as in some degree programmes mandatory studies address racialisation and discrimination, while in others, such modules are elective and thus depend on the personal interests of each student. In other words, anti-racism as outlined by the Ministry of Justice campaign has not yet penetrated the activities of Uniarts Helsinki, and a lot remains to be done. Uniarts Helsinki can strive toward allyship, but it cannot call itself an ally, and there is a long way from allyship to actual decolonising of prevailing modes of understanding the institution’s structures, values, and different roles (cf. e.g. Smith 2020; Gopal 2021).

Artistic Research

Artistic research often declares that it questions power structures in a manner that appears superficially similar to the efforts of decolonisation to question colonial structures. For example, the epistemological critique of academic research in artistic research seems to question the formation of knowledge in ways similar to how European science is decolonised: both highlight a more holistic understanding of the world, humans as part of nature and the universe. However, in the critiques of (art) philosophy in artistic research, use of power is soon revealed in how ‘thinking’ itself is defined.

Decolonialist philosophy is critical of the need of philosophy to always and only refer to the European tradition (see e.g. Dabashi 2015). Artistic research criticises the use of power in art research and art criticism in relation to the artist’s knowledge: whereas artists are required to know philosophy in order to articulate their thinking, philosophers can explain the characteristics of an art form without even knowing the key thinkers of this art form, i.e. the artists whose art is referred to (often critically) by a large number of other artists in their work.

However, it is both wrong and dangerous to represent art philosophy as the ‘colonialisation’ of art at the expense of artists. Firstly, such an analogy obfuscates how the whole concept of ‘art’ and art institutions are founded on colonialism –in other words, the ways in which the Eurocentric understanding of art forces the rest of the world to define particular cultural products as works of art and others not, usually using only Eurocentric criteria resting on European art history. Secondly, the analogy glorifies the artist as some kind of a hero on the side of the ‘good guys’ simply for making art. This homogenises all artists into a one-dimensional bloc, erasing diverging political opinions and social backgrounds.

At its worst, the homogeneous idea of who ‘artists’ are gives an individual artist the license to speak for and over otherness – after all, by virtue of being a sensitive artist, they can identify with everyone, even the nature and the whole universe. In this way, artistic sensitivity obfuscates positions of power that the long tradition of colonialism reproduces within and through art itself. For example, when a visiting white American choreographer explains to Theatre Academy students at Uniarts how the energy they bring to dance is not valued in art dance, but is praised within the cypher of Afro-diasporic hiphop, they effectively insert themselves into what Tuck and Yang call the ‘adoption fantasy’ (Tuck & Yang 2012, 13–17). In the adoption fantasy, a white person claims that they possess the positive features that they see in the other and the alien naturally enough that they cannot actually be distinguished from this otherness. At the same time, however, they retain their white privileges and, in the worst case, appropriate without asking whatever they please from the ‘other’ – after all, they now see it as their ‘own property’.

Unlike colonialism, the hegemony of art philosophy in the discourse of art is also historically quite new, whereas artists’ thinking in art has a much longer tradition. In early 20th-century European modernism, the majority of theories of new art exploring art’s relationship with the world, its goals and its aesthetics were produced, spoken, and written by artists and art groups for each other and for their audiences. Contributions by critics and theorists was limited, the practice-led thinking of artist-theorists did not need references to the theories of philosophy, either – neither aesthetics nor phenomenology, not to mention ontology, epistemology or ethics figured prominently in artists’ discourse. At the same time, this discourse within art still produced and reproduced the canon of art, in which the artist was always white among white people. Art traditions from other continents added colour or ingredients to this monument of whiteness – elements white artists could utilise for creating new art without actually crediting any of their sources. The novelty of modernism rested on the assumption that its spectator would be a white person and have no idea of where these impressive new forms derived from.

Even today, and speaking specifically of artistic research, equality is a distant goal. The publications of artistic research appear Eurocentric, a showcase for European institutions opening towards contemporary art biennales and festivals, and delineated by the familiar names of white philosophy (see e.g. Hansen 2013 on biennalisation). When exported to an African context, for example, artistic research should engage with African forms of knowledge production, not continue referring to white scholarship. (The 2nd International Conference on Artistic Research was held at University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, on 14–16 September 2022, asking ‘How does Artistic Research transform arts pedagogy and arts practice in Africa?’ Arts Research Africa 2022) The danger in uncritical marketing of artistic research is cultural imperialism, in which presumptions of whiteness within the field of research also end up defining standards of quality outside of Europe, as has happened in performance studies. (McKenzie 2006; also Bala 2017, 336–342) Or, to cite a Chinese colleague: Why am I being urged to use Deleuze’s philosophy for research in Chinese dance and not Confucius, whose philosophy is central to the formation of the art form in question? Is it because Confucius – or the Chinese tradition of philosophy in a broader sense – is not located in the compulsory syllabus of ‘philosophy’ or in the methodology courses in art research, and thus does not even occur to the supervisor or their discourse even when talking about an art for that already conceptualises itself according to this philosophy.

In other words, the degree to which artistic research is decolonised is apparent in the discourses that art, research, or artistic research refers to at the outset: the decolonialisation of thinking also requires the dismantling of white hegemony as regards whose art, practices or thinking are placed at the centre of research. Who is being referenced in the practices, how, and why? What gets taken for granted and on what grounds? Who is given room or power at the centre of research, and why? Whereas post-colonialism always enriches the ways of thinking in art by demonstrating different histories and ways of understanding art from around the world, decolonisation exposes concrete sore spots in how we determine what is or what is not art and what kinds of interfaces appear interesting or topical to white regimes of power. Boaventura de Sousa Santos says that decolonisation requires ‘epistemological imagination’, which avoids the dichotomies typical of European philosophy, such as the separation of life from art; new kinds of pedagogies and relationships with time and the world around us; and, above all, giving agency and subjectivity to those previously othered in art and science (de Sousa Santos 2018, 126–129).

Although decolonisation means very different things in different parts of different continents, Tuck and Yang emphasise that decolonisation must always produce concrete changes in colonial structures (Tuck & Yang 2012). The decolonialisation of artistic research therefore requires a great deal: breaking the boundaries between disciplines, reorganising institutions, seceding from whiteness as the only real history and determinant of the value of artistic thinking and activity. Decolonialisation requires that the gatekeepers of art relinquish their power and their desire to see their own values and way of thinking as universal truths. Therefore, identifying colonialist evasions is the first step towards concrete decolonialisation.

Finland does not even need to be a former colony, let alone feel victimised by history, because the dismantling of colonialist structures and white dominance will benefit everyone, not only those who have been oppressed in former colonies. Diversity, the sheer richness of different ways of understanding the world, also makes that which is familiar and one’s own look marvellous and different (Dabashi 2015). Even the familiar becomes new and unfamiliar when viewed from a new perspective, and this kind of thinking anew, epistemological imagination, is crucial to artistic thinking. Art can build bridges, even if an individual artist can never identify with everything or understand the otherness of another. However, the same imagination must first be applied to art institutions, dismantling the boundaries of art, its definitions of value and authority. This kind of self-decolonialisation of art still requires much work.


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Hanna Järvinen

Hanna Järvinen is University Lecturer at the Performing Arts Research Centre at the Theatre Academy of Uniarts Helsinki, holds the title of Docent in Dance History at University of Turku and Honorary International Fellow at De Montfort University in Leicester. She has conducted research on authorship and ingenuity, as well as canonisation of performing arts and exercise of power in the light of feminist and post-colonialist research tradition. She is also interested in questions of contemporaneity and materiality in the intersections of performance art and dance art.