Who is visible? Who remains invisible? These questions not only determine who is made socially and politically relevant, but also who is given power – and with it money, opportunities for agency, fame, and much more. In modern art collections, such as that of the Brücke Museum, one population group in particular is made visible, and consequently their view of the world: white, Western, and – in this case – dead men. They portray people who are not white or male: as objects in their works. The perspectives of people who diverge from this category (or are read as divergent) – such as women, Black people, or individuals with disabilities – are still rarely seen in museums and public collections. And if they are, they are often exoticised as “the other”, even here. On the one hand, this is a way of fetishising the particularity of their situation, and on the other hand, it is used to demonstrate how cosmopolitan and receptive mostly white institutions are to diverse perspectives.

How could other, fairer forms of visibility be achieved?

Cultural scholar and activist Araba Evelyn Johnston-Arthur holds that representation and domination are closely intertwined. For her, the concept of visibility is thus “linked to the struggle for autonomous, emancipatory, decolonised images […]. That is, with our past, present, and future Black liberation movements and the reclaiming of our visibilities as political subjects.” Art historian Johanna Schaffer further questions the ambivalences of visibility and the widespread assumption, especially in activist circles, that more visibility means more political presence or assertiveness; every visibility can only be read within predetermined, pre-existing structures and is consequently limited in its effectiveness from the outset. The writer Édouard Glissant, who became known as one of the pioneers of créolité, a theory of cultural hybridity, also argues for a right to illegibility, darkness, invisibility: “I no longer have to ‘understand’ the other, that is, to reduce him to the model of my own transparency, in order to live with this other or to build something with him.” This right to remain incomprehensible, to evade complete transparency, has often been interpreted as a form of postcolonial resistance to the Western dominance that still prevails today; he designates this as opacité (opaqueness). The refusal of young POC or non-Western artists to participate in the Western art market only on terms imposed on them can also be understood in line with such a strategy. In this context, they are read as “others” and marked as such; it is the opposite of autonomy and, therefore, the refusal of this attribution becomes an act of resistance. For there is always another question: whose visibility are we talking about here – for whom and for what purposes?

Araba Evelyn Johnston-Arthur, Jo Schmeiser: “… das ideologische Wesen der Bilder dekonstruieren,” Graswurzelrevolution 303, November 2005.
Édouard Glissant, Introduction to a Poetics of Diversity, tr. Celia Britton, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool 2020), p. 45.

Sonja Eismann is the co-editor of Missy Magazine and researches and writes about feminism and (pop) culture

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