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How do we productively map the historical and contemporary relationships that exist between North Africa, the Middle East and the Global South?

Anthony Gardner
6 November 2014

Strategic though it may be, the binary of 'South' and 'North' is no less reductive than the stale binaries of yore: of 'East' and 'West', communist and capitalist, aesthetics and politics, the list goes on. Of course, the world seems so much simpler, so much more consumable, when viewed from Manichean perspectives, but that makes it no less indigestive than any other form of expedient consumption today (food, ideas, people, space…). On one level, it pastes over the many ambiguities inherent in the notion of 'south': is this a south below the equator? A south below the poverty line? A south of colonial histories or present oppressions? A south of cultural and ethnic diversities? And most obviously of all, a south defined by itself or still by (non-south) others? On another level, it ignores the fact that cultural traffic – along with economic, human or other modes of traffic – often follows routes that are too idiosyncratic and tenebrous to be easily mapped at all. As the concrete realities of dealing with borderlands so often show, the most potent way to begin to engage with this traffic is through its apparent invisibility and actual un-mappability – its functioning via tunnels, through informal negotiations, under the cloak of night, or through the effects of desire.


I am therefore hesitant to enlist complete trust in 'south' as a stable marker of cultural knowledge. Where the notion of a 'south' may be helpful, however, is as a question rather than an answer – as a starting point whose sly and slippery uncertainties can unhook reliance on sweeping generalizations and conflations as the basis for knowledge. If 'south' is today an empty shell of an idea, then its passivity may remind us of the persistence of international relations of dominance and subordination across the neoliberal revolutions since the 1970s. If the term is deliberately unsatisfying, then it can push us instead toward finding vectors of thought that are more appropriate to the actualities and experiences of traffic, migration and influence across space and time, on the ground and under it. What we lose in expediency, then, we gain in specificity, asserting links between localities, times and people/s that would otherwise seem surprising under a generalist frame. How else to think, for instance, of the cultural traffic between Delhi, Cairo and Belgrade in the 1950s, not just for its own significance in the development of a potent non-alignment past – and which is developing as a politics of renewed critical focus today – but for its parallax relation to pre-modern trade routes within and on the edges of West Asia.


Creative practices have long signalled this need to focus on specific transversal relations in order to generate something new. From the modernist grapplings with inter-cultural abstractions and culturally specific perception (Dia al-Azzawi, Saloua Raouda Choucair, Arif Abu Shaqra) to the globalist 'surprise' of finding the distant at the heart of 'home' (Melbourne's monuments to Palestine in Tom Nicholson's work, the transversal politics of Oraib Toukan's practice), art has frequently insisted on understandings of the transversal that are resolutely precise and even singular, rather than loose and general. If this creates problems for the historian, with our yearnings for the sweeping claim, then so be it. Perhaps such claims, including that of a stable, at times still parochial 'south', are but a shimmer, a mirage, an attractive desire without foundation. We might instead take heed of what numerous artworks have themselves proposed as a better way to approach these past and present relations between sites, times and topoi, That is, singular accounts of the transversal that not only challenge the simplicity of the 'transnational' or the 'hemispherical' and their dependence on arbitrary borders, but reject the presumptions of division for more generative and concrete modes of connection.

Anthony Gardner

is Associate Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory at the University of Oxford, where he is also the Director of Graduate Studies at the Ruskin School of Art. He writes extensively on postcolonialism, postsocialism and curatorial histories, and is one of the editors of the MIT Press journal ARTMargins. Among his books are the anthology Mapping South: Journeys in South-South Cultural Relations (Melbourne, 2013), Politically Unbecoming: Postsocialist Art against Democracy, a study of European installation art in relation to postsocialist political philosophy (MIT Press, 2015), Neue Slowenische Kunst (with Eda ÄŒufer and Zdenka Badovinac, Moderna Galerija Ljubljana, 2015) and (with Charles Green) Mega-Exhibitions: Biennials, Triennials, Documentas (Wiley-Blackwell, 2016).

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