Decolonizing Colonial Art

October 25, 2019

The long historical journey that began in the Caribbean at the beginning of the 16th century—a bloody process that included the systematic destruction of many ancient American cultures in the name of Christian doctrine and of the Spanish sovereign and the annihilation, enslavement, or forced displacement of millions of human beings at the hands of European invaders—forever changed the region, and the world. The conquest was the starting point of a long trajectory of colonization that involved the re-founding and reorganizing of the territory, its inhabitants, their political structures and all kinds of institutions, civil as well as religious. Nevertheless, as a result of the titanic and simultaneously impossible mission of extirpating the roots of the cultural vestiges of millenary civilizations, and of the nearly always forced imposition of foreign visual repertoires, a new visual culture emerged in America. It came from a process that went beyond the simple, passive resettling of colonizers and the colonized, and could be better explained as the asymmetric articulation of the cultural differences between both groups. The art resulting from this crossroads of different worlds is the product of complex intersections between cultures, histories, and people who shaped the Hispanic-American colonial world over the span of more than three centuries.

The terminology used to name and describe such a protracted and varied artistic production has been the object of heated debate since the beginning of the 20th century when, among academics and collectors, there arose a growing interest in studying and collecting the art produced before independence. In reality, historiographically speaking, this is a discussion that in some countries began at the end of the previous century when post-independence anti-Spanish fervor gave way to more moderate postures. Nevertheless, it is really during the period between the wars that the need for an appropriate lexicon to identify, group, and differentiate heterogenous colonial artistic production reached a critical point. For close to half a century—approximately between 1920 and 1970—art historians such as Ángel Guido, Martín Noel, Manuel Romero de Terreros, Manuel Toussaint, George Kubler, Damián Bayón, and Graziano Gasparini, to cite some of the most outstanding, advocated for redefining the lexicon of art from the Hispanic period in America.[1] It was a discussion particularly focused on the terminology relative to the processes of cultural hybridization, in which nonetheless the colonial character of all this artistic production was not deeply questioned. At the turn of the century, some circles closely examined the terms "colonial art,” “Spanish colonial art” and, to a lesser extent, “viceregal art” and began to be qualify them as mistaken, and even offensive. This position reflects the postures of some scholars of political historiography for whom the use of the colonial category carried a negative emotional charge and obeys ideological reasoning.[2] Still, despite the debate, their use has continued today, particularly in North American academic circles, in which they have become the standard terminology. Part of the historiographical questioning has centered on whether or not there exists a colonial condition in Ibero-America. This discussion comes from the 19th century and was taken up anew in the 20th century by several authors, especially the Argentinean historian Ricardo Levene, who argued that from a strictly legal point of view, if the political status and autonomy of administrative divisions of the Spanish empire in their overseas possessions are compared with the colonies of other European powers in America, the condition of Ibero-America was not colonial.[3] Independent of the territory's juridical status, in practice Hispanic-American cultural identity is the result of a process of colonization that began in the early 16th century. It was a period in which the conquerors and the conquered forged a new culture, systematically excluding the perspective of the conquered and their descendants.

A few years ago, a clear need to initiate a decolonizing process emerged in the world of museums in the United States, Europe and, to a lesser extent, in Latin America, broadening the perspectives used to present and interpret collections and to generate content from them. There have been various approaches to this enormous challenge, and they have not been free of debate, particularly because many collections, and the very structure of museums, are the result of colonial visions. Part of the problem resides in the generalized tendency of many museums with art collections from the Hispanic period to exalt this production’s connections to Spain—and to Europe in general—to the detriment of the aspects related to indigenous and African cultures. This practice contributes to the perpetuation of the idea that these local cultures are extinct and that their cultural traditions have disappeared. In general, we are faced with a system in which museum policies and institutional practices endorse a Euro-centric, colonialist vision of art production. Additionally, museums with collections associated with histories of colonialism, exploitation, oppression, slavery, forced conversion, and genocide may be charged with negative connotations and painful memories for the descendants of the colonized or displaced communities, especially if said groups are excluded from  the official narratives. For this reason, today museums must be decolonized. To treat the histories, the collections and the legacies of the colonial era with respect, honesty, sensitivity, and inclusion is a duty that must not be postponed. Museums should present the history of the places where objects were produced and where people created and used them, without the intention to suppress the past or rewrite stories, instead of showing the history of colonialism and of the colonizers, as still occurs often today. A good place to start to decolonize museums is the terminology associated with the artistic manifestations resulting from colonial processes. A more inclusive and respectful lexicon is desirable, one free from the ballast of the weight of colonialism, its injustices, and exploitation. In the specific case of Spanish America—and without intending to make this exercise a definitive proposal—it is perhaps most respectful to speak of art from the Hispanic period (not “Spanish American Art”) a formula that, while situating this production in the adequate time and geography, is not weighed down by the ballast of the colonial past, and therefore can be considered a gesture that addresses those who were colonized and their descendants.


[1] Argentineans Ángel Guido and Martin Noel are cited among the first to propose the idea of a “mestizo,” or mixed, art, as a result of the process of European colonization. Later, George Kubler prefers the term “criollo” and still later, “hybrid”; in any case, they are part of a larger discussion on the classification of art from the Hispanic period. See Ángel Guido, Fusión hispano-indígena en la arquitectura colonial (Rosario: Editorial "La casa del libro", S.A., 1925), 18ff.; George Kubler, "Indianism, Mestizaje, and Indigenismo as Classical, Medieval, and Modern Traditions in Latin America [1966]," in Studies in Ancient American and European Art: The Collected Essays of George Kubler, ed. Thomas F. Reese (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 75.

[2] Annick Lampérière "El paradigma colonial en la historiografía latinoamericanista" Istor Revista de Historia Internacional 5, no.19 (2004): 107-28.

[3] See Daniel Diego-Fernández Sotelo, “Apuntes sobre la historia política del periodo virreinal”, in Margarita Guerra and Denisse Rouillon Almeida ed. Historias paralelas: actas del Primer Encuentro de Historia Perú-México (Lima: Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, Fondo Editorial; El Colegio de Michoacán, A. C., 2005), 69-71; and Ricardo Levene, Las Indias no eran colonias (Buenos Aires: Espasa-Calpe, 1951).