Sunday, March 2, 2008

Native Informants, Cultural Brokers, and the Marco Polo/Christopher Columbus Syndrome

The "Native Informant" in the artworld has been described as the local who is regarded as having insider access and knowledge merely by virtue of their national origin. As has been stated elsewhere, this role is similar to that played by the "native" that assists an anthropologist doing field work, acting as a translator of language and cultural norms. This position of albeit limited privilege is enjoyed particularly in situations where a so-called mainstream institution/collector seeks to access the "right" person to help them to represent a formerly excluded "minority" group. Such notions also dovetail with cultural essentialism whose flip side is of course racist stereotypes because both imply that one has unchangeable innate traits that are derived from a place of origin, ethnicity or gender. Often some of us will willingly adopt the position of "Native Informant" as a way to disseminate information about our culture in contexts that formerly excluded its production, others seek to gain access to the artworld. The "Cultural Broker" is a related role, one that exploits the "Native Informant" paradigm to their own ends, to be a player in the global art market/cultural industries.

Problematic is the fact that art historians, curators, collectors and others may view areas outside the narrow Eucocentric canon in broad geographic terms, the better to quickly understand them so "Africa" or "Latin America" rather than individual countries, cities, artists, movements, historical periods, etc. etc. etc. What may get lost is that someone from a particular country needs to go to school and get work experience as much as the next person, and that the person who has the expertise may not in fact be of the same national origin as the artists she/he works on as a scholar. Why couldn't a white person be the leading expert on art from Cuba, say? Yet given the PC identity politics that still reign in the USA, where one is expected to represent a Category before being viewed as a person (unless of course one is White, in which case one is a person and not part of any category) so one has to "speak for" Latinos, African Americans, etc. An example of the latter was the "Global Feminisms" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, where women from Non-Western countries, Latinas, African American or Asian American women among others were relegated to a section about "Identity" as if Whiteness, Westernness and Europeanness were not identities and as if that is the only subject the "other" women can/should talk about in their work.

In the globalized art world there are related categories that intersect with the Native Informant and Cultural Broker, citing Gerardo Mosquera's term the Marco Polo Syndrome and also one may refer to it as the Christopher Columbus Syndrome. The terms describe the activities of certain individuals in the artworld. The latter two are often white, European or US men that travel to a country not their own and enact behavior that could be regarded as parodic of the Ernest Hemingway model except translated to the nerdy pursuits of the artworld. Described in gossipy artworld accounts as intrepid explorers traveling to remote regions in helicopters and the like, their junkets with corrupt local administrators and their sexual exploits with exotic native women (I am inspired by a particularly lurid set of accounts about one curator/journalist), such Marco Polos/Christopher Columbuses enact the fantasies of frustrated nerdy intellectuals.

And all of us want to see ourselves in a more glamorous light. Female curators getting loans of designer dresses, the better for the latter to get product placement in VOGUE or artforum diary. Trips abroad to billionaire collectors' homes, which I myself have breathlessly described in Vanity Fair/HOLA language to riveted colleagues, all of us wishing to escape our normally bureaucratic experience.

And although others will most likely have been researching, writing and curating in this allegedly remote country for many many years, the arrival of this representative of the Metropolis suddenly brings this nation's art into prominence, puts them on the map. For many many years scholars, and curators both from a particular country and outside of it, struggled to document the art there, ignored by the art market and cultural centers of Europe and the US. Until, suddenly, a series of factors converge and this formerly "remote" country becomes "fresh" "sexy" and indispensable, the hottest new market - such as China, or Argentina or India, or Brazil.

Perhaps assisted by eager Native Informants or Cultural Brokers, the Marco Polo/Christopher Columbus arrive (belatedly) to such countries. The latter due to their sense of privilege and entitlement believe that they have "discovered" this country's art and return to the Metropolis as "the expert and go-to scholar/curator/writer/interlocutor/fixer." Even better if he gains a "walking dictionary" or native girlfriend, as one man described his ex to me once.

Of course there is always a flip side, for example when a "non-native" has spent decades in a "remote" area working on learning its language, culture, and art history but as soon as this region becomes "hot" then "Native Informants" who may have far less knowledge and experience of their own culture of origin suddenly become the go-to "experts" in the West, eager to have not only the exotic but even better: the exotic (re)presented by an "authentic exotic Native Informant."

For more on this topic:

Miriam Basilio "Field Notes from a `Native Informant,'" in None of the Above, Contemporary Work by Puerto Rican Artists (Hartford: Real Art Ways in collaboration with the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, 2005).

Oguibe, Olu, "Prologue," in his The Culture Game (University of Minnesotta Press, 2004).

Ponce de Leon, Carolina, "Random Trails for the Noble Savage," in Gerardo Mosquera, Beyond the Fantastic: Contemporary Art Criticism from Latin America (MIT Press, 1996)

Ramirez, Mari Carmen "Brokering Identities: Art Curators and the Politics of Representation," in Thinking about Exhibitions. ed. Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W. Ferguson, and Sandy Nairn (London: Routledge, 1996), 21--38.

Yang, Alice Yang, Why Asia? Contemporary Asian & Asian American Art. Edited by Jonathan Hay and Mimi Young. (New York and London: New York University Press, 1998)

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