Decolonizing the Avant-Garde
This collaborative research initiative seeks to explore how we can decolonize the post-1945 history and idea of the avant-garde.
Both a key concept and a significant artistic formation in modern art, the avant-garde has often been characterized as a typically Western phenomenon. If the early 20th-century ‘historic’ avant-garde (expressionism, cubism, Dada, surrealism, constructivism, among others) operated mainly from European cities such as Paris and Berlin, the post-1945 ‘neo-avant-garde’ (abstract expressionism, pop art, fluxus, cobra, the situationist international, etc.) further moved into New York and Northern America more generally. Often seen as the advance guard of modernism in the West and as synonymous with a white, imperialist, if not outright racist ‘primitivizing’ artistic undertaking that apparently held that only the West is equipped with a cultural advance guard, the avant-garde in the 1980s and 1990s got lumped on the baggage train and was sent off. If mention was still made of the avant-garde in critical debates on contemporary art, it was either in derogatory terms or to signal that the moment of the post-avant-garde had arrived.
Today, this dominant discourse on the avant-garde requires revision. For, while it is undoubtedly true that certain representatives of the so-called historic and neo-avant-garde in the West held problematic views and engaged in equally problematic practices, much more seems to have been going on right from the start of the early 20th century. Indeed, research in recent decades has amply shown that the avant-garde across the arts also asserted itself already before the Second World War in Latin America, Northern Africa, and Asia. This project seeks in part to extend this research by also looking at avant-garde practices outside the West since 1945. Moreover, and perhaps more significantly, recent decades have also witnessed the return of artists’ formations that seek to extend and bend the avant-garde’s multifarious collective project. We see these formations within Europe in ‘peripheral’ post-socialist regions (from Sots Art to Neue Slovenische Kunst, Chto delat, and beyond) and on the fringes of officially sanctioned art in Northern America (from Black Dada and Black Quantum Futurism to Critical Art Ensemble, 16 Beaver Group, and beyond). Yet we also encounter such activist formations increasingly well beyond the West (from Raqs Media Collective, INSTAR to Chimurenga and Another Roadmap network). This global resurgence of critical and experimental avant-garde initiatives not only demonstrates that the avant-garde may be far from over today. It also suggests that we must urgently start to decolonize both the avant-garde’s perceived history since 1945, and the historically erroneous, West-centric view of the avant-garde more generally. It is this dual challenge that this collaborative project takes on.
By exploring how a focus on colonizing and colonialist practices can help shed new light on the avant-garde since 1945, this of necessity collective project does not seek an apology for the avant-garde. Rather, this initiative seeks to foster dialogue and debate, and perhaps also to make a start with unearthing an alternative history of the avant-garde that has not yet been written and that can also inform contemporary practice.
Initiated by Sascha Bru (University of Leuven) and Isabel Wünsche (Constructor University, Bremen), the project's main research actions consist of three symposia in Paris (2024), Dresden (2025) and Berlin (2026), which together cover post-1945 avant-garde activity on a global scale.
© The D-AG Collective. Image homepage: Detail from Ana Hatherly, The streets of Lisbon (1977). Collage on paper on hardboard from the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Modern Collection, Lisbon, Portugal. Inv.: 91P742. Photo: Pedro Ribeiro Simões. CC by 2.0 Deed. Source.