Postcolonial art refers to art produced in response to the aftermath of colonial rule, frequently addressing issues of national and cultural identity, race and ethnicity

Cildo Meireles, 'Insertions into Ideological Circuits 2: Banknote Project' 1970
Cildo Meireles
Insertions into Ideological Circuits 2: Banknote Project 1970
Ink on banknote
Presented by the artist 2006, accessioned 2008© Cildo Meireles

Introduction

Postcolonial theory, which underpins postcolonial art, does not simply relate to the time after which a nation gains independence from its colonial ruler. It analyses and responds to the cultural legacies of colonialism and the human consequences of controlling a country in order to exploit the native people and their land. In doing this it also addresses how the society and culture of non-European peoples were seen from the perspective of Western cultural knowledge; how this was used to subjugate people into a colony of the European Mother Country; and the resulting identities of ‘coloniser’ and ‘colonised’.

Explore a selection of work by artists in Tate’s collection who address issues of national and cultural identity, race and ethnicity in the aftermath of colonial rule. Read the image captions for more infomration:

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  • Guy Tillim, 'Grande Hotel, Beira, Mozambique' 2008
    This is one of a series of photographs by Guy Tillim of places named after the Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba. The photographs evoke the symbol of a certain idea of Congo and its struggle for independence against colonialism.
  • Sonia Boyce, 'Missionary Position II' 1985
    Sonia Boyce examines her position as a black woman in Britain and the historical events in which that experience was rooted.
  • Isaac Julien Vagabondia 2000, video still showing two mirrored image frames of a headshot of a woman and a man in the background
    Isaac Julien's video Vagabondia  is filmed in the Sir John Soames musuem and uses the character of a black vagabond to highlight the ways in which the museum’s collection has benefitted from the colonisation of other cultures.
    View the main page for this artwork
  • Donald Rodney, 'How the West was Won' 1982
    Donald Rodney explores aspects of racial identity, especially in relation to Britain’s colonial history. In this painting he refers to the epic Hollywood film of the same name; but whereas the film depicted the colonisation of the American West as a brave and exciting struggle, Rodney suggests a less heroic and more crudely violent narrative of ruthless suppression.
  • Rasheed Araeen, 'Bismullah' 1988
    Rasheed Araeen uses religious and cultural symbols relating to his birthplace - Pakistan - to explore his identity, as well as drawing attention to the invisibility of black artists within the dominant eurocentric culture.
  • Doris Salcedo Shibboleth 2008 installation view
    For her 2007 site-specific artwork in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, Doris Salcedo created a massive crack in the floor. She stated that the crack reveals a ‘colonial and imperial history [that] has been disregarded, marginalised or simply obliterated ... the history of racism, running parallel to the history of modernity’
    View the main page for this artwork
  • Kara Walker, 'Grub for Sharks: A Concession to the Negro Populace' 2004
    Central to artist Kara Walker's work is Black history, its telling and re-telling, and the effect this has on African-Americans today. She attacks racial myth and stereotypes, exploring issues such as slavery, sexuality, oppression and domination.

A theoretical framework: Frantz Fanon

Martinique-born intellectual Frantz Fanon was one of the leading anti-colonial thinkers of the twentieth century, and provided a theoretical framework for interpreting the oppression of the individual under imperialism – a significant element of much postcolonial art. An important influence on Fanon’s ideas was his teacher and mentor Aimé Césaire one of the leaders of the Négritude movement. In books such as Wretched of the Earth first published in 1961, Fanon analysed the effects of colonialism and decolonization and the role of class, race, national culture and violence in the struggle for national liberation. This and other books initiated the investigation of diversity and hierarchy in postcolonial cultures undertaken by writers such as Edward Said, Stuart Hall and Homi Bhabha.

Further reading

Artist and Empire
Explore the online guide to this 2015 exhibition which examines how the histories of the British Empire have shaped art past and present, bringing together extraordinary and unexpected works to explore how artists from Britain and around the world have responded to the dramas, tragedies and experiences of the Empire.

Artists’ Perspectives: Avenue Patrice Lumumba by Lamia Joreige
Artist Lamia Joreige reflects on Guy Tillim’s powerful photographs of the ruins of colonial architecture in Africa through which he explores the struggle for independence against colonialism.

Sonia Boyce: From Tarzan to Rambo
Explore this resource to discover the themes, materials and processes used by artist Sonia Boyce to create artwork From Tarzan to Rambo in which she explores the complex interweaving of black history with media stereotypes of blackness and whiteness.

In detail

Meschac Gaba Music Room (detail) From Museum of Contemporary African Art 1997 – 2002
Meschac Gaba
Music Room (detail)
From Museum of Contemporary African Art 1997–2002
Installation at Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel, 29 August – 15 November 2009

Tate Triennial 2009 Prologue 1: Okwui Enwezor: Specious Modernity: Speculations on the end of Postcolonial Utopia
Watch curator, poet and cultural theorist Okwui Enwezor discuss modernity in relation to postcolonial art in this video.

After Post-Colonialism: Transnationalism or Essentialism?
Watch video recordings from the 2010 Tate Modern symposium After Post-Colonialism: Transnationalism or Essentialism? discussing the implications of regional narratives of contemporary art in a global context.

Myths of the Other audio recording
Artist Paul Gauguin’s ambivalent identification with and distancing from his ‘native’ subjects is analysed by an artist and a group of scholars from the areas of art history, anthropology and cultural theory in light of current post colonial thought.

Meschac Gaba: Museum of Contemporary African Art
Benin artist Meshac Gaba’s multi-room installation is the artist’s response to the lack of contemporary art in American and European museums

Related glossary terms

Négritude, Black Atlantic, creolisation, identity politics, Afrofuturism