Ethnic Marketing

Erik van Lieshout, Fantasy Me, video, 2004

Ethnic Marketing: Art, Globalization and Intercultural Supply and Demand
Centre d’Art Contemporain
October 20–December 5, 2004

Since 1989, the art market has witnessed a steadily increasing demand for non-Western works of art. Harald Szeeman brought China to Venice and Okwui Enwezor brought Africa to Kassel. Enter the Middle East.

In this particular encounter as much as in ones preceding, questions abound as to how the dialectics of globalization will operate. Is the Western concept of art to be challenged and redefined, or simply to be exported? Are non-Western artists to cling to their cultural roots, or rather to learn the “lessons” that Western art has to offer?

Swiss-Iranian curator Tirdad Zolghadr and Swiss curator Martine Anderfuhren take on these questions in an exhibition at the Centre d’Art Contemporain’s appropriately titled Ethnic Marketing. Ethnic marketing is a reference hitherto widely used in economics, public relations and advertising; a classically defined ethnic marketing references a strategy of shaping products according to customers’ desires — desires supposedly determined by their cultural habits.

In applying the term to the art market, Zolghadr has reversed its meaning. In the realm of the arts, ethnic minorities are no longer customers, but rather, are rendered producers. International artists are welcomed to the new global art market — but only if their works bear witness to an ethnically specified, cultural background. And as in traditional ethnic marketing, such specifications do not mean that we are given completely new products. Rather, the product often remains the same — namely Western art — only slightly modified. Zolghadr’s mantra: the process of globalization forces non-Western artists to produce works that both follow the Western tradition and differ from it. If globalization is a dialectic process, in which the Western norm is at the same time modified and reaffirmed, then Western artists have to say as much about it as so-called eastern ones.

Are we right in assuming that artists have to say anything novel about the dynamics of the art market within which they are presenting themselves? In looking at most of the pieces Zolghadr and Anderfuhren exhibit, we might at least suspect that the answer could be no. To begin with, a look at the strategy employed by the majority of artists is revealing — many question the history of colonialism and its uncanny remains, such as migration, tourism and the like. Peter Stoffel travels across Africa wearing a sport sweatshirt with the (racist) name of Schorsch Caco, the hero of a Swiss radio play popular during the Seventies. Lisl Ponger contrasts found footage from amateur tourist films with narrations of local microhistories, and Dirk Herzog offers to edit tourist holiday films. The works of Gülsun Karamustafa and Leyla al Mutanakker both reflect on the history of orientalist painting, popular during the nineteenth century. While photographer Ursula Biemann portrays New York tribal art dealers together with their goods, Alex Gerbaulet stages professional strategies of illegal immigration on film. And Eric van Lieshout places himself at the center of a neo-colonial artistic quest, questioning his own role as a successful Western artist visiting China.

Some of these works are rather weak in comparison to the questions Zolghadr poses, falling into the trap of evoking pity for the “colonized,” loosely defined. In this way, they play on the traditional trope of evoking pity for “victims” — endemic to Western art since its beginnings (think of the ubiquity of images of martyrs, the Crucifixion itself). What then of a reversal of the classic colonial relationship? Solmaz Shahbazi, for example, films the Fête de Genève, a seminal event for the local tourist industry for the purpose of entertaining moneyed visitors (primarily from the Middle East). Here, the Swiss present themselves as an ethnic minority, complete with strange cultural habits. Wong Hoy Cheong, for his part, recreates a typical Austrian living room with the television displaying a “documentary” about the colonization of Austria by the Malawian Empire. In these works the non-Western subject is not the victim, but rather the smart and strong counterpart. The same applies for a second piece by Jens Haning, who launches a poster campaign exhibiting an Arabic joke (written in Arabic) installed in the center of Geneva — and even for the more ironic work of Natascha Sadr-Haghighian; the artist has constructed a website that invites artists to share pieces of their biography — the aim being to provide fictive biographies to artists that have to meet specific demands. But such strategies have their weak points, too: are these true alternatives to a so-called Western approach? Let us turn to a third, smaller group of works. In their film The Road to Tate Modern, Erkan Özgen and Sener Özmen stumble through the West Asian countryside, referencing Don Quixote throughout. Quixote, the epic sixteenth century figure who is central to Western culture to the present day, represented the reader’s failure in trying to emulate ideals of feudal chivalry as celebrated in medieval romances. In presenting their quest for the ideal of Western art as an enterprise analogous to Don Quixote’s, Özgen and Özmen attain a double aim. On the one hand, they simply fulfill the demand of the art market by delivering a piece of heroic failure. But it is exactly in doing so that they provide a starting point for a true and profound critique of the art system.

An artist whose approach is close to Özgen’s and Ozmen’s is Farhad Moshiri. Already known for his constructed Iranian living rooms, replete with gilded icons of kitsch, he presents a new piece at Geneva. Chador Package, co-produced with Shirine Aliabadi, turns the Islamic veil into a Western consumer good. In this way Moshiri and Aliabadi not only show that the dialectics of globalization aim to develop new, culturally specified products to be sold according to the rules of the Western ideology called capitalism, but also present the work of art itself as a product underlying this ideology. In the end, these two works reach the level of Zolghadr’s theoretical conceptualization.