After (Post)colonial Tragedy – The Aesthetics of Eco-Planetary Futurity

Below is the abstract of a paper I will be giving at the ‘Crossroads in Cultural Studies 2018’ conference in Shanghai next week.

I’ve been interested in ecological and environmental issues for a long time. In the 1980s I thought the green movement was the future. Especially in the radical politics of the German Greens in the 1980s, embodied in the figure of Petra Kelly and others. (The Friends of the Earth in Camden didn’t cut it for me!). The focus was on linking the struggles of anti-racism and Third Worldism to the global/local ecological struggles.

This paper is an initial attempt to address again race and decoloniality by examining recent experimental film projects and how they rethink temporality in the wake of the failures of the postcolonial struggles of the 20th century. The focus on the ecological requires a rethinking of the histories of modernity, colonialism, capitalism and racism. The contention is that futures of the (decolonial) planet is only possible as a subaltern ecological struggle in where indigenous, women and the poor are central to social and economic justice. Radical aesthetics offer ways of thinking and re-imagining the times and places of cultural resistance.

After (Post)colonial Tragedy – The Aesthetics of Eco-Planetary Futurity

The mid 20thcentury optimism of Bandung and the project of Afro-Asian independence from (neo)colonialism has arguably been replaced by what David Scott has called ‘postcolonial tragedy’. For Scott ‘…tragic sensibility or tragic vision appears pre-eminently in moments of collision of in-commensurable historical forces—when, as Hamlet put it in his anguished cry, “the time is out of joint”…Thus, far from being a period of seamless succession or transition, decolonization might well be thought of as a disorienting, inconclusive moment of rupture especially conducive to tragic consciousness.’

This paper focuses on examining the ‘out of joint’ of the contemporary by considering a significant strand of global art and screen media, which is engaging with archives, memory and history to re-imagine the temporality of western modernity, capitalism and historicism. In particular by positing the relationship between (post)colonialism and modernity as an ‘ecological tragedy’, enables disjunctive, alternative, longer histories of environmental destruction, climate change, modern capitalism and racism to be envisaged.

By especially analyzing the essay film, as a dominant experimental global aesthetic, projects such as those of John Akomfrah’s, The Vertigo Sea(2015), and Purple(2017), Arjuna Neuman and Denise Ferreira da Silva’s Serpent Rain(2017), and The Otolith Group’s The Radiant (2012) are in which the relationship between slavery, colonialism, capitalism, racism, the environment and time are deconstructed. In these cultural works loss, pessimism, failures, deaths, disaster and mourning of tragic pasts are the constituting conditions for spatio-temporal ‘ruptures’ for a planetary futurity of hope and utopia.

Against the prevalent notions of Eurocentric conceptualization of the ‘Anthropocene’, this paper works towards re-thinking the reconfiguration of the spatio-temporal relationship between humans, non-humans, technology, and the earth through the prisms of the entangled planetary Global South and fugitive sites of subaltern political, ecological, economic and cultural resistance.

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Living the Dream

In memory of Ved Parkash Sharma (1927 – 1996)
The Ganga rushing through the land
Sheets of rain cutting the oppressive humidity,
Orange men scavenging for souls.
Tears flowing
Ashes in hand.
Dad was an Albion man,
Home in the black country
Never to return.
Remember those summer days –
Dudley Zoo and Blackpool Pier.
The odd pint of Guinness with his spars.
No dreams of gold in the mother country
Only small brown envelopes on Fridays.
ICI, Dunlop, GKN don’t remember.
Empires crumbling, workers welcomed.
Invisible men to the end.
Dirty jobs to do, lives to be lived
Love to be found, friends to be made.
‘Smelly coolie’, ‘fucking Paki’.
They are just jealous.
Be wise. Dad knew much, said little.
Look them in the whites of their eyes
This is home.
Stand and deliver. Laugh out loud.
Tears flowing, memories flooding.
‘Is this all he’s worth?’
Holy men with calculators
Standing guard on the river’s edge, soiled with foreign currencies.
Ashes escaping in the torrent
Holding back the rage and sorrow.
England’s dreaming again.
Time to go, forget the gods
No sacred cows, only polluted rivers
And temples to the rich.
Back in Handsworth Park,
Haridwar, another time, another place
Another life.
A poem I wrote in Aug 2013 remembering dad who tragically passed away on 3 May 1996. He would have been 91 years on 27 July 2018 this year.
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Dis-Orienting Rhythms: The Politics of the New Asian Dance Music

PDF of the whole book.


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Beholder Halfway #12 – Black Study Group: Notes on Music and Money

Continue reading

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Creating Interference

I’m involved in organising this event co-ordinated by Roshini Kempadoo at the University of Westminster.

See for a full programme.

Creating Interference: making art, developing methods, re-imagining histories/memories
Monday 18th June, Tuesday 19th June, Regent Street Cinema and Regent Street Campus, University of Westminster, London

Creating Interference is an international screening programme, symposium and network of researchers, artists and critics who creatively respond to and critically engage with memories and historical narratives.

Our aim is to develop, explore and identify creative strategies to disrupt knowledge conventions and dominant discourses of the past. The screenings and symposium presents a range of international contemporary artists, critics and scholars, whose works focus on:

– contemporary visual and particularly screen-based artworks as catalysts to archive practice

– decolonial methodologies as critical engagements to existing historical material/spaces and as visual strategies for creating cultural interventions

Film Screenings and launch of Creating Interference network

Monday 18th June 2018 from 5:00pm – 10:00pm, Regent Street Cinema and Regent Street Campus, University of Westminster, London.

Creating Interference launches an evening of screenings and performance by contemporary artists of international standing, whose work explores these critical strategies in original and thought provoking ways.

Artists in the programme include:

Zineb Sedira, Wangechi Mutu, Keith Piper, Naeem Mohaiemen, Onyeka Igwe, Anuka Ramischwili-Schäfer, Uriel Orlow, Erika Tan, Mohau Modisakeng, Nguyen Trinh Thi, Ana Vaz, Larry Achiampong, Arjuna Neuman and Denise Ferreira da Silva. 

Creating Interference symposium

Tuesday 19th June from 9:30am – 6:30pm, Regent Street Campus, University of Westminster, London.

Among the exciting contributions are keynote speakers Christopher Cozier, artist, curator and co-director of Alice Yard art project space, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Karen Salt as an interdisciplinary scholar in transnational American Studies and Afrodiasporic studies, University of Nottingham.

We invite you to the symposium, screenings and network as a way to debate, develop methodologies, publish and explore a range of artistic and scholarly works that challenges, asks questions and informs.

The price for the event (both days including reception and lunch) is £10 for full-time waged and £5 for concessions. The event is free to staff and students of the University of Westminster. 

Creating Interference is in association with Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts) and the Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media (CREAM).

Please register early to avoid disappointment.

Creating Interference planning team:

Roshini Kempadoo, Reader and CREAM researcher, author of Creole in the Archive: Imagery, Presence and the Location of the Caribbean Figure (2017) and principle researcher for Creating Interference; Ashwani Sharma, principal lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies, University of East London and co-editor of the online journal darkmatter; A’Ishah Waheed, co-founder of Patchwork Archivists and contributor to Skin Deep Magazine; Barby Asante, Artist, curator, educator and CREAM PhD researcher; Melanie Keen, Director of Iniva; Lucy Reynolds, CREAM researcher, curator and co-editor of The Moving Image Review & Art Journal (MIRAJ); and Bisan Abu Eisheh, Artist and CREAM PhD researcher.


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Alien Time


Speaking at this symposium. My talk entitled ‘sonic black holes/fugitive spacetime/(im)possible mourning.

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Reclaiming the University

A short note i wrote on fb:

This is an interesting initiative challenging the neoliberal university from within the Univ of Aberdeen. For those of us interested in a future for UEL perhaps we need to put together our own manifesto down similar lines. Otherwise the future, if we have one, looks bleak. We need to challenge, resist, disrupt and refuse the agendas been offered to us, and imagine and present progressive alternatives.

As Harney and Moten say in the Undercommons ‘the only possible relationship to the university today is a criminal one.’ Either we fight or accept the decline of what was once a radical, innovative and challenging place for students and staff.



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Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Conference 2017

I am attending the Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Conference 2017 in Seoul, South Korea.


The abstract of the paper i’m presenting at the conference:

In the ruins of an Asian futurity: Contemporary transnational Indian art, temporality, and (post)colonial history after globalization

The ‘temporal turn’ in contemporary Asian art is symptomatic of a moment of geo-political and economic crisis, and a period of transition in postimperial histories. The focus on archives, memory and traumas of colonialism and nationalism are reconstituting the present in relation to the failures of postcolonial freedoms, and uncertain, unimaginable futures.

By principally considering the work of multi-media Indian artists such as Nalini Malani, Amar Kanwar, Navjot Altaf, and The Raqs Media Collective, the paper examines how the contradictions between testimony, truth, memory, and history are interrogated in and across local and transnational art and social spaces. In these innovative screenworks, archival documents, images, sounds and texts are sutured to deconstruct and fictionally reimagine the times of violence, trauma, resistance and hope.

Against the hegemonic neoliberal globalization of digital circuits of ahistorical info-capitalism, and imagined synchronous national histories, this Asian contemporary art explores the ‘disjunctive contemporaneity’ of global time. By drawing upon myths, local everyday narratives, and oral history, the rearticulated pluralistic, subaltern traditions of India interrupt the temporality of globalization. Themes of capitalistic exploitation, class and communal hatred, rape, social violence, and death are the conditions to speculate on futures of hope beyond the historical present. The translocal forms of the artworks attempt to create other ‘world imaginaries’ – subjective and collective – beyond national and capitalist futures.

The paper reflects on the political aesthetics of deconstructive Asian global art, that is at once situated in repressed local histories, myths and memories, and the speculative collective subjectivities of a transcontinental ‘worlding’ of (im)possible Asian decolonial futures-yet-to-come.

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the remains of race: interrupting aesthetics/blackness/postcolonial mourning

Forthcoming talk:

‘Sediments and Arrhythmias: race, sense and sensation’ Seminar – The Remains of Race: Interrupting Aesthetics/Blackness/Postcolonial Mourning

Mar 01, 2017 05:00 PM

Location: IAS Common Ground, Ground Floor, South Wing, Wilkins Building, UCL

The Remains of Race Image

We are pleased to welcome Ashwani Sharma to the Institute of Advanced Studies for this ‘Sediments and Arrhythmias: race, sense and sensation’ Seminar on The Remains of Race: Interrupting Aesthetics/Blackness/Postcolonial Mourning.

All this is certainly both an old and yet a new horizon for thought – immanence as both limit and becoming – here understood from that atopic non-place far beyond the thought of death as a form otherwise than being. – Nahum Chandler

Ashes or cinders are obviously traces…‘cinder’ renders better what I meant to say with the name of trace, namely, something that remains without remaining, which is neither present, nor absent, which destroys itself, which is totally consumed, which is a remainder without remainder. That is, something which is not. – Jacques Derrida

Archives, memories, ghosts, ruins have been privileged concepts in the theoretical practice of contemporary global art and screen media. This talk interrogates temporality, subjectivity and black/postcolonial aesthetics in the present moment of urban and geo-political crisis, with a focus on loss, finitude and death. By examining specific post-conceptual audio-visual forms – the music video, essay film and quotidian photography – the cultural politics of memory, mourning, tragedy and history are readdressed.

The talk speculates on the ‘remains of race’, of surviving, living on, resisting in the contemporary for post-slavery blackness and utopian futurity, and postcolonial, planetary justice ‘yet-to-come’. The aesthetics and ethics of everyday social life, the autobiographical, diaspora and the ‘end of the world’ are traced beyond the traumas of the onto-theology of Eurocentric modernity and gendered racial being.

This perhaps romantic project invites (self)reflections on the (im)possibility of aesthetic critique and education, fugitive black thought and post/de/colonial criticism in a time of institutional erasures, neoliberal biopolitical violence and digital info-capitalism.

Ashwani Sharma is a Principal Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of East London (UEL), and a member of the Centre for Cultural Studies Research at UEL. He teaches, researches and has published in the areas of race, postcolonialism, visual, urban, digital and popular culture. He is completing a book on race and contemporary visual culture, and is an editor of Dis-Orienting Rhythms: The Politics of the New Asian Dance Music. Ash is the founding co-editor of the journal darkmatter, where he has edited numerous issues including on ‘Post-Racial Imaginaries’ and ‘The Wire.’ He is a member of the Black Study Group (London).

Within the current conjuncture of global capitalism, how are “blackness”, “brownness” and racial otherness more broadly, produced, disseminated and received across sonic, visual and textual media? How has “race” as a system of analysis been reconfigured to adequately provide a grammar for these changes? In what ways are modalities of racial otherness understood as experiential categories, cultural aesthetics, intellectual practices or sites of politics in the early twenty-first century?

The “Sediments and Arrhythmias: race, sense, sensation” seminar series at the Institute of Advanced Studies will address questions of racial difference, aesthetic mediation, haptical experience and critical reflection as they shape the spheres of intellectual, cultural and artistic production by Black and Non-black people of colour in the Global North. Using the epistemologically unstable yet highly productive intersections of optics, text, sound, thought, gesture and more, the aim of “Sediments and Arrhythmias” is to speculate on the ontologies of racial otherness as they animate and disrupt many of the affective, fleshy, social and political experiences of the world. The seminar series will be built around presentations and conversations with thinkers and artists who share a common interest in mapping out the sensory valences of racial capitalism in its current form.

Future Dates: 22 March / 26 April* / 24 May / 28 June (all dates listed fall on Wednesdays)

Time: 5pm – 7pm

Location: Institute of Advanced Studies Common Ground, Ground Floor, South Wing, except those marked with an asterisk (*), which will take place in Seminar Room 11, First Floor, South Wing

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‘Then and Now: the changing context of debate?’ – notes on Contemporary Art and Archives [2011]

Documenting some old talks on the blog – this one seems still very relevant now.

Notes for a talk on archives, cultural institutions, art and ‘new internationalism’ for an Iniva event that I spoke at on 9 Nov 2011 (Organised by Roshini Kempadoo)

[Roshini Kempadoo discusses key debates around identity politics as seen through Iniva’s Archives with Karen Alexander, Nina Mangalanayagam and Ashwani Sharma]


I would like to begin my contribution to this debate by playing a short extract from a recording of a dialogue between the American academic Henry Louis Gates and the British art theorist Sarat Mahraj in 1997(?) that Roshini [Kempadoo] found as she was rummaging in the Iniva archives. One of the contexts for this transatlantic conversation was an examination of the idea of ‘New Internationalism and Black British art’. It provides an historical snapshot of the critical concerns of the time.

<Play extract Gates/Mahraj video> 5mins max>[In Stuart Hall Library at Rivington Place]

It is interesting how the notion of ‘new internationalism’ looks so different from either side of the Atlantic.  This in itself signals how even in a globalised context, the nation, and the local, remains a key dimension in the politics of cultural institutions, in which artists, curators and organisations have to operate within. Something I will return to.

As Geeta Kapur commented in the edited collected Global Visions in 1994 the category of ‘new internationalism’ is a contested idea and needs to remain so. At that time there was little agreement of what it might mean. Its positing was a way of attempting to think beyond an eurocentric international modernism. One where differences in art and cultural practices across the world are recognised as part of art history.

To speak of, to return to a ‘new internationalism’ now raises immediately the question of why now, for what purpose? Does the re-conjoining of the new and international offer something more than a western dominated globalization that was hoped for?

Here in a very highly condensed way, I want to argue that in this contemporary global conjuncture there is an urgent need to formulate a set of conceptual frameworks and practices that interrogate and contest the stark realities of a world, more and more in crisis; in which there are great risks that progressive forms of art practices are liable to be marginalised for art as fetishised commodities within the turmoil of the present unraveling.

The present moment is one of deep structural crisis with long-term implications – in the neoliberal economy, geo-politics but also for the arts, media and culture. The wars of the 21st century, the Arab uprisings, the transnational protests and the UK riots, as well as the crisis in capitalism, an imploding political establishment, and a corrupt media, point to a situation in which we are confounded by wholesale instability and uncertainty of the future that crosses different aspects of the social order. The financial crisis has become the point of the numerous reforms in the governmentality of public art, cultural and academic institutions.

As Gramsci famously argued ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’. Its these morbid symptoms and the possibility again of another internationalism that I want say something about.

In this moment, what we have taken as granted in terms of progressive social change for instance – developments in anti-racism and everyday multiculture in the UK are now openly being contested and leading to regression. The changes in the politics of race and culture that have been struggled over in the last 25-30 years can and are being rolled back. There are clear signs of this, for instance in the reduction of public funds for arts and culture, disproportionately for Black and Asian art projects that were established and developed in the 80s and 90s. This with the context of the apparent ‘death/or killing’ of multiculturalism, fortress Europe and state Islamophoia and anti-migrant discourses, we can very quickly build up a picture of a new hegemonic operation in which a certain image of Britain and Britishness is being constructed, where the rhetoric of equal opportunities and cultural diversity is at best a PR operation for a nation turning or returning to its racialised hierarchies in globalised world.

What is particularly dangerous now is how two somewhat different discourses of race and nation are being articulated:

  1. That we have entered a ‘post-racial’ period, in the sense the problems of racism are largely seen to be over (and only remains a problem of extremism ) – this is an old story but reappears now to mark out the difference of the present to the past. In that the (liberal) presumption is that we are all multiculture and cosmopolitan – even look at how an elite commercial sport like Premier League football will not stand for racist speech – the rhetoric is that racism and cultural marginalisation is a thing of the past. Colonialism as an imperial project for some has been overcome, and now even a celebrated period of history. A ‘post-ideological’ context where the past is regulated to the dustbins of history, which only returns as melancholia.
  2. The second is that in this present crisis moment issues of racism, also sexism etc are not priorities the rhetoric goes, we need to focus on the more important issues of the economy and nation unity. In moments of economic crisis, as history teaches us, issues of racism and nationalism return with a vengeance, with the scapegoating of outsiders, of difference, where critical dissident voices and ideas are not tolerated. A new post-political authoritarianism is emerging which is restoring the values of an imperial Britain equipped for a neoliberal world.

‘Post-race’ and new nationalism in a globalised moment of economic crisis are a potent mix, which mean that the limited gains made in UK in particular are under serious threat.

In the arts the progress that is evidenced by Iniva and initiatives such as Karen [Alexander] is leading for example [] is a testament to what was struggled over and won historically. What was key and what is important to recognise that they emerged through political and social conflicts of the 80s and 90s over representation – political and aesthetic. They were a result of self-organisation and political and cultural autonomy demanding access to institutions of the state and power, but crucially also creating autonomous spaces for experimentation and critique. To do things differently, and change the rules of the game.

The present moment is different – in rather simple terms, some of us have entered the institutions and gallery spaces and have tenuous footholds in decision making albeit in the main remaining at low and contingent levels. We have seen greater diversity in some art sectors, resulting from the demands of artists and organisations of colour, and also with the changing dynamics of globalization and flows of culture.

But this entry into the mainstream has also led to the loss of self-organisation and political autonomy. What is different about positing the idea of a new internationalism now is that while at the earlier moment there were clear political agendas and structures of organisation, these are largely not present now. Instead what we have is the market and dominance of the market to determine what is possible or not, even in the public sector. As Paul Gilroy recently commented in relation to the riots,

‘When you look at the layer of political leaders from our communities, the generation who came of age during that time thirty years ago, many of those people have accepted the logic of privatization. They’ve privatized that movement, and they’ve sold their services as consultants and managers and diversity trainers.’ (Gilroy 2011)

In this arena of course some artists of colour have done well and become symbolic of the new globalised shift, but they hide a more structural imbalance and importantly the lack of infrastructure and change that is open to anything like a new internationalism. The transnational art world is business as usual – the difference being now that cosmopolitan spaces like London are better integrated into the circuits of transnational cultural production and capitalism; where particular noted artists from around the world can exhibit work for metropolitan audiences; in which issues of identity and culture can be dis-embedded from their immediate local and national contexts and presented as offering a ‘universalism’ where the west remains the invisible centre. ‘Look aren’t these folks like us’.

The internationalism of the 90s has lead to the globalised art market of contemporary neoliberalism. A market that blurs the distinctions of corporate celebration of other cultures, with critical insights. For example, issues of identity is a site of artistic and conceptual contestation, a symptom of other struggles, as well as the normative syntax of neoliberalism globalization – capitalism can sell this with little problem. As Hardt and Negri have said of the contemporary global Empire as “…a decentred and deterritorializing apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers. Empire manages hybrid identities, flexible hierarchies, and plural exchanges through modulating networks of command.”

What gets lost in this globalization is the local and national contexts and the situations in which artists from the south and the north are operating in. This is the case here where a way of bypassing the issues of racism and nationalism in the UK is to privilege the work of artists from outside the west, with little connection to the UK, over say Black or Asian British artists rooted in the country for decades.

This is not a picture of a new internationalism but a neoliberal agenda of the market elevating certain works for western and global consumption.

What is needed now I would argue is progressive institutions, and progressive understanding of what are institutions, and what they can do –  organising and planning are key here, to provide much needed infrastructural opposition to these tendencies, to create space for critical and aesthetic opposition, to challenge and create new frontiers in the war against the new emergent globalized nationalisms. As Fanon said

‘”It is national liberation which leads the nation to play its part on the stage of history. It is at the heart of national consciousness that international consciousness lives and grows. And this two-fold emerging is ultimately the source of all culture.”

It is maybe to a reworked Fanon, with his ‘new international humanism’ that we need to return to? The situation in the west in terms of race and class could be best understood as a form a ‘settler colonialism’. A model of decolonialisation as the deconstruction of the nation – that is not a nationalism – is perhaps needed. A new internationalism can only be possible if the violence of racism in the west is challenged.

As the extract demonstrated in this moment as ‘business as usual’ what we need is more opposition, a more aggressive fight for resources and demands but also space and time to think, to critique to posit different ideas, especially when those spaces are closing down. An alternative globalization, a new internationalism that is open to multiple dialogues and connections on different fronts without collapsing all into one universal (western) project, where ‘whiteness’ remains at the centre. Lines in the sand need to be drawn where art is committed to change in and across, invisible to, escaping the nation.

The politics of the archive, the notion of an international archive, a postcolonial archive, decolonial archive is one such site of conflict – not in terms of a nostalgia that it was good then and lets do it again, but that this is now and that those very struggles in art and politics that we fought over need to return. We need to ask the right questions again. To contest the collective memory of the nation as we enter a phase of the neo-colonial empire. Institutions are part of mediating process between art, curators, policy and the market. They are part of the politics of institutionalization, with all what is at stake in these processes.

This requires us also to question what institutions, such as an archive are, can do, and should do in the context of struggle for political freedom. It is maybe that the fate of some institutions will be like the furniture shop in Croydon – burnt to the ground – symbolically if not materially – and we need to do is rebuild again different forms of institutions, and organisations with new assemblages of artists, curators and critics that renew the relationship between art, culture and the political in the crisis of the nation.

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