Other Modernities


Bringing together specialists in the fields of Anthropology, Middle Eastern Studies, and ArtHistory, this project considers the historiography of arts in the non-West as part of worldwide processes of modernization. Rather than conceiving of the non-Western present against the backdrop of supposedly authentic, homogenous, and undiluted traditions, this project focuses on the historiographic construction of art and visual culture as intertwined agents and expressions of sociopolitical modernization. It proposes art and performance as parallel arenas through which cultural identity comes to be perceived neither as a search for roots nor a striving for Westernization, but as a process of coming-into-being within a framework of shifting cultural and political hegemonies.

The notion of modernity as phenomenon that destroys the present in order to build a new future - a tabula rasa phenomenon completely opposed to tradition – is particularly complicated in the case of non-Western settings. Whereas in the West, where the conceptualization of 'the modern' as a post- Enlightenment project of utopian rationality responded against existing traditions, sublimating them into new forms, elsewhere modernization was often understood as erasing local culture in favor of a template borrowed from the West. For example, in much of the Arab world of the early twentieth century, the word ruwwad, pioneers, was used to designate modern artists, as if they were acting in a barren desert rather than in an already rich and vital cultural context. Historiographies of non-Western arts have often followed such a model, viewing artistic production as a belatedimport rather than a complex part of ongoing cultural change and local processes of modernization.

Consequently, 'tradition,' viewed in opposition to modernity, has often been understood as already finished and only available for revival, even when existing practices have survived into the present, particularly in forms of performance associated with indigenous or rural peoples. Thus the fine arts, associated with modernity, and 'traditional' arts, often commodified in the production of nostalgia or marketed for tourists, serve together as a meansof simplifying the complex processes of cultural mixing that this project seeks to unravel. By bringing together the study of cultural production, its preservation, and its commodification, this project aims to reinscribe the agency of artists, arts institutions, and commodity production in the history and analysis of non-Western culture as a socio-political phenomenon.

To this end, the project will:

  • study the historiographic divergence between the study of pre-modern non-Western arts and the relative inattention paid to the modern era. It thus aims to establish a paradigm for the study of the modern art (as opposed to much more popular contemporary art) of the non-West, a geo- temporal phenomenon generally excluded from art historical consideration, but nonetheless central to understanding tropes of national identity construction that extend to the present.
  • examine the political instrumentalization of art as an agent of modernization within the context of broader practices of visual culture. Rather than conceiving of the visual arts within a domain of elite practice or connoisseurial success, it examines art as a document of modern identity production in line with other visual practices such as clothing or advertising.
  • ​develop specific case studies to suggest the range of the field and encourage future investment in academic positions and public exhibitions of non-Western modern arts and establish research and teaching on these topic within the academic field and affiliated institutions.
  • develop a broader synergy between this project, the public, and institutions with similar interests in Switzerland, Europe and the Middle East, which will serve as a focal case study relying on the expertise of the project leaders.