Multiple Modernities: Twentieth-Century Artistic Modernisms in Global Perspective


Ruth Phillips (Carleton University) and Elizabeth Harney (University of Toronto)


Intellectual Scope

Our project affirms the co-modernity of world arts by exploring the active engagements with artistic modernism that artists from colonized and indigenous societies pursued during the twentieth century.  These ‘multiple modernisms’ have been produced by, among others, Inuit sculptors in the Canadian Arctic, Aboriginal painters in the central Australian desert, Chimbu  printmakers in Papua New Guinea, African and Caribbean artists moving between art schools and markets at home and abroad, and South Asian artists in tribal, urban, and international settings.  Although rich in aesthetic, cultural and historical interest, non-Western modernisms have been largely omitted from standard art historical accounts and museum exhibitions. When considered at all, they have tended to be regarded as inauthentic imitations of artistic innovations that originated with European avant-gardes at the beginning of the twentieth century. In contemporary societies, in which art production continues to be regarded as a culminating cultural achievement, the denial of active participation in modernity positions the producing cultures themselves as secondary and imitative.

With the recent interest in the global nature of contemporary artistic practice, new scholarly research has begun to focus on the modernist innovators who preceded these contemporary artists, bringing to light the diverse and active engagements of artists living under colonial and neo-colonial regimes. We are beginning to acknowledge the ways that these unexamined artistic productions challenge long held values of authenticity and value, and to appreciate choices of materials and artistic methods that are often distinctive in relation to European models and present highly adept mixes of the local and the global.  Recent studies also focus our attention on the varied and unique ways in which global modernisms negotiate local experiences of modernity, often providing links between so-called ‘traditional’ and contemporary aesthetic practices and counteracting pat narratives of erasure, loss, and contamination.  By affirming the multiplicity and unique value of artistic modernisms produced around the world and by simultaneously acknowledging diversities within the modernism of the West, our project intervenes in the unitary, hierarchical and evolutionary accounts of progress that have dominated the ways that world cultures are understood.  It thus works to establish a new level of respect for world cultural achievements.

Thus far most research on multiple modernisms has been pursued within regional and national borders, and researchers working on parallel issues have remained in ignorance of each other’s work.  This Canada-led project will be the first to establish a collaborative research framework that brings together pioneering scholars in the field and allows them to share their research with each other and with broader publics. Through its comparative structure, it will both reveal common patterns that inform world modernisms and heighten awareness of the unique features of specific traditions.


History and Future Plans

The project was launched in May 2011 at a workshop sponsored by the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts.  During fall 2011 major international museums and the University of Toronto Scarborough’s library and digital humanities units joined as partners. Together, we will develop three strategies for enlarging and changing public understandings not only of artistic modernism but also of modernity itself: 1) a program of symposia and publications that makes the research available to teachers and students at high school and university levels, enabling them to create more inclusive  curricula; 2) access to resources that support the efforts of  influential museums to  produce exhibitions and programming with a global scope and to build more inclusive collections; and 3) the creation of a web platform that will act as a forum for scholars, curators, teachers, and students to share information with a global public through virtual exhibitions, articles, on-line discussions, events announcements, archives of important historical materials, and a list-serve.

Activities and Partnership Structure

At the core of the project is a series of four meetings currently planned for Ottawa, Cambridge (U.K.), Wellington (New Zealand), and Johannesburg (South Africa). Each will be devoted to a specific aspect of world artistic modernism and will be organized through one or more partnerships with academic institutions and museums. At each site a public symposium will bring members of the international research collaboration together with speakers from the host region, providing opportunities for members of the professional arts and academic communities and the broader public to hear and enter into discussions about local modernisms within a global framework. The symposium will be complemented by professional networking events and opportunities for scheduled one-on-one meetings with symposium participants. A workshop for the symposium participants will enable them to refine their presentations for publication and to identify further partners and research collaborators in order to expand the network.

Initial Research Collaborators

Bill Anthes (Pitzer College, Los Angeles)

Peter Brunt (Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand)

Iftikhar Dadi (Cornell University, New York)

Elizabeth Harney (University of Toronto)

Heather Igloliorte (Carleton University/Concordia University)

Sandra Klopper (University of Pretoria, South Africa)

Ian McLean (University of Wollongong, Sydney, Australia)

Anitra Nettleton (University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa)

Chika Okeke-Agulu (Princeton University, New Jersey)

Ruth Phillips (Carleton University, Ottawa)

W. Jackson Rushing Jr. (University of Oklahoma)

Nicholas Thomas (University of Cambridge, U.K.)

Susan Vogel (Independent Scholar, New York)

Norman Vorano (Canadian Museum of Civilization, Ottawa)