The Decolonial Discourse Lands in Latvia

April 26, 2023
Author Zane Zajančkauska
Published in Detour

The text was originally published in WunderKombināts I. Latvian Art Yearbook 2022′

Over the past couple years, decoloniality has assumed a significant place on the agenda of art and memory institutions in Europe, with exhibitions, symposia and discussions about the place of Eastern Europe in the colonial past and present taking place more and more often. This seems an opportune moment to consider the touchdown or landing of the decolonial discourse in Latvia, and that is what I suggested to the editors of this publication, being unsure, however, whether the word ‘landing’ should be enclosed by quotation marks. Saying that the discourse is landing in Latvia would be tantamount to acknowledging local peripherality, as if ideas and findings from somewhere else, ‘the center’ had finally arrived (or have perhaps been brought in a recent seminar dedicated to postcolonial and post-Soviet issues I also heard, “introduced, disease-like”) here. Meanwhile the very same de- and post-colonial ideas are related to redefining peripherality and resisting the notion of the usual centres as producers of knowledge. That is why, in this article, I am trying to pin down the arrival of the decolonial discourse, turning attention to a number of art events of the past couple years. With these I understand individual artworks and curatorial practices as well as discursive events and texts. I started out with an interest in the landing of a discourse but also had my doubts as to whether ‘landing’ is a fruitful concept. A plane landing on the tarmac is helped by airport ground staff. Meanwhile, a badminton shuttlecock landing on our side of the field is a missed opportunity to play together.

Arnis Balčus, Amnesia (2008 – 2009), photo series

The convenience and inconvenience around different ‘post-’s

The first response to postcolonial theories in the Latvian-speaking cultural space was given from a subaltern position. In the 2008 essay ‘Life in Limbo: Postcolonial Discourse in Latvian 1990s’ Art’[1] Anda Kļaviņa discusses the works of Latvian artists Oļegs Tillbergs, Andris Breže, Sarmīte Māliņa, Leonards Laganovskis, Miķelis Fišers and others, showing that a number of topics and strategies that theorists have identified as characteristic of postcolonial societies – such as amnesia, victimization and a voluntary assumption of neocolonial relations – can be encountered in 1990s’ art. Likewise, postcolonial theory, as Kļaviņa suggested, could be used to interpret the irony and proclivity to esotericism prevalent in the work of Latvian artists as a subaltern strategy of opposition. Inter alia, Kļaviņa found that “prior to the emergence of a theory addressing the post-Soviet situation in particular, postcolonial theory…is the best way of observing and understanding local art created in the 1990s and making it translate into international terms.”[2]

A little more than a decade has passed and no theory tailored to the post-Soviet situation has  emerged as yet, and it has become clear in the meanwhile that it never will.[3] In 2021, Jānis Taurens’ essayIn Which Castle Should Cinderella Look for her Slipper’ continued what Anda Kļaviņa had begun, using postcolonial theory to meditate upon artworks made over the first decades of the 21st century.[4] So, for example, Amnesia (2008-2009), a series of photos by Arnis Balčus, with its staged scenes in spaces with Soviet-style interiors, can “conjure nostalgic memories or an exotic interest for the people who haven’t experienced the Soviet era” all the while “suggesting the disquieting intimation that this amnesia is only apparent, with Soviet indoctrination being preserved both bodily and psychologically”. Meanwhile Ieva Epnere’s 2016 work Potom [Afterwards] sees the protagonist, a former officer in the Soviet Army, “turn from a former colonizer…into the ‘other’, the ‘alien’ or the ostracized”.

Nevertheless, Taurens’ piece starts with something else entirely. The author is puzzled about the fact that Aleksandra Beļcova’s 1925 painting The White and the Black [Baltā un melnā], displayed and written about so much recently, has never been analysed through the “dynamics of gender, class and race”,[5] the ‘classical’ outlook of art history prevailing instead. Taurens ventures that this might be so because there is no postcolonial theory or, more precisely, postcolonial critique in the Latvian cultural space. But looking at Ieva Epnere’s Potom or Aleksandra Beļcova’s The White and the Black from a postcolonial point of view means thinking the colonial from different positions and in different contexts. Whereas the works of the past twenty years analyzed by Kļaviņa and Taurens concern subaltern experience and self-reflection, with the USSR being the colonizer and the EU/Europe being the object  of neocolonial relations, Beļcova’s painting concerns the construction of the ‘exotic other’. Europe is the colonizer here, while the so-called Global South is the oppressed, and the Latvians (the author of the painting) are siding with the colonizing Europeans. Even though Latvians never established any colonies,[6] they partake in colonial fantasies and keep on reproducing notions (or living under the influence of said notions) which we now, many decades later, are starting to recognize to be based on faulty and bellicose reasoning.

In 2010 Anda Kļaviņa, reflecting on the difficulties that arise upon adapting postcolonial critique to the post-Soviet situation, wrote that “post-Soviet countries do not wish to be associated with Third World countries, especially because, unlike in Western colonialism, they often considered the people who colonized them to be culturally less sophisticated, and not the other way around”. Today, there might be different difficulties. Does not the application of postcolonial theories with ourselves in the role of the colonized promote the practice of dissociating ourselves from colonial history and considering its consequences as alien, ‘Western problems’? What would looking at colonialism from both the subaltern and hegemon perspectives entail?

It is common for authors to recognize the limits of the use of postcolonial theory when it is applied to the post-Soviet condition; this encompasses both ‘reverse-cultural colonization’[7] (the cultural superiority that the Soviet-occupied Baltics felt towards their occupiers) as well as the fact that in post-Soviet countries mimesis and the ‘striving towards’ – which are characteristic of postcolonial conditions – were not directed towards the former colonizer but towards the EU/Europe instead. Usually with these caveats and then some, postcolonial critique is seen to be a useful theory for analyzing the societies and cultures that have spent decades under Soviet yoke. Nevertheless, an article by Neil Lazarus invites us to scrutinize this very ‘usefulness’. Lazarus asks whether in treating post-Soviet experiences as postcolonial the goal is to test the postcolonial discourse, insofar as it applies to post-Soviet culture, or whether it is instead a calculated subjection of culture to accepted doctrines of postcolonial theory, bestowing as they do academic authority in ‘the West’, the culturally hegemonic anglophone part of the academic world in particular.[8] As Anda Kļaviņa notes, postcolonial theory is the best way of not only looking at and understanding 1990s  art, but also “making it translate into international terms”. According to Lazarus, postcolonial studies have the tendency of fetishizing the West as a homogenous superpower. In the model where the USSR is the colonizer and Europe is the object of neocolonial dependencies, Eastern European countries participate in this fetishization instead of chipping away at the myth of a homogenous Europe and diversifying the predominant view of history by imbuing it with the conflicted and heterogenous.

Arnis Balčus, Amnesia (2008 – 2009), photo series

It is likewise problematic to borrow postcolonial theories  while ignoring the specific pasts in which they are rooted – of resources exhausted in colonized territories, of the millions of people who were abducted, forcibly moved, killed and enslaved in labour camps over the course of several centuries. At the same time, ideas on the human right to freedom and dignity were developed in Europe in tandem with a philosophical grounding for slavery. Kant’s categorical imperative could exist side by side with his judgments on races and the most appropriate ways of subjecting and using each. Universal ideals of human dignity could remain universal, because the enslaved populations were as if imperceptibly (thanks to theoretical grounding) excluded from the category of being human.[9] Theory has, therefore, has at some point in the past already betrayed the people who were enslaved. Postcolonialist ideas arose centuries later as a reaction that would allow a discussion of what living with the consequences of postcolonialism entails. Articulated in the traditions of Western thought (as there is no other way of making oneself heard), these ideas could, post-haste, turn back into abstract and universal categories applicable to different situations.

Therefore, even though rendering specific experiences into more general abstractions is exactly how theory works , it might be worth considering not only what we stand to gain but also in what sort of an epistemological project we take part through it, and who really benefits when we apply postcolonial critique to the post-Soviet condition. In their text Decolonization is not a metaphor[10], which borders on a manifesto, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang describe several strategies or “moves towards innocence” used by colonizer countries. Among these is claiming that various experiences of repression are the same as colonization: “Calling different groups ‘colonized’ without describing their relationship to settler colonialism[11] is an equivocation…In particular, describing all struggles against imperialism as ‘decolonizing’ creates a convenient ambiguity between decolonization and social justice work, especially among people of color, queer people, and other groups minoritized by the settler nation-state. ‘We are all colonized,’ may be a true statement but is deceptively all-encompassing and vague, its inference: ‘None of us are settlers.’”

It is telling that the recognition of postcolonial social problems across the post-Soviet space has not sparked deeper interest in or resulted in closer ties with colonized countries. We are ill-informed about the realities and the artistic depiction thereof in South Africa, Tunisia, the Caribbean countries, Peru and other former colonies. Here, perhaps, Anda Kļaviņa is telling the truth when she notes the difficulty of associating oneself with Third World countries. Other reasons for this lack of interest could lie in the fact that being allied with the anticolonial struggle in these areas was part of official Soviet policy, and the societies that regained their autonomy with the fall of the USSR distanced themselves from these ties, seen as Soviet. In all likelihood, there are purely pragmatic reasons for the lack of ties and knowledge as well, because the establishment of collaborative networks during the first ten years after regaining idependence was to a great extent dictated by the availability of funding, and hence by the networking logic of the US and the EU, including the Nordic countries.

A history of looking and not seeing

Returning to Taurens’ reference to Beļcova’s The White and the Black and his lament that the painting has not until now been analyzed through the prism of postcolonial theory, it should be noted that at around the same time that Taurens was writing his essay, Bart Pushaw was already doing so.[12] The ‘classical’ approach noted by Jānis Taurens had up to that point addressed the work’s stylistics, its nuanced tones and iconographic similarity to Édouard Manet’s Olympia; meanwhile, as concerns the subject matter of the painting, audiences  had hitherto been introduced to the life story of Biruta Ozoliņa-Amadori, one of the depicted women.[13] Pushaw supplemented current research by drawing attention to the other woman – sixteen-year-old Tao, who had arrived with the Amadori family from Siam as a domestic servant. Comparing the painting and the photograph that served as its model, Pushaw sheds light on some of the choices made by the artist. Tao’s necklace has been removed and the contrast between Biruta’s ’whiteness’ and Tao’s ‘blackness’ has been heightened in the painting, with their facial features changed so as to stress the differences between the supposedly separate worlds the women represent.[14] Pushaw’s  analysis shows that Beļcova’s painting is a vivid example of the practice of othering, described by Edward Said and other first-generation postcolonial theorists. His message, of course, is not about Beļcova. It is about the history of looking, the way in which visual culture has neutralized and naturalized this kind of othering. New readings and repeated scrutiny, which we engage in to pose questions that have not been asked yet, can help us raise the issue of our ways of seeing and representation even today, a century after Beļcova.

And a century after Beļcova, the open-air exhibition Mobile Museum. The Next Season displayed works made over the past thirty years, works that are “deserving to become part of the collection in a Latvian Contemporary Art Museum”,[15] alluding to the  fact that the country still lacks its own museum of contemporary art . There we see Aigars Bikše’s work Black Folk Maiden [Tumšādainā tautumeita] (or, in its other iterations, Black Barbie [Tumšādainā Bārbija]), which essentially is much more racist than Beļcova’s painting, once the latter is examined using present-day knowledge. The large-scale sculpture was made in 2014 as part of an installation for the European Capital of Culture – Riga festival. The installation was set up at the site of the former Lenin Monument. Four changing sculptures were displayed in the original installation, supposedly “playing upon the cultural heritage that the former great powers ruling in Latvia have left here…with Poland and Christianity symbolized by a wooden replica of a Virgin Mary sculpture, Germany and nationalism represented by a rendition of Kaiser Wilhelm I, whereas an object based on a sketch by Gustavs Klucis represented Russia and the revolution, while Sweden, openness and a multicultural society was embodied by a black Barbie in Swedish folk attire.”[16] Barbie, a symbol of North American consumer society, bears no relation whatsoever to 17th-century Sweden, and neither is the Swedish era in Latvian history linked to multiculturalism in any way.

In later years, Bikše changed the Swedish folk dress of this large-scale doll to a Latvian one. It also acquired a new title, Libau-Halifax-Libau, and the character was renamed Milda, a Latvian woman whose grandfather had left the Russian Empire to go to Halifax, from where Milda is returning to Latvia in the present day. The  figure was also used as a decoration, holding an Easter Rabbit on the roof of the Mākslai vajag telpu building as a way to ‘wish everyone happy Easter’. It then became Milda again and was placed on a base of roots and branches at Riga Art Space, once more telling the story of a black Latvian returning to the old country. It would seem that Bikše’s sole interest lay in the impact that could be achieved from the contrast he was constructing. As in, here’s a folk costume, traditionally worn by historically ‘’white nations’ (the Swedes or the Latvians), on a dark-skinned wearer. All of this, is of course, presented in astonishing super-size. The contexts, stories and titles could change while the impact stays the same. Bikše’s works are usually put forth as ‘provocative’, even though it is often not clear what they are intended to provoke. Exhibited in manifold ways, the work received a lot of public attention and ended up being copiously photographed and re-published. This was not, however, followed by talking about, commenting upon and discussing its content, or the representational clichés that it reproduced.

It would seem, then, that a critical perspective on the methods of othering in the 1920s can go hand in hand with actual practices of othering in the 2020s, and it is tempting to attribute this to an Eastern-Europeanness, a condition of ‘not-yet-being-Europe’ in which Western discourses are dutifully studied while retaining a firm sense of having an essential local specificity that supposedly imparts different representational contexts. The people creating discourses in the West are not to be bothered with this understanding of locally-specific nature (because they would not get it), and these two directions are instead practiced in parallel, as if they were addressed to different audiences. Nevertheless, perhaps this somewhat schizophrenic condition could be presented as an object lesson about the coloniality of knowledge, that is, of a Eurocentric system of knowledge that has, for centuries, created hierarchies of knowledge and rational constructs that make a colonial existence convenient, to the degree that it becomes not only possible but inevitable. And emancipation from the coloniality of knowledge (the most significant task  advanced by theorists of coloniality) is a difficult process, one that is rife with stumbles and falls, no matter if it takes place in Eastern/Western Europe, the Global South or the North.

Vika Eksta, Conversations with Dad (2020). Installation, video. Photo by Margarita Ogolceva

Longing for a colonial past

Meanwhile Quinsy and Jörgen Gario’s performance How to See the Spots of Der Leopard[17], held at the monument dedicated to Duke Jacob Kettler in Kuldīga, assigns the Latvian public a starkly different role in the discussion about colonialist heritage. Duke Jacob, in the monument by Gļebs Panteļejevs and Andris Veidemanis, is being apparently ‘teleported’ from the 17th century into the 21st after being commissioned by the city for the 400th anniversary of the Duke’s birth. Indeed, Duke Jacob and the colonies his Duchy held in Tobago and Gambia occupy a special place in Latvian mythology and the general narrative about the long years of subjugation. Latvians eagerly identify themselves with the Duchy of Courland and its colonial ambitions, even going so far as to making themselves part of the story of colonization.

Quinsy and Jörgen Gario, both born in Carribean countries (Curaçao and Sint Maarten), used the performance to focus on the aforementioned nostalgia, which they invested with new content. In their performance at the square by the statue, they used duct tape to create an outline of Tobago and asked the passers-by, numerous times, “Are you nostalgic?” They offered both things familiar – a nostalgia for heroes, adventure, immense oceans, rice, and a childish fascination about the world – and things less-known and not included in the Latvian myth about Tobago, such as whether we are nostalgic for the violence we are ignorant about, whether we are nostalgic for the people who lost everything, and whether we remain nostalgic once Quinsy Gario shifted the second-person singular pronoun: “Are we nostalgic?” Gario’s further questions make us recognize that despite the longevity of the Tobago myth among the Latvian public, we have not learned very much about the place itself (at some point Jörgen Gario changed his synthesizer for the kokle, a traditional Latvian instrument).

In analyzing the special status of Tobago in Latvian mythology, Dace Dzenovska suggests seeing it not as a national pathology but rather noting its difficult links to the moral and political landscape of Europe.[18] The pride that Latvians take in the colonies, even though they were not Latvian and belonged to the Duchy, and only for a short while, is related to the desire to affirm that they – the Latvians – belong to Europe. The leaders of the Polish Maritime and Colonial League still harbored a similar mindset in the years after World War I. They, too, claimed that becoming a true European nation meant acquiring colonies. Similarly, Czechoslovakian politicians at the Paris Peace Conference tried to achieve territorial gains in Africa and Kamchatka,[19] and Karolis Kaupinis’ recent film Nova Lithuania tells the story of a Lithuanian geographer trying to promote the idea of setting up a colony. The Latvians, meanwhile, incorporate past colonies into the story of their national self-consciousness. The motivation is similar: it is a way of participating in the spirit of European modernity. In the general narrative of Latvian history as a history of being constantly subjugated, the story of the Duchy of Courland displays a longing for an autonomy of sorts.[20] According to Dzenovska, these Latvian attempts to claim a place in the history of colonialism serve as an unpleasant and perfectly salient reminder that the colonial past is a fundamentally constitutive aspect of Europe: “On the one hand, socialist-cum-European Latvians facilitate the erasure of colonialism from Western Europe’s self-narrative by occupying the ‘not-yet-European’ slot, thus enabling the Western knowing and judging subject to focus on democratization and liberalization projects rather than his or her own shameful past. On the other hand, socialist-cum-European Latvians throw that project into disarray when, in order to overcome their seemingly permanent ‘not-quite-European’ position, they strive to identify with colonialism, thus challenging the criteria of ‘goodness’ in Western Europe’s self-narrative.”[21]

If being a truly European society (as per the value-related narrative) entails  becoming European by way of landing, straightaway, at the stage of decoloniality and condemning the colonial past, these not-yet-European subjects, lagging behind, are still trying to become the old Europe without which present-day Europe would not have been possible. This opens up a space for carrying out ‘civilizing activities’, and it would seem that, in addition to the humanities, contemporary art and museums have become the most active agents in this mission of civilization.

On a political level, however, the process of decolonization is taking place in a sluggish and hesitant manner, and perhaps for this very reason it is worth treating the role played by these “the most active agents in the mission of civilization” with caution. Should issues of decolonization become merely part of the rhetoric of exhibition halls, the very project of decolonization will have failed. It would become but another step in the “move towards innocence”.  If the need for varied decolonial practices is sanctioned, it would be interesting to think about whether, and, if yes, in what way Eastern European voices could contribute to the discussion about – and the action related to – colonial heritage, not just as orderly ‘civilized subjects’ mastering the current attitudes towards the shared heritage of Europe and learning more about as well as acknowledging situations and attitudes that testify to our complicity, but also, perhaps, finding more disruptive strategies that introduce the colonial experience both from a subaltern and a colonizing perspective.

Ieva Epnere, Potom (Later) (2016), video

Difficult pasts, those of others and our own

The exhibition Difficult Pasts. Connected Worlds,[22] curated by Ieva Astahovska and Margaret Tali, was a surprising event if seen in the context of decoloniality. It strived to bring together different historical situations and perspectives. The goal of the exhibition (and the symposium linked to it) was “shedding light on difficult and suppressed topics in the Baltic and Eastern European region”. The work encompassed both a work by Quinsy Gario – a colonial chest bought at a Riga antique shop but most likely coming from the Netherlands, with an opened suitcase placed on top of it, featuring both a ‘fragile contents’ warning as well as Latvian folk songs with the text changed to include Latvian nostalgia over the colony, which was once (almost) theirs – as well as Vika Eksta’s conversation with her father, who was forced to go to war in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. Eksta drew attention to the psychological trauma caused by warfare and pushed out of conscious thought by maintaining the ‘manly silence’ extolled in the USSR. The show also featured Aslan Goisum’s work on the war in Chechnya as well as Lia and Andrii Dostliev’s work about the Holodomor in Ukraine, along with other works and historical situations. The curators contextualized these from the point of view of trauma and memory studies, which unlike history are not just interested in past events but also addresse the ways in which remembrance – pathological remembrance, i.e. trauma included – continues to affect present-day reality.

According to a review by Toms Babincevs, the exhibition produced “a therapeutic effect”. He admitted, however, that by heaping together many different problematic experiences it may not only reduce the “sense of loneliness and isolation as concerns pain and suffering…but also confronts us with the idea that ‘it’s the same for everyone, so there is little that  can be done about it’.”[23] That is, the interpretation of different histories of subjugation and violence from the point of view of remembrance and trauma may offer consolation, but, perhaps, politicizing instead of psychologizing the experience of the exhibition hall would have been in order here.

The choice the curators of Difficult Pasts. Connected Worlds made – to bring many different historical experiences together within a single show – makes one wonder what it would mean to look at these experiences not (solely) as painful memories that keep on haunting our region, but as enduring injustices from which we are, in all likelihood, are still suffering and which we continue to reproduce. In addition to healing scars of the past, it would also be possible to address particularly difficult issues. Most of the traumatic experiences discussed in the show relate to different periods in the Soviet Union and are approached from the point of view of the occupied (victims of the Soviet–Afghan War, Stalinist repressions, and the war in Chechnya as post-Soviet imperialism). But these share the same space with Zuzanna Hertzberg’s installation about Jewish-Polish and Jewish-Latvian women who fought in the Spanish Civil War, assuming a Communist (Comintern) position against the right-wingers, monarchists and militarists led by general Franco. How can one think about all of this within a single space, a single exhibition? How is it possible to identify ways of speaking about the “difficult” past and present of left-wing ideas in the Eastern European space? How can someone use a single space, a single exhibition to think both about the Latvian desire to take credit for colonizing Tobago and the series of other historical episodes that speak about the colonial practices of the Soviet Union?

In lieu of discussing colonial heritage, second-generation postcolonial theories[24] shift the discussion towards coloniality, that is, a long-term model of political, social, and knowledge-related power, which has fortified itself during centuries of colonialism and still exists even after a series of emancipatory events (these include the manumission of colonies, the granting of rights and a reconsideration of representation) have taken place. Theorists of coloniality  tend to distance themselves from the postcolonial, arguing that the ‘post’ in postcolonialism preserves the colonized time and space by adding a new period to the Eurocentric sequence of time and historical development.[25] Even though the concepts of coloniality came into being in the 1990s and were developed over the following decades, these are, to a great extent, in line with the 1950s’ writings of Aimé Césaire about Fascism as a colonialism that is returning home (to be fair, Césaire, writing in 1955, spoke about Nazism).[26] That which did not end with the West’s withdrawal from the countries it had colonized is a space of ideas in which universalism is possible, one that only applies to a limited number of people. And, thanks to the tradition of a hierarchy of certain knowledges, this kind of universalism is still preserved in the understanding of both the subjugators and the subjugated.

The notion of coloniality creates a space in which it is possible to be both the subject of subjugation and a subjugator; to mourn for having to go to a war that was not one’s own while longing to have gone to war elsewhere. But it is perhaps impossible to think both about romanticizing the colonization of Tobago and, for example, the repressions carried out in the USSR and the forced deportation of people to the northern territories of the USSR at the same time. Perhaps the chronological gap between the majority of works which mostly refer to 20th-century events and Quinsy Gario’s comment  about romanticizing the colonization of Tobago is too great to create the necessary tension between the exhibition works and topics, even if the romanticization of Tobago, colonized in the 17th century, is a 20th-century event. It also seems that Quinsy Gario’s work in the show remained too cryptic and lacking in allied works. But it was an interesting and courageous step to add to the narrative of subjugation with local colonial fantasies.

Quinsy Gario and Jorgen Gario’s performance How to See the Spots of Der Leopard in Kuldīga, 2020. Photo by Annemarija Gulbe

A landing?

It is clear that issues related to colonial heritage and coloniality will remain on the agenda of art and the humanities for the time to come, thus potentially making their way on the agenda of the public at large, too. Now, while questions over the place of Eastern Europe in the colonial past and present of the West are being posed in seminars, art projects and exhibitions, this place, or our presence in the colonial past is already being practiced. It is being shaped, expanded upon, and established exactly through this doubt and seeking, and the attempts to fit in and to distance ourselves. If we wanted to, we could view what is happening today as a kind of coming down to earth, a landing, as something inevitable, or as a conscious choice – another quest for international translatability which Anda Kļaviņa pragmatically mentioned in her 2010 article, arguing for the use of postcolonial theory in our region. But we could just as well wish for something else entirely. In thinking about the place of Latvia and Eastern Europe in the global conversation about the past and present of colonialism, fruitful avenues are provided by Neil Lazarus’ warning about the fetishization of a homogenous Europe (or the West) as well as Dace Dzenovska’s suggestion to examine Latvian colonial fantasies not with the goal of self-accusation or self-condemnation, but in order to explore these fantasies within the wider European political and moral context. In all likelihood this would require moving away from the theory of memory and trauma towards a more active, more political interpretation of ‘our own’ past, examining it not only within a context of occupying power but also offering a markedly more disruptive position to the rest of Europe, with its illusions, deliberately chosing not to see and pragmatic choices. The question about the place of Eastern Europe in the colonial past and present of the West is, in essence, a question of whether Eastern Europe could be the West, and the answer to it is significantly influenced by the close-up  or the viewpoint we assume when looking at Europe.

The 2021 song by Latvian pop group Alejas, with the lyrics, “You were in Australia / you saw a kangaroo, you saw a dolphin, you saw a platypus”[27] continues the motive started in the 1980s by the Latvian experimental group NSRD about being in China, seeing the sumac tree and the fact that “everyone knows that China exists, though there are some who don’t know where it is”.[28] The things seen in Australia – baobab trees, the ocean, corals and a kangaroo – sound very much like the Australia that can be seen in the tourism agency promotions, or in our own superficial preconceptions about this land. But for the group Alejas it is also clear as to what is wrong and what it is that “won’t leave you be”. “Dear friend,” Alejas sing, “it’s your ears that won’t leave you be.” It is possible that the discourse of decolonization, which again brings the not-yet-being-European characteristic of Eastern Europe to the fore, offers a possibility to finally dispense with this ‘not yet’, similarly to the way we accept our inability to see our own ears or at least acknowledge that we need a mirror to see them.

[1] A. Kļaviņa, Dzīve limbo: postkoloniālisma diskurss 90. gadu Latvijas mākslā”, Deviņdesmitie. Laikmetīgā māksla Latvijā, sast. Ieva Astahovska. Rīga: LMC, 2010, pp. 174.–189. It should be noted, however, that Kārlis Račevskis (2001) and Benedikts Kalnačs (2011) have used postcolonial critique in the context of literature, analyzing Latvian prose works and plays.

[2] A. Kļaviņa, Dzīve limbo: postkoloniālisma diskurss 90. gadu Latvijas mākslā”, Deviņdesmitie. Laikmetīgā māksla Latvijā, sast. Ieva Astahovska. Rīga: LMC, 2010, pp. 174.–189.

[3]  It is true that the war in Ukraine has ushered in a renewed focus on the recent history of so-called Eastern Europe,  gives hope that public (and academic) opinion in the so-called West could now refrain from politely refusal to review critically the history and the present of Russian imperialism. However, this article was written before the war in Ukraine, and it would be premature to assume that this shift in interest is here to stay.

[4] J. Taurens, “Kurā pilī pelnrušķītei meklēt savu kurpīti: postkoloniālisms Latvijas 21. gadsimta mākslā”,, 22.05.2020. and 29.05.2020. <>, accessed 18.04.2022.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Interestingly, Siam (now Thailand), the birthplace of Tao, one of the women portrayed in The White and the Black has also never been colonized officially, even though the dynamics of its relations to the West allow referring to it as a “subject” in terms of postcolonial critique.

[7] D. Chioni Moore, “Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique”, PMLA Vol. 116, Nr. 1, p. 121

[8] N. Lazarus, “Spectres haunting: Postcommunism and postcolonialism”, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, Vol.48, Nr. 2, 2012, p. 118

[9] E.Ch. Eze, “The Color of Reason: The Idea of “Race” in Kant’s Anthropology”, Poscolonial African Philosophy. A Critical Reader, eds. E.Ch.Eze. Cambridge, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997, p. 115–131

[10] E. Tuck, K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a metaphor”, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, Vol. 1, Nr. 1, 2012, p. 17.

[11] Settler colonialism is a set of colonial practices that included colonizers moving, en masse, to subjugated territories (such as in the case of the US, Australia and South Africa).

The term is used to differentiate it from other types of colonialism in which the main emphasis is on the exploitation of resources in the subjugated territories (this includes enslaving local peoples) to which the colonizers move in smaller numbers and more often as an overseas posting or an assignment (as was the case of the majority of the countries colonized in Africa and Asia). In the text of Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, this differentiation is important, as their resistance against making decolonization a metaphor is, to a great extent, related to the demand to return land to the descendants of the indigenous peoples in America.

[12] Bart Pushaw presented his research in the lecture “Unwritten Histories from a Racial Point of View” at the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art summer school “Talking About Gender in the Baltics and Eastern Europe” in August 2020. The lecture is available on the center’s Facebook page. Online access:, accessed 16.05.2022.

[13] Natālija Jevsejeva, Aleksandra Beļcova. Rīga: Neputns, 2019, p. 210.

[14] Ibid

[15] Mobile Museum. The Next Season. 3 June – 29 August, 2021, at the former textile factory Boļševicka in Riga. Curator Solvita Krese. The curatorial statement and descriptions of individual works are available at, accessed 18.04.2022.

[16] A. Bikše. Black Maiden. Online access:,, accessed 18.04.2022.

[17] Quinsy Gario, Jörgen Gario, How to See the Spots of Der Leopard. Performance in Kuldīga, 03.08.2020. A recording from the performance is available online:, accesed 18.04.2022.

[18] D. Dzenovska, School of Europeanness. Cornell University Press, Kindle Edition, 2018, p. 42

[19] J. Mark, Q. Slobodian, “Eastern Europe in the Global History of Decolonization”, The Oxford Handbook of the Ends of Empire, ed. M.Thomas, A.S.Thompson. Oxford University Press, ionline version, 2018, p. 3

[20] D. Dzenovska, School of Europeanness. Cornell University Press, Kindle Edition, 2018, p. 31

[21]Ibid, pp. 42–43.

[22] Difficult Pasts. Connected Worlds. An exhibition at the Latvian National Museum of Art, 28.11.2021–07.02.2022. Curators Ieva Astahovska and Margaret Tali. Info on the show available online:–neertas-pagatnes–saistitas-pasaules-/, accessed 18.04.2022.

[23] T. Babincevs, “Atmiņu pētniecība kā terapija”,, 03.06.2021. Online access:, accessed 18.04.2022.

[24] It should be added that “second-generation postcolonial theories” is my own coinage which theorists of coloniality definitely would object to. The idea of coloniality/rationality was formulated in the late 1990s by Aníbal Quijano and developed by Walter Mignolo, including in cooperation with Catherine Walsh, Sylvia Wynter and others.

[25] W. D. Mignolo, The Darker Side of Wester Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2011, p. xxiii- xxxi

[26] A. Cesaire, “Discourse on Colonialism”, Monthly Review Press, New York & London, 1972 (originally published in french,1955), p. 3

[27] Alejas. The song austrālija from the album austrālija, 2021.

[28] NSRD. The song Ķīnā esmu bijis es from Kuncendorfs un Osendovskis, 1985.