Saturday 13 July 2019


By Tobias Schlosser

Writers and scholars such as Franz Fanon have examined the effects of colonialism on the mental health and well-being of both colonized and colonizer, and the topic is growing in importance in the so-called postcolonial world.

Frantz Fanon's seminal book.
During a conference on the issue at the University of Leeds in June, many scholars also took a closer look at neocolonial structures within the global health system.

Sanjoy Bhattacharya, a professor in the history of medicine, explored how the World Health Organization (WHO) claims successes for itself - such as the defeat of smallpox. Here, he sees a Eurocentric power structures at work as, according to his research, the dominating narrative is that diseases stop when the WHO steps in. But this picture is highly problematic because it ignores the efforts and contributions of developing countries themselves, he said.

Deepika Bahri, a professor of English, discussed the aim of colonial powers to “build a reformed class of persons in India”. In the past, this was in keeping with the objective to “educate the body” of the colonised – a phenomenon she calls “Biocolonialism”. Nowadays these attitudes still come into play, especially when one looks at the global marketplace where the main target of multinationals is to have consumers who behave the same, buying similar products. 

In addition, Bahri addressed the problem of how corporal expressions and movements are associated with intelligence or are perceived as a sign of an uncivilised lifestyle, such as whether one sits on the ground or on a chair. The choice has nothing to do with one’s intelligence, but such associations work on a subconscious level, leading to certain prejudices, she said. In one noted example, famous personality Oprah Winfrey in 2012 made the following comment to a wealthy Indian family on her show “The next chapter”: “I heard some people in India eat with their hands still.”

A conference text about the issues.
Scholars also discussed the traumas caused by colonial oppression in spaces such as residential schools in Canada and Australia, and they addressed sexual health, women’s health and current developments in “postcolonial” countries.

Cultural psychologist Tarek Younis, for instance, focused on the UK government’s “PREVENT” policies which seeks to identify individuals who are prone to radicalisation, thus obliging health professionals to report persons for potential crimes. According to Younis’ research, these policies have racial implications and create a scenario close to the speculative fiction of Philip K. Dick’s short story “Minority Report”. 

Prior to the conference, Leeds University’s School of Earth and Environment hosted a workshop on research in indigenous contexts, with a keynote lecture. Métis presenter Zoe Todd highlighted the fact that minorities’ outrage at injustice is often regarded as overreaction - for example, concerning missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women in Canada. She stated that according to official reports published in June 2019, such incidents are now rated as genocide, indicating that Native peoples did not overreact to these “uncomfortable histories”.

Todd said that another “unhealthy” reality for research itself is that in US academia, 94% of the hired anthropologists come from only 15 American universities. Thus, a wide range of perspectives is still being ignored, and academia itself is driven by a few dominating institutions.

Regarding literature, the conference spotlighted new or upcoming publications that mix humanities with perspectives on human health and psychological and medical research. Such publications include Humiliation: Mental Health and Public Shame by Marit F. Svindseth and Paul Crawford (May 2019), Mad Muse: The Mental Illness in a Writer’s Life and Work by Jeffrey Berman (Sep 2019), and the volume on Literature, Medicine, Health from the Moving Worlds series (Number 2/2019).

Thursday 4 July 2019


Danh Vō said not a word during a recent presentation of his work in Fontainebleau, France, at the 9th Festival of Art History.

Instead, the Vietnamese-born Danish conceptual artist sat quietly on stage, occasionally sipping a glass of water, as American scholar Joshua Chambers-Letson delivered an erudite study of his art, accompanied by slides and a video. The session - the festival’s opening event - had been billed as a “conversation”.

Danh Vo. (Photo: M. Engelund)
Afterwards, the audience was perhaps too dumbfounded to ask questions, so artist and scholar left the stage with a simple “thank you”.
The message seemed to be this: an artist doesn’t need to speak, as his or her output already says volumes. And why talk anyway when there is an expert to do so for you?
In the case of Vō, his iconoclastic installations do tell stories – about migration, struggle, resistance, individualism, history.
In one notable work, for instance, he created art from the refrigerator, television set and other items that his grandmother received as an immigrant to Europe, thus depicting her journey via his presentation.
In another, the main object is a chandelier that might have come from some palace or castle. Viewers are invited to question its meaning.
“I see my work as sculptures,” Vō told SWAN in an interview at the festival, after agreeing to discuss his art. “When you look at the chandelier, you don’t see the castle, but it’s all there too - the history, the colonialism. Our vision gets easily blurred, so the real work is to continuously remember to look at things. We close our eyes too often.”
Born in Bà Ria, Vietnam, in 1975, Vō was still a child when his family fled the war-torn Asian country in a homemade boat. They were rescued at sea and eventually settled in Denmark, according to his media biography.
Danh Vo and scholar Joshua Chambers-Letson on stage.

The assimilation into European culture and the events in Vietnam that forced the departure have influenced his art, with a critic noting that Vō’s work exposes the “intertwining of collective history and intimate experience that shape our individuality”.
An intriguing aspect of his art is also the way he addresses colonialism by using objects associated with this history - such as the chandelier or a throne-like chair. During the interview, he joked that some of the furnishings at the Chateau de Fontainbleau (where the festival was held) would make a good artistic narrative.
Such objects, Vō believes, accumulate a “symbolic burden”, and by interacting with them, viewers can examine their own history and heritage.
Vō said he was often urged not to cling to the past while growing up, but he thinks the avoidance of history can be a problem for personal development. “There are traps on both sides - being immersed in the past as well as being determined not to look back,” he told SWAN. “We have to find a balance.”
At the Festival, he was representing Denmark, as the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden) were the guest of honour at the event. He said he embraces his various identities, seeing this as enrichment, and the multiplicity of perspectives does add to the impact of his work.
“The idea that people don’t move is a crazy concept,” he said. “We’ve been led to believe it - that territories are for some and not others.”
Vō and his art are in fact constantly on the move, with exhibitions in Asia, the United States and Europe. In France, Paris’ Museum of Modern Art held a major show of his work in 2013, and last year he was a featured artist at Bordeaux’s contemporary art museum, the CAPC.
But not everyone gets his work. After the presentation at the Festival, a member of the audience told SWAN that “all this talk about colonialism was not interesting” and that it was “pointless” to keep bringing up the past. “That lecture was awful, horrendous,” the spectator said.
It’s a reaction that is familiar to artists and scholars who address colonialism. “Being in France is always a learning experience for me,” Vō said. “I like to see what the reaction is to my work.” - SWAN