Art as Historical Method
In the September Issue of the American Historical Review
The September issue of the American Historical Review presents a set of articles that feature original approaches to empire, decolonization, and religion across a wide expanse of time and space. It also launches a new project in the AHR History Lab, Art as Historical Method, that explores the recent turn by contemporary art practitioners to history, research, and the archives.
Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s 2020 exhibition, A Lotus in a Sea of Fire, is self-consciously a work of history. Like many contemporary artists, Nguyen’s practice is infused by history both in its subject and its methods. The title of this work recalls that of a well-known 1967 book by the Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh and its discussion of self-immolations by Buddhist monks in Saigon to protest the policies of the South Vietnamese state. The concerns that drive Nguyen’s work illustrate the recent turn in contemporary art practice to history, research, and the archive that are the subject of a new AHR History Lab project, Art as Historical Method, that launches in this issue. Courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York.
The September issue continues the AHR History Lab’s Engaged History project. Historian Alexis Dudden (Univ. of Connecticut) and graphic novelist Kim Inthavong collaborated to produce “Okinawa: Territory as Monument,” which excavates the layered dimensions of the Okinawan past as a site of Japanese colonization and American military bases. Inthavong’s graphic novella, the first to appear in the AHR, evokes the lived experience of recent Okinawan protests against an American military base currently under construction. Also in the lab is a forum, “The Pandemic and History,” that brings together essays by six historians of South Asia, Latin America, East Asia, Africa, Europe, and Indigenous peoples to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic through a historical lens. History Unclassified completes this edition of the lab with Ariel Lambe’s (Univ. of Connecticut) “Seeing Madness in the Archives,” in which she wrestles with the question of whether historians are discovering or creating history when they take issues of identity into the archive.
As a new part of the lab, the Art as Historical Method project moves around the world to examine historically situated works of contemporary art in museums, international expositions, and arts spaces. Some interventions will be in the form of conversations with curators and artists. Others will be deep dives into the content and form of particular works—among them paintings, photographs, sculptures, and video installations—to help readers see how history and historical research shaped their formation. Zoe Butt and Lee Weng-Choy, leading figures in the contemporary art world, open this new lab project by asking, “So what is it that a historian could want to learn from the way contemporary artists engage with history?” A companion essay takes readers inside the making of one work Butt and Choy discuss that recovers the lingering impact of empire on the lives of the Senegalese Vietnamese community in Dakar.
The Art as Historical Method project examines historically situated works of contemporary art in museums, international expositions, and arts spaces.
The decolonial as a framework for recovering knowledge and practices suppressed under colonial order is also present in several articles in the issue. In “Decolonizing Renaissance Humanism,” Stuart McManus (Chinese Univ. of Hong Kong) pushes back on Eurocentric visions of this era to demonstrate that the revival of letters in 13th-century Italy had a much wider impact than previously thought. Drawing on a large corpus of little-known texts by Indigenous, African, creole, missionary, and diasporic authors, McManus sees Renaissance humanism as neither purely cosmopolitan and protoliberal nor chauvinistically imperialist and statist. Rather, he suggests, it represented a toolbox of ideas and scholarly techniques that could be put to differing ends while retaining common features that endured well into the age of Enlightenment. Sebestian Kroupa’s (Univ. of Cambridge) “Reading beneath the Skin: Indigenous Tattooing in the Early Spanish Philippines” explores the early modern encounter between Spanish colonizers and the Visayans, a tattooed Indigenous people of the Philippines. By tracing how Spanish responses to tattooing were negotiated using preexisting and newly emerging terminologies, he suggests there was no fixed framework for interpreting the meanings of skin markings in early modern Europe. Spanish writers sought to use Visayan tattoos to insert their bearers into the Spanish colonial universe, but, as Kroupa shows, the tattooed body challenged imperial framings and colonial categories of naked and dressed, literate and illiterate, savage and civilized.
In “Skull Walls: The Peruvian Dead and the Remains of Entanglement,” Christopher Heaney (Penn State Univ.) also looks at the body as a site of decolonial history to discuss how and why American anthropologists from the 1820s to the 1920s acquired more human remains of Andean origin than those of any other individual population worldwide. US ethnographic museums, he argues, made “ancient Peruvians” central to their collecting work in order to assert authority over the Americas’ racialized past and as a historic set of artifacts against which living Native Americans might be compared. Throughout his analysis, Heaney emphasizes the violent science and grave opening that link the precolonial, colonial, and contemporary moments in both North and South American.
Another set of articles offers new scholarship in religious history. Focusing on a close reading of three Urdu-language akhlaq (ethics) texts published between the 1870s and 1930s, Farina Mir (Univ. of Michigan) argues in “Urdu Ethics Literature and the Diversity of Muslim Thought in Colonial India” that the genre points to a widespread, everyday, and unexceptional Muslim way of being in the world that placed a high value on ethical striving. In doing so, she expands existing notions of Muslim authority from individuals such as the ulama (Muslim clerical class) and institutions such as madrasas (religious schools and seminaries) to include literary genres themselves. In “Translating Gods on the Borders of Sovereignty,” Gili Kliger (Harvard Univ.) examines the rapidly expanding translation of Christian scripture in the 19th and early 20th centuries as a product of both the rise of the modern Protestant missionary movement and the acceleration of British imperial and Anglo settler colonial conquest. She focuses on the contested and multiple translations of the word God to provide a window into the cultural and intellectual dimensions of colonial conflict and to reveal a neglected chapter in the conceptual history of sovereignty.
Andrew Preston’s (Univ. of Cambridge) “The Limits of Brotherhood: Race, Religion, and World Order in American Ecumenical Protestantism” puts the history of religion on a global stage to reconsider the political significance of the early 20th-century Protestant ecumenical movement for the making of liberal world order. American ecumenists, Preston argues, contributed to the architecture of international organization and were among the first to promote a global discourse of human rights. They would later sacrifice their desire for racial equality in an effort to protect religious liberty and advance Protestant interests. In a similarly international register, Joseph Ben Prestel’s (Freie Univ. Berlin) “A Diasporic Moment: Writing Global History through Palestine–West German Ties” draws on previously untapped Palestinian and German documents to reveal the central role that the Palestinian diaspora played in the spread of solidarity movements in Western Europe. From the 1950s into the 1980s, Prestel traces a diasporic moment when stateless actors helped shape leftist politics that bridged Western Europe and the Middle East.
More than 150 reviews close out the issue, including the new featured review format “Authors in Conversation,” which brings together Jan Lucassen (International Institute of Social History) and Patrick Manning (Univ. of Pittsburgh) to review each other’s new books on the history of humanity. Additionally, History in Focus, the AHR’s podcast hosted by Daniel Story (Univ. of California, Santa Cruz), offers four new episodes to complement the September issue of the journal.
Editor's Note: Stuart McManus’s “Decolonizing Renaissance Humanism” discusses “the revival of letters in 13th-century Italy,” not “the revival of letter writing” as was originally printed.
Mark Philip Bradley is editor of the American Historical Review.
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