‘No More Tokens’: Why Museums Need to Stop Pigeonholing Non-Western Artists

The London-based sculptor writes a call to arms for artists to reject being tokenized by museums that refuse to engage fully with their work.

Anish Kapoor in London. Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images.

Ever since the start of my public career in London in the late ‘70s–early ‘80s, I have had to suffer what I consider to be the indignity of being described as an “Indian” artist. Considered thus not just because of my name, but also for what I did with my work? 

This was an enigma to me, but I understood it to come from some half-understood or misguided notion of my Indian origin and its relation to the work I made. I will try to explain—my actual origins are more complex than this, but that is another story. When, in 1998, I did my first show at the Hayward Gallery, Mr. Waldemar Januszczak, an art critic for a prominent British newspaper, described the work I had on show in a mean-spirited review as “the Indian rope trick.”

HA HA—shame on him. What this raises is an important issue. An artist of my origin, or rather an artist of any non-Western origin, has to suffer the indignity of having their creative force attributed almost in full to their background or ethnic culture (“Indian rope trick”). This is not something that American artists, French artists, British artists, or artists of Western origin have to endure. 

Now, in the light of Black Lives Matter, we have to establish that we will not allow these small-minded, Neocolonial bigots to determine our creative individuality in terms of our places of origin, the color of our skin, or our gender. 

I look in horror at the recent reopening of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and see in the name of so-called “World Art” tokens from here, there, and everywhere. Artists represented like so many little jewels found in street markets, displayed like trophies one stacked on top of the other. But of course the great artist—the great MALE WHITE ARTIST Richard (bless you) Serra has a room of his own in which to show off his magnificent mastery. Fuck you MoMA. What a disgrace. 

We cannot and will not accept this any longer. 

If museums want us they must give full representation to our voice. No more tokens. We artists from elsewhere must have the courage to say NO and keep saying NO until there is full and honorable representation. It is not good enough that Tate, MoMA, the Pompidou, or others pay lip service to World Art at the expense of art and of artists. 

No more tokens masquerading as representation. 

Anish Kapoor is an artist based in London. 

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