Painting, A Decolonising Act

Jheni Arboine, Student/Staff

‘Sine, Co-sine, Index’ June 2015, Acrylic

Abstraction, geometrics and chromatics are the triadic signs of my painting practice, underpinned by semiotics of stripes, the rectilinear, Concrete Poetry and the dynamic tension of decolonisation. Mavis Pusey (1928-2019) her legacy, encourages me to pay attention and to stay committed to abstraction. I remember going to see an exhibition by a painter, a Cuban painter, a Black Cuban male painter, Wifredo Lam (1902-1982).

I was compelled to enter, because I could see myself reflected. It wasn’t his style of painting or the subject matter per se; but the most powerful part of the encounter, was what he said:

‘My painting is an act of decolonisation.’

This statement, this mission, this declaration, this claim, this thesis, this proclamation reverberated in me. It gave me confidence, agency, big-bout-yar; it energised my manifesto of resilience and made me tallawy. As a painter whose intersectionality is not white, male, European or middle class, I have the additional work of explanation and justification.

I am a painter, a black woman of Jamaican parentage. Frank Bowling’s (b.1934) indubitable stand on abstraction and being a painter first (2019), gives me some comfort and aesthetic alignment. There are allies too, Sean Scully (b.1945), a white Irish man recently mentioned, ‘the equal opportunity of abstraction’(2019).

Does my positionality pose a problematic for the discipline, for the normalised and for me? Therefore, by applying Wifredo Lam’s dictum to my studio practice, teaching and research, so as I paint/teach/research, I am decolonising, the more I paint/teach/research the more I am decolonising both painting/teaching/research and myself. Does my practice disturb and disrupt the normalisation? It is as though I am encroaching on a sacred territory that should not be mine. A type of trespass in the forbidden zone of normalisation.

Alma Woodie Thompson (1891-1978), Dr Esther Mahlangu (b.1935) and Althea McNish (b.1933), share a passion for abstract painting. They are giants to me, as black women they amplify the use of colours and geometric symbols as semiotic signs of happiness, resilience and joy as signifiers of antidotes to ‘inhumanity’ [a gentile code word for colonisation, empire and its associated violence and violation of the Prime Directive – my semiotic inference] and as a way of ensuring a place in the canon as it expands to include those that it had appropriated from and erased from memory.

Decolonising painting is also about a type of ‘habeas corpus’ to bring OUT the paintings by black artists and artists of colour, that are owned by museums and galleries. These institutions tend to keep the works detained in storage, in special collections, hidden from view.

Optimism can shine through with a Critical Pedagogy of painting. Where a diversity of teaching staff collaborates to ensure inclusivity and expansive curriculums that decolonise. Different ways of thinking, advocated by Claudia Rankine, research into women painters, Rebecca Fortnum and aligning painting and theory of signs by Isabella Graw. These three strands intersect in my research on a pedagogy of resilience and my own research methodology (Arboine, 2018).

I paint what I like
I stand my ground and
I paint no matter what anybody says
I use a semiotic painting language imbued with ‘prayer’, an Indexical interrogation of the city and its hidden histories/herstories.
I paint what I like
I stand my ground


This article was originally written and published in Decolonising the Arts Curriculum: Perspectives on Higher Education Zine 2 (2019).

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