Insights and a conversation

A brief but notable account of the 2008 CIHA from the perspective of Anne Kirker describing the key speakers and their topical lectures in relation to art history. Kirker further elaborates on her experiences at the CIHA and what she deemed intellectually stimulating and intriguing. Kirker also summarises the general relevance and opportunities the CIHA provides.

Straight off, the mega art history congress CIHA 2008 was for this writer completely worth the cost of delegate's fee and the sometimes elusive location of speakers' venues. By day two it was all falling into place. I am finishing a Ph.D on a topic that arose from my involvement with the Asia-Pacific Triennial in Brisbane and hence the CIHA program of "Crossing Cultures" was germane. Nevertheless, I decided not to sit faithfully through all the Asian Art Histories papers but instead, attended a number of topics which intrigued me because I knew absolutely nothing about them.

This is not to say that the Asian stream was disappointing; I would have hated to skip Annette Van Den Bosch's paper on Vietnam, for instance. She proved that Australian-based scholars, when they genuinely engage with experts from the country or region concerned, can convey new material and insights that contribute to a truly globalised art history. What surprised me a little was the fact that one or two papers I heard from Asian presenters presumed that Australians were more ignorant of other histories and cultures than is actually the fact. In the case of Central Asia, this decidedly is true. Hence one paper I particularly enjoyed from this stream was titled 'A "Kiss to Matisse"&.' which addressed the reception and adaptation of modernism through the example of Uzbekistan in the 1920s and Kazakhstan in the 1980-90s. It was presented by Jane A. Sharp of Rutgers University.

From the Pacific perspective, I greatly enjoyed the oratorical skills of Te Papa's Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, although it was Damien Skinner's paper 'Our Koroua Picasso' which skillfully described the embrace of modernism in Maori art which will enrich New Zealand art history. Similarly, I was inspired by insights revealed in the Indigenous Australian sessions and by Ross Gibson's intellectual grasp and Zen-like precision of his arguments in the New Media stream.I was, of course, totally won over by Homi Bhabha and his keynote performance and glad that I am using his seminal text The Location of Culture as a reference in my thesis. I was also (I suppose predictably, given that he has been a regular visitor to this country), impressed by Neil MacGregor and his adroitness in adjusting the focus and programming of a venerable museum in London (the BM) so that its collections are relevant to a rapidly changing constituency of viewers. This brings me to the importance of what happens outside of the formal program of presentations at large events such as CIHA.

Not only are social gatherings an ideal way to catch up with colleagues and to network, but casual conversations with overseas delegates, especially, can highlight facts that Australians may take as "a given": facts that are known to them but which may seem no longer worth discussing. One conversation remains with me in particular. It was conducted with an art history professor from Prague as we strolled from the Government House reception, which ended the congress, towards Flinders Street Station. I asked, somewhat cautiously, what was for him the highlight of CIHA. He replied, without hesitation, the opportunity to see en masse, and have a guided tour, of the Indigenous Art displays at the Ian Potter Centre (NGV Australia) at Federation Square.

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.