Can you represent the subaltern?

Call for artistic submissions for openDemocracy's next Discourses event, Subaltern voices, opening on October 7th.
Anthony Faramelli
27 July 2010


-   Lower in rank, subordinate or second class

-   A term that commonly refers to persons who are socially, politically and geographically outside of the hegemonic power structure.

openDemocracy’s Discourses exhibition and discussion series is currently taking artistic submissions for our next event, Subaltern voices, opening on October 7th, 2010. The event will feature 3 visual artists whose contribution will explore artistic re-presentations of ‘the subaltern’ as well as a panel discussion on the opening night exploring who the subaltern is and who has the agency to represent them.

A proper understanding of who an oppressed people are is of key importance when looking into the resistance opportunities at play. No two groups of people have the same situation and as such ways to politically represented and culturally re-present  a people must begin with an examination of who they are, do they have the means to voice their concerns  and if not who has the authority to speak for them.

A basic dictionary definition of the word “subaltern” states that the word denotes persons of secondary rank, specifically a junior officer in the British army, however the way in which the term is commonly understood today has its roots squarely dug into the soil of British colonialism in South Asia where it was used to describe those living under colonial dominion.  For academics, especially those in the field of Postcolonial Studies, the subaltern are persons who are socially, politically and / or geographically outside of the hegemonic power structure. This term has come to be used by many as a catch all for oppressed people, but in doing so the resistance opportunities of the identity are being lost. As Gayatri Spivak famously claims in her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”  subaltern isn’t

"[J]ust a classy word for oppressed, for Other, for somebody who's not getting a piece of the pie… Many people want to claim subalternity. They are the least interesting and the most dangerous. I mean, just by being a discriminated-against minority on the university campus, they don't need the word ‘subaltern’...They should see what the mechanics of the discrimination are. They're within the hegemonic discourse wanting a piece of the pie and not being allowed, so let them speak, use the hegemonic discourse. They should not call themselves subaltern."

In her essay she goes on to (controversially) argue that those who are truly subaltern do not have the ability to speak for themselves, and as such need to be represented.

If you would be interested in further exploring this topic and taking part in our exhibition please e-mail a brief proposal along with a CV to Anthony Faramelli at [email protected] no later than August 16th. The final decision will be made by August 20th.

About Discourses:

Discourses is openDemocracy’s quarterly series of exhibitions, each with a corresponding panel discussion on a contemporary social / cultural issue covering a wide array of topics and themes: from the role of theory in art to financial crises; from subaltern art and representation to architecture and war. 

These live events will showcase new and emerging artists while allowing the general public to interact with both our writers and the artists, fostering a greater understanding of the artists' work as well as the relationship that exists between art and the social, cultural and political theories which often influences and drives it.

All of these events in the Discourses series will all be held at the East London venue The Haggerston in their downstairs Drawers Gallery (438 Kingsland Road, London E8).

More information about the series can be found here, or you can join our facebook group.

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