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During art school, one of his teachers asked Nigerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare, “Why aren’t you making authentic African art?” He wondered: “What is authentic African Art. What is authentic identity in a global modern world?”

Michel Tuffery is artist an artist of Samoan, Rarotongan and Ma’ohi Tahitian heritage: “We’re this third generation,” says the artist, “we were born here, in New Zealand. If you go to a new place you create a new culture, and that’s what we’re doing…it’s a coming to grips.”

Chinese contemporary artist Xu Bing considers what has inspired his work: “As an artist, you ask yourself: Can you channel your life experience through your artwork using whatever is unique to you, to create a new artistic language?”

In the wake of rapid global change, we see the emergence of global, transnational (Links to an external site.) artists worldwide who use art to explore their identity and to comment on socio-political issues. But imagine what it’s like being an expatriate, living away from one’s home country. Imagine what it’s like feeling like an expatriate when you’ve never left the country where you were born. How would you deal with that? What type of art would you create. What would your message be?

These are just a few of the issues contemporary artists are tackling, locally and globally, in the 21st century.

How Artists Explore Identity 

Art helps us understand not only the artists, but also ourselves. Works of art can convey the experiences and identities of the artists who create them, and as viewers we may share similar experiences and identities. As you watch this video, consider some of the ways art informs how we see the artist, and what it tells us about how artists see themselves.

Why Global Art?

In our interconnected and increasingly fragile world, we cannot afford to overlook the perspective of global, transnational artists who work from the basis of experiences and traditions that may be very different from our own. 

Some of these artists work within our local communities, while others create and display their work far outside our local region. Located in different countries around the world, these artists draw on a broad variety of artistic knowledge, incorporating into their work the ideas and practices of their own culture, as well as innovations from other cultures. For example, an artist working today in China has available the resources of traditional Eastern and Western art practices, as well as the pluralism of modern and postmodern art.

Informed by diverse cultures and personal experiences, these artists communicate values that all persons, irrespective of their particular cultures, can share. Whether celebrating the vitality of local culture and tradition, promoting mutual understanding, or making powerful social and political statements, these artists bring a fresh global worldview that we desperately need.

Key Issues and Themes

Contemporary global artists work in a variety of media, including painting, sculpture, photography, film, video, installation, and performance art. They create works of art that confront our worldview about the social, political, and environmental challenges we face, including:

  • the socio-political effects of forced migration, displacement, and exile.
  • the trauma of conflict, industrialization, environmental destruction, and natural disasters. 
  • the violence, oppression, and misrepresentation experienced by minorities in contemporary society.
  • historical stereotypes, cultural appropriation, and the oppression of indigenous peoples in modern culture. 
  • the experience, identity, and roles of women and men in traditional societies.
  • the construction of contemporary identity and self-image within a colonial and post-colonial world.

Key Strategies

These artists use a variety of strategies to draw attention to these challenges.

  • They remove objects and images from their usual context (decontextualization).
  • They present common things in an unfamiliar or strange way (defamiliarization).
  • They emphasize the idea behind the art over its monetary value (dematerialization).
  • They challenge aggressive localism that uses culture as a mark of otherness and as a defense.
  • They critique the institutions of art and the colonial attitudes they sometimes reinforce.
  • They employ radical juxtaposition of forms to reveal hidden meanings.
  • They create art that is grounded in or examines local or national traditions.

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