Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


Creative Fellowship Programme 2020/21: “I am as brown as brown can be”

“I am as brown as brown can be”: searching for decolonial, revolutionary sigils

In “I am as brown as brown can be”: searching for decolonial, revolutionary sigils, artist Mataio Austin Dean will work with researchers, students and activists at the IAS, UCL, to explore how creative research and practice can collude to reveal hidden revolutionary decolonial histories, thus disrupting racist, fascistic, ecocidal futures presented by the crises of neoliberal capitalism, and engendering decolonial, post-capitalist ones. As such, decoloniality will be approached not as a new, foreign entity, but as a palpable historic entity which surrounds us and which must be continually, collectively re-embodied. This shall involve a search for ‘sigils’ in the international proletarian written, oral-cultural, and visual archive - such as English folk songs which expose points of interchange and migratory flows, of blackness and brownness, of transformation and mixing, and points of revolutionary struggle. The title of this project comes from one such English folk song: Child Ballad no. 295, The Brown Girl, a song which venerates brownness, and which is important for the folkloric understanding of race, racialisation and class, and the formation of peasant and proletarian racial imaginaries distinct from those of imperialist racialism. There will also be collaboration with researchers and students to find other ‘sigils’ of decoloniality in historic proletarian print culture for example, but also to create new ‘sigils’ using printmaking and performance methodologies.

“I am as brown as brown can be”: searching for decolonial, revolutionary sigils will reject the notion, prevalent on both the political left and right, of decolonisation as a form of either necessary, progressive, or regrettable loss for ‘British identity’ - instead asserting that through deepened and active decolonisation, inhabitants of England, Wales, and Scotland are gaining greater equality and access to a much more virtuous history than that of the British Empire. It is a history of working-class anti-colonial dissent in Britain, a history of the self-liberation of colonised people abroad, a history of international class solidarity and a history of generative interdependence. These histories can be accessed through an exploration of counter-hegemonic working-class cultures that disrupt imperialist ideology as well as capitalist labour-temporalities.

This creation and re-creation of radical histories and futures will involve recourse to Austin Dean’s earlier research on the ‘sigilistic mode’ whereby a cultural work seeks to bring about the actualisation of a political intention though an aesthetic condensation or representation of the intention or its outcome, and a potential gnostic process of audio, vocal, or physical performativity. Sigilism involves a tripartite structure of 1) Intention, 2) Actualisation and 3) Gnosis. In this sigilistic future-creation process, Austin Dean hopes to enact new futures and new knowledge of an approaching fully decolonised, post-capitalist world, by uncovering hidden histories.

The research will be shared with the UCL community through a series of performative lectures, which will be used as a form of discovery and interactive, collective knowledge-creation. Rather than merely demonstrating, referencing or depicting the research carried out during the fellowship, Austin Dean would use the lectures to, in some way, activate or enact some of the research intentions through a kind of collective knowledge-building process, involving the audience and our shared digital and physical spaces. This will involve reference to the hidden labour exploitation practices and neo-colonialities of digitality.

As well as virtual encounters with UCL audiences, Austin Dean will make a work, or a series of works, which relate to the UCL site physically. This is likely to be a small, print-based interaction with UCL building(s), which interrogates the specificities of UCL’s colonial history as well as dealing with the broader aforementioned notions of international class solidarity, sigilistic future-creation, cultural hegemony and decoloniality. Small etchings could be shown at UCL locations requiring physical and political interrogation, such as the many monuments to Princess Anne and the Monarchy (symbols, for many people of colour, of racialism and imperialism) and the recently denamed Galton lecture theatre. The etchings’ small size invites thoughtful reflection and demands active (rather than passive) looking. The etchings could act as revolutionary constellations, upon UCL’s physical, digital and academic footprint, for learning and knowledge-creation.