EW: When I compared all three contributions, I was initially surprised by the large number of common intersections. This certainly points to the global power of interpretation of media representations in English (website of the collection at Yale, Wikipedia), which we could not escape either. We all researched Mrs. Pinckney on Wikipedia, we all trusted the video on the website as a source. But what is interesting now is how differently we deal with it and what different conclusions we come to. I have the impression that in your approach, Bernadette, the story of Mrs. Pinckney plays the biggest role, while in my text this story is rather only a possible reference point. I don't know if you can agree with me.
NK: Yes, I also see these differences. With Ernst, I see more of a fundamental, principled attitude in the analysis of the work. In Bernadette's interpretation, I found the interpretation of the birds as "slaves" interesting. I myself saw in it the - temporarily - liberated soul of an emancipated woman. Moreover, in this context, I also find your reference to the paradox of the actually already liberated "slaves" particularly illuminating, as it seems to have been derived from your discussion of colonial history in Africa.
BVH: When comparing our contributions, I was also reminded of the fact that art is always about other art, hence we looked for precedents that may have inspired the artist. But what I find most exciting about our interpretations are the differences in emphasis on the various meanings that are embedded in the work. For Ernst, the transcultural nature of the work stands out, as well as its openness in meaning. For Nobu, it is the reference to gender ideology and women’s emancipation that forms the core of the work, especially in light of ongoing gender discrimination. For me, it is the historical narrative that led me to interrogate the issue of racial discrimination which also continues today in movements such as #BlackLivesMatter.
EW: I share this, and I would like to follow up with a question. Is it possible that our respective contexts in which we work have influenced this? Not in terms of content – we agree on that – but in terms of patterns of argumentation. If you, Bernadette, place so much emphasis on the story of Mrs. Pinckney, does this perhaps reflect the great oral, meaningful storytelling traditions in Africa? And when you, Nobumasa, on the other hand, elaborate Mrs. Pinckney as an encouraging and at the same time cautionary symbol, does this perhaps reflect the great ethical traditions in Asia? My refusal of direct meaning-making and ethical service, on the other hand, would then be a European-style reflexive evasive manoeuvre to a (preferably unassailable) meta-level?
BVH: Good question indeed. In my opinion, this exercise shows how we are all conditioned by the sociocultural environment in which we live and work. Hence my response, from a South African point of view, focused on the story/history in order to highlight the importance of the work in decolonising the subject. While playfully complicating racial issues in a historical context, the artist mainly celebrates Africanness by means of materials, patterns and colours. This allowed me to infuse my interpretation with African epistemologies. Your response, Ernst, could be regarded as a refusal, perhaps, to acknowledge and engage with the deeper implications of the work and indeed rather shift the focus onto more theoretical concerns as inspired by German art historians? I am keen to hear Nobumasa’s view on this matter.
NK: Ernst's question about whether a Japanese ethical tradition might secretly be reflected in my interpretation is very difficult for me to answer. But as Bernadette has just pointed out, the social context in which we work definitely plays a certain role. While globalisation has erased spatial distances, perhaps not necessarily mental ones. For Japanese today, Africa is still very distant, in the double sense mentioned above. Although Africa is the second largest continent with 55 countries and countless information is available, detailed and nuanced ideas about it are often missing from our consciousness. My leap into the general, or ethical, implication of the work could possibly be explained in this way. Seen in this way, I have probably unconsciously "traced" my own situation. But this also underlines the fact that the critique of representation – in the sense of a critical questioning of pictorial representations – is still as relevant today as it ever was.
EW: I was very grateful to you, Nobumasa, for the emphasis on the ethical, because we always have to include the ethical dimension in the context of education. My argument from a German point of view would be that the interpretation of a work like Mrs. Pinckney must not be arbitrary. That would be the ethical responsibility of the interpreters. We will have to come back to this in a moment when we discuss conclusions for a toolbox for decoding images.
But first I would like to learn more about the differences between our approaches – even though there is a large area of consensus. In the theoretical discussions we had some time ago, we clearly distinguished the Japanese concept of 'kansho kyoiku', the South African concept of 'art criticism' and the European concept of 'work immanence'. Could you elaborate on the question of how these positions are reflected in your texts?
NK: The introduction of dialogue-based art viewing from the USA in the late 1990s revived the field of art education in schools or museums in Japan. Since then, this didactic method, which seems to seek to maximise the viewer's part in interpretation through its strict rejection of knowledge transfer and ultimately prioritises the discussion of interpretation, is still in vogue today. But a crucial question still arises as to how the meaning of interpretation, or meaningful interpretation, is secured without degenerating into mere arbitrariness. In this respect, too, our experiment seems to be very inspiring.
BVH: At the University of South Africa we believe that the basic skills required to interpret objects of visual culture are best taught by beginning to practise art criticism. The proper domain of a critic is the description, interpretation and evaluation of concrete works of art. As a first step in this process, students must learn how to describe and interpret artworks. Essentially art criticism is a practice embedded in western epistemology that has been appropriated to study the art of contemporary Africa in a global context. When investigating the historical arts of Africa, the method remains the same although the local context of traditional culture and customs must be taken in consideration. My interpretation of Shonibare’s work was guided by these very same principles.
EW: Finally, I would like to ask you something with regard to the 'methodological kit' proposed by the editors of this volume: Which methodological approaches for the interpretation of images do you consider absolutely necessary – independent of our respective Japanese, South African or European context? And I'll add a second question in a moment: Does that leave one area that plays a role exclusively in your respective local context?
BVH: From an art historical point of view, the methods best suited for the interpretation of political images stem from a contextual approach which demands critical consideration of the cultural context of the work, its artist and of the social practices and power relations in which it is embedded. As the interpreter, you can apply the iconological method: first describe what you see – formal elements and details – and then identify the iconography, the specific subject and symbolism of the work. Do some research on facts and historical context, as well as the reasons why the work was made or commissioned. Then you can explain how all this information was put together to express the meaning or content of the work and decide what message or ideas the artist was trying to communicate. Because every interpreter comes to the artwork with his/her own worldview, the interpretation will differ depending on that worldview and not on the local context. For example, because I attach more importance to the idea of decolonisation, my contextual approach is combined with and influenced by decolonial theory.
NK: Basically, Bernadette, I gladly agree with you, especially with regard to your gradual approach. I also think it is reasonable and sensible from a pedagogical point of view. But this raises the question of what actually constitutes a "political image" or "when" an image becomes political. Of course, there are pictures or works of art that are obviously and unmistakably recognisable as such, but there are also those that are much more subtle, that are not so noticeable to foreign eyes, or that were not originally created with political intentions, but that in retrospect seem to be quite political. What one considers to be political depends, after all, very much on the view of the observer, possibly even completely apart from the original intention of the creator. In this respect, it seems to me that a fundamental attitude is indispensable for the viewer to be able to keep a mental distance from a picture and its context as well as from himself and his own horizon in order to perceive a picture (also) politically.
EW: Thank you both, because from my point of view I cannot and do not need to add anything more. I completely agree that an iconological basis, as Bernadette has formulated it, is needed. And I am deeply convinced that the reception-historical and reception-theoretical extension that Nobumasa has added is absolutely necessary, indeed indispensable, for the toolbox. I can add nothing to this bundle of methods.
What perhaps came up short in our conversation were the different cultural conditions and the resulting consequences for interpretation. But we'll make up for that on another occasion.
NK: Finally, let me add something to my previous statement. For responsible interpretation, we need above all a willingness to engage in dialogue. I experienced this again in our conversation and our experiment also shows this in an exemplary way.