Dr. Mathias Danbolt - Redrawing Borders: Methodological Nationalism and the Redistribution of Responsibilities in Nordic Colonial Art Histories

The histories and legacies of colonial projects have become a topic of increasing debate in the field of art over the last years, disturbing the long-standing tradition for colonial negligence in the Nordic countries.

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Hand painted illustration from a manuscript version of Knud Leems Beskrivelse af Finmarkens Lapper, ca. 1748-9, Danish Royal Library, Copenhagen.) The image depicts the Sámi men Niels Pedersen Korsnæs and Peder Jonsen who were sent from Finnmark to Copenhagen on the request of King Christian VI who expressed a wish to include Sámi persons in his court. Upon arrival to Copenhagen their Sámi clothes got refashioned with the monogram of the King.

Discourses of ‘innocent colonialism’ (Andersen 2017) and the prevalence of narratives of national and cultural homogeneity in the Nordic nation states have long worked to relegate questions of the coloniality of art history to geographical, temporal, and disciplinary ‘elsewheres’ (Edwards 2016). While the recent examinations of the relationship between colonial histories and art histories draw inspiration from the disciplinary “turns” towards global, Indigenous, and transnational perspectives on art’s histories, the debates often remain structured with the modern nation state as an historical organizing principle.

While the transcultural and transoceanic premises of colonialism disturb narratives of nation-building central to the foundation of the discipline of art history and the institution of the art museum, colonial art histories often tend to re-center narratives of the nation state in the attempts to critique it. The 2017 Centennial of Denmark’s divestment of its former Caribbean colony is a case in point: While the numerous exhibitions, seminars, and publications marked a shift in Denmark’s relationship to its colonial past, the Centennial mainly demonstrated a willingness to discuss the depths of Denmark’s relationship with itself, more than its relationship with its former colony, the US Virgin Islands. In this lecture I seek to critically question the role and function of the nation as an organizing principle in engagements with colonial histories of art.

With a starting point in an analysis of the role played by the royal court in Copenhagen for the colonization of Sápmi in the 17th and 18th century, I argue that the redrawing on the national borders during the establishment of the Nordic modern nation states in the 19th and 20th century have licensed a redistribution of responsibility for attending to histories of colonialism that keep informing debates in the present. Arguing that the prevalence for methodological nationalism has overshadowed the traditions of transcultural exchange, influence and conflict engrained in the histories of colonial encounters, I suggest the importance of interrogating the persistent habits of nationalizing histories of art and colonialism.

Mathias Danbolt is an art historian with a special focus on queer, feminist, and decolonial perspectives on art and culture. He is currently leading the collective research project “The Art of Nordic Colonialism: Writing Transcultural Art Histories” (2019-2022), supported by Carlsberg Foundation, which examines the effects and affects of Nordic colonialism within the field of art and culture. Danbolt is an Associate Professor of Art History at University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

Image: Hand painted illustration from a manuscript version of Knud Leems Beskrivelse af Finmarkens Lapper, ca. 1748-9, Danish Royal Library, Copenhagen.) Korsnæs died shortly after arriving at the King’s court. while Jonsen was eventually sent on a ship to the Danish colony in India, and died upon his return to Copenhagen.

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Published Feb. 22, 2021 1:38 PM - Last modified Feb. 22, 2021 1:38 PM