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Between Desert and Sea: The 20th-Century Avant-Gardes at the Meeting Point of Continents

Between Desert and Sea event poster

Friday 19 May 2023, 10.00AM to 5pm

This one-day hybrid conference brings together a group of international scholars to present cutting-edge work on avant-garde activities at the meeting point of Africa, Asia, and Europe in the twentieth century. Our aim is to draw a clearer picture of the avant-gardist resonance in this region and thereby bringing its contribution to the history of the avant-garde as a global, transnational affair. Since time immemorial, the region has linked East and West, played a significant part in the cross-fertilization of civilizations, and facilitated exchange between cultures, religions, and philosophies. We therefore aim to debate the dynamics between avant-garde movements and local traditions, the use of the arts for purposes of social action, and the integration of avant-garde practices within national building process. In general terms, this conference seeks to foster critical dialogues regarding the transnationalism of the avant-garde with its multifarious manifestations, its intercontinental collaborative potential, and the way this phenomenon was specifically received by the peoples of the region in connection to its particular cultural, religious and ethnic identities.

At the end of the First World War, the region found itself with a significant number of contested borders making the concept of belonging ever more ambiguous for the peoples and diasporas living within a number of new states. We are interested in exploring how the experiences of diaspora, exodus, and multiculturalism were (re)theorized by artists moving to or from this space and how local artists correspondingly integrated avant-gardist practices into their artistic production. More specifically, in our search for understanding how identity, dislocation and migration were manifested in art, we seek to debate how the concept of avant-garde, inextricability linked to the ideas of innovation, experimentation, and antagonism to authority, could be understood as something both external and internal to the region.

Our two topographical markers for the conference are intended to resonate with the geographical particularity of the region, the themes of the conference and some of the key metaphors of avant-gardism itself. The desert as a frontier, a limit, an absence, an ungovernable space, a place of isolation and nomadism. The sea as a shared resource, a link between peoples, a space for encounter and adventure. To what extent was the avant-gardist imagination only ever constructed on such hopes and fantasies? To what extent does analysing the avant-garde from this viewpoint help us rethink the spatial and temporal concepts at its very heart?  

This event is made possible through the generous support of the History of Art Department and the Centre for Modern Studies (CModS)

Organisers: Professor Michael White: | Dr Alexandru Bar:

Please register here to attend this event either in person or online.

Between Desert and Sea event programme (PDF , 745kb)

Location: BS/005 Berrick Saul Building, University of York and via Zoom online