On Cultural Difference

As a review of Twahiru Sabuni’s seminar on the international art exhibition Unpacking Europe, this short essay will discuss alternative approaches Sabuni could have taken in analysing the ideas presented by the exhibition and its catalogue essay. Unpacking Europe attempts to shed a different light on Occidental culture by using nuanced ideas of ‘difference’ and cultural means of production in a very Eurocentric industry. This in turn demonstrates the social and cultural power dynamics prevalent in society and particularly the art world.

In understanding the European sway over the art industry, it is necessary to look at how we’ve come to this point. Sabuni begins his presentation by noting how the origins of contemporary Eurocentrism date back to early colonialism where everything outside Europe was either seen as ‘new land’ or if it was already colonized, a ‘fragment of Europe’. Notions of ‘discovering’ land outside of the European continent – land that always existed – has continued throughout the legacy of colonialism and in popular rhetoric many people still refer to Africa’s ‘discovery’ for example, demonstrating the canon within education which centres itself around the European existence.

On a personal level I feel Sabuni could have delved deeper into the ideas presented and questions raised by the curators of Unpacking Europe. His presentation gave the viewer an important historical context of how Europe progressed to its position of power with slavery and other forms of labour exploitation, unjust extraction of resources, and later on, the industrial revolution. A distinction however needs to be made between the explicit political control and cultural domination Europe had over the people from the countries they colonized, and the new hypocritical power they hold in a multicultural postmodern age. Hundreds of years ago the racism of conquest over colonized ‘non-Europeans’ was explicit and blatant in the process of Europe’s expansion, however in our present day and age, the global zeitgeist (particularly in the Occident) strives for ideas of peace, equality, democracy and freedom. Curators Salah Hassan and Iftikhar Dadi describe this distinction as “two waves” of history, crucial for understanding the exhibition as well as the plurality of the modern ‘postcolonial’ experience.

“On the one hand, there was the early wave of settler colonialism created by the movement of the European surplus population outside Europe, which led to conquering and settling newly ‘discovered’ lands.” Hassan and Dadi then reiterate Peter Ekeh where he describes that space was made for the “free flow and transfer of European culture” by essentially destroying the native and indigenous populations of these ‘new lands’. The ‘second wave’ refers to the desire to include as many non-Europeans and ‘natives’, as a result of the Transatlantic Slave Trade for example, which further leads to the desirable postulation of a ‘multicultural’ nation. Olu Oguibe writes about what he refers to as a “guise of difference” in his catalogue essay for Yinka Shonibare’s Be-Muse exhibition in Rome, 2001, the same year as Unpacking Europe. This guise of difference is used in a British context to continually support the regal image of Great Britain. For example ‘multiculturalism’ as mentioned before is a desired trait in a postmodern, cosmopolitan era. Since being well travelled or diversely influenced by different cultures, someone can be considered of a higher cultural and social stature to someone who’s lived in a small town their whole life for example. Oguibe writes how Britain is able to use this difference to its advantage:

For such a culture, difference is tolerable when it satiates the society's appetite for amusement and entertainment, or even more especially when it serves that eternally crucial purpose of propping and sustaining the society's illusions of superiority and greatness ... even difference that by its presence lends credibility to the society's claims of equity and tolerance and offers proof, if it was needed, that the Empire has room and heart enough for difference, that there is a speck of black in the Union Jack after all.

This hypocritical nature of European cultural hegemony is further reiterated by Hassan and Dadi and functions as one of the main focuses of Unpacking Europe: “How can one reconcile the paradoxical condition of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’ massive enslavement of non-Europeans abroad with the ideal of freedom propagated by the European Enlightenment philosophers at home?” 

The challenge presented to Europeans of ‘non-European’ diaspora is thus either to assimilate into the dominant sociocultural regime, or to be branded as an ‘other’ for their cultural differences. This thus brings up the idea of hybridity within cultural spaces – where do marginalized groups feel comfortable to identify with, their native or indigenous culture, or the Western-imposed culture? In Location of Culture Homi K. Bhabha quotes Jacques Lacan on how assimilation or ‘mimicry’ is not an act of fitting or blending in, but rather a defensive strategy: “The effect of mimicry is camouflage ... It is not a question of harmonizing with the background, but against a mottled background, of becoming mottled - exactly like the technique of camouflage practised in human warfare.”

The notion of war and violence is inherent in the dynamic nature of how different cultures function. People are always interacting, exchanging ideas and engaging. In this time of an interconnected global network, people are being exposed to more ideas and content than ever before and our cultures are essentially what make us socially unique. The spaces we come from, versus the spaces we grow up in, all contribute to our distinct social constitutions. The way these cultures interact within each of our differences is what produces ‘new’ culture, elaborated by Hito Steyerl: “a common ground is being established by violently setting the boundaries of social distinction. Culture arises out of the tension between distinction and discrimination.” 

As culture is produced in the social tension of the power dynamics in society, where does capitalism take place? Colonialism and its subsequent oppressive social regimes were constructed to garner power and wealth for the Europeans. It can be argued that within the matrix of oppression, notions of race, sexuality, and gender are only constructed as indicators of social power – since once difference is established, it can be used to empower but also to exploit. In reality these categories of identity would have no affect were it not for the legacy of colonialism, which resulted in the present white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Yet in her essay Culture and Crime, Steyerl quotes Slavoj Žižek who notes that spaces for such individualistic expression are only available via our current globalized economic system, “The post-modern multicultural politics of identity, this ever growing blossom of groups and subgroups with their hybrid and fluid identities, each of them insisting on their specific life styles and on their rights to act out their specific cultures – this type of incessant diversification is conceivable only within the context of capitalist globalization”. 

However, Steyerl also notes how “only the privileged are in the position to use culture as a tool of individual emancipation” and in comparing a white middle class experience to that of a woman’s from the Global South she writes, “construction of the former’s identity takes place at the expense of the latter ... even the most intimate identity politics are involved in the modes of production of global capitalism. What appears as cultural difference for some, means social, political and economical inequality, for others.” Regardless of our globalized space of infinite subjectivities, certain liberties are still provided by the exploitation and at the expense of others’.

With globalization, Internet and growing access to education, certain elements of our existences will gradually reach a point of singularity; the notion of the single-entity ‘melting pot’ grows increasingly with international exposure to new cultures and ideas. Yet simultaneously like a parallel cultural dimension, this exact exposure to ‘differences’ constantly produces new ideas and accelerates the rate of production, albeit cultural or economic. Whether this rate of production will contribute to the global influence and dominium of Europe, or to the unpacking of its never-ending legacy, is dependent on how we collectively choose to perceive our existence by acknowledging how instrumental our individuality is in the cultural zeitgeist.


Bhabha, H.K, 1994. Location of Culture. London: Routledge.

Ekeh, P, 1990. A Comparative View of South Africa as Fragment Culture. In Toward Peace and Security in Southern Africa. New York: Gordon and Breach Publishers, p. 3.

Hassan, S. & Dadi, I. 2001. Introduction: unpacking Europe. In Unpacking Europe: towards a critical reading. Rotterdam: Nai Publishers. pp. 12 – 22.

Oguibe, O. 2004. The Culture Game. Double Dutch and the Culture Game: Catalogue essay for the exhibition, Yinka Shonibare: Be‐Muse, Rome, 2001. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 33 – 43.

Steyerl, H, 2001. Transversal: Cultura Migrans. European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies. 1:1, pp 1- 4.