How to Define Global Citizens

The difference between the nomadic elite and the disenfranchised poor who have no choice

| July-August 2000

In 1997 Johannesburg hosted a spectacular biennial that attracted artists and cultural workers from around the world. The second Johannesburg Biennale, Trade Routes: History and Geography, raised important issues about the many artists and curators who now function as global citizens, and about the travelers like me who have become part of their mobile audience. It was meant to be a monument to this new era of nomadism—a tribute to a longed-for time when national boundaries will be dissolved. We had gathered in this city on Africa’s southern tip to reflect on a possible transformation out of the past, even outside history, driven by images and art. But because of where and when the Biennale took place, the inquiry inevitably turned on itself.

The exhibition was held in downtown Johannesburg, surrounded by burnt-out buildings and crime-ridden streets. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was in session, and the weight of the past sat heavy on a country trying to move beyond apartheid. The Biennale, meanwhile, was looking forward to a future that would lie beyond the concept of nationhood. This created a fascinating discussion but a total disconnect with the prevailing local debate. The Biennale had not been designed to leap over these issues; its intent was to position South Africa as an international player in the art world. But the timing was perhaps unfortunate, given the country’s pressing need to reconstitute itself after more than 30 years of betrayal and sadism.

This situation crystallized certain questions about the new nomadism, both among artists and in the world at large. Many artists now migrate to the Western metropolises and position themselves as transnational or postnational, only to be selected by curators to represent their lands of origin. Truly local art, rooted in local concerns, often gets ignored. What might be called postnational art exists in relationship not to an actual place but rather to a series of global ideas. To whom are these artists, writers, and curators responsible when they attempt to exist in relation to no one society? If their concerns are social, where is their imagined point of impact? And if the political issues are global, to whom are they expressed?

In a wider sense, as the romantic concept of the global citizen takes hold, who deserves such a title? How does one achieve global citizenship? And where does it exist, in what time, in whose history?

Returning from Johannesburg, several artists, curators, and I were en route to New York when our South African Airlines flight announced that it would stop for fuel at Ihla do Sal (Island of Salt), off the African coast. It was dark when the plane landed. None of us knew the date or time. We weren’t sure if the island belonged to Cape Verde or South Africa, what language the people spoke, or what commerce they engaged in. Those of us who disembarked were ushered into an airport waiting room and told not to leave because we had not gone through customs. Surprisingly, we found groups of Russians smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. Why were they here? Had they been working in Angola? Trapped in a room filled with smokers and unable to step outside, those of us who did not smoke were getting sick and angry.

Having just engaged in so much postnational theory, we might have felt liberated by this out-of-nation experience had we been better able to imagine where we were. We were in a postmodern, postnational moment, unable to locate ourselves in either cultural or geopolitical space. But however attuned we were to these uncertainties in the abstract, our physical response was disorientation.

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