Open Letter to the Board of Trustees of Black Umbrella Concerning the Dismissal of Rasheed Araeen

POSTED ON: June 2, 2012 IN Speeches & Statements, Word View

Mario Pissarra & Lize van Robbroeck, 2 June 2012

Open letter to the Board of Trustees of Black Umbrella, concerning the dismissal of Rasheed Araeen as executive director, and the consequences of this action for the future of Third Text, as well as for Third Text Africa.

On the 25th June 2012 Rasheed Araeen, founding editor of Third Text, sent an email to a number of persons associated with Third Text. The letter detailed his dismissal as executive director of Black Umbrella, the non-profit organisation founded by Araeen which established Third Text as its flagship project.

Araeen’s letter contains many serious allegations about the conduct of the board of trustees of Black Umbrella, particularly its chairperson, Ziauddin Sardar. In summary, these include Sardar’s interference in the day-to-day running of Third Text, and his sowing of divisions between Araeen and the Third Text staff. Sardar also appears to have behaved in a manner that is legally dubious and defies expectations of ethical conduct. Throughout this conflict the board of trustees of Black Umbrella is presented as ineffective and complicit.

Araeen highlights that both the current board of trustees of Black Umbrella and the staff of Third Text were not involved in the long struggle to establish Third Text. The importance of this point is that they appear incapable of understanding the role of Third Text outside of its identity as an art journal produced in concert with its principal funder, the Arts Council of England (ACE), and (in more recent years) its publisher, Routledge. According to Araeen the current Black Umbrella board of trustees are betraying the initial aims of the body by not recognisingThird Text’s role within a broader ideological struggle to challenge power, not only within the art world but within the world at large. This broader activist vision and mission has historically been the mandate of Black Umbrella, but the vision for Third Text of the present trustees of Black Umbrella appears to have shrunk to that of just another art journal.

These shifts in the identity of Black Umbrella and Third Text appear to have been brought to a head within the context of the global recession, which has resulted in cuts to the budget of ACE. This has understandably alarmed persons that are involved in ACE funded projects, who now fear that they are in danger of losing their main income stream. This financial panic seems to present a threat to the prospects for continuing to publishThird Text (at least in its present form) as well as a threat to the jobs of its staff.

Araeen appears to have been dismissed because the strategy he was pursuing was to apply to ACE not only for funding for Third Text but also for Black Umbrella. According to Araeen there had been a long ongoing conversation with ACE to consider the broad mandate of Black Umbrella, and a window of opportunity to apply for Black Umbrella projects had presented itself. In contrast the board of trustees, led by its chairperson, along with the staff of Third Text, notably the executive editor and managing editor, appear to have regarded this strategy as “suicide” for Third Text. Araeen in contrast seems to not only have been confident that ACE would continue to fund Third Text, but also that if they didn’t this would not mean the end of Third Text.

Araeen has made it clear that the present struggle is less about his reinstatement than it is about the reinstatement of the historical mandate of Black Umbrella and Third Text. If he has betrayed this mandate then he accepts that there may be grounds for his dismissal. But there is nothing to suggest that this is the case. Rather, based on available evidence, it is the board of trustees of Black Umbrella that should resign since they appear to have betrayed the original mandate of the body they serve.

The ‘evidence’ referred to here is not only the allegations made by Araeen. They are also evident in that the Black Umbrella trustees have ignored a call from members of the editorial board of Third Text for the reinstatement of Araeen.

Instead of responding to this call to reinstate Araeen the Black Umbrella board of trustees has continued to behave like a law unto its self, either not communicating its actions at all, or blatantly misrepresenting them.

This is all the more alarming in that Araeen was dismissed almost a year ago (12 July 2011). His silence up until this point reflects his attempts to address this issue, whereas the silence of Black Umbrella suggests a reticence to account for its actions, surely the dismissal of Araeen is not considered a matter of insignificance!

The sole hint of a regime change at Third Text has been evident in its new conservative approach to cover design, with artworks replacing the trademark world map that has graced Third Text’s cover since its inception. Araeen continues to be listed as founding editor, implying his ongoing relationship with the journal, with no hint of a conflict that saw the chairperson of Black Umbrella order the locks of the Third Text office to be broken in order for the staff to take over the office.

The editorial board continues to be listed in Third Text, despite the fact that its voice on the matter has not even warranted a reply from the Black Umbrella board of trustees, and despite the fact that it no longer plays the role it played historically, with its functions having been usurped by the technocrats employed for the purposes of producing the journal.

The advisory council members, though they never met or played a strictly defined role, formed an integral part of the Third Text network, and their listing continues to affirm an intellectual and moral integrity that is now in question at Third Text. Yet no one at Black Umbrella or Third Text thought it important that they should be informed of Araeen’s dismissal (this despite the fact that he was mostly directly responsible for every one of them being listed there).

Third Text partners, such as ASAI, which publishes Third Text Africa online, have also not been informed by Black Umbrella of Araeen’s dismissal. The first editorial of Third Text Africa (published in 2008), was premised on the understanding that we shared a vision with the parent journal:

“As ASAI we share a common vision with Third Text, that art can be an agency for social change, and that to facilitate a liberatory discourse of art it is necessary to bridge the gulfs in public intellectual discourse that have been artificially constructed between academia (art historians) and the world ‘out there’ comprising artists, art professionals (particularly curators, and writers) and cultural activists. Third Text serves as a beacon of inspiration to ASAI, demonstrating that it is possible to traverse these worlds. Further, Third Text affirms that the spirit of genuine, independent criticism, unfettered by fears of loss of patronage or of breaching unwritten codes of professional etiquette that mitigate against outspokenness can and does exist in art discourse. This spirit is motivated not by personal position but rather by deeper concerns that art does matter, and that it is through free and open discourse that art can attain its potentially emancipatory character.”

The Third Text that we understood ourselves to be partnering with is personified in the example of Rasheed Araeen, and by the Third Text that he was directly responsible for. Our partnership with Third Text is premised on more than an opportunistic self-serving alliance with a prestigious journal. It represents an ideological alliance with a very particular intellectual and activist project, that meets the intellectual rigour associated with the academic world, but extends beyond it to include public intellectuals operating more broadly in the social realm. In short we are not only interested in ‘Third World art’ or art about social change, but in establishing an intellectual discourse that is ultimately ideological in the sense that it is committed to challenging prejudice, inequality and oppression, and in advancing progressive values and new ideas. In short it is a commitment towards intellectual action for social change.

The regime change at Black Umbrella and Third Text does affect the partnership between Third Text and ASAI, and it does affect Third Text Africa. While there is nothing to suggest any threat from Black Umbrella or Routledge to the future of Third Text Africa, we cannot pretend to our constituency that it is business as usual with Third Text.Third Text Africa itself may prove to be a microcosm of the competing interests that the dismissal of Araeen has brought to a head. It is evident that interest in the new phase we are involved in, namely reorienting Third Text Africa from its original archival function towards the publication of a new online peer reviewed journal, is influenced by the reputation of the mother journal (Third Text). But is the attraction based primarily on the perception of Third Text as a reputable journal or as an intellectual project that is also a site of ideological struggle?

While the position of projects like Third Text Africa (and presumably also Tercer Texto and Third Text Asia) introduces very specific questions concerning the nature of partnership one continues to have with Third Text, it is evident that Araeen’s dismissal presents a threat to all those historically associated with Third Text.

Rasheed Araeen has set high standards for all of us. Many have benefited from his mentorship and generosity. If his conduct warrants dismissal let it be based on the standards he has set, not on the unexplained actions of those he has trusted with the preservation of the vision and mission of Black Umbrella and Third Text.

There is much to suggest that Black Umbrella has behaved in a most undignified, even cowardly manner in dismissing Araeen. However, before we condemn the trustees it is only fair that the trustees be called to account for their actions. The trustees need to recognise that there is now a crisis of legitimacy surrounding Third Text, and that many of us suspect that the trustees are the direct cause of this.

We call on the trustees of Black Umbrella to:

•    Provide a satisfactory explanation for the dismissal of Rasheed Araeen as executive director of Black Umbrella and for locking him out of the Third Text office.

•    Outline the steps leading to his dismissal, including efforts made to resolve the conflict, as well as the steps followed in ensuring that his dismissal was handled in a fair manner.

Until Black Umbrella provides satisfactory answers to these questions, we call on all concerned parties to:

Refrain from submitting or recommending publication to Third Text.

If Black Umbrella fails to respond to this open letter within one month of publication we call on all editorial board and advisory council members to call on the trustees of Black Umbrella to resign, failing which all editorial board and advisory council members should resign.

Mario Pissarra (managing director, ASAI, and managing editor, Third Text Africa) &
Lize van Robbroeck (editor in chief, Third Text Africa)

NB. A copy of this letter has been sent directly to the chairperson of the board of trustees of Black Umbrella and copied to the Arts Council of England, Routledge and Rasheed Araeen.