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The Limits of Self-Orientalising

Swapnaa Tamhane

It was nothing personal when I emailed the director of a contemporary art foundation in Calgary to request a confidential phone conversation. 

I felt compelled to discuss the curatorial approach of an upcoming exhibition that included the work of an old friend of mine. Friendship aside, I had curated his work in a group exhibition a few years earlier. 

His work was touring from Toronto, where it was met with an explosive response from the wider South-Asian community. They raised concerns about a singular narrative being presented – concerns which were largely ignored by the gallery, the artist, and the curator. 

The content of the exhibition essay: references to an attack on a holy Sikh site in 1984 by the Indian government in response to militant characters who were leading uprisings. One of those uprisings resulted in the largest terrorist attack to take place on Canadian soil – the bombing of Air India Flight 182, which was left out of both the exhibition text and footnotes.

There should have – at minimum – been a footnote. 

But none of the actual artworks in the exhibition were very clear in fact – frankly a bit of a missed opportunity to think through the complexity of the Indian state in its past and present. Instead, there was a lot of decoration that could easily fall into what I will call an ethnographic reading. 

The director was to have an in-person meeting with this artist in the following days. 

I learned shortly after, from our mutual friend located 11,240 kilometres away and 10.5 hours ahead in Delhi, that she had exposed my name to him.

The director later told me that if I wanted a ‘confidential’ conversation, I should have said so.

My email, it seems, was not so closely read.

Questions arise: 

What does it mean for us ‘brown’ and ‘black’ people in Canada to be patronised and courted by white institutions, white curators, and white audiences? What does it mean for our conversations to be placed secondary to an idea of ‘redress’ that attempts to uncover lost histories and right wrongs but does so in a way that glorifies tropes of the exotic, of the Oriental? 

In wanting to form a language or new methodologies in my practice, I tend to draw from visual forms and objects of signification that stem from my own culture as part of the South-Asian diaspora. Even if I am aware of the pitfalls of pigeon-holing oneself into a stasis of Orientalism and identity politics, I often wonder if the work I make as an artist, or produce as a curator, could be regarded as a process of self-Orientalising.

Edward W. Said identified Orientalism as a range of geopolitical strategies which found their way into academia, economics, and aesthetics, imagining the world as two halves – the Orient and the Occident. He wrote that the intention to control and manipulate a kind of power over the ‘other’ is produced as intellectual, political, cultural and moral. It has less to do with the actual ‘other’, and more to do with defining ‘our’ world, ‘our’ selves.1 More simply put, anyone researching or writing or negotiating the ‘Orient’ produces ‘Orientalism’ – a series of vantage points, perceptions and understandings that are built and premised on the process of defining a superiority that was historically enacted by the missionary, or the trader, or the slave owner, for instance. These ideas of superiority have perforated the West, forming the basis of ideologies that lie at the heart of white supremacy.

The language that I sometimes feel I am clumsily stumbling towards is manifold in its desire for a resistance against easy legibility – not necessarily achieving the opacity that Édouard Glissant defines,2 but in proximity to an earnest attempt to reclaim something that perhaps was never really mine. Now that many curators, historians and artists alike have begun a frenzied rush towards decolonisation, I am weary about the binds that tie my hands: wanting to reclaim something and being damned for how those associations might reverberate. With primarily white audiences in Canada there is little patience for nuance. I often find that a preface to a preface is required. 

In the case of Canadian artists from the vast South-Asian diaspora situated across this country, subject matter tends to harken back to visual codes, political commentary, and nostalgic cues from India, Pakistan, Mauritius, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Guyana – from wherever the amassing of cultural identity was (dis)placed through immigration, colonialism and slavery. A Canadian identity as a singular thing is in itself impossible to define given the holding-hands campaign of ‘multiculturalism’, a policy first introduced in the 1970s to encourage social integration due to the influx of immigrants. Additionally, there is the grappling of understanding the diasporic responsibility in relation to our roles in settler-colonialism.3 For past curatorial projects, my mandate has been to complicate ideas of representation of how ‘we’ are seen as the diaspora; not national enough, not ‘Indian’ enough, not ‘brown’ enough; not ‘Canadian’ enough.

Let’s trace things back: perhaps a sort of unintentional collusion formed between institutions/curators from the West in a sincere attempt to include artists from non-Western countries in the early 1990s. This led to tacit agreements that the artist would self-Orientalise or self-other – an anti-colonial reversal of the lens of Orientalism that sees the artist announce themselves as ‘other’. Hal Foster’s 1995 essay ‘The Artist as Ethnographer?’ discusses alterity as a combined force of realism and primitivist fantasy: the belief that the ‘other’ has access to primal psychic and social processes from which the white (petit) bourgeois subject is blocked.4 The late Okwui Enwezor more generously termed self-Orientalising as ‘the will to globality’, recognising that artists could be and were obviously self-reflexive about their locales.

Post-1989 there was a proliferation of ‘global’ art, encouraged by exhibitions like Magiciens de la Terre or Primitivism (as problematic as they were) being held alongside the ground-breaking Third Havana Biennial. Non-Western artists, who could evidence themselves as authentic survivors of their ‘unfortunate’ countries, riddled in problems that the West was gleefully free from (until Covid-19), were included in these sprawling group exhibitions. As markets and biennales grew, so did exhibitions that focused primarily on national identities, some with rather silly exhibition titles (in the case of contemporary Indian art: Indian Highway, The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today, Chalo! India: A New Era of Indian Art).5 The process of selection for group exhibitions is what Hans Belting argues to be a replication of ethnographic modes of collecting and disseminating from the colonial era, inherited from strategies of 19th century world trade fairs, aka theft and piracy.6 In the West, the racialised body (in the above cases, Indian) continues to be assigned the behemoth task of speaking for their community, their nation-state, their region. Again, questions arise: what agency does a singular artist have in such group snapshots? How do artists assert an individuality that is not attached to a cultural identity in these exchanges? Where does the diaspora fit into these national identities?


Graffiti in Athens’ Omonoia Square, photograph taken by Julia Tulke during Documenta 14, June 2016. Barely legible, the last two lines read: ‘Sincerely/Oi I8ageneis’ [The indigenous]. As Tulke points out, this is not an artist attribution; the individual or group that disseminated this and similar stencils across the city remains unknown.

‘The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture,’ writes Said, reflecting that museum collections are full of stolen ‘stuff’ which has informed all aspects of life in the Occident, from imagery to bureaucracy to education.7 Have we diaspora artists in the Occident absorbed and inherited all of this? How do we/I unlearn this? The larger question is, are there any other modes of looking at the ‘other’ and at ourselves, besides ethnographic readings? In addressing the multitude of ethnographic collections across Europe, curator Clémentine Deliss declares that museum anthropology remains a monocultural field, preventing other disciplines from developing alternative forms or processes of remediation in a frame of decolonisation.8 They remain filled with collections built on anonymity, with no records of craftspersons, artists, or engineers. Mariam Shatanawi, curator at the infamous Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, says that contemporary artists critiquing these collections must redefine ideas of classification or display in order to avoid a process of complicity used historically by colonisers.9 Concurrent to this is the car-washing-like activity of changing institutions’ names, as though rebranding removes the original intent of how and why the ‘other’ has been collected and represented.10

The processes of self-Orientalising and the curatorial utilisation of tropes of identity are complicated and somewhat thorny for diaspora artists. As Kobena Mercer wrote in response to the exhibition The Other Story,11 curated by Rasheed Araeen at Hayward Gallery, London, 1989:

The conceptual promise of the symbolic concept of ‘diaspora’ is withheld by the recourse to the replication of the primordial racial binarisms of white / not-white, European / not-European, us / not us.12

Does this ‘replication’ still hold true? In the case of all diasporas, do these binaries that Mercer outlines shape what is produced and ultimately supported? I would argue yes. In discussing the immediate aftermath of independence in India, historian Monica Juneja writes that artists had to define themselves as modern or transgressive, representing a national identity yet simultaneously recognisable as the ‘other’. Juneja writes that in the nation-building post-colonial process, artists translated their ancient past into ‘modernist idioms to occupy a secular aesthetic space’, which assisted in bringing ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ onto a shared platform, an act that confirms the demarcation of Asia from the West.13 That secularisation has been ebbing for a number of decades, particularly now with Modi’s ‘Hinduisation’ of the country’s social, political and cultural spheres. Artists of the South-Asian diaspora can end up on incredibly murky ground representing a homeland which may often be imagined, out-of-date with local politics, or imbricated with casteist ideologies. While the process of self-Orientalising opposes anthropological readings, it can become one of self-absorption: James Clifford claims such an ethnographic self-fashioning can be regarded as a philosophical narcissism.14

What happens when an artist from a diaspora calls on politics and symbols that enact the ‘primordial binarisms’ of Orient/Occident? How is legibility critiqued when there are manipulative alignments of historical traumas set in parallel to the centuries-long oppressions of First Nations and Black peoples? What happens when this work risks dangerously reversing strategies carefully thought out and enacted by artists in newly decolonised countries? Mercer writes: ‘There is no definitive “answer-word” to the master discourses of racism and ethnocentrism, because our Other can also re-appropriate what we have ourselves appropriated.’15 In a perhaps unintentional self-Orientalising process, re-appropriation of symbols or imagery appear more and more in the work of artists from a range of diasporas who are angrily rejecting what they understand of Conceptualism as a white art movement. The result of some of this rather ignorant rejection is highly decorative artwork that can easily fall into the ethnographic category through its imagery and materiality. Paradoxically, artists using white cube spaces, which historically assisted in the process of distinguishing an art object from an ethnographic object,16 want institutional affirmation regardless of the violence enacted by these very institutions upon their cultures. So, there are strange contradictions happening in parallel: contemporary art in the global period unwittingly replicates an ethnographic model and ethnic production of reductive identities, while diaspora artists use tactics of self-Orientalising as ploys to counter the white art world, which can include aping ethnographic objects or methods of display.

In attempting to claim one’s own self-representation, the artist and the artwork end up in a sticky spot between self-Orientalising and the ethnographic. Does self-Orientalising reverse progress and enact a violence in the decolonial effort to reconsider the ethnographic? Or does it fall back into the crux of the ‘burden of representation’ that Kobena Mercer so aptly described 30 years ago? That said, with accelerated efforts towards decolonisation, could self-Orientalising in this time become a position of power and rejection of Western dominant narratives? Is self-Orientalising now truly a method that no longer plays into the tropes of representation, but owns that positionality? Is the use of an ethnographic aesthetic language perhaps the only way to point back at how our cultures have been commodified and interpreted in and by the West? Or, is the double bind an inevitable sinkhole that develops unbeknownst to the artist(s)?

  1. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1978), pp. 12–13. ↩︎
  2. Glissant’s ‘le droit à l’opacité’, or the right to opacity, is the idea that Otherness does not always need to be transparent, or difference made communicable, or consumable, as that easily leads to appropriation. See Édouard Glissant, Poétique de la Relation (Paris: Gaillimard, 1990). ↩︎
  3. See the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s studies with the goal for reparation and understanding of the impact of residential schools upon First Nations: ↩︎
  4. Hal Foster, ‘The Artist as Ethnographer?’, in The Traffic in Culture: Refiguring Art and Anthropology, ed. by George E. Marcus and Fred R. Myers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) pp. 302-309 (p. 303). ↩︎
  5. While these exhibitions took place in the early 2000s, as curator and historian Naman Ahuja says, a true understanding of transculturalism still remains to be achieved, and the West continues to be attached to the same ‘idea’ of India. Naman Ahuja, ‘Modernism’s Muse: The Indian Presence in European Art 1880–1930’, 5th KG Subramanyan Memorial Talk, Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda, and Gallery Art, 8 February, 2020. ↩︎
  6. Kavita Singh, ‘The Future of the Museum is Ethnographic’, The Future of Ethnographic Museums, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, 19–21 July 2013. ↩︎
  7. Said, p. 2. ↩︎
  8. Clémentine Deliss speaks about the problematics of collections that are sequestered by city and state administration, or by their locations in the museum stores in her 2018 lecture ‘Political Futures’ at the Kunsthalle Wien. Clémentine Deliss, Political Futures, YouTube, 19 February 2018, ↩︎
  9. Christoph Chwatal, ‘Decolonizing the Ethnographic Museum: Contemporary Art and the Weltmuseum Wien’, Art Papers, 2018 ↩︎
  10. In Canada, the Museum of Anthropology was rebranded MOA: A Place of World Arts + Culture (here Indigenous communities have rights to control and protect their traditional cultural expressions) in 2010, and the Canadian Museum of Civilization was changed to the Canadian Museum of History in 2012. In Austria, the Ethnology Museum (‘Völkerkundemuseum’) was rebranded as the World Museum (‘Weltmuseum Wien’) in 2013. ↩︎
  11. Including artists such as Lubaina Himid, Frank Bowling, Donald Locke, Anwar Jalal Shemza, Mona Hatoum, Keith Piper, and Sonya Boyce. ↩︎
  12. Kobena Mercer, ‘Black Art and the Burden of Representation’, Third Text, Volume 4, Issue 10 (1990), p. 69. ↩︎
  13. Monica Juneja, ‘Global Art History and the “Burden of Representation”’, in Global Studies: Mapping Contemporary Art and Culture, ed. by Julia T. S. Binter and Thomas Fillitz (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2011), pp. 284–285. ↩︎
  14. James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 92. ↩︎
  15. Mercer, p. 77. ↩︎
  16. Singh, 2013. ↩︎

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