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.
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?