THE PLURAL SELF - Art-making within a shifting discourse

THE PLURAL SELF - Art-making within a shifting discourse

Lina Vincent

We are living through a complex time when there are more people migrating, by force or choice, than ever before. Over the last six months, my work with an archival project on family histories in Goa has provided a vast scope to look into the multilayered manifestations of identity and belonging, and people’s vulnerability as well as resilience in the face of dislocation or experiences of otherness and exile. This essay narrows the investigation down to personal experiences of three diaspora artists, and the manner in which their distinct practices translate and interpret their own status and observations of global migration in general. Annu Palakunnathu Mathew, Maria- Theresa Fernandes, and Nirmal Raja are artists of Indian origin currently living and working in different parts of USA.
In art terminology, ‘diaspora’ is used to categorise artists who have migrated (or whose families have migrated) from one region to another, across borders, and who express their encounters with culture and identity in the work they make. Multiculturalism by its very nature produces what has been called an ‘in-betweenness’ in understanding; alternative identities and perceptions of self can be projected in different ways. With creative practitioners in particular, there can be a constant intersection between the part that connects to personal roots, and other part(s) that evolve from integration with a present culture, whichever that might be. Artists practicing in these circumstances often look at individual and collective narratives that fall through the cracks of conventional histories; they are prone to choosing tracks, and visual languages, off the beaten path, at times registering dissent and protest.
Questioned on the experience of migration, living in different cultures and how it reflects in an art practice, the artists share their thoughts.
With a career of over five decades, Maria-Theresa Fernandes was born in Kenya, studied and lived in the UK and is currently based in Maryland, USA. “My art practice relates to my extensive travel over 55 countries; it has been the main source of inspiration and has influenced the direction of my work over the years. Some countries, the people and the landscape have contributed to the imagery and concepts in my work… Identity is a difficult question and a good one at that, as depending on my appearance, people always assume that I am from a different place to where I was born. Ethnicity plays a significant role and since my parents came from Goa, India, settled in Kenya, we were not considered belonging to the Place. You will always be an outsider when you travel from place to place in my case, India, Kenya, England and the USA. I feel that I do not belong to any country but try and make the Place I live at as my Home.” she says.

Identities Delaware Museum Show 1997

Identities, 1997 Image courtesy: Artist Maria-Theresa Fernandes

During the late 80s and 90s Egypt and Morocco influenced her work a lot; she has worked on projects connected to innate Indian cultural associations as well, like on ‘Dowry brides’ in the year 2000. Political commentary and worldviews on culture and social justice, as well as championing causes of the marginalized have importantly featured in her art projects. Her work on the subject of “Identities” became a juried Exhibition at the Delaware Museum, Wilmington in 1997, featuring her self-portraits. In her sunny studio in Baltimore, she recalls how textiles and embroidery were not considered an art form when she studied art in England in the 60s and 70s. It has remained the core canvas of her expression even as she continues to be challenged by new technologies and thought provoking ideas. In her recent work inspired by Cape Town, she explores the notion of “walls”, both physically and philosophically, dwelling on the sense of security and constant fear that people face.
“As a diaspora artist I have faced some discrimination with opportunities, awards, in that based on the Artistic Merit the respective grant opportunity was given but taken away when the Organisations realised the ethnicity of the participant. I have ignored these organizations by continuing my art. My Art is my Life and the two are inseparable.” Maria-Theresa concludes.
Based in Milwaukee currently, Nirmal Raja has developed a multidisciplinary artistic and curatorial practice that has sustained several breaks and domestic changes.
“Migration is a major factor that influences my work. Change is most drastic and abrupt when your surroundings become memories over and over again. I grew up moving every two to three years due to my father’s job, and continued to do so even after I came to America, for one reason or the other. Identity became hyphenated and ever-evolving.” The intense political changes in the US made her deeply aware of her own status, “It took me a long time to feel like I belong in this country, and the rise in xenophobia and increasing polarity in many subjects left me anxious for the future… I channel this anxiety and try to understand how I fit into this new power dynamic through my work…In a recent body of work, I wear each of my barely used saris in public spaces in Milwaukee and collaborate with a local artist and friend Lois Bielefeld to make pictures of this act. This work is about resisting homogeneity and occupying space while being overtly different in appearance and culture. My conversations with Lois led to more work together on our relationship with history. As an immigrant artist entering the timeline of America midway, I am left with a complicated relationship to its history. This resulted in a performance-based photographic work with Lois and a small group of interested artists in Milwaukee. Both these bodies of work required a lot of courage on my part, as I had never included my physical self in my work before.”

flags downtown

Downtown – Sari 18 (from Reaching through 5 ½ yards | Reaching Across 8497 miles), 2018-19, Image courtesy: Artists Lois Bielefeld and Nirmal Raja

Her curatorial practice has emerged from a desire to cross-pollinate, and provide visibility to underrepresented issues and artists. She feels there is a need to facilitate global understanding and build connections while acknowledging both similarities and differences. She is working towards an exhibition at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (her alma mater) for 2021 that is in response to the increase in hyper nationalism and isolationist policies like walls, travel bans and tariffs in addition to the refugee crisis. She would like to represent how artists subvert these barriers and produce meaningful work.
Migration and displacement often brings about a sense of hybridity, and the possibility of reimagining belonging. Annu Palakunnathu Mathew was born in London, raised in India and now lives and works in the United States. “Having lived in three different countries (England, India and the USA,) my identity resides in the liminal space of being both an insider and an outsider. To paraphrase composer, lyricist, singer, actor, and playwright Lin-Manual Miranda, as an outsider one feels a little out of place every where but it allows one to then be an observer. That perspective influences and feeds my practice. I embrace that perspective and understand the code switching needed to partially assimilate as I traverse through the different cultures… I have been a minority in all the countries that I have lived in. So yes, addressing the notion of “otherness” comes instinctively to me. I see my work as re-viewing history and reconsidering how commonly held ideas can be retold from a different perspective. The book A Different Mirror by Ronald Takaki influenced my outlook on the question of how different people perceive the same historical events quite differently based on how their experiences and cultures shape them. My work usually starts with photography and/ or archival footage as both are intrinsically connected to history and memory, a fact I use as a tool to prompt the viewer to reconsider their own notions of history of those outside of the majority. My portfolio An Indian from India was a pivotal project that defined this direction and also for understanding my transnational experience.”

white man indian less bkground

Whiteman/Indian (from the series, An Indian from India), 2001 Image courtesy: Artist Annu Palakunnathu Matthew

One of her most iconic bodies of work, “An Indian from India” is a series of diptychs in which she pairs classic 19th century images of Native Americans with portraits of herself in the same pose and background. In the portfolio, she plays her own ‘otherness’, exploring personal experiences, colonial histories, race relations and established stereotypes. Presented with irony and humour, the subject represents the darker side of colonial pasts, systems of hegemony and patronization, and the undue collective categorization of native peoples into nameless ethnic types – commonly visible across colonized nations including India.
“When I read reviews in the US it exasperates me when minority artists are labeled by their ethnicity while Caucasians are not. So yes, diasporic and minority artists do face challenges of being categorized. Or their work being “not understood” because of the cultural references and the lack of effort of the viewer to try and dig deeper. Diasporic artists also often fall into the trap of not being Indian enough and not, in my case, being “American” enough.” From her early work, Matthew has been exploring the connection between past and present. Nostalgia and longing permeate her early project ‘Memories of India’ - an ongoing tribute to memories of her childhood in India. In the later ‘Re-Generations’, she used photos taken from the family albums of friends, relatives, and acquaintances, the resulting video fusing faces and images from past to present building layered narratives.
Apparent in all the work discussed, is an acknowledgement of differences and a recognition of the plural self within it all – the artists use creative means to address issues that abound in a contemporary transnational milieu. Artistic processes offer the means for people to express who they are, and what they feel. The arts and culture can provide a healing space – both physical and ideological – for people with divergent perspectives on divisive issues to interact, engage in dialogue, and build collective understanding. Today what we need more than ever is to articulate and nurture inclusiveness, and cultures of belonging, in order to contribute to social justice for a better tomorrow.

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