Hair of the Dog?

Contemporary South Asian Visual Arts in Britain
By Sonali Fernando

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Preface

So 'post-modernism' has been and gone, and with it other cultural groupings and trends of the '80s and '90s. Goodbye 'identity politics', farewell 'second wave feminism' and ciao 'Black Arts Movement': in artistic and intellectual milieux these once indispensable ideologies are now considered old hat. 1The short answer to slogans of the 'socialism is dead' variety is that emancipatory movements cannot be redundant as long as the dire social need that engendered them still exists. The longer answer is itself a question—about the sleight of hand being wrought on popular memory by contemporary mass culture; about the commandeering of the rhetoric of the Left for the policies of the Right (share issues as 'power to the people', 'free choice' as a spending option); about the workings of postmodernism itself, not as a craze ideology, but as an ambivalent sensibility that continue to haunt contemporary life.

If a sense of interregnum exists among Black cultural producers now, it may not be entirely because these ideas have lived themselves out. In a culture of metropolises enchained to the new, cratered with waste, functioning in that state of instant amnesia intrinsic to late Twentieth Century capitalism, there is a tendency even in emancipator politics to conform to the market's relentless braying for novelty. In the process radical ideas are rendered obsolete before they are fully stretched or nuanced; they are politically lobotomised as they themselves become market commodities. Many Black artists in Britain, who decry their continued exclusion from mainstream cultural spaces and support the ongoing critique of essentialism, are concerned about the hurried eclipsing of 'identity politics', explorations of 'ethnicity' and Black cultural alignments by a glibly conceived 'New Internationalism' which appears to have been substituted into the funding structures as though by a gentlemen's agreement to change the furniture. 2The justifications for 'New Internationalism' that have so far been offered are inadequately theorised. If the accusation of essentialism is being levelled at local Black identifications, there is no guarantee that so-called 'International' alignments will be any less essentialist: it is not hard to see that 'internationalism' courts precisely the same perils as 'multiculturalism' (in which people are required to parade discrete and immobile ethnic identities under a supervising and controlling Caucasian eye), only on a larger scale. Internationalism—except in Marx' aspiration—has always been the preserve of the elite in practice, and there is no guarantee now that it will not simply pander to artists from a global elite (whether First world of Third) and of course, in the process, throw local ideas such as 'equal opportunities' into disrepute. Unfortunately, as Alistair Raphael and others have pointed out, the powers that be have 'disenfranchised the very process of defining what New Internationalism might mean'—very few artists have been able to participate. If the arts funding bodies are genuinely interested in fostering a spirit of internationalism in the arts (though many would argue that an interesting curatorial idea should not become a principle of funding) they should surely contribute to it from the mainstream budgets, not the small pool of money that was fought for by Black artists in the '80s and was often the only guarantee that Black British work would be shown in this country.

Post-modernism, as the philosophical attack on Enlightenment certainties and consequently the end of the 'grand narratives' that underwrite the political, social and economic supremacy of Western 'Man', held great emancipatory promise: as even post-modernism's stoutest critics agree: "the period after the modern is when the others of modernity talk back".3Kobena Mercer, Welcome to the Jungle: Identity and Postmodern Politics in Identity. But in practice, to take the British example, the radical reversal/substitution morphology of post-modernism is most evident in the manoeuvres of the Right. Thus the political party that qualifies more than any other for the epithet 'radical' (denoting its attack at the 'roots' of British society, its destabilising of British verities such as the postwar tradition of Welfare State capitalism and the 'uprooting' of the notion of society itself), is also the party that is purveying a 'new' Britain pickled in heritage aspic: John Major's Britain of 'invincible green suburbs', 'hot bread from the local baker's' 'warm beer' and 'spinsters cycling to church'.4John Major, speech to the house of commons, 1993. This Tory simulation (simulation in Debord's sense of 'a social relation among people meditated by images'5Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 1983.), itself quoted from a text written by George Orwell in the 1940s, lives today as a concatenation of buzz-phrases from TV commercials promising an eternal Britain of teas with the Vicar on Mr Kipling's cakes, oven-warm Hovis and jaunts round Epping in a Vauxhall Nova. The preexistence of layer on layer of Little England images in the national culture ensured that John Major's speech, and others like it, were not merely a shot into the ether.

Coming from Britain, as I am often made to remember that I do, as a person of South Asian descent, I—and here, but for inelegance, I would peg words between inverted commas—belong to a community that is both under-represented and hyper-scrutinised. The ethnic designation of this 'I' is plucked from oblivion only in the most controlled way, of course: 'I' am produced through a cultural language that still carries Empire in it, the love-hate powerfuckover of the coloniser and the colonised, refined through four centuries of British intimacy with the Indian Subcontinent. The colonial dyad now makes a ghostly reappearance in a new idea—the impoverished, static hybrid 'British Asian'—and the colonial rationale steps out again as contemporary racism, whose first target is South Asians. So whatever one's dreams of cosmopolitan fluidity, there is always that very marginal, but very real, prior nomenclature to contend with. Scepticism becomes a habit of survival.

It was in such a mood of suspicion, though graced with sporadic joy, that many people received the phenomenal South Asian Visual Arts Festival that took place in Britain this year, an event that had been four years in the making, and involved more than sixty artists and twenty venues throughout Britain. I have chosen to write about four of these artists, all of whom produce mixed-media installations, whose work harness some of the paradoxes of representation to the task of decolonisation in the broadest sense.6The 'colonised' including women or gay people, for instance. The work I have selected negotiates the postmodern and the neo-colonial, offering not resolution or closure, but articulation and exposure: at their best the works are visionary biopsies of contemporary culture. They represent a desire to intervene in the proliferation of images that take no responsibility for themselves: images eviscerated from context (the first prerequisite of neo-colonial appropriation) and ideological images that conceal real power relations, referring only to each other and not to referents in the world.

Unlike the generations of South Asian artists preceding them, who came as pilgrims to the shrine of European Modernism, these people (all aged between 26 and 25) did not come to Britain to be Artists. This generation came when it was young, or born here, and has grown up with—been intimate with—stimuli and emphases from an age dominated by information and mass communication, cheap air travel and increased cultural colonisation by the United States and Japan. It is a West that now constructs itself as futuristic by constant reference to a mythologised recent past. In this generation the notions of 'British culture' and 'South Asian culture' inevitably undergo major transformations. Underpinning 'their' concerns is a focus on the mechanisms of power that authorise mass representation. Holding that no image is innocent—for enunciation is always produced within a specific code and history that entails a process of selection and discarding—these artists' appetite is not only for 'the world itself but for the structures, paradigms, languages and devices through which the world is produced. One of the tactics that they use is that of stealing public signifiers and redeploying them—taking the things that imprison, invade, impact and hurt from public imagery and reinforcing them, giving them even more airtime, so that eventually they seem, deliriously, to lash back against themselves. But is all the borrowing and rearranging of existing material not perhaps the ploy of the victim, of the desperado, the dependent, that of she who cannot leave it, cannot create except in relation to it? Like taking alcohol to cure a hangover, is this work the hair of the dog that bit?

In Alistair Raphael's photographic installations, the participant is assailed by tropes of invasion, scrutiny and surveillance, in a sustained exegesis of the vocabulary and imagery surrounding AIDS. Though an artist working with photographs, he actually takes very few photographs himself. Most of his images are borrowed, from medical journals, anatomy books and magazines that traffic in decontextualized pictures of the virus.

These are household images, reinforced by their presence in different media: sememes in the authorized language of the body. Raphael charges himself to be utterly passionless in his use of these images—not in denial of his humanity, but because it is in this seamless, objective style that public imagery is delivered, and, only by imitating its mode of delivery can he refigure it. In Interrupt, a haunting, elegiac piece on love, loss, life and death, the tensions between medical surveillance and intimacy pivot on the image of a heart; a heart that we know as such through its violent, regular hammering and its coating of blood, defined by movement and texture rather than forms so different from its caricature as the emblem of love. A life size (4m x 3m) black and white photograph of a Victorian brass bed in an empty room with white walls and bare floorboards evokes desolate stillness. The sheets and pillows of the bed are crumpled and pitted as though embossed with the memory of lovemaking: implicit memory in explicit separation. Down from the pillow, where a sleeping person's heart would be, a tiny video plays an edited video of open heart surgery in a long loop. Spurting blood in delicate jets after incision, the heart is prised out of the chest cavity by gloved hands and the hollow packed aggressively with ice to slow down its beating. This organ, presented literally at the knife-edge of life and death, cannot connote passion in any simple way, for the ineffable mystery that it represents is produced through the medical gaze, in a surgical context, already entered by both the scalpel and the artificial eye. The privacy of love suggested by the bed has been invaded: now, as throughout history, the language of love has been informed by the language of medicine. The piece places AIDS, so often figured as an invading, 'alien' disease, within a context, within a personal history of a bed that has seen and been passed down through generations of male lovers, and the history of the mediation of male love and homosexuality by the medical establishment.

Many Black artists in Britain...are concerned about the hurried eclipsing of 'identity politics'...by a glibly conceived 'New Internationalism'

Raphael's commitment to context, echoed by other artists, means semantic as well as social context: meaning is enunciated within particular codes, which have their own histories of cultural use. But in attempting to excavate those codes they also acknowledge the partiality of doing so, and tacitly, that for the children of migrants, knowledge of their parents' cultural codes is usually partial or derivative. A kind of 'doubling' of vision arises from this sense of being able to crack through, having been intimate with different semantic codes. But this is not one that entails dualism. An analogy is that of looking at an optical illusion: there is a moment when it reverses on itself and perception is suddenly radically transformed as one understands its other, perfectly logical, competing reality, which exists in precisely the same format; in another moment one tries to recapture the first impression. Between the two perceptions is that place where paradoxes are poised, or clenched, in equilibrium, where both views are simultaneously possible.

This perceptual doubling is evident in Said Adrus' treatment of the Canvas, that Holy of Holies of Western art. Just as Andy Warhol sent up Western art conventions, parodying what had become stereotypic while gleefully and hypocritically stealing their power, so Adrus pushes the boundaries of 'painting' while strategically preserving elements. Look, no hands! His images are high-technology computer paintings sprayed onto canvas by gargantuan computers that he has programmed. He never stretches or frames his canvases, deliberately debunking High Art orthodoxies on form and enjoying the 'practicality' of being able to roll his paintings up like scrolls to carry in his rucksack. In his early work this portability was integral to his sense of didactic urgency, that he was making messages to be delivered (for instance in his painting based on a poem about five people who were burnt to death in a racist arson attack). In Transition of Riches he traces the principles of canvas (its weft, strength and response to paint) back through to hessian sisal and jute (materials made in Africa and Asia), and returns these raw materials to their working form as sacks, stapled and dumped on the floor. In this form, the fabric becomes richly suggestive of histories and memories far removed from the European art world; of physical labour, agriculture, export, boxes covered in stitched calico at shipyards in India and Africa, sway gags, trade parcels, migrants' luggage. Elsewhere, hessian is used to 'frame' a canvas painting made by computer. Visually, the prints and the weave of the hessian coincide. The pixels of the computer images echo the texture of the nostalgia for the raw, a romantic desire to counterpoint the complexity of his new technology with the simplicity of these old materials. But it is also part of a larger ambition shared by other artists to find a place for dissident migrant histories within a restructured European art.

The eruption of raw human anger manifest in graffiti has long excited Adrus, leading him to experiment with its confrontational power. But now graffitti is no longer written in his work, but spoken, by voices that emerge eerily form the sacks which have been emblazoned with an image of the British crown taken from the national passport. Are these the property of the State, of transiting nationals, or have they been sequestered at Customs? A looped fragment of human voice, speaking rhythmically and slowly like a 45 rpm rap played at 33, asks insistently, "Seeing, is it believing?" The slight twist to the cliche comes to mean both, "Can you ever safely trust what your eyes tell you?" and "Will you ever believe, even if it's staring you in the face?" On the wall a computer generated image of a Devil TV and a skull-headed soldier has the same query, but now the awkward relationship it posits between humanity, commerce, migration and truth is further complicated by televisual representation.

Adrus transforms cultural icon through technology. The tabla (a British metonym of 'Indianness', to the letter 'T' what Saris, Samosas, and Sitars are to the letter 'S') in his soundtracks changes from live instrument to sampled sound, digitised, communicable with other digital information: synchronic practice at an electronic level. Humorous freehand drawings of tablas produced on computers are reproduced in a variety of bright colours, their colour and lopsidedness instantly deflating the solemnity of the instrument within Classical Indian music. The contemporary, not the 'traditional' connections are what are important, Adrus contends. The tabla is relevant for many young people in Britain not through Classical music but through bhangra, players such as Talvin Singh who work with reggae, rock and jazz artists and bands like Fun>da>Mental that project hardhitting political lyrics, combined with traditional acoustic instruments and technologically sampled sounds. He thus regurgitates with ironic disbelief the proverbs and platitudes of Identity in his work, refusing to stabilise any identity yet creating the space in which submerged identities must be recognized. The viewer, who is also the listener, is situated between belief and mistrust, at either arrival or departure, at that place, which is also a non-place, of migration and cultural change.

Raphael charges himself to be utterly passionless in his use of these images...because it is in this seamless, objective style that public imagery is delivered.

Synchronic entry into different, partially-excavated codes is a feature of Anita Kaushik's raw, confrontational and edgily humorous 'Barbie' series. In one installation, a life sized Barbie doll is suspended in the middle of a room. The room is lined with 'fun fur' in sharp fluorescent colours. Barbie is garlanded and bedizened like an Indian bride, while at her feet lie real flowers that have been, in a bizarre reversal of most simulations, painted and covered with glitter to look fake, and arranged in the shape of a swastika. This symbol may be a Hindu token of peace, but to Asians in Europe and increasingly anti-BJP Indians, the fascistic connotations of the symbol always intervene. The reading is always double. The doll is, of course, pale-skinned and blonde-haired, the image par excellence of ideal female beauty that dominates the world. Here she becomes a satire of the brutal pigmentocracy that exists in South Asian cultures, where brides are touted according to their colour, and women are exhorted to apply mercuric skin lightening creams to their faces and bodies.

Kaushik leaves a small message, "Please remove your shoes," outside the room. Viewers are enjoined to enter the space clean, in a worshipful way as they would a temple or other hallowed site. The bride is there to be worshipped as a goddess. But she is also there as a sexualized object to be confined and violated. Shoeless, one experiences better the crass sensuality of the room—it becomes a hermetic zone in which everything is synthetic, a heightened, absurd simulation of the means by which misogyny is normalized. Kaushik's strategies of excess and corrosive humour, cast an unsparing eye on the day-to-dayness, the banality of sexual and racial contempt. The room takes on the aspect of a neurotic seduction chamber; lined with man-made synthesis of pubic hair ('fur'), it becomes a cavity of simulation, the exteriorisation of 'her' own sexuality as artifice and suffocation. On the walls the words 'cunt' and 'Paki' are cut in chunks of hairy graffiti, the everyday abuse with which the Indian woman, who is weirdly troped by Barbie, yet not fully present, must apparently learn to 'put up or shut up.'

Kaushik is awed by the ludicrous strength of emotion which this doll, this plastic incarnation of the Dream Teenager, can arouse in people. "Placed head to toe, the 60 million Barbie dolls sold by 1990 would circle the earth 3.5 times. A Barbie doll is sold every two seconds...in Western and Eastern Europe, Asia, South America, Africa and the Middle East".7Barbie Fun Facts, press release issues by Mattel quoted in Sindy-rella Complex, unpublished thesis by Anita Kaushik In using Barbie as an image she both acknowledges the colossal power of this contemporary icon (the word 'doll' derives from the Greek 'Eidolon' meaning 'idol'), and queries who has the right to authorise the meaning of something so powerful. For her, Barbie signifies not glamour but oppression, at a harmless plaything but an implement of propaganda, not a safe role model for little girls but an adult blueprint for sexualised teenagehood (yet, without genitals, simultaneously de-sexed and controlled). In her inertness, she is both a metaphor of, and a means of effecting, female impotence in the world, loss of speech and of freedom. When enlarged to human size, Barbie's resemblance to an inflatable doll is unmistakable.

Phone-booth cards of the kind used to advertise prostitutes' services, signs of the sexual trade in women, are the templates for her series of large (6'x4') Barbie paintings. The connections are many. Prostitutes' cards and paintings are both quadrants, both employ framing, both involve viewers and sale, both are in some sense advertisements to participate in a fantasy world. Kaushik hints that she is merely exposing a parallel that was already there: that of the art world's steady brokerage of women's bodies throughout the history of art in its role as grand Pimp of the Simulacral. But the cards are of course throwaway, their temporariness a product of their functionality. In translating a piece of punter's ephemeral into a painting, she destabilises precisely this valuation of Art's permanence. With a savage sense of parody, Kaushik puns in Sunday Sport mode on the word 'cheeky' and the bare plastic buttocks of Barbie, who lies across the frame while a male figure prepares to spank her. His pose makes the picture sinister, his arm stiffly raised as though in a fascist salute, an impression reinforced by the shiny leather-like texture of his body. Barbie's face inflects consternation and is more humanised and contoured than her body, which is realised as flat planes of colour Kaushik experiments with the traditions by which volume is represented in painting, playing between two and three dimensionality, creating the illusion of volume and simultaneously belying it with the block of flat colour underneath. Thus, she courts both realism and the unreal, highlighting the painting's own status as simulation. The humour of the paintings is belied by the menace of a subtext that suggests male violence, (epistemic, domestic and otherwise) against women and degradation of the female. The assaulting of women is seen as not merely a possibility in our society but an imperative, licensed by that crucial sense of a duty being fulfilled, a moral order being imposed: a woman 'needs a firm hand'.

The viewer... is situated between belief and mistrust... at that place, which is also a non-place -of migration and cultural change.

Symrath Patti's work depicts the pathos of the erasure of the real by the simulated. In Cherchez la Femme, a series of tropes of femininity constantly defer the presence of a real woman who is yet continually invoked: the participant is lured around the piece in a strange game of hide-and-seek. Designed for inclusion in an exhibition at the Victorian Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery, the room is decorated like a sitting-room, complete with sofa, brash 1970s silver patterned wallpaper and a coffee table, with Indian films of TV screens. The room establishes an ironic continuity with forms of the Museum room that houses it, reiterating the indivisibility of an discrepancies in the relationship between first and third worlds. The Museum's glass display cases—devices intended to plant the idea of an objective 'window on the world' in the minds of visitors—have become the sitting room's alcoves. Present-day 'windows on the world', in the shape of three TV monitors, flicker with Hindi film images.

We are ushered into the room by a smell of sweetness so intense that the pungency of decay is only gradually discernable. Mangoes, symbols of womanhood and femininity, rot in the room's humidity. In an alcove a sewing machine whirs intermittently, haunting the room with the sound of homework, of invisible women trading their lives in running-stitch to the rattle of a Singer, as they sew for high street shops on machines that hold them hostage to their homes. The room is an index of non-presence, bearing other signs of a woman who seems to have evaporated in the heat, or decayed in the morbidity of the atmosphere. The air, whose sickly-sour scent of mangoes represents absent, dying femininity, has become overwhelmingly present. Thus insubstantiality takes on the character of the substantial.

The work turns on this interrogation of the metaphysical and the material, the represented and the real. On the screens other phantom women enflesh codes of femininity. Film stars from old Bombay films, like Meena Kumari and Nutan Samarth, enunciate complex corporeal languages, where nuances of the hips and eyes are the body's own adverbs and verbs, a swell of the shoulders can inflect desire, a retreat in the eyes the urge to self-sacrifice. These are re-edited clips, resonant 'takes' wrenched from their original context and reassembled in a new film—a film that was anyway latent all the time in the others as a kind of subconscious— which repeats itself on the monitors in an endless loop. They are pieces of intensity, sharp epiphanies that form a dot-to-dot of femininity, a stark list of woman's available crises and choices. Always woman as daughter, sister, wife, mother, left with no social, sexual or creative option beyond the family. And should she transgress, should her desires conflict with the list of possible pleasures, there is even a form of expulsion from family duties that is sanctified: renunciation as a sanyas— Woman's renunciation doubling as spiritual ideal and the social valve that spares jeopardised family honour.

Therein lies the great psychosocial trick: the line between 'renunciation' and 'sacrifice' is, for women, almost always blurred. Does she jump or is she pushed? Dressed in white, colour of mourning, women in the films become ciphers of grief, striving to slough their hated bodies in a struggle to become ether, purity itself. And it is only by this remorseless drive towards insubstantiality, the cuts suggest, that 'femininity' is resubstantialised, vindicated, consummate. 'Femininity' triumphs in the death of the woman.

What is the relationship between the screen and the room? Is the sitting-room the screen's after image, scene of a poor, bungled attempt to achieve the perfection of the film universe? Or does the screen actually represent the real structures of experience, through narratives stripped bare as skeletons? On the mantelpiece rests a bumper decorated with parandis (women's hair extensions) like some obscene trophy, evoking for Patti the whole tradition of decorating vehicles, industrial symbols of male power, with the trappings of socialised 'femininity'— whether stickers of Hema Malini on lorries in Haryana, or hair tied to exhaust pipes on cars in Southall. With its sinister allusions to the physical danger and degradation that women live with, it also points to the functional use of femininity as a metaphor by men. On screen, gay male characters, transvested as female film stars, pronouncedly ape the codes of femininity—codes that, for many women are not optional party wear but their only garb. Patti is critiquing homosociality, (as opposed to homosexuality) the structure of relationships between man and man that defines and controls contemporary society: As Eve Kossofsky Sedgwick has lucidly argued, this is the unacknowledged condition of social relations, whether between heads of state, fathers and husbands, opposing armies or businesses. In this male economy, women are the currency, to be bought and sold as brides, to be transferred from a father's house and name to a husband's, to be raped by soldiers in camps 'to demoralize the enemy' (i.e. in acts seen to be committed on a man by another man), or, as images, flogged from a movie director to a man in drag.

Patti's multivalent work enlarges a series of questions arising from observations of gender dynamics in her own family to an iconic staging of the domain of the South Asian woman; a domain in which, even in her own sitting-room, she is present only as a sign, a trace. Patti idiosyncratically combines different languages—cinematic, gestural, social—with a kind of bitter melancholy. She wants us to ask where, in this dance of light, sound and electricity and the ricochet of image and meaning, where among this shabby furniture and these emblems of colonial, sexual and industrial oppression, is the real woman? We may well try and 'cherchez la femme': great indeed is her task of producing herself, from riches so poor.

Kaushik...is merely exposing the art world's steady brokerage of women's bodies throughout its own history, and in its role as grand Pimp of the Simulacral.

One of the hazards for Black people in the postmodern critique of the rational subject is this: that the endless dissolution of the self that it predicates denies agency, and so vitiates the counter-hegemonic project of building up the identities of oppressed peoples. The repression of the real body is catastrophic. But, paradoxically, the un-problematic assertion of the repressed body is too, for it becomes a trap. These artists tread the cusp of this paradox, refusing the paralysis it might imply by creating the conditions in which one cannot avoid speaking of repressed subjectivities without ever representing them. Thus, they create a double helix of simultaneous deconstruction and reconstruction, and show that the two processes need not—and for marginal people must not—be sequential.

It is for this reason that the artists referred to here avoid the negative, even nihilistic trap into which much postmodern art falls, the 'hair of the dog' scenario in which artists are doomed to perpetual reactiveness and contextual meaninglessness. They are important precisely because they push against this postmodern affliction of dependency, the kind of obsessive intertextuality denoted by Baudrillard's description of the simulacral, the orchestration of 'the real' as 'not only that which can be reproduced but that which is already reproduced, the hyperreal which is entirely simulation.'

Symrath Patti's work depicts the pathos of the erasure of the real by the simulated.
Their work is committed to context, in continuum with the emancipatory art created by Black artists since the 1970s and before. It demands recognition of the actual conditions with which people live, and of the repercussions of symbols and signs of real people. In this sense, it is part of the ongoing, counter-hegemonic project of recovering the experience of oppressed groups from unrepresentability, and it is a living testament to the idea that the challenges of identity politics articulated by Stuart Hall et al in the 1990s cannot be abandoned simply because of a change in the wind (or the fatuous essentialising of 'identity' in some arenas). But what distinguishes it from earlier Black work is the refusal to represent an affirmative, essential Black self in response to mainstream negation. Their works aim to destabilize all meanings, to leave open propositions in installations that invite the viewer as participant to the process of reconstruction. For these artists it is an essential part of the recovery of agency to speak fluently in the registers of postmodernism and the vocabularies of contemporary mass culture: but theirs is a resistant postmodernism, one which aims to provide usable knowledge about the world, by setting in dialectical motion the formal and logical inconsistencies of the materials they use, and implicating the viewer in the production of both meaning and power. The body of the participant becomes the locus of transformation, the place in which other bodies repressed by public discourse are both reincarnated and transfigured. Far from the depressive, dependent, defensive practices of much postmodern art, which trips on the 'narcissistic melancholy' of the loss of the Self, this work allows viewers to access the possibility of social and cultural transformation. The artists may use pastiche, quote and appropriate already existing images: but in a culture that wastes many things—ideas, people, products, raw materials—a culture marked by premature and compulsory redundancy—recycling, renovation and rehabilitation may be emancipatory strategies. There is certainly a need to recoup Black political and cultural coalitions in a creative and dynamic way from the premature obsolescence being wrought on them by the market forces, hungry for novelty and short on concentration, that operate in the art world as in other spheres of contemporary life. In this culture of gratuitous simulation, of irony worn too lightly and of images untenanted by meaning, the work of these young South Asian descended artists examines, with bug-eyed vigilance, the operations of power behind the aesthetic, political and commercial strategies that bring popular images into existence. In so doing, rescuing some of our most potent contemporary signifiers from the abyss of the unreal.

Notes

  1. The short answer to slogans of the 'socialism is dead' variety is that emancipatory movements cannot be redundant as long as the dire social need that engendered them still exists. The longer answer is itself a question—about the sleight of hand being wrought on popular memory by contemporary mass culture; about the commandeering of the rhetoric of the Left for the policies of the Right (share issues as 'power to the people', 'free choice' as a spending option); about the workings of postmodernism itself, not as a craze ideology, but as an ambivalent sensibility that continue to haunt contemporary life.
  2. The justifications for 'New Internationalism' that have so far been offered are inadequately theorised. If the accusation of essentialism is being levelled at local Black identifications, there is no guarantee that so-called 'International' alignments will be any less essentialist: it is not hard to see that 'internationalism' courts precisely the same perils as 'multiculturalism' (in which people are required to parade discrete and immobile ethnic identities under a supervising and controlling Caucasian eye), only on a larger scale. Internationalism—except in Marx' aspiration—has always been the preserve of the elite in practice, and there is no guarantee now that it will not simply pander to artists from a global elite (whether First world of Third) and of course, in the process, throw local ideas such as 'equal opportunities' into disrepute. Unfortunately, as Alistair Raphael and others have pointed out, the powers that be have 'disenfranchised the very process of defining what New Internationalism might mean'—very few artists have been able to participate. If the arts funding bodies are genuinely interested in fostering a spirit of internationalism in the arts (though many would argue that an interesting curatorial idea should not become a principle of funding) they should surely contribute to it from the mainstream budgets, not the small pool of money that was fought for by Black artists in the '80s and was often the only guarantee that Black British work would be shown in this country.
  3. Kobena Mercer, Welcome to the Jungle: Identity and Postmodern Politics in Identity.
  4. John Major, speech to the house of commons, 1993.
  5. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 1983.
  6. The 'colonised' including women or gay people, for instance.
  7. Barbie Fun Facts, press release issues by Mattel quoted in Sindy-rella Complex, unpublished thesis by Anita Kaushik.
Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Sonali Fernando
Sonali Fernando is a writer and filmmaker.
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