Identity in Motion: Beyond DestinationAtif Ghani examines the construction of South Asian Identity in a video program curated by Ian Iqbal Rashid
Beyond Destination is a bold and imaginative contribution to the on-going debate surrounding what is meant by the term 'South Asian.' This 12 piece collection of single channel video and installation work grapples with a variety of issues ranging from intimately personal question of 'making sense' of the many roles and identities expected of us, to the celebration of recoding conventional Eastern and Western imagery. Rather than reproducing western expectations/representations of the unknown, exotic East, the visual artists in Beyond Destination have attempted to challenge the commonly held belief that there exists an easily knowable 'South Asian' identity.
The exhibition was commissioned by the IKON gallery (Birmingham, UK) and curated by Canadian writer, Ian Iqbal Rashid, as part of the larger South Asian Visual Arts Festival held in the West Midlands, UK (September to November, 1993). The strength of this body of work lies in its active attempt to avoid a natural or commonsensically defined formal, thematic or representational strategy. Instead, what emerges is a mixed bag of strategies which challenges orientalist assumptions, while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of what constitutes 'legitimate' membership in the South Asian diaspora.
If there is some underlying theme to the exhibition, it is one of journeying and change. The exhibition explores the ways in which cultural identities are always in the midst of being made or, in Himani Bannerjee's words, 'being and becoming.' The playing out of this theme begins with the I, as participant/viewer, placing, watching and rewinding the various video tapes. The I shifts to images and sounds of India and Toronto in Gitanjali's New View, New Eyes as she grapples with the tension of her position as Indian or as tourist. The sense of journeying is captured in a more formal film sense in Alia Syed's Fatima's Letter, in the images of moving subway carriages on the London Underground and people in the midst of daily travel. The ultimate manifestation of this theme of journeying and change stems from the recognition that this collection of work by British, Canadian and American artists will be screened in far away places such as Australia and Japan.
Many of the pieces in Beyond Destination draw on the notion of space and the ways in which images, bodies and communities attempt to achieve a presence while in motion. In Tanya Syed's Salamander and Sher Rajah's Forever and Ever, the visual images of hands serve as metaphors for this sense of presence in motion. Through the exchange of cards, glances and kebabs, Syed's film explores the way in which people collide, cross paths and move on. The piece holds together through an interweaving of very disparate sounds and images, capturing the sense of the contingency and brevity of human encounters and exchange.
In Maya Chowdhry's Monsoon, Indu Krishnan's Knowing Her Place and Meena Nanji's Voices of the Morning, the emphasis is very much on the body and the ways in which our physical being is able to 'fit into' the spaces we occupy. Through the use of very conventional documentary techniques in Knowing Her Place, Krishnan allows the viewer to share in a woman's painful search for identity. We travel with Vasu as she moves between New York and India, revealing along the way her schizophrenic experiences in playing the role of mother, wife and daughter, American and South Asian. In the end we watch empathetically as Vasu attempts to position her body in relation to the various expectations of others within the variety of social spaces she occupies.
Meanwhile, in Alnoor Dewshi's Latifa and Himli's Nomadic Uncle, Shaheen Merali's Going Native and Shani Mootoo's Wild Women of the Woods the focus is very much on communities of people and their particular relations to space. In Mootoo's Wild Women of the Woods, there is a subversion of the submissive Asian woman stereotype through the recoding of white, butch signifiers. In her search for 'true love,' Mootoo leads us through a snowy adventure filled with swirls of colour and Indian mysticism, arriving at a final moment of jubilation. Wild Women of the Woods speaks from the position of a strong, South Asian lesbian community whose presence is mapped against the backdrop of some very Canadian landscape. What emerges is the sense of a strong community of women shouting loudly, "Look at how we're here, look at how we're Queer. Get used to it!"
A key strength of Beyond Destination is its ability to capture as well as rupture the fine line between local and global forms of identification. Within the collection there is a definite sense of movement/tension between conventional Western cultural forms, styles and images and sounds and languages more usually associated with the East. The sense of recoding very localized metaphors is captured in Sutapa Biswas' installation piece, Murmur. By fusing images of a South Asian woman canoeing on a lake in the Canadian Rockies, Biswas opens the very Canadian theme of 'Survival' to new perspectives or 'ways of seeing.' Similarly, in Khaled Hakim's When I Was Just a Little Girl, the familiar image of a mother's sadness at her child's wedding is juxtaposed with the melodic, yet haunting voice of Doris Day. This juxtaposition results in a rupturing of the familiar image of a South Asian mother's tears when positioned against the sounds of a very white Doris Day. Although filmed in Birmingham, UK, When I Was Just a Little Girl captures images which could just as easily have been situated in Karachi, Vancouver or New York. This ebb and flow between the local and global within the exhibition captures in its wake a real sense of the movement and flow which is very characteristic of the South Asian diaspora itself.
But what about South Asian identity? Where does all this shifting and moving leave me as a member of this 'Brown' diaspora? How does this exhibition deal with the real fears and impact of racist tendencies which I experience, living in the West? While Beyond Destination provides no obvious solutions to these personal notions of space/presence, what it does succeed in doing is to state that we as members of the South Asian diaspora have a place in the West and we will not simply be reduced to nice submissive images of the 'Other.'
As members of the South Asian diaspora, we need to shift our own understandings of South Asian identity from certain stable assumptions surrounding what it really is, into a recognition of its essentially social, cultural and politically constructed nature. In this sense South Asian identity becomes what Stuart Hall has referred to as a 'New Ethnicity.' By this, Hall is referring to the social processes of making an identity, as opposed to simply accepting some natural or primordial notion of a 'true' identity. As a result, the projection of a South Asian identity is always 'new,' for it is always in the process of being made, and always changing.
From this perspective, then, South Asian identity functions very much as a cipher through which we can understand social processes which are at work within our immediate living contexts. Furthermore, South Asian identity becomes a way in which we can comment on our real homes in the West. We are not members of some peripheral experience/condition, but living examples of contemporary life in Canada, the UK and the US. Beyond Destination provides us with a breadth of very different South Asian identities, all of which are 'real' and 'true.'
If there is a weakness in Beyond Destination, it is that the exhibition presently only exists within the walls of certain select galleries. Although the South Asian Diaspora is very much alive through videotape—many of our parents are avid fans of Bombay cinema— the exhibition falls short in reaching out and accessing its single channel potential. There is a need for our parents to experience the work in Beyond Destination, if only to inform them that our generation of diasporic subjects are creating spaces from which to stand and project our politics.
Although the IKON Gallery should be applauded for its attempts at 'creative' outreach and at targeting a younger South Asian audience, access to the exhibition is still an issue. Recently the exhibition has been transferred into a self-contained single channel video format. The challenge which remains for film distributors, festival curators and community events organizers alike is in making use of the familiarity of the video format to reach a broader, more diverse audience.