Art

What Does It Mean to Make Art in the South Asian Diaspora?

This summer exhibition at the Asia Society in New York explores artists of the South Asian diaspora and the ideas and issues that unify their work.

Shahzia Sikander’s “Many Faces of Islam” (1993–99), gouache, vegetable color, watercolor,and tea on wasli paper, 24 x 28 in. (61 x 71.1 cm) (commissioned by New York Times Magazine Special Issue: “Imagining the Millennium” by living artists, Sept. 19, 1999 Courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly, New York)

In the midst of the Lucid Dreams and Distant Visions exhibition at the Asia Society is a small work by Shahzia Sikander titled “Many Faces of Islam” (1993–99). It’s a surprisingly prescient piece that grapples with what would become the more pronounced fault-lines of the 21st century: money, war, religion, terrorism, censorship, and more. Sikander’s small work suggests a continuity rather than a break with history, even if her work effortlessly blends traditional Mughal miniature technique with the language of graphic novels, history with pop culture, the New York art world’s infographic sensibilities of the 1990s with historic struggles, and, of course, the politics of its time.

This work by Sikander is a masterpiece of American art, but in many ways it perfectly encapsulates the complexity of contemporary art being produced by artists of the South Asian diaspora — it contains multitudes. Most American curators and art institutions have always had trouble dealing with transnational and complex identities, often relegating them to a supporting role in the narratives surrounding the European colonization of Turtle Island. It seems like a problem that is surmountable but the bigger issue is general art audiences have nneven knowledge about different geographical and cultural contexts. This phenomenon disadvantages art that doesn’t adhere to dominant identities, and it leads to the dismissal of some art as “derivative.”

The example of Sikander is also notable for the way reviews often emphasize her illumination training in Pakistan (National College of Arts Lahore) but not her art school training in the US (Rhode Island School of Design). Why? That question is one of many that this show raised for me, and the answer is why an exhibition like this is important.

Khalil Chishtee’s “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake II” (2017) and Anila Quayyum Agha’s “Crossing Boundaries”
(2015) is seen through the doors. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The short summer exhibition at the Asia Society makes the case for a South Asian perspective born from the life experience of a diaspora that spans the globe. Here, all the artists are conversant with many idioms and vocabularies. This is an intergenerational affair and that helps us see the continuity and disruptions at work. There’s a strong presence of South Asian Canadians in the mix, specially in the related conference (Queens Museum, June 30–July 2), which makes sense since the divisions in North American diasporas never stop at the border. Art by South Asian Canadian artists is also often supported by government funding in a way it never is in the US because of a larger policy of multiculturalism.

The bigger question for me is why contemporary art by South Asian diaspora is often overlooked in much of contemporary art discourse, even as the conversation has expanded to embrace black, Asian American, and other perspectives more readily (though certainly not completely). From my experience, the conversation around South Asian art in Canada is more developed, and the same is true in the UK, where South Asians were often allied with other minority populations and a larger population often means more representation. In the US, South Asians account for just over 1% of the population, but in New York that number is closer to 4%. Yet those numbers haven’t lead to the inclusion of artists of South Asian descent in exhibitions like Greater New York, the Whitney Biennial, and other surveys. Writing earlier this year, Naeem Mohaiemen pointed out that there were “no South Asian American artists in the 2004, 2006, 2008, 2012, and 2014 Whitney Biennials, and only between one and three artists of South Asian origin in the last four PS1 Greater New York shows.” The lack of inclusion of South Asian artists in the US art world is rather distressing.

Ruby Chisti’s “The Present is a Ruin Without the People” (2016) on the left, and Jaret Vareda’s “Emperor of No Country” (2016) on the right. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Curated by Brooklyn-based artist and curator Jaishri Abichandani, Asia Society Museum Director Boon Hui Tan, and Lawrence-Minh Davis, curator at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, the exhibition is a little weaker than one would hope for, not because of the quality of the work, but more because the Asia Society always has a strange tendency to manicure their exhibitions so that they have an almost academic feel. That approach may have helped the video works, which are clustered in one corridor to avoid distraction, but it disadvantages other pieces that seem less related to the work nearby. 

There are many approaches and the diversity of work might make you think that the label of South Asian may not fit, but like Asian American or Middle Eastern American — concepts that are still in beta because they lump together populations based on Western perceptions rather than cultural histories — South Asians share a common history of trauma, displacement, and discrimination, and that makes the label a useful starting point for discussion.

Allan deSouza, “Rumpty-Tumpty Series #5–7 (1997/2017), digital prints from film (image courtesy of the artist and Talwar Gallery, New York and New Delhi, via Asia Society, NY)

Allan deSouza’s Rumpty-Tumpty series (1997/2017) is a fascinating project that is more relevant today than ever. Photographing the now defunct Trump Taj Mahal hotel and casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, deSouza frames his images to highlight the underlying Orientalism, a type of appropriation that renders “exotic” features like ornate onion domes and brightly colored surfaces into pleasure palaces dripping with the inferred fantasies of colonialism and leisure.

He left 20 years of accumulated dust on his photo negatives when he recently printed the images for the show, and this adds a sense of time to them, making them resemble snapshots from the 1970s. In today’s United States, one dominated by rising tides of nativism and xenophobia, these images take on a more nefarious meaning, particularly since these structures were created by the same person who is currently the most powerful — and dangerous — man in the world. It’s rather appropriate that the furnishings of the Trump Taj Mahal were sold off in a fire sale the same month this exhibition was on display.

DeSouza is an elder statesperson of South Asian art of the diaspora (though Zarina, also on display, is a whole generation older but has only recently been getting the serious mainstream attention her work deserves). Once part of the British black arts movement and later the Godzilla Asian American Arts Network in the US, deSouza has been practicing intersectionality before it was defined and, to his credit, he has been unabashedly presenting his work in many contexts — including South Asian ones — that have had a clear influence on other generations of artists.

A view of the video corridor with museum visitors watching Naeem Mohaiemen’s “Abu Ammar Is Coming” (2016) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Naeem Mohaiemen’s video is another must-see at the show. Focusing on the curious facts of liberation struggles, “Abu Ammar Is Coming” (2016) follows some Bangladeshi fighters who took part in the Lebanese Civil War at the end of the 20th century, including some who do so inadvertently, as they arrived as migrant labor and realized their employer was one “Company Fatah” (Arafat’s group within the Palestine Liberation Organization, aka PLO). The story is riveting, but the implications of such unconventional coalitions at a time when the fault lines of identity continue to shift are obvious. His use of documentary footage and documents raises questions about the way stories of war and liberation are told. Mohaiemen is also a good example of the new generation of South Asian artists who maintain strong ties to South Asia, while easily circulating in art communities in the US and elsewhere.

Detail of Ruby Chisti’s “The Present is a Ruin Without the People” (2016), recycled textiles, wire mesh, thread, wood, embellishment, metal scrapes, and archival glue; with sound (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Ruby Chishti’s “The Present is a Ruin Without the People” (2016) is a fascinating wall sculpture created out of recycled textiles, wire mesh, and other materials. It’s cobbled-together architectural forms resemble the hollowed out carcasses of small abandoned homes, but at this scale they look more like bird houses, suggesting their residents have all flown away.

Mariam Ghani’s “Kabul 2, 3, 4” (2002–07) is part of her larger interest in archives, and her short video gives you a sense of the economic and cultural development of Afghanistan’s capital during a period when the country was the focus of US anti-terrorism rhetoric. I couldn’t help but watch the video and think about how little the images from the country have changed as the decades long proxy war between the US and its enemies continues to devastate the nation.

Anila Quayyum Agha, “Crossing Boundaries” (2015) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

One of the only works to be allotted its own space in the exhibition is an installation by Anila Quayyum Agha, who is represented by her well-known Intersections series that was the first artwork to capture both the public and juried prizes at ArtPrize back in 2014. The series, as represented by “Crossing Boundaries” (2015), addresses the boundaries and limitations of gender in her native Pakistan, where religious conservatism had a profound impact on her early life. The form, which hangs in the center of the room like a beacon of light, is partly derived from her memories of the screens that separated men from women in mosques. My only criticism of the installation is that the artist’s work can easily envelope a much larger gallery and, like the rest of the exhibition, the artwork feels reigned in to accommodate the space.

Context was also an issue for Mequitta Ahuja’s “Performing Painting: A Real Allegory of Her Studio” (2015), which is a stunning painting of a nude artist in her studio, but it’s placement adjacent to the video corridor didn’t permit more dialogue with many of the other works — even if Jaishri Abichandani’s “We Were Making History 3” (2013), constructed of leather whips, fabric, studs, and wire, does provide a provocative counterpoint to the calm serenity of Ahuja’s R.B. Kitaj-inflected painting.

A view of the exhibition with Palden Weinreb’s “Untitled (Reliquary)” (2012) at center, works by Shahzia Sikander on the left, and works by Kanishka Raja on the wall on the far right. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The bigger issue for this exhibition and many like it — I was also told a few South Asian American contemporary artists refused to be exhibited in the show because of its cultural framework — is whether the category of South Asian art is useful to understand the work. I overwhelming say it is. To assert non-nativist contexts for art in North America is not only important today but essential in the face of a political elite that is loudly advocating the assimilation of newly arrived non-European immigrant populations.

Works by Zarina (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

In a 2013 interview, Sikander explained that “Miniature painting for me has always been heroic in scope and not limited by its scale — it is a space to unleash one’s imagination.” In the same way, there are those of us who see the specificities of our identity as doors to limitless terrain, and in the face of the mounting forces of white supremacy, to assert the complexity of your identity is a form of resistance — it is a strength on which to build on, not erase or sublimate.

Lucid Dreams and Distant Visions continues at the Asia Society (725 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) until August 6.

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