This essay does not attempt to explore or resolve terms such as assimilation, diaspora, back home, homeland, migration, and transnationalism which are common in intellectual discourse with increasing human displacement and transplantation in the modern era. Instead, given that today most of our visual interactions require a click of the index finger, this essay will tease out the relationship of these terms with visual arts, its perception in migrant lands, homelands, and the international art scene. Distances and temporal zones have been rendered inessential as portrayed in multimedia time-based art productions. In such conditions, do the aforementioned terms hold any currency? If yes, how does one interact with them when identities have become fluid and migrations are no longer necessarily exiles? In a time when migration is often by choice and crossing over geographical and cultural boundaries has become so much easier, this wide-ranging global perspective is a boost for any artist rather than some kind of a dilemma. Biennales, triennials, artists’ residencies, and fellowships have become a major part of the art world. The artists from the “region” per se are spending more time in different countries doing residencies, showing and making work in places other than the “homeland”. Without a doubt, the lightning-fast dissemination of art and ideas from one part of the world to the other complicates the discourse about art and its production. So, going back to the discourse of diaspora artists how does one address this today and what are the current issues around it? I will return to this a little bit later but perhaps we may also need to take into consideration how the perception of the diaspora artists is and has been shifting with the changing times. Let’s step back for a second and rewind to the formative years of Pakistan when artists like Anwar Jalal Shemza, Syed Ali Imam, Ahmed Parvez, Saffiuddin Ahmed, Bashir Mirza, Iqbal Geoffery, Rasheed Aaraeen and many others (my focus is only on Pakistan) made headways to Britain and America to study and adapt spreading language of modernism and wanted to be part of the places they viewed as thriving centers for new ideas and art. Migration for these postcolonial artists was not an easy one. Each one of them faced challenges that were disheartening and frustrating albeit rewarding much later.
Cultural theorist Stuart Hall, in his essay written in 2004 entitled “Black Diaspora Artists in Britain: Three ‘Moments’ in Post-War History”, divides the post-war black British diaspora artists into three distinct ‘waves’. He argues that the first generation born in the 1920s and 30s in the far-flung corners of the British Empire came to Britain in 1950s and 1960s as the ‘last colonials’ after World War II to join the modern avant-garde as anti-colonialist, cosmopolitan and modernist in outlook. He further suggests:
“They wanted to destroy the foreign institutions imposed by colonialism. Their
opposition to colonialism was grounded in the traditional cultures which colonialism
had destroyed, and in the hope that the culture of the new nations would emerge from
some redemptive revival of older value. Anwar Jalal Shemza, one of those migrating
artists who came to Modernism steeped in the formal traditions of Islamic art, never
resolved the contradictory pulls between these currents.”
Such is the reductive analysis of Shemza’s work, even in 2004, despite the fact that he never produced art imbued with Islamic traditions before migrating to Britain. If anything he was constantly trying to engage with the dialogue of what constitutes modern discourse in the international art scene. This engagement of Shemza with the syntax of modern art movements of the 20th century was also not acceptable for the West as G. M. Butcher, although praising Shemza’s work produced after his years in England, slanders his earlier works produced in Pakistan. In his article, “Shemza: Years in London,” published in Contemporary Art in Pakistan: A Quarterly Magazine in 1961 states:
“Shemza is the only one to have worked in a thoroughly ‘contemporary’ manner while
at the same time completely avoiding the production of inferior imitation of present day western manners. And it was precisely Shemza’s work and study in London, which enabled him to achieve his distinction. His own work before he travelled to England was itself the kind of imitation Western painting which seemed to me so deplorable-a mish-mash of semi-realist, semi-cubist, styling of Indian themes. Fortunately, Shemza was perspicacious enough soon to see how unsatisfactory this was. And the very much higher qualitative standard of western painting reacted upon him in such a way that it gave him courage to express his own origins- the one thing he had in his bones to express qualitatively on a level with the work he found going on around him.”
Rasheed Araeen, trained as a civil engineer, migrated to London in 1964 and established himself as a conceptual artist, sculptor, painter, writer, and curator. His earlier years in London, where his work was not accepted as a mainstream artist but as an artist of color, frustrated him, resulting in him taking up writing as means of participation in the critical discourse of marginalized black migrant artists of South Asia. He first founded and published the journal called Black Phoenix: Journal of Contemporary Art & Culture in the Third World. In 1987, he founded the journal called Third Text, one of the most influential journals to this day that addresses the critical concerns of postcolonialism, identity, representation, Eurocentricism of institutions and much more. In 1989, Araeen curated the landmark exhibition called The Other Stories at Hayward Gallery, London, in an effort to showcase artworks of twenty-four artists of Asian, African and Caribbean descent. The artists included Ahmed Parvez, Anwar Jalal Shemza, Aubrey Williams, Avinash Chandra, Avtarjeet Dhanjal, Balraj Khanna, David Medalla, Donald Locke, Eddie Chambers, Frank Bowling, Frances Newton Souza, Gavin Jantjes, Iqbal Geoffery, Ivan Peries, Keith Piper, Kumiko Shimizu, Lubaina Himanid, Mona Hatoum, Rasheed Araeen, Ronald Moody, Saleem Arif, Sonia Boyce, Uzo Egonu and Yuanchia Li. Most of these artists are renowned now.
Similarly Ahmed Parvez, Syed Ali Imam, Safiuddin Ahmed and Bashir Mirza also struggled to show their work in art galleries such as Avgarde Gallery, Clement Stephens Gallery, Gallery One, Grosvenor Gallery, John Whibley Gallery, Lincoln Gallery, New Vision Center Gallery, N.V.C Gallery, Royal Commonwealth Society, R.B.A Galleries, Redfern Gallery, Towner Art Gallery, and Woodstock Gallery. However, the representation of these artists was grim. One of the incidents reflecting the dismal situation of trying to break into the English art scene is that of Ahmed Parvez, who was so frustrated that he was witnessed by many of his friends tearing up his painted canvases, wearing them around his neck and walking up and down the streets of London. Later, Ahmed Parvez and Syed Ali Imam moved back to Pakistan in the late 60s. One wonders if it was the love for the homeland or the disappointment of the foreign land that didn’t accept them as theirs which drove them to make this move.
Fast-forward and the world has changed. Large-scale conferences and symposiums are now held to address and analyze issues of modernism in post-colonies, decolonization, worlding the global and many more topics that were not on the table for discussions before. At the beginning of the essay, I opined that with changing time, the “artist,” has changed, as have the modes of art production. For many today, home is not one specific place. It is here, there, and everywhere. Some artists now conceive work in one place, commission it to another, and exhibit it in a completely different place. So how, where, and in what way should these artists be placed? Furthermore, there are some artists who leave the homeland to permanently settle in foreign lands. Do they still struggle with the challenges of representation and perception of their works like Shemza and Araeen even in these times when one might think such issues have no currency? I would argue that a world that is inundated with a flood of information is in fact less accepting, and so the dilemmas of the diaspora artists have become more complex. The two obvious matters of concern for the diaspora artists are: the burden of carrying the cultural signifiers in their work, and the content of their work – meaning the issues, subjects, or themes.
Firstly, by burden of cultural signifier, I mean the diaspora artists are expected to be cultural guides and produce works that carry cultural signifiers of their respective cultures. If luck is on their side and they reach the ‘right’ market or buyer such works are readily accepted as ‘exotic’ in foreign lands. However one must be mindful that the notion of the exotic as the “USP” (unique selling point) is also used time and again by the artists of homeland. Sometimes it is in the form of issues that become entertainment for Westerners considering them as backward, pathetic, and savage issues of “other” and sometimes it’s the technique of art production. Secondly, when the diaspora artists incorporate troubling issues from their countries of origin as a subject matter of their artwork, the western curators often undermine such works as they fail to provide them with representation in major museums and galleries in the US and Europe – perhaps they consider these artists to be inauthentic because they do not reside in their respective countries, therefore, their commentary lacks legitimacy. Conversely, artists living in their countries of birth and commenting on international issues are welcomed in the museums and art galleries throughout Europe and America. In fact, the tendency among European and North American curators is to travel to South Asian countries to collect “authentic” works, just as “foodies” shop at farmers’ markets to buy “organic” and “heirloom” produce rather than going to the supermarket nearby. What is it that qualifies one’s artwork as authentic and who decides such authority? What is it that qualifies a work of art to be worthy of international exposure? Does it have to feature certain cultural signifiers that fulfill the exotic expectations of the Western audience?
It must be noted here that the diaspora artists also face criticism back home, just as they are undermined by the Western curators, for taking up issues in their work that are not their everyday experiences, hence issues they have no right to reflect upon and respond to. However, there are some exceptions of diaspora artists who make it to the top, such as Shazia Sikander, an internationally celebrated artist who also received the inaugural Medal of Art from the US State Department in 2013. Sikander no doubt played a significant role in bringing and boosting contemporary miniature painting from Pakistan to the international art scene, which benefited many artists back home as well. Other diaspora artists, including Ambreen Butt, Aneela Qayyum, Khalil Chishtee Nusra Latif, Faiza Butt, Ruby Chishti, Saira Waseem, and Tazeen Qayyum are on their way to carve a niche for their work internationally.
It must be noted that in the two decades since 9/11, though there has been great interest and rise in the art market sales, especially Pakistani art, there have only been two major shows of contemporary art of “diaspora” artists living in the United States. Fatal Love: South Asian American Art Now was hosted by Queens Museum, New York in 2005, followed twelve years later by an exhibition entitled Lucid Dreams and Distant Visions: South Asian Art in the Diaspora, held at the prestigious Asia Society Museum, New York in 2017. This speaks volumes about the under-representation of South Asian artists in the mainstream U.S. art world.
This essay does not aspire to be a comprehensive survey of the struggles of diaspora artists, but rather to reflect on the challenges of diaspora artists residing in Britain and the US after the end of colonialism to this day. The scarcity of such exhibitions from Rasheed Araeen’s Other Stories in 1989 to Jaishri Abichandani’s more recent Lucid Dreams and Distant Visions, one can easily discern that not much has changed for the artists in diaspora. They actually have more challenges than their fellow artists back home.
It has taken many life times to recognize and acknowledge Anwar Jalal Shemza and Rasheed Araeen’s art. It awaits to be seen how much more time is required to realize and understand that artists live beyond the notion of national and regional boundaries. In this ’Age of Transnationalism’, home can be anywhere or nowhere.
- M. Butcher. “Shemza: Years in London,” Contemporary Arts in Pakistan: A Quarterly Magazine, Summer 1961, VOL. II, No. 2, p. 8-13
Stuart, Hall. “Black Diaspora Artists in Britain: Three ‘Moments’ in Post-War History”, History Workshop Journal, Spring: 2006, No. 61, p. 1-24
Nick, Aikens. “Rasheed, Araeen: A Retrospective,” JRP| Ringier, Zuric, 2018 Collection of essays by Rasheed Araeen, Charles Esche, Kate Fowle, Courtney Martin, Michael Newman, Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, Dominic Rahtz, Gene Ray, Marcus du Sautoy, Zoe Sutherland.