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The Return of the Diaspora: Some Scattered Remarks

“Diasporist art is contradictory at its heart, being both internationalist and particularist. It can be inconsistent, which is a major blasphemy against the logic of much art education, because life in Diaspora is often inconsistent and tense; schismatic contradiction animates each day. To be consistent can mean the painter is settled and at home. All this begins to define the painting mode I call Diasporism.”
– R.B. Kitaj, First Diasporist Manifesto
– What did Kitaj, the great Jewish/English/American painter mean by a painting mode? Perhaps a voice that somehow expresses – continuously – an inner self that is itself a mirror of the histories that have shaped it, a repetition in the form of a character of fissures, cracks, and contiguities that existed first in a narrative of traumatic exile and subsequent wandering. Kitaj was, by his own definition, the very picture of the ‘wandering jew’, at home everywhere and nowhere, reviled and revered in equal measures by a larger society.
– A mode is not a style, though it might encompass stylistic elements; it is more, and deeper. It is the particularity of a body of work that allows us to place it as belonging to a culture, the texture of a voice that underlies the most internationalised accent. A mode is an ‘attitude’ that is characteristic of an approach, physical and mental, to a task at hand – in Kitaj’s case, to painting.
– We can speak another language from our ancestors or even our parents, but their language and intonations continue to make themselves heard in oddities of expression, in split loyalties, inconsistencies in cultural education. This is part of the condition of being ‘diasporic’. No doubt this condition can be erased successfully, in other words one can be assimilated – and perhaps more easily than ever now that communication technology is apparently helping remove differences in worldview throughout the planet.
But to insist on these differences, on amplifying the echoes of another culture speaking within ones present: this is the condition of being ‘diasporist’.
– To be scattered, to be diasporised: a difficult inheritance of a memory, in the context of Kitaj, but also of Kafka, Benjamin and virtually all of European Jewry in the 19th and 20th century. The African/American diaspora too speaks through such events. It should be difficult to extend this term to any community that has not suffered forced exile and centuries of ghettoization or exploitation; but the cultural field has allowed us to invent the idea of diasporism, to extend beyond it original intention. (Kitaj too says that one need not be a Jew to be a diasporist). But one must certainly mark this distinction when, for example, one talks of a Pakistani diaspora.
– From the 1980s onwards, cultural criticism has thrived on variations on the theme of diasporic identity. As a wedge against the pressure of monolithic national narratioves, as a continuation of the post-structuralist program of dismantling unwieldy essentialisms, as a valorisation of Nietzsche’s ‘ethics of suspicion’: diaspora became interlocked with the concepts of hybridity, creolité, in-between-ness, to produce a potent weapon that delievered a death blow to the autonomy of European Art, a history and practice that was already collapsing under its own weight.
– For Kafka, writing as a Jew in Europe meant facing three impossibilities:
The impossibility of not writing (one must write to express oneself).
The impossibility of writing in German (the language of a foreigner).
The impossibility of writing differently (what would that mean?).
To this triad he added a fourth, possible impossibility: the impossibility of writing at all.
– The Pakistani diaspora – in the strong sense, the one that derives from a painful exile – could be said to be found in communities like the Mirpuris of Britain, transplanted en masse to work in British factories. Certainly, their relationship to the ‘homeland’ is different to that of the Jews to their ancestral kingdom, to their destroyed temple. But we can find similarities in their attitudes towards family, secularism, religion and in the way they construct the lines that separate the sacred from the profane. What is the relationship between the art of this diaspora, and the art of Pakistan?
– Why is it necessary, today, to speak of countries at all? In what sense do artists belong to countries (or indeed, playful though it might sound: in what sense do countries belong to artists?
First, it is necessary to point out that many of the structuring events, movements, ideas and stylistic tendencies of art from the late 19th century onwards cannot be understood without the concept of the nation (as a complex and quintessentially modern formation of identity).
Second, the events at the beginning of the millennium have speeded up or consolidated the strengthening of national and regional identifications, even as cultural theory was dwelling on the figure of the ‘cosmopolitan’, the global traveller, smoothly gliding over the rough terrain of cultural difference. The mimic, the shape-shifter – how much easier to be all these things before post-2001 travel and work restrictions shocked us all back into our national corners. (How much easier to be these things when one has the privilege or inherited wealth… but that is another matter, perhaps).
– A recent debate centres on the status of the foremost proponent and founder of contemporary neo-miniature painting, Shahzia Sikander in the context of Pakistani art: is she a Pakistani artist or not?
What are the options? She could be:
A Pakistani artist, simply and straightforwardly;
An artist from Pakistan working in an international environment;
An American artist of international origins;
A global artist, that exists everywhere and is at home nowhere (like a multinational corporation);
A diasporist, someone who speaks to two or more communities at once, exposing the inconsistencies of this process through a particular mode of expression.
I confess I find the first answer far too simple to describe the complex subjectivities that are at play in Sikander’s work; through much of the 1980s and 1990s, artists of Sikander’s generation worked hard to complicate both the idea of an essentially Pakistani art and of a universal modernism, reacting not just to the intellectual fashions in Europe and America, but negatively to the almost comically patriarchal, militaristic nationalism of Zia ul Haq’s era. To be called a Pakistani artist might suffice for a catalogue description, or to allow one to participate in a national pavilion for a bi/tri-ennial – it does as much justice to Sikander and the individual narrative of her development as calling Kitaj an American painter.
(What I am trying to point out here is simply that one ‘is’ not something like a Pakistani, except in the most meaningless sense. One is called a Pakistani, or an internationalist or a Jew in various contexts, and one calls oneself these things on different occasions too – still further, one chooses which of these names to respond to. Imran Tahir, in this way, is not simply a Pakistani leg-spinner).
The second, third and fourth option are gradations or variations of national/cultural/institutional identity, and as such are probably useful to describe various phases of Sikander’s career, or aspects of her work.
The fifth – her status as a diasporist in the sense proposed by Kitaj, seems to fit naturally- but again, it does her few favours to simply consign her to this limbo of unbelonging without considering how this dislocation informs the very language of the work. Indeed, the grossest violation of critical decency would be to attempt to reduce the experience of her work to some interpretive matrix, or legend, that simply grounds Sikander’s work in her origins or her location. In this situation, I believe the question of origin must be read as a question of a deferral, and one way might be to produce a set of statements along the lines of: Shahzia Sikander is not a Pakistani artist, Shahzia Sikander is not a global artist and so on – so that we may gain time to examine the minute particularities of her work, its gestation and development in ways that engage with the question of her identity without confirming it at one place or another.

– David Alesworth is an English artist: is he a diasporist? Rashid Rana works in the mode of an international artist in a more or less universal sense, and he is invariably ‘a Pakistani artist’.
– A community is not diasporic until it is exposed to a sense of the world. A travelling or moving group of people, that is, do not become culturally diasporic in the way we understand the term, until they have encountered and absorbed some sense of a universality to which they do not belong, a contained world within which they exist as a small part that cannot be completely absorbed. Paradoxically, it seems impossible that such a sense of the world, or of a universality can have much meaning without the underlying possibility of limitless differentiation, without the rough grain of diasporic identity. The superstitious belief of diasporic communities in the relevance of their own continuity is tied up with an opposing sense that the universal is somehow superior. So Wittgenstein, in all his intellectual arrogance and privileged upbringing, believed himself incapable of originality in the manner of Anglo-Saxons. Inconceivable as it may seems to us today, he saw his inability to complete an extended treatise or opus as a mark of his essentially Jewish mind, not simply as a deliberate attempt to forge a new kind of anti-essentialist philosophy. Yet it was probably this sense of separation from a time and place he found himself immersed in that gave him the perspective needed to launch his sustained critique of essence and universalism wherever he found it.
The shape of the world as it emerges in the Pakistani imagination will continue to be reflected in the contours between individuality and universality as framed by its art and cultural discourse. Following these contours requires an attentiveness to voices that are coming from places and hybridities we do not understand or recognise yet, to marginalia that are buried under the apparatus of official art histories and indeed, bureaucracies. Pakistan’s true diasporas and exiles might very well be within it, if Pakistan itself is seen as the totality that contains its differences – they must be made to speak.
Adnan Madani is a visual artist and writer from Pakistan. He is currently doing a PhD in Visual Cultures at Goldsmith, University of London. His research interests include contemporary art systems, museum studies, theories of globalisation (especially in relation to the Islamic world and South Asia) and universalism. He has contributed to various publications and participated in several exhibitions both in Pakistan and abroad.

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