Do South-South dialogues hold the future answer for re-imagining cities?
By Amra Ali
Memory has been part of the post modernists’ dilemma; a space addressed to accommodate a plethora of narratives that have to do with negotiations of histories within a (global) dynamics. The need to break away from a specific cultural / creative mold in lieu of one whose nature is “beyond borders” of geography, race, religion, myth, folklore, language and class, is part of the new identity politics. A large part of this separation determines the equations between the ‘subaltern’ in the hegemony of Western discourse.
For the Pakistani Diasporas, there are as many points of negotiation within, as there are anywhere else in the world. Multiple points of reference, a magnitude of directions, an acceleration in the opportunities of inclusion in the Mega events and international residencies, we are too close to be able to make sense of the complexities of new ideologies taking root. But memory remains, whether it is in the way art (and art writing) can attempt to erase it or build on it. It is also manifested in the way we recall our recent past, which may be sometime earlier the same day, as in today, or yesterday. Recall is synonymous with representation and misrepresentation, self- censorship too. Memory can also fail.
Writes Hooks: ‘No need to hear your voice when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. No need to hear your voice. Only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own. Re-writing you I write myself anew. I am still author, authority. I am still colonizer the speaking subject and you are now at the center of my talk’. (Hooks, Bell. Marginality as a site of resistance, in R. Ferguson et al. (eds), Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1990: pp. 241-43, Wikipedia). To my mind, one of the fundamental issues to address in art in Pakistan today would be the relationship between memory and post colonialism.
To what extent do the narratives woven in the complexity of overlapping contexts of art-making, curating and writing provide directions that can truly be called post-colonial in form and spirit? What are the agencies that can support and sustain such activism and nurture it? And are these agencies (of change?) stemming from our lived experiences, past and present and what is their vision of the future? To what extent are artistic voices in South Asia or the developing world subjugated by the structures (of success, ownership) residing in the Developed West. The question can be rephrased to ask, as to what extent the subaltern voice is self-imposed.
If it is possible, as it must be, to mark a tangible shift towards a South-South dialogue/s, these must become hands-on reality, that have to do with activism, re-engagement with the community, and ethics, not just rhetoric. Recently, Sparck (Space for Pan-African Research, Creation and Knowledge) and the Amin Gulgee Gallery in Karachi collaborated to bring the digital works of 52 artists from the vast African Diasporas: Douala, Kinshasa, Cairo, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Algiers, Paris, Berlin, Lubumbashi, Luanda, and Pakistani artists from Lahore, Islamabad, New Delhi, Melbourne, Karachi. Its first stop in South Asia was at the Amin Gulgee Gallery, Karachi, in February, 2011.
Karachi, a highly unlikely venue for an international mega art event, carrying a notorious image as a hub of terror, is also a thriving metropolis, with its unique visual and sound culture, past and present (unlike what becomes headline news on CNN & BBC). A meeting place as likely or unlikely as any of the above African cities, the curators see these centers as the future of the South-South discourse. The curatorial team of Sparck, artist Kadiatou Diallo and academic Dominique Malaquais, and artist Amin Gulgee address the notion of ImagINing cities, in a two day happening. Terming the present and future of these cities as ephemeral, the interplay of digital sound, noise, voice, through juxtaposed projected sound installation, digital photograph, photomontage, video, create pockets of recognition, doubt, fear and humor.
The nature of the engagement is never a stayed experience, so that the viewer is able to absorb each of the artists’ narratives only in fleeting transition from one work to another, a curatorial intent. Making sense of the overload of sound and image, the viewer is a voyeur within a space framed to be such; each conversation is an outcome of signs and symbols that have been part of a larger vision. The commentator too, documents, challenged by the amorphous nature of pace, pause and conceptual content. It is the coming together, or bringing the unlikely into new equations, for possibilities of newer conversations, some of which germinate in the audience, at that very moment of interaction – between individuals.
The more convincing voice, despite these different worlds coming together, is the curatorial intervention, because at the base of the experience, there are pivotal questions put to the viewer, the commentator and the artist. The curators, as commentators initiate questions that address the contradictions inherent in both the making and reading of art: re-reading, re-imagining and re-aligning. They ask a necessary question: ‘Does it make any sense at all to speak of Southern voices, as opposed to Northern or Western ones? Is the term “South” itself of any use whatsoever? Or is it simply a form of ghettoization, the “South” existing only because the “North” has insisted on defining it in relation to the self-centered self?’
The futility of this question is strongly mirrored in Totems, (projected digital photographs in a loop) by Hervè Youmbi, and on an adjacent wall, Bucking, (video) by Abdullah Syed. Youmbi’s 10 images show artists from the developing world wearing sunglasses whose lens bear stenciled dollar signs, logos of Western centers such as the Louvre, Tate Modern, MOMA, Guggenheim, of Art Basel, the Venice Biennale etc. Its proximity to Abdullah’s video playing simultaneously makes it impossible to stay put in front of Youmbi’s work. Through the curatorial ‘stories about stories’, we know that the artist also ‘renders stylized renditions of cult artworks such as of Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and Takashi Murakami’. Like Youmbi’s subject, Syed faces the viewer. Although autobiographical, Youmbi’s subject conceals his gaze behind the dark lens, a barrier created between the viewer and the artist. This anonymity allows the artist to continue to dream about success and inclusion in the West. In the latter, the artist as subject gradually chews a stack of dollar notes, increasing the level of the viewers’ anxiety, until he throws up the bills onto a plate.
Turning anxiety into disgust, Syed explores the politics of consumption, using cliché and regurgitation, without being didactic. The artists as muse, position themselves as willing consumers, not only of commodities, but of the commodity they become in the white cube that they so set out to critique, thus reinforcing the paradox of their (neo-colonial) times. If we are to find fault in Syed’s slick rhetoric, he is clever enough to throw it back at us (and them), he already having predicted the response. The artist legitimizes his own voyeurism. It is possible that Emika Ogboh’s sound installation Go Slow (2008), provides another kind of voyeurism, through the sound of Afro-beat drums, and the call to prayers amidst the traffic noise of Lagos. One question to ask is how the curatorial narrative positions itself in addressing that voyeurism, or if some of the new equations are incidental. If almost every image of our daily life can be interpreted for its exoticness, then is it possible to escape it?
Blueboy and SAPE Dogs by Dicoco Botetshu and SAPE Project by Jean-Christophe Lanquetin, also digital images, playing in a loop, provide a window for Karachi’s audiences to recognize the familiarity depicted through the lure of Western brand names, such as Armani or Givenchy, as the “REAL THING”. “Gentlemen of Bacongo” a book by Photographer Daniele Tamagni ‘features a subculture in the Congo where men express their creativity through their clothing. They are part of a cultural movement called Le Sape: “a clique of extraordinarily dressed dandies from the Congo. In the midst of war and abject poverty, these men dress in tailored suits, silk ties, and immaculate footwear.” (ADA, African digital art.com). These intersections provide a first glance at the narratives in the African Diasporas, and it is from here that possibilities emerge, of a discourse through which we could begin to read the subtext within them. The chances of stereotyping, within the South-South dialogue, or generalizing on its diversity remains, unless the individual histories are understood from their particular contexts of place, race, class, etc.
The curators ask the audience and the artist to make sense of the vast African experience, while they too make sense of the Pakistani experience. How are Pakistani stereotypes seen in Durriya Kazi’s video Rocket (1999) addressed by the curators? Works related to the Pakistani Truck iconography have already been criticized as being palatable commodities for Western museums, such as those identified by Youmbi, carrying with them immense issues related to self-representation and gaze. Since there is a curatorial interjector in bringing it as the ‘centerpiece’, we need to re-address these issues, as they continue to reinforce ideals of Western fetish with other cultures. ‘But what of translation? How shall we manage that? Should we?’… ask the curators. We could conclude that the curators do not dictate, they hint, providing room by widening the relationships they present. Inclusion and negation seems to be another paradox that challenges here. But we are not sure, because the conversations are so transient.
In including Director Saquib Malik’s music video Na Re Na (2005), Gulgee provides a wider lens to rethink the role of unnatural divisions between art and popular culture, and the growing participation of mass media / culture in shaping contemporary iconography. It is interesting that Na Re Na, which was made for a popular audience, aired on television, and sold in the market, can be interpreted in this equation. In the “art” video, Once upon a Transition (2010-11), Babar Sheikh negotiates his pace directly from the symbols built through the transitory moments which could be of any thriving metropolis in South Asia. Without pretense, both narratives indirectly blur the line between what is art, out there and what is not art, in the gallery. Malik incorporates the world of high fashion, using a popular fashion model; Sheikh’s monochromatic palette and slow movement vacillates between recall, nostalgia, present and the future. It is the curatorial intervention that provides conversations to begin between two unlikely genres, that otherwise operate in different worlds, and address different audiences.
Adeela Suleman’s video Suffer (2005) provides yet another layer to the discourse. Adeela’s ‘readymades’ are welded to form new equations that diffuse the line between art /craft /kitsch, infusing new life onto the common (objects such as cooking utensils, the beaten metal patterns adorned on trucks, drain pipes etc.) and the popular. One of the main reasons why such work has been shown more consistently in Western museums is due to the lack of infra-structure in Pakistan, that can fund and support experimentation. The circuit of commercial galleries is not able to make that commitment either, because their clientele still prefers the framed painting that can be color coordinated in a living room. A majority of artists, who do enter the international circuit of galleries, residencies or biennials, hence easily get absorbed within the Western contextual and theoretical Western frameworks, which is why appropriation becomes an issue. Another factor is the lack of critical engagement by local (politicized) reviewers, who predominantly regurgitate the terminology used by the artist/gallery-ist, and fail to penetrate the discourse beyond its visual description.
In digital photographs, Race 1 & 2 (2010), Izdiyar Setna injects an element of humor and innocence into what could have turned into an object of exotic fetish within the white cube. The henna adorned donkey and his cart adopt the role of the marginalized and the exploited. There is a parallel commentary here on the polarities in urban pace, social and economic disparity. The image of the donkey challenges the discourse of the critic into a laughing stock, because no matter how one may read into it, one faces the donkey, which is moving away from you. The subtlety of the artist’s narrative provokes the white cube narrative, and with him we can laugh at ourselves.
If doubt is part of the dynamics of translation, there is sufficient amount of curatorial idealism. They speak of the imagined cities, as ‘strong, beautiful, and perhaps even more equitable, than we dream of bringing into being’. Equity is a strong ideal. Lalarukh’s sound installation Subh-e-Umeed (2008) (‘Dawn of Hope’ and a reference to Faiz’s Subhe Azadi) is based on live recordings of slogans from the historic lawyers’ movement in Pakistan. One of the slogans from the rallies is a‘re-mix’ on a patriotic song: iss parcham kay saye talay ham aik hain (we are one under this flag). The altered song reads: America (aur NRO) kay talay ham chor hain, sab chor hain (under the American (flag), we are all thieves). There are other anchors of subversion in the show that open widows to social activism by artists, such as in the video excerpts by filmmaker Laurent Malaquais in No Art on a 2 $ a Day (2007), which documents a protest by an artists’ collective called Auto Da Fe. Writes Dominique Malaquais, ‘appalled by the violence of the regime that has ruled Cameroon for the past 30 years and by its refusal to see engaged contemporary art as anything more than a potential danger to its hegemony, each of the collective artists set alight his highest priced painting. A massive bonfire ensued. With the ashes, a new work - part sculpture, part collage - is currently in the making’. In a fleeting discussion with the essayist in residence at Imag[in]ing Cites, Cameroon, essayist Lionel Manga and I share thoughts on the element of subversion in the art of Pakistan and the African disaporas. Perhaps, those voices are not actively being sought, because they do pose the danger of swaying the current power politics in art markets of the West, and markets that cater to them.
There are other voices in the African continent that negotiate through art. One project, ‘That a History Forgotten is a History Lost’ relays interviews that are transmitted on tv, radio and viral adverts, launched on the days leading to the Freedom Day that marks South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy. An artistic intervention to open sourcing transforms the art as sacred object to a vehicle which has to do with social intervention and transformation. Creative solutions by bloggers such as Awab Alvi and the Mauj Media collective in Pakistan, of Usman Haq in the UK, are already addressing open sourcing through the digital, as an answer to an elitist hegemony of art and technology. The links that they are creating with architecture students of the NED University, Karachi has started conversations into socially oriented concerns such as the conservation of electric power, into green architecture, etc. Their participants can be anybody (e.g. cell phone or internet users), who is out there to be empowered as an agent of social change. This is not a part of this event, but continuity in the South-South dialogue can provide more opportunities for such conversations to emerge in our cities, in real or cyber space, across continents.
The challenges offered within the equations available here, even if fleetingly presented, are a call towards proactive discussions on the subtext/s that emerge now and will continue to do so.
The curators clarify that ‘the works shown here are, neither individually nor as a group, meant to be prescriptive. They actively refuse to tell a linear story, or to create straight forward one-to-one dialogues’. Dominique Malaquais and Kadiatou Dallo recognize that ‘transitions are notoriously difficult: ‘How shall we negotiate barriers, fences, walls (and words) edged with barbed wire? Do cities of the global South offer particular suggestions, tactics to countermand violent strategies deployed elsewhere?’ Finally, what role does the artist and commentator play in this curatorial idealism, in which the future discourse of cities of the South are directly linked to the future of post colonialism within the South-South and its relationship to the West?
The levels of pain witnessed through the works varies, for example in a video and sound installation, Ground /Overground /Underground (2010) by Mowoso, a group founded in 2006, in which a man named Bokungu takes a trip from his home in Congo to Paris, to escape the violence of his land brought about by colonialism and ‘post-colonial hells’. In the process, the curators comment, ‘neither his body nor his soul will emerge intact’. In projected digital photography of an installation, Fire (2004, 2009), Malam Essoua creates larger than life installation of bodies trapped in city spaces that ‘have violently broken them, physically and mentally.’ Once he makes them, he sets them on fire.
Perhaps the strongest visual narrative comes from the self-portraits, in which the artist ‘alters his appearance with foam, fire and peculiar plays of light to tell the story of a man moving through the spaces of a postcolonial city in never ending flux.’ (The dripping Man, 2001, projected argentic photographs by Herve Yamguen). Dominique Malaquais quotes these lines from Yamguen’s poem of 2008 that speak of the ultimate dilemma of the post-colonial:
My mother – moon
films and projects herself
on a wide, white sheet thick with flies and ants.
She casts light on portraits
whose features have lost their shape in the hallways
and the labyrinths of this city
The Beautiful Beast (2009)
Sound installation and video projection on a bed of sesame seeds (3’12”)
A man writhes on the ground against a pixilated field. We know nothing about him, save
that he seems in pain. Or might he be grinning? The image is profoundly disturbing.
Overhead, coming in waves, is a soundscape: Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece,
“Metropolis”. A Hitlerian voice battles with another, a voice of reason and demand:
demand that the man on the ground be treated with care or perhaps, simply, with basic
human sympathy. We will never know which voice wins out. The post-colony such as it is analyzed by historian and philosopher Achille Mbembe is not far. In it, the crushing
violence of the social, political and economic order is internalized by those – the masses
– whom it most damages. In response, many rebel, but just as many loose the means to
fight back. They become the beast, take perverse pleasure in its ravages. More often than not, either/or situations are not of the essence. One rages against and revels in the
cogs of the machine simultaneously, in a zero sum game on whose outcome the survival of one’s very spirit depends. Goddy Leye dedicated his life not to felling the beast, but to gently taking away its pain, seeking to bring it into the fold of possibility. His spirit was – his spirit is – indomitable.’- Dominique Malaquais, curatorial note, Imagining Cities, 2011