Diaspora art in the era of transnational flux
In many an account of the 20th and 21st century world art, the contribution of artists from Asia, Africa and other non-industrialized regions was seen as something of a peripheral phenomenon, unrelated to the development of the global or globalised art practices. Those artists could rarely experience showcasing of their work outside their own countries, and were not considered by major art venues that operated as contemporary avenues to transmit the contemporary crop of art. In the beginning of the 20th century, modern art and its progressive thrust manifested in a series of innovations and happenings that were centralized in few Western cities in Europe and America. Gradually, art and art events expanded across many major cities around the globe, and artists from diverse regions have been able to stage their work in the global mainstream, thereby making names for themselves. These artists have started to make art from a variety of different positions, while they began working with an assortment of forms and ideas for the last few decades. There has been a change in how art establishments and businesses now operate with global connecteness in mind, and as a result, new, exciting opportunities have sprung up, which have assisted these artists in developing processes of art-making which lies at the interstice of global trends and the particularity of their home turfs. As the monolithic construction of art history seems no longer tenable, the new situations in the erstwhile global centres, by way of accommodating artistic heterogeneity in contemporary art context, advantages the artists scattered across the globe.
The contemporary art world is very much caught up in a fascination with the 'other' or, in plain parlance, the expatriate artists. Especially in the last few decades we have witnessed the rise of the diasporic artists, who are active both in global art centers and across many other newly-established venues around the globe. After years of Euro-American `international` practices, when the global centres served as sites for exclusive showcasing of American and European artists, with the occasional Japanese or other artists from exotic locations thrown in for spice, at present, artists from various corners of the world are emerging and are also being celebrated in mainstream venues. This phenomenon has been the product of several factors: the end of the cold war, which opened up previously closed borders to trade and tourism; the advancement of technological discoveries that made travel and communication infinitely easier; and lastly the collapse of various established paradigms valourizing the white European or American males over all other groups.
Since the 1990s, in America and in several other countries of Asia-pacific, art has entered an era of heterogeneity, mostly through the mediation of new media and other technological as well as logical means. A multiplicity of forms of practice are now being brought into view; and for their very heterogeneous nature, they are being recognized throughout the world.
The contribution of Asian and African artists had been substantial in this field of play where heterogeneity has almost become the norm and as artists they have been providing the counterpoints through which the contemporary art history is being re-examined.
Many artists who are now world renowned had moved from Asia and Africa to Europe or America in their early life; we see a surge in such transnational movements since the 1960s. Namely, Nam June Paik, On Kawara, Anish Kapoor, Meschac Gaba, Nari Ward, Huang Yong Ping, Ghada Amer, Shirin Neshat, Yinka Shonibare, even artists of Bangladeshi descent such as Runa Islam, Rana Begum and Hasan Elahi, et al., have earned a status that was not possible under the homogeneous structure of the previous century.
The diasporic artists, who have been temporarily or permanently living in the countries and cultures other than that of their own upbringing or residence, are the hordes whose expressions often seek rejuvenation through negotiation of the global trends and a unique awareness of their racial identities. Among them we find artists who challenge the patterns of social, political and aesthetic realities they were once part of. And on top of that, as they spent a portion of their life amidst other cultures rather than their own native country and culture, we witness new characters emerging through what they do. The cultural and political diaspora in art alongside their position vis-à-vis art and identity, often seems paradoxical, as between the 'pedagogical' and the 'performative', it is the latter that this creative bunch is responsible for bringing to the fore; and by doing so, they simply undermine the concept of a nationist narrative or ideology with the capacity to 'claim transcendent or metaphysical authority for themselves', to qoute Homi K Bhabha.
With the paradoxical or contradictory features in their new art, diasporic artists simply do away with the national/international dyad. Throughout the history of art, expatriate artists were unique as they boldly unfurled the possibilities latent in historical/temporal flux that defines the modern age. At the beginning of twentieth century, even within Europe, artists started a migration which impacted the course of modern art. Pablo Picasso, Brancusi, Marc Chagall, Mark Rothko were among other numerous modernists who crossed the national boundary in both physical and artistic sense to create art which re-inscribed the art scene with new artistic dictions. In the advent of Communism in Eastern Europe, where art was being redefined through an enforced ideological framework, many artists moved from their home countries to Western Europe, and subsequently, to America. Between the two World Wars, a huge number of artists migrated from Asia to Europe and America.
Even in the 19th century, the word expatriate stood for dislocation/displacement from the place of origin to be relocated in a new setting, underscoring an 'expatriatehood' which is accepted as a provisional status. As more and more expatriates gathered to build a permanent settlement, their act became an indication of their willingness to get into a lasting relationship with the new places they chose to inhabit. From Dhaka to Durban, Sylhet to London, Seoul to Sydney, Osaka to Oslo, New York to Naples, expatriates now are all over the places creating transnational communities that overlap and link with one another, changing the complexions -- literally and figuratively -- of their hosts.
The modern and contemporary art scene is thus partially focused on 'diaspora art'. Many major cities: New York, London, Berlin, Paris, Tokyo, Sydney, Johannesburg are playing host to such creative agents from across the world, and in turn they are influencing an expatriate-led artistic heterogeneity. The new millennium saw a surge in such creative zeal, as the global mainstream is being redefined in exhibition venues showcasing diasporic art alongside the homegrown varieties.
The present world is increasingly interdependent and structured by international flows of resources, technology, capital, information, and media. In such a context what seems more appropriate is the emergence of the minds on the move – which Bhabha refers to as the 'liminal' individuals. As they appear from within a liminal or marginal space within the diasporic communities, they come equipped with new ethos. With the changed values of identity politics, there emerge in art, culture, society some new apparatuses, through which to look at the world anew.
So the new artists are the expatriates of extra-terrestrial/social/artistic values; strangers among the strangers. Today, not all expatriate peoples live in exile or stand dispossessed. They tend to create a world of their own travelling quite freely or living temporarily between their places of origin and their new locales.
Transnational in nature, these band of expatriates have always been on the move. In contemporary terms, expatriates are still often understood as being outside of the function of the nation state, and thus, inassimilable in the spectrum of nationhood.
In historical or contemporary terms, however, the inability to digest the expatriate within the economic patterns of the nation state underscores the place of an expatriate as a counterpoint to the nation. There are many expatriate artists historically living mostly in the so-called Meccas of art in Europe and America. But, artists living in non-western countries are few and far between. The number of artists of African, Chinese or Indian diasporas is higher in Western countries than in any other countries; in contrast, artists from Western countries migrating to South America, Eastern countries or Oceania are phenomenally marginal in number. In the last decade, a number of Western artists have become famous living in East Asia and Oceania regions.
In Japan, diasporic artists are located mainly for genetic reasons with either father or mother being Japanese (Nikkei). Only a portion of expatriates have other reasons to be stationed in Japan. For the last fifteen to twenty years, many foreign artists from Asia or from other regions lived or have been living in Japan. Nam June Paik from Korea, Xu Bing and Cai-Guo-Quing from China, Navin Rawanchaikul from Thailand, Marlon Griffith from Trinidad and Tobago are among them.
The liminal, or the ‘on the move’ status, of the expatriate artists, make them interrogative and intervening in relation to what we accept as art, identity, nation and episteme in the mainstream structure. All too often critics view diasporic art in a vacuum, which belies the very fact that artists in the diasporas act as do people in general, only with multiple world views made up of the experience, reminiscence or mythologization of at least two different cultures, they enable a world within a world to build a critical framework through which to create and stabilize the 'othered' identities and creative spaces that accommodate such identities. As Jean Fisher has noted, 'works by non-European artists are often viewed in term of universalizing western aesthetics, which they almost always fail to uphold; they are often understood and admired only for their `otherness`; and /or addressed only with respect to socio-political context.'
The latter, on sociopolitical context, is particularly troublesome in an art world made up in part of both sympathetic and conservative liberal art critics who routinely notice the political work of non-European artists as only exotic (Congolese artist, Cheri Samba`s painting from the last 1980s and 1990s and Yinka Shonibare`s Installations are particularly relevant here).
In recent time, in several editions of the Venice Biennale, in Ducumenta-12 in 2002 and -13 in 2012, one witnessed artworks from many diasporic artists not only representing different cultural mixes of the world, but also a spectrum that has come into view as these artists chose to shuttle themselves in the yet to be defined global arenas such as art fairs. Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, Indonesian artist Fiona Tan, Jamaican artist Nari Ward, Benin artist Meschac Gaba, Indian group Raqs Media Collective, Japanese artist On Kawara, Pakistani artist Bani Abidi, Bangladeshi artist Hasan Elahi and Runa Islam, Indian artist Nalini Malini and Afgan artist Mariam Ghani were being represented as diasporic artists from 'other' countries who were merely given the opportunity to exhibit in Documenta, Kassel before. The two Documenta editions were remarkable mostly for their demonstration of diaspora and newbie art. In other accounts of contemporary research, critics in the late twentieth century acknowledged the dire social conditions – the pressure of racism, sexism, AIDS, political conservatism, the cultural wars in the US that constituted the backdrop for art practices centering on identity politics, but failed to construct languages that would allow for a full understanding of the motives behind as well as the political and cultural stakes in these particular practices. But in many cases, several artists make art precisely to avoid any such gambit.
Major cities in Europe and America, particularly New York have always been the center for expatriate artists. At the beginning of twentieth century, Europe, especially Paris, London, Berlin, Amsterdam, Rome, and Milan have continuously been admitting immigrants and cultural refugees from all over the world. To this day, many Asian, African or South American streaming into Europe and America are establishing their base there only to move around the world. Without having to rely on a unified ideology or religion, these migrants were able to forge a life in sites where exist, by dint of the cosmopolitan nature of the city and by their own intervention, a flexible framework in which people of diverse cultural backgrounds can maintain a concordant and democratic relationship.
Postwar Britain saw marked increase in the numbers of immigrants from its former colonies. People from Africa, the Afro-Caribbean, and South Asia streamed into the center of the former empire, resulting in expatriate communities of millions of people. The activities of black British cultural producers in the 1980s had concrete local effects. The art world became somewhat more inclusive and black artists started to receive funding and national recognition. Such cultural activities also had global implications.
Their artworks have gone to creating the paradigms for rethinking the relationship between expatriate cultural politics and the politics of location. London based Ugandan-Asian artist Zerina Bhimji, Issac Julian, Anish Kapoor and Keith Piper of Caribbean decent are a few of the many artists who emerged from the political turmoil and oppositional activity of 1980s Britain. Their work, global in outlook, is engaged in an ongoing dialogue of belonging, of repossession, dispossession, and re-creation that follow as `becoming`.
Certain artists such as Yoko Ono of Japanese descent were at the center of the Euro-American art worlds since the early 1960s, and the importance of her varied practices, straddling conceptual art, minimalism, performance, film, and music, function as a voice articulating her dislocated status -- from Tokyo to New York, and also her interest in Zen Buddhism and existentialism, and of her association with figures such as John Cage and George Maciunas. Ono's practice, however, is important not only for it contributes to the development of contemporary art, but also because Ono`s expatriate viewpoint does not emphasize subjectivity or identity politics in ways that we commonly associate with diasporic visual practices. Her instruction paintings focus instead in the dematerialization of form as a means of mental liberation, and on a connection with the world through the privileging of experience.
However, the play of form is not always about the relationship of expatriate artists to Western art practices. In the work of Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, script functions as readable to her Western audience only as a marker of Islam, or of a more general `foreignness`, and rests inside the exoticism through which the West defines and contains the Middle East. Most importantly, Neshat renders the stereotypes of Islam ambiguous in her practice by not fully exploring issues at hands; however, while she chooses not to own up to the stereotypes created simultaneously at home and in the West, a powerful exegesis on her own position as a Muslim woman in the West is employed as a proxy. Adding even more 'ambiguity' to the images, Neshat confuses two of the West`s predominant stereotypes of Islam: the submissive veiled Islamic woman and the radical Islamic fundamentalist. The result is a compendium of works that cannot be pinned down in relation to the complex system of construction of stereotypes.
Shahzia Sikander, a Pakistani artist living in the US, appropriates traditional miniature painting using its technique and style, which was then unpopular for art students, and gives motion to the miniatures with digital technology. Bangladesh born artist Runa Islam works with the aesthetic and the illusionary character of film in her installations and projections. She works on film and video, creates closely choreographed films with open-ended narratives that are analytical and emotionally charged.
Bangladesh born, presently living in US, Hasan M Elahi is a contemporary and interdisciplinary media artist who focuses on technology and media and their social implications. After his controversial presentation at Venice Biennial in 2007 he came under presure from the US authority. Neighborhood watchdogs misinformed the police and the FBI that he is a member of Al-Queda and afterwards he was detained at Detroit airport. His works feature issues of surveillance, frontier and border , simulated time, transport systems, and dislocation.
Another Chinese diaspora artist Huang Yong Ping lives in Paris and his works present tension between living/raw subjects as opposed to non-living/inorganic objects which stand out for dealing with creatures other than human . Ping`s daring work with living scorpions and grasshoppers was a metaphor of human society, the python`s bone and an elephant attacked by a tiger, are based mostly on Chinese social, mythological or political issues.
Indian expatriate artist Anish Kapoor (born in Mumbai, 1954) has lived and worked in London since the early 1970s, where he moved to study art. Kapoor's works are curved forms, frequently simple, usually monochromatic and brightly colored. This practice was inspired by the mounds of brightly colored pigment seen in the markets and temples of India. These works comprised grouping of enigmatic forms covered in pure pigments of yellow, red and blue. These pigments,inspired by the powders used in Hindu worship, leave no trace of the artists hand so that the form of sculpture appears, in the artist`s words, 'unmade, as if self-manifest, as if there by its own volition'. Anish Kapoor`s later works are solid, quarried stone, many of which have carved apertures and cavities, often alluding to, and playing with, dualities (earth-sky, matter-spirit, lightness-darkness, male-female, visible-invisible, conscious-unconscious and body-mind). His most recent works are mirror-like, reflecting or distorting the viewer and surroundings. The Cloud Gate which is one of his most spectacular works made for Chicago`s Millennium park, is a huge lump of a rounded mirror. I personally felt, after being closer to this huge sculpture, that I was being framed within the whole of horizon and all the visitors around looked more or less apprehended into it too. His other works of red wax are more physical and sensual. The use of red wax is also part of his current repertoire, reminiscent of flesh, blood and transfiguration.
Governments or private organizations in Europe and America have been supporting artistic activities in various fields in order to keep up amicable unification and promotion. A number of notable expatriate artists earned increasing fame over the past decades. Most of them changed their location from Asia, Africa or South America to either Europe or America. With the disintegration of the structural platforms and hegemonies of the cold war structure, we have been witnessing a critical reappearance of nationalism, extreme racism, and religious dogmatism. After the fall of cold war, social policies have been changed. Fall of communism, rising of Asian tigers, economic development of BRIC countries, Next-11 countries and few other high potential countries with promising outlooks for investment and future growth are helping the social system very much. Art and cultural policies are also urgently required to establish communication on levels beyond cultural differences between races, state frameworks, and differences in class or sex. Artists are moving to live in other regions, exchanging locations through artist residencies, scholarships, grants, fellowships and other opportunities. As a consequence, a number of diasporic and expatriate artists is increasing gradually not only in Europe and America, but also in every corner of the world. In recent years, few diaspora artists are gaining fame in Japan, China, Australia and New Zealand by participating in biennial/triennial exhibitions and through other opportunities. Cai Guo-Qiang, Alfredo Juan Aquilizan and Maria Isabel Gaudinez-Aquilizan, are examples of them.
On the surface, it appears as though Japan has maintained its own individual culture through the illusion of being a nation with a unique race of people. Historically, Japan never welcomed to admit foreigners, immigrants and cultural refugees except for very few incumbents. But few artists have achieved international fame living and working in Japan. Cai Guo Qiang and Navin Rawanchaikul are the examples of diaspora artists lived/living in Japan for a long time.
Although Asian & African expatriate artists have been included in recent major contemporary art exhibitions such as, the Venice Biennial, Sao Paolo Biennial, Bangladesh Asian Art Biennale, Documenta or Dak'Art, their 'Asianness' or 'Africanness' are still seen as something 'exotic'. While postcolonial studies have influenced many disciplines, visual studies critics still regard the Asian and African expatriate artist as the'Other'.
Nigerian critic and painter, Olu Oguibe is correct when he states that the contemporary African artist has been silenced by American critics who wish only to hear about the artist`s African 'essence'.
Expatriate artists have been aware of such problems from an early stage. Their work look straight into the crisis the modern world is confronted with and the artists have actively engaged with the forces and issues as substance and subjects of this practice. Such practice on their side has won them significant recognition in artistic circles in Europe and America. They are sometimes interested in emphasizing the framework of a nation or race, cultural individuality, religious conservativeness, sexual differentiation, or the rights of a minority. They are also focused on the question of how, as an individual living in these contemporary times, one should relate oneself to the world, face the current situation, and construct a relationship with others in the outside world. As frail individuals, they stand up to the world we live in, which is full of contradiction, get perplexed, speak up, and move from one context to another. These artists could be regarded as travelers between different cultures or cultural wanderers of some sort in possession of passports issued by the American and European authority; few recent examples are in Japan, Australia, China and South America. Among other Bangladeshi artists, Shahabuddin Ahmed`s work reflects revolution, struggle and experience of hindrance.
As an island country and single race, the Japanese are barely aware of 'the Other'. The 'ego' is formed in the process of perceiving oneself in relativity as one becomes aware of the other that exists besides oneself. In the case of Japanese people, this ego is not an established subject but rather 'a bunch of various concerns'(kojin karatani). Especially, after the Meiji period, and continuing until today, regardless of the excessive import of information there has been no true dialogue, discourse and one-way conversation.
Talking of the ambivalent metaphor of a black hole which, 'absorbs everything and yet does not absorb a thing,' Japan is taken back by the unsurpassable gap between 'true exchange' and 'apparent dialogue' or between 'interpreting in relativity' and 'analyzing various concerns'.
Due to technological development and an access of information, the loss of imagination towards the idea of 'the other' is a worldwide phenomenon. For example, compared to a century ago, we seem to have much more knowledge of 'foreigners'. Yet this information has been categorized, and though almost a cliché, 'the other' is a preconceived, highly fictionalized concept. Aware of an extension of bodies, at the same time, the Japanese are in an ambivalent position, realizing the retrogression of their receptivity from lived 'experiences'. The absolute quantity of information that they are capable of perceiving remains unchanged from prehistoric times. The question is the quality of the information and what circuit it is conceived through.
Though Japan analyzes various concerns and is aware of the 'Other', but in recent years, it has received many foreign artists, expatriate artists from Asian or other countries. Opportunities have been increased through offering grants, fellowships, exhibitions and residencies for the foreign artists (Gaijin or Gaigokujin) in Japan in last two decades. Thus, several artists have become famous living in Japan as expatriate or diaspora artists.
If 'expatriate' is a name we give to ourselves, it is also an avenue of reception, and as such, it is also a name others give to us ( whether the work of artists of colour is expatriate or not is not entirely up to the artist, rather determined by the critic, or curator, or even the author of this very chapter). In a neo-colonial, conservative environment that dilutes the creative energies of expatriate artist, the critical apparatus generally manages to keep the work of the expatriate artist at arm`s length. Hence, the paradox: expatriates are 'any'-where, but they are always 'over there'.
Expatriate artists have always been more exotic than local artists. In lifestyle, in art and even in tactics for survival in an art career, their life is different and hard. Without home and without any parental support, many diasporic artists have had to face challenges to establish their career and have gone through a lot of trouble.
In general, expatriate artists have also had controversial and gratifying lives like many other artists. They are sometimes deprived, ignored or not properly honoured for political, historical or social reasons. Without the crucial support of the locals, the native people or governments or society, as they are strangers to their living and working environments, survival is a challenge.
This essay is a reworked version of a research done under the DFA programme for the Research Center at the Tokyo University of the Arts.
FIROZ MAHMOOD is an interactive artist based in Dhaka. His works were showed in exhibitions and art fairs across the globe.