Passages: a subcontinental imaginary |

Notes on Transnational Entanglements:
The Character of Photography in the
South Asian Diaspora

Sunil Shah

There may be two aspects of life in the diaspora that South Asian photographic artists and practitioners are drawn towards. One is access to a past that evades them—a cultural history rooted in a motherland that has varying degrees of personal attachment. The second, identity formation, is linked to the first. It arises as a result of a displaced social position, that is, as an urgent attempt to situate oneself in a social milieu where one does not necessarily “fit in,” where privilege is afforded to some and not others due to race, class, gender, disability, neurodiversity, or sexuality. For those who are seen as immigrants, the former—race and class, in particular—are defining social characteristics of the experience of the diaspora, which is only complicated by a negotiation of identity. Hence, forging a self through pressures of societal normativity—not to mention cultural conservatism—becomes a vital act of self-determination, especially in one’s formative years.

Photography and visual culture can play a number of crucial roles in affording dimension and recovery to the more visceral forms of classification. Operating as sites of representation, setting up spaces of performativity through the dissemination of images (now predominantly online) and the subsequent circulation of visual economies can all contribute to the forging of multiple selves in consonance with the diversity of positions one adopts through new identities online. This leaves the diasporic artist with a number of options (and often some questions) with regard to how and when to engage with the medium. For some, photography has already become a problematic endeavour due to a heightened awareness of implicit power relationships within its documentary status and nature.

The politics of representation has typically been centred around the conversation that the image cannot faithfully stand in for lived experience. And although that glaring paradox has been around since Plato’s Cave, recent reappraisal of the tools of colonialism and the structures of power has fostered further suspicion and revealed the medium’s association with epistemologies that reflect hegemonic interests. This has shaken up and pulled apart photographic practice and has now become, to its benefit, increasingly open to strategies that critically question the colonial underpinning of representation.

The Past that Eludes

Attempts to understand the past are never easily forthcoming. History is out of our grasp, regardless of its interpretation and recollection. This is perhaps exacerbated when one is brought up in a country that is believed to be “home,” but to then be awakened to a social reality that rejects the same. Although one might be in proximity to a family or a community, as an immigrant—or having been born in a family of immigrants—the past feels even more remote. It comes to be located in a place we no longer have access to or a direct connection with, it eludes us…

It is apparent through the passage of time, the passing of generations and the often-difficult communication that comes from cultural and ideological differences; our elders and ancestors lived in different, often challenging and sometimes dangerous contexts, separated from our own. They had a different set of goals, a different understanding of their roles and responsibilities vis-à-vis ours today. Our parents, however, had the courage to leave their homeland as they persevered for a better life with an increased sense of socio-economic security. The turmoil of a postcolonial predicament meant the shifting of boundaries and geographies, leading to precarity and displacement. Therefore, the search for a new home as well as a sense of rootedness and safety became pivotal concerns.

Today, many of us enjoy the relative established security and the luxury of freedom in the West. Being challenged by the conflicts of culture has perhaps shaped the character of diasporic life for us. Sometimes having to occupy multiple identities (domestic, professional, social, sexual, etc.,) while maintaining a sense of separation has been a way of seeking refuge in the old ways—in tradition, conservatism, class, caste and economic strata—yet this can also have an overwhelmingly stifling effect. However, through courage, integrity, and perhaps assisted by the assimilation of crossed cultural values, the beginnings of an openness has emerged in our communities.

Most of us inherit photo albums. Photography became a way to align our lives to modernity, progress, migration and economic growth apart from, of course, the documentation of life and cherished moments. For many artists, the family album becomes a form through which to track our pasts and reflect upon the changes in space, place, fashion as well as people getting older, arriving and departing from the world. These images also reflect a sense of who we are in times when some degree of cultural attachment ebbs and flows into hybridized and complex inter-relationships of life in the diaspora. These images become an anchor to our cultural heritage but also as sites of play and subversion. A place where the conflicts of everyday life can be revealed and scrutinized in ingenious ways: collage, paint, text, sequence and editing. By moving the image into contexts and formats it was never made for and by disregarding provenance, we can create and disrupt connections to fact through fiction.

Old narratives can be overhauled and new stories written. This is perhaps how the photographic archive can help reassess the past in relation to today’s ideological imperatives. If the story and the language of the past remains in place, then so does the (mis)allocation of power, as what we know of the past remains unchallenged and accepted as truth. Today, history is being especially instrumentalized by political, nationalistic, extreme and right-wing ideologies for the provision of reference points to an imagined monocultural past. Yet the past was by no means linear. It has always been replete with abuse, repression, violence and worst of all, a tendency to hide behind its positivism and progress.

To Identity Politics or Not

There is a growing aversion to the term “identity politics” in the age of populism. This aversion stems—on the populist’s side—from a fundamental disdain for the Left’s focus on the marginalized and its call for equity, its own flippant call for “All Lives Matter” and a hyper-sensitivity to being called out on political correctness. From the Left, it may not quite be an aversion but an effort towards caution with regard to how, why and when identity politics is used, or instrumentalized.

Part of the conversation around inclusivity is for institutions and organizations to respond to diversity policies—they look to artists of colour or diaspora art to attend to a strategy of equalizing the visibility, typically saturated by Western male artists. This has resulted in any number of commissioned initiatives and a search for anything that constitutes a hyper-visible ethnicity across gallery walls, awards shortlists, new acquisitions and magazine and journal features. To qualify for this, the artist or photographer must wear their ethnicity “…like a badge,” to paraphrase Rasheed Araeen, the Pakistani-British artist who spent decades seeking acceptance by the art-world and who only relatively recently gained world-wide recognition at major galleries and biennials, through his hard-fought criticism of the art system.

The problem is not whether an artist’s work is ethnic or not. Artists can and should make work in whatever way they feel like. However, there is a danger of contributing to simplistic representations of ethnicity when artists make work in order to be seen and noticed. This is also the case when the work conforms to the limited understanding and an acceptable version of ethnicity that the average, white middle-class curator/editor or audience member is comfortable with looking at. What this really demands is not for artists and photographers to become anxious about their intended output, but rather for a greater breadth of jury members, editors and curators who are alert to the complexity of difference and the range of experiences and lives of those in the diaspora.

Identity is something we know is fluid and in constant flux. Although photography lends itself to fixity and reification, this complexity is always up for grabs in the photographic image or series. Those that call for a universal humanity would need to be reminded that a humanist logic need not come about through homogeneity, or a reductive pseudo-intellectualism at the expense of cultural richness and complexity. Identity negotiation is a part of everyday life for everyone. Yet it is especially crucial for those who are geographically displaced and those who are marginalized, repressed, voiceless or unseen in society.

Transnational Entanglements

The “transnational” is an apt adjective with which to describe the photographies and art that emerge in the diaspora. It is very much formed around transgressing national boundaries, affiliations and cultures as a set of entangled relationships. This is a direct outcome of modern progress, inflecting artistic production all over the world and coinciding with the movement of people, complex lived experiences and blurred cultural attachment. Culture, in this context, is both hyper-localized and dispersed into wider society. The entropy of time and space in contemporary life will not recede back into the known boundaries of a box located in the past. What we have inherited is an exceedingly ripe terrain in which to explore art and photography. We need to ensure that this is reflected in the kind of work we choose to make and show as well as the kind of conversations we wish to have.

Sunil Shah is an artist, writer and independent curator based in Oxford, UK. He is a PhD researcher at Central St. Martins, University of the Arts London and Director of CODA Projects, a new research platform for the aesthetics of race in art and visual culture. His interests broadly span art histories and the sites and structures of artistic production and presentation. He is Associate Editor of American Suburb X, an online visual culture platform.