November Issue 2008
Identifying and Countering New Hegemonies
Art today is facing challenges as chaotic and complex as the world order of which it is an integral component. Once distinguished by a purist pursuit of ideal beauty or worship of sublime nature, art’s tumultuous and sad evolution through the eras has led to its present contentious standing as an interpreter of new social realities. Here in our milieu, the enormous problems faced by Asian artists as they begin to assume a new responsibility — that of restructuring the sensibilities of a society in transition — is fuelling the creation of art that is volatile and questionable, and is a disturbing reflection of the times. A recently held regional seminar aptly titled ‘The Anxious Century — Discourses Waiting to be Born,’ co-hosted by Nukta Art and Goethe-Institut in Karachi, centralised on the forces that are contributing, directly and indirectly, to this agitation so peculiar to 21st century aesthetics.
Keynote speaker Arif Hasan, an architect, planning consultant and social researcher, set the tone of the discourse with his observations about the new socio-economic reality in South Asia. His research revealed that in the middle and lower classes, family structures and gender relations have undergone chronological and demographic shifts leading to a drastic conflict between old values and current mores. Commenting on the lack of consensus on how to reconcile these conflicts, he wondered if art had a role to play in easing the turmoil — if it had the breadth and capacity to support these societal values on the basis of equity and justice.
Multipart in nature, the seminar examined various aspects of the issue under debate. On the theme of ‘Multiple Modernities — Reclaiming Cultural Space’ Professor Nazish Attaullah, principal NCA, tracing the rebirth of the college from Mayo School of Art, a replica of the British model exported to the colonies, to its current indigenous temperament, also spoke of altered realities which unfortunately have yet to justify their shift. Questioning if we were still looking at our own work through the eyes of the other, she called for a deeper engagement with concerns to locate a more palpable reality.
In his paper ‘Replacing Language: Identifying strategies in Post-colonial Art Production,’ Ziaul Karim editor of Jamini, an arts quarterly from Bangladesh, cautioned against confusing the post-colonial with the post-modern as the time frames of both generally intersect. Describing the post-colonial agenda as specifically political, intended “to dismantle the hegemonic boundaries and the determinants that create unequal relations of power based on binary oppositions such as ‘us and them,’ ‘first world and third world,’ ‘white and black,’ and ‘coloniser and colonised,’ he supported its effectiveness in building a more authentic identity vis-a-vis the passive, epistemological post-modern stance. Citing “globalisation” as the new machinery of colonisation, variously termed Coco-colonisation or Macdonalisation, he argued that the threat it poses is far greater than the earlier brand of colonisation as its “hegemony goes beyond the metropole and touches lives on the margins.” A frequent visitor at leading art biennials he critiqued the new formula of representing Asia through the Asian diaspora. Consisting of artists with a hyphenated identity such as British-Indian or Arab-American, he questioned the validity of representations by those who have “learned about their Asian origin from their parents and may or may not have visited the land of their origin.” Karim also expounded that equality of status between the two protagonists has also been denied through a deliberate time scale strategy as “the colonised country is set within a past period of western progress” to imply that Asian art is at an “arrested stage of development.”
Probing further the cultural and political alienation of the diasporic artists Amra Ali, senior editor Nukta, came forth with a volley of questions. Speaking of a sub-culture, a third space neither here nor there she queried, where is home? What happens when identities are dispersed — is there a loss and what is the gain? Citing names of known migrant artists like Rasheed Araeen, Zarina Hashmi and Naz Ikramullah living in the diaspora, she conjectured whether they were acknowledged or accepted in their host countries.
German participant Heinz Norbert Jocks expressing deep concern wondered if the Europeans were really making an effort to understand art emanating from different cultural contexts. Among other nations in the Asian milieu, Iranian art, opined speaker Hamid Keshmirshekan, was entertaining multiplicity and contradictory ideas as new generation artists began disengaging from the nationalist agenda to access universal trends. His talk was supported by an excellent slideshow. Sasanka Perera of Sri Lanka also spoke about the travails of the not yet realised South Asian identity with special reference to art in his own country and emphasised the need to “critically explore the centres” of art to identify areas of conflict.
Establishing historical context, defining the current status quo and raising a plethora of questions, the seminar, with no easy solutions in sight, concluded on an ‘anxious’ note.
Is Eurocentrism over or is it manifesting itself in other guises? Beguiled into thinking that we are free, are we not becoming victims of these ‘other’ more subtle hegemonies implanted on us by those who wield power? Suggesting rebuttals like “counter discourse” and “alternative space on the other,” Ziaul Karim emphasised on the need to keep a vigilant eye on the politics of western hegemony. Rumana Hussain, senior editor Nukta, spoke of “engaging in a process of enquiry that seeks to deconstruct the myths and fetishes of the dominant western discourse and its critical framework of hegemony and colonisation” in order to gain autonomy.
Art, unfortunately, is subservient to power politics and economic clout and will continue to be dominated and manipulated by the existing or emerging super powers (Chinese and Indian art is thriving currently because China and India are emerging power centres). But once polarities are defined, then the way forward to an independent identity is by taking sides and exercising one’s right to freedom, as expressed by Edward Said: “Unquestioning subservience to authority in today’s world is one of the greatest threats to an active moral and intellectual life.”