Diversifying Academia 2021-2022

Naimah Amin

2021-2022 EAHR Researcher: Naimah Amin

Introduction

Diversifying Academia 2021-2022

Naimah Amin, BFA in Painting and Drawing (Studio Arts)

As course offerings in art history programs progressively move towards including the study of racialized and diasporic contemporary art within the Canadian art scene, researching contemporary art outside of the Global North is another step towards decentering whiteness in academia. However, students who attempt to research contemporary art practices in the Global South can encounter difficulties such as limited access to a wide array of written works that allows readers to obtain numerous perspectives on a particular subject of interest. The purpose of this short article is to put forward publications that respond to this gap in the Webster Library. I will be focusing on books that critically engage with contemporary art in South Asia specifically. South Asia is too broad of a geographical region to survey within the limitations of this project; therefore, I will target publications by cultural practitioners in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Additionally, I would like to propose the autoethnographic lens as a method of framing to subvert hegemonic ways of considering contemporary art in the Global South.

Although we are slowly diversifying academia, art history itself is a Western discipline, and the methods of seeing that we utilize to understand art may be reproducing the same hegemonic gaze we are attempting to undermine. I would like to start this article by acknowledging that my experience with and perspectives on ethnicity and race is largely based on my standpoint as a racialized settler who benefits from Canada’s ongoing colonial project. The academic institution in which I am producing this article is located in Tiohtià:ke on unceded Indigenous land. The Kanien’kehá:ka Nation is recognized as the custodians of the lands and waters of Tiohtià:ke. This land has historically been a gathering place for many indigenous peoples.1 Concordia University is founded upon colonialism and Eurocentric curricula; as a student, this history undeniably shapes my understandings of identity and belonging even as I attempt to counter its influences. I would also like to specify that although I am critiquing colonial modes of thinking, it is being done from my position as a racialized settler therefore this text is not ‘decolonial’. I do not wish to engage in colonial equivocation, which creates an ambiguity between decolonization and social justice work that further benefits settler-colonialism.2

In order to contextualize my interest in the autoethnographic lens, I will briefly discuss my personal intentions in artmaking as a racialized artist in Canada. Autoethnography in anthropology refers to a research approach where the author analyzes personal experience and connects it to wider cultural, political, and social meanings. I have recently started exploring effective strategies when it comes to visually representing social and political issues pertaining to my positionality. The personal often serves as a springboard for my written and visual research, so this method can be comparable to autoethnography. My family archive often plays an integral role in my process of image-making, as photographic representation is for me an impetus to discussing my personal conceptions of identity that reflect the cultures I inhabit. Considering that my practice is situated within white institutions, I am adamant about not exposing the archive to my viewers. It is a way for me to willfully withhold knowledge from the audience. These photographs embody the cultural heritage I share with my parents, whose identities and experiences as first-generation Bangladeshi immigrants differ extensively from mine. I do not wish for my practice to become a bridge between a white audience and my predecessors that allows the former to extend its colonial gaze onto the latter. Painting and drawing photographs recenters the focus on my interpretation and relation to cultural identity, and not the cultural identity itself. This strategy responds to the mainstream understanding of cultural identities as fixed in an essentialized past, which, as Stuart Hall argues, has the “power to make us see and experience ourselves as ‘Other’.”3 Autoethnography in my research creation process allows me to utilize strategies such as withholding knowledge to highlight and interrogate asymmetrical power relations.

Autoethnography is not a term that is actively used in the literature that is currently available on South Asian art practices, but I think that it can be a possible way of framing contemporary art in this region. I encountered autoethnography in the context of contemporary Inuit art in Krista Ulujuk Zawadski’s essay “Qaujimanira: Inuit Art as Autoethnography”. The Inuk researcher, curator and anthropologist examines Inuit art as autoethnographic works and argues that through its capacity to represent realities as they are experienced by artists, Inuit art transcends the influence of the colonial art market from which it emerged.4 Art history is an underdeveloped discipline in South Asia, therefore finding critical writing on contemporary art, a domain that is as rapidly changing and adapting to the socio-political contexts it is reacting to, is challenging. The exhibition platform is thus what is primarily shaping the artistic canon in South Asia. It is important then to question how and what curatorial agendas are impacting artmaking in that region. Readers of this article will notice that the exhibitions appearing in the annotated bibliography below have all been funded and organized by Western museums, galleries, universities, or conventions. With the altered geopolitics of a globalizing world, there are new Global South actors in the art world; but the Western hegemony remains, reducing this new geography of art into a ground for ‘discovery’.5 Cultural institutions may influence artists of the Global South in ways that encourage art production that reflects a so-called ‘global’ taste that has historically been and currently is overwhelmingly determined by actors located in Western countries. Promoting diversity and inclusion does not in this case effectively or completely decenter Western narratives, and artists in the Global South are, for instance, encouraged to instrumentalize markers of identity like ‘tradition’ in order to enter the global platform.6 Despite these limitations, artists in South Asia are examining their histories, socio-political contexts, and personal biographies as important sites for artistic investigation. Framing artworks as autoethnographic works can help us understand the aesthetic and discursive motivations behind artistic projects. In order to understand artworks and art practices through an autoethnographic lens, we must understand the historical and socio-political frameworks from which they emerged. Indeed, as art historian and artist Iftikhar Dadi argues, “[i]n its best sense, art historical canonicity must be understood not through trophies acquired by museums and collectors, but as an investigation of the deeper and larger aesthetic and social issues that exemplary works and practices illuminate.” 7

The objective of considering contemporary art in South Asia through the lens of autoethnography is not to impose an anthropological reading of artworks nor to insist upon the authority of ethnography, but to find a way to circumvent the hegemonic contexts it operates within. Contemporary art’s ‘turn to ethnography’ in the past century has been criticized to be in fact “pseudo-ethnography’ as artists may not be using proper anthropological methodology that could allow their work to provide valuable ethnographic insight.8 Although such criticism can be valuable when considering the power relations at work in instances where artists locate the site of artistic transformation in the field of the ‘Other’, simply categorizing socially and politically engaged works as pseudo-ethnographic can undermine the important political and socioeconomic contexts artists exist within and issues they are attempting to highlight through visual arts. Ethnography has historically been a tool for colonial domination, therefore autoethnography can be an important mode of expression to subvert hegemonic narratives through self-representation that emerges out of contact zones, or post-colonial social spaces where there are highly asymmetrical relations of power.9 Instead of extending the colonial gaze onto the ‘Other’ to extract ethnographic knowledge, I prefer an alternative model for artist-as-ethnographer proposed by art historian Dipti Desai; “one that represents experience as relationally constituted and a resource for critical reflection.”10 To consider an artwork as autoethnographic, or knowledge emerging from an artist’s personal biography, is to accept the limits of accessing this knowledge as viewers located in the Global North. By presenting a list of publications written by South Asian practitioners, my objective is not to insist that we can gain a “truer” picture of South Asian contemporary art, but to highlight perspectives that counter the hegemonic ways of seeing we are influenced by due to our standpoint as viewers and readers in the West. Existing within contexts where whiteness is an unnamed “neutral” may lead us to believe that there exists exclusively aesthetic works, but I would argue that everything is discursive. Even in cases where artists are strictly engaging with aesthetics, autoethnography can be one valuable framework among many others to understand the historical and cultural motivations behind artistic decisions. 

Paradoxically, to understand a work as autoethnographic, certain historical and contextual knowledge is necessary. I propose the following publications to be added to the library collection, as they tackle diverse histories and issues that are important to consider when researching South Asian contemporary art. Readers will notice that many of the books featured on this list are anthologies. The reason behind this selection is that most publications on South Asian contemporary art focus exclusively on India. Featuring anthologies allows for a broader reach in terms of topics and authors, as they come with diverse bibliographies and reference lists. Readers can then deepen their research through more recent online articles and essays that provide updated perspectives on their topic of interest.

One publication that has informed a lot of my findings (and that is available at the Webster Library) is the previously cited Intersections of Contemporary Art, Anthropology and Art History in South Asia (2019). This anthology presents contemporary art in South Asia as an important ground for anthropological insight by situating it within the intersections of history, biography, memory, politics, and culture. Even if I believe that art is more than just a potent ground for anthropological investigation, this book provides valuable contextual information that a vast majority of us may be lacking by virtue of our standpoint as practitioners living and learning in a Global North country. Contributors are based in South Asia, and include artists, art historians, curators, art critics, sociologists, and more. Each writer critically engages with subjects pertaining to art practices, artworks, curatorial politics, and more, while localizing the issues discussed within the geographical framework of their expertise.

At the beginning of my residency, I decided to narrow down the scope of my research to South Asian art instead of South and Southeast Asian art to avoid reducing both into one broad category and to facilitate thoroughness and diligence during my research process considering the limited timeframe of this project. At a later stage, I further refined my focus on South Asia by presenting publications covering specifically art in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. I experienced the most difficulty finding books by writers in the latter two countries. One factor that I suspect greatly influenced my search results was that I was looking for books in English. Only one of the books that I have featured on my list, Cultural Survey of Bangladesh Series-8: Art and Crafts (2007), edited by Lala Rukh Selim, is a translation from Bengali. The existing art historical literature in Bengali, Hindi, Tamil, etc., are beyond the scope of this research. These obstacles I encountered lead me to believe that there exists a shortage of English-language books written by South Asian practitioners on the topic of contemporary art, but this deficiency should not be read as absence of art practices or inactivity of artists in the South Asian art scene. The two main search engines that I used to find books was the Library’s Sofia tool—by widening results to ‘libraries worldwide’—and the Asia Art Archive database, where I discovered exhibition catalogues, scanned sketches and written pieces by artists, posters, pamphlets, shortlists by cultural practitioners, and more. E-flux’s announcements section also serves as an excellent resource to find out more about the recent activities of contemporary artists and art collectives, as well as recent conventions, festivals, and exhibitions held in or coming out of South Asia.

Notes

1. “Territorial Acknowledgement,” Concordia University, accessed April 24, 2022, https://www.concordia.ca/indigenous/resources/territorial-acknowledgement.html.

2. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, "Decolonization is not a Metaphor," Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1, no. 1 (2012): 17.

3. Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, ed. Jonathan Rutherford (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990), 225. Hall’s use of “us” refers to diasporic subjects.            

4. Krista Ulujuk Zawadski, “Qaujimanira: Inuit Art as Autoethnography,” Ab-Original, 2, no. 2 (2018): 151-156, doi.org/10.5325/aboriginal.2.2.015.

5. Parul-Dave Mukherji, Intersections in Sociology, Art and Art History: A Conversation with Parul-Dave Mukherji. By Sasanka Perera, (Delhi: Aakar Books, 2016).

6. Lala Rukh Selim, “Globalisation and Local Anxieties in the Art of Bangladesh: The Interface of History and the Contemporary” in Intersections of Contemporary Art, Anthropology and Art History in South Asia, ed. Dev Nath Pathak and Sasanka Perera (Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 119.

7. Iftikhar Dadi, “Shortlist: Exhibition as Site,” Asia Art Archive, last modified October 23, 2013, https://aaa.org.hk/en/ideas/ideas/shortlist-exhibition-as-site/type/collection-spotlight.

8. Hal Foster, “The Artist as Ethnographer?” in Global Visions: Towards a New Internationalism in the Visual Arts, ed. Jean Fisher (London: Kala Press and The Institute for International Visual Arts, 1994), 12-19.

9. Mary Louise Pratt, “Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation,” Profession (1991): 33-40.

10. Dipti Desai, “The Ethnographic Move in Contemporary Art: What Does It Mean for Art Education?,” Studies in Art Education, 43, no. 4 (2002): 313.

Annotated Bibliography

Achar, Deeptha, and Shivaji Panikkar, eds. Articulating Resistance: Art and Activism. New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2012.

This anthology comprises sixteen thought-provoking essays by practitioners based in India, which includes artists, art historians, cultural critics, activists, and more. The first section ‘Sites of Activist Intervention’, contributors discuss the relationship between art, activism, and the public sphere. The second section, entitled ‘Dalit Issues, Dalit Art’, writers tackle the influence of caste in institutional narratives. The third section, called ‘Problematizing the Minor in Art’, is where authors reflect on the relationship between art practices and frameworks of viewing. In ‘Imaging Women, Imagining Sexualities’, writers explore topics such as women’s movements, gendered violence, queer activism, kink culture, and censorship. I think this is an important book as it interrogates the politics of aesthetics with an interdisciplinary approach, and grounds contemporary art and art practices in India within its larger historical and socio-political contexts.

Ajay, Amrita, and Samarth Singhal, eds. South Asian Ways of Seeing: Contemporary Visual Cultures. Delhi: Primus Books, 2022.

This book claims to explore South Asia from a visual standpoint through diverse mediums and perspectives with a cross-disciplinary approach. Contributors include art historians, artists, sociologists, literature scholars, and more. Essays cover topics such as tarot iconologies, visual culture in urban spaces, folk art, commercial cinema, death culture, and Muslim visual culture. Each essay is localized within specific geographical and cultural contexts in either Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, or Sri Lanka. Considering the intentions of this annotated bibliography, this eclectic selection of mediums and disciplines can provide an interesting picture of visual culture in South Asia. In the introductory chapter, the editors outline their objective to propose through this book alternative methods of considering visual culture in South Asia as a response to ethnography being the most common framework used to examine South Asian art and art practices. I believe this to be an efficient way to diversify perspectives and amplify discussions happening in different disciplines.

Dadi, Iftikhar and Hammad Nasar, ed. Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space. London: Green Cardamom, 2012.

This publication served as an accompaniment to the 2015 exhibition of the same name held in the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, New York. The artworks tackle the common theme of partition and its legacies, particularly the Partition of India in 1947 that divided British India into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority West and East Pakistan, the latter known today as Bangladesh since its 1971 Liberation War. This show highlighted the work of twenty artists of South Asian heritage, only two of which were born before the partition. They examined questions of identity and belonging, collective trauma from violent displacement and dispossession, the ongoing effects of colonization, and regimes of control emerging out of new borders. The essays in this catalogue provide important historical and socio-political conditions from which these artworks emerged.

Gupta, Sunil, et al. Where Three Dreams Cross: 150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2009.

This book highlights works by over 70 Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi photographers from different generations, starting from colonial India to its subdivision into three countries. The collections of photographs are curated by Sunil Gupta and Radhika Singh for India, Hammad Nasar for Pakistan, and Shahidul Alam for Bangladesh. The curators provide introductions that inform their thematic frameworks and situate the different trajectories of the development of photography as a cultural practice specific to geographical contexts and histories. Like the exhibition from which it emerged, the catalogue is divided into five sections: ‘The Portrait’, ‘The Family’, ‘The Body Politic’, ‘The Performance’, and ‘The Street’. These collections are also accompanied by essays pertaining to these themes; however, the authors of these texts are exclusively Indian cultural workers. I would argue that this lack of diverse written perspectives goes against the theme of this book, which is the evolution of photography as a post-colonial medium of self-representation in three different countries with diverging histories.

Hashmi, Salima, ed. The Eye Still Seeks: Pakistani Contemporary Art. Gurgaon, Haryana, India: Penguin Studio, 2015.

This book gathers essays by Pakistani writers on Pakistani contemporary artists. Contributors critically engage with art practices as well as some specific artworks as an invitation for viewers to consider contemporary Pakistani art beyond aesthetic appreciation. Essays discuss the works of artists such as Naiza Khan, Rashid Rana, Asin Butt, Aisha Khalid, and Imran Qureshi, to name a few. In the foreword, Indian architect and artist Martand Khosla praises the student-teacher-artist model that is at the heart of the Pakistani art community and highlights the importance of art schools and Pakistani artists’ devotion as educators who create spaces for dialogue and growth. This commitment to art education is captured in the essays of this book where writers critically explore how contemporary artists in Pakistan are responding to the shifting political landscape of the country.

Kasprycki, Sylvia S, and Doris I Stambrau, eds. Artful Resistance: Contemporary Art from Sri Lanka. Altenstadt, Germany: ZKF, 2010.

This catalogue features works from the 2010 traveling exhibition of the same title organized by the Museum für Völkerkunde Wien and the Serendib Gallery, Colombo. It features essays written by Sri Lankan cultural practitioners, including artists Anoli Perera, Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan, and Jagath Weerasinghe. This book provides a historical overview of modern Sri Lankan art and the socio-cultural context in which contemporary Sri Lankan artists are creating. Contributors tackle themes such as the post-colonial Sri Lankan identity, Tamil identity in relation to the Sinhala majority, women artists, art collectives, and many more. I believe that this collection can serve as an important resource and starting point for readers researching contemporary Sri Lankan art.

Khan, Zahra, ed. Naiza Khan: Manora Field Notes. Milan: Mousse Publishing, 2019.

In this catalogue, scholars and art critics discuss issues pertaining to contemporary art in Pakistan through Manora Field Notes (2019), a multimedia installation project by contemporary artist Naiza Khan presented during the 58th Venice Biennale in the Pavilion of Pakistan. Manora Island is located between Karachi harbour and the Arabian Sea and served as a unique ground for artistic exploration for Khan who documented the unique ways in which the island’s evolving topography registered historical forces that transformed the country. What I enjoy most about this book is how, just as Khan considers Manora as a microcosm of Pakistan, authors connect her work to wider challenges faced by the Global South, such as the biopolitical violence of climate change, mass displacement and dispossession in favour of capitalist growth, and the legacies of colonialism.

Mitter, Partha, Parul Dave Mukherji, and Rakhee Balaram, eds. 20th Century Indian Art: Modern, Post-Independence, Contemporary. London: Thames and Hudson, 2022.

This collection is an impressive survey of modern, post-modern, and contemporary art in 20th-century India. This book comprises 46 essays written almost entirely by South Asian practitioners. The first sections tackling modern art include pre-Partition Pakistan and pre-Partition Bangladesh. A final section is devoted to Bangladeshi, Nepalese, Pakistani and Sri Lankan contemporary art. Topics covered include photography in the colonial era, crafts, folk art, ornamental art, installation art, the emergence of museums, the impacts of globalization, and many more. This exhaustive collection of essays and images ends with interviews with artists and critics, namely the Raqs Media Collective, Geeta Kapur, and Iftikhar Dadi. I strongly believe that this book can provide valuable insight on the history and continued relevance of modern art to contemporary artists in South Asia, more specifically India.

Mohaiemen, Naeem. Naeem Mohaiemen: Prisoners of Shothik Itihash. Basel: Kunsthalle Basel, 2014.

This publication accompanies Bangladeshi visual artist Naeem Mohaiemen’s 2013 solo exhibition of the same name at Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland. For this show, he gathered films, photographs, written works, and mix media objects, to form a visual history book that highlights minor histories of Partition that challenge common narratives surrounding the birth of Bangladesh. The accompanying publication activates this archival material by putting forth minor events and stories that propose alternative ways of considering post-coloniality, national identity, and collective memory within the context of post-independence Bangladesh. These essays draw attention to the fluidity of history and the individual citizen’s reaction to it, as well as how ultimately dominant narratives mutate and reflect institutions of power.  

Selim, Lala Rukh, ed. Cultural Survey of Bangladesh Series-8: Art and Crafts, Dhaka: Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, 2007.

This book, originally published in Bengali, is part of a series of written works called the Cultural Survey of Bangladesh Project. Mediums, such as traditional art, folk art, painting, and sculpture, are overviewed in their historical and contemporary contexts. This book also examines practices of influential artists within the Bangladeshi art scene, such as Zainul Abedin and Qamrul Hassan. This publication does not have a lot of information on its contents online, but many of its chapters have been cited in  this 2014 article from the South Asian Multidisciplinary Academic Journal (SAMAJ) called Art of Bangladesh: the Changing Role of Tradition, Search for Identity and Globalization by Lala Rukh Selim, the editor of this book. Ideally, for the purpose of this annotated bibliography, there would exist a more recent publication covering contemporary art in Bangladesh; even so, I believe that this book can provide important art historical insight that is relevant for research on contemporary art in Bangladesh.

References

Dadi, Iftikhar. “Shortlist: Exhibition as Site.” Asia Art Archive. Last modified October 23, 2013. https://aaa.org.hk/en/ideas/ideas/shortlist-exhibition-as-site/type/collection-spotlight.

Desai, Dipti. “The Ethnographic Move in Contemporary Art: What Does It Mean for Art Education?.” Studies in Art Education, 43, no. 4 (2002): 307-323.

Foster, Hal. “The Artist as Ethnographer?.” In Global Visions: Towards a New Internationalism in the Visual Arts, edited by Jean Fisher, 12-19. London: Kala Press and The Institute for International Visual Arts, 1994.

Mukherji, Parul-Dave. Intersections in Sociology, Art and Art History: A Conversation with Parul-Dave Mukherji. By Sasanka Perera. Delhi: Aakar Books, 2016.

Pratt, Mary Louise. “Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation.” Profession (1991): 33-40.

Selim, Lala Rukh. “Globalisation and Local Anxieties in the Art of Bangladesh: The Interface of History and the Contemporary.” In Intersections of Contemporary Art, Anthropology and Art History in South Asia, edited by Dev Nath Pathak and Sasanka Perera, 117-138. Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

“Territorial Acknowledgement.” Concordia University. Accessed April 24, 2022. https://www.concordia.ca/indigenous/resources/territorial-acknowledgement.html.

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. "Decolonization is not a Metaphor." Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1, no. 1 (2012): 1-40.

Zawadski, Krista Ulujuk. “Qaujimanira: Inuit Art as Autoethnography.” Ab-Original 2, no. 2 (2018): 151-156. doi.org/10.5325/aboriginal.2.2.015.

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