Ebony Tower

Strategy of the new self-othering

I feel perfectly happy to declare that I have no qualms about having grown up in England relatively unaware, up until very recently, of the specific postcolonial debate around its diasporic community within contemporary art. In the late Nineties I went to art school in Coventry, a place that, I have recently been told, was where the original Black Artists’ Movement (BAM) was founded back in the early Eighties. During my gratifying three years there, never at any point did anybody mention that this was where the likes of Eddie Chambers and Keith Piper set out their agenda for pursuing an emancipation, for gaining recognition as black artists; pride was actually placed on Coventry being the birthplace of the Art & Language group. In fact it was a few years later when undertaking postgraduate studies in London, during a lecture by Jean Fisher, that I became aware of what was initiated by the BAM at Coventry two decades earlier. However, by this point in my life, although understanding the aims of this group and accepting that it was a necessary eventuality, I began to wonder whether knowing about these previous struggles was actually of any genuine significance to me and to practitioners from ethnic minorities of my own generation.

Despite reports of the escalation, nationally and internationally, of Islamophobia, it is fair to say that Britain is perhaps the most advanced nation in Europe, if not the world, in terms of acceptance and integration of its many diasporic groups. More importantly for this discussion, if one looks within the visual arts, it is clear that we are at the beginning of a new era, with a new generation that has emerged in recent years whose practices have transcended racial expectation, and have never dealt with the increasingly stereotyped issues of postcolonial identity, nor have really felt any pressure to do so. Within the cultural context, previous discussions that still continue to be knocked about around such subjects as “hybridity” and “creolisation” have undoubtedly been surpassed, in practice at least, if not in criticism. We can be black/Asian and British, and even feel more European than most Brits, without any hint of a contradiction. We can even take quiet amusement at such curious anomalies as the number of upper and middle-class white Brazilians who come to study at art schools in London in order to produce art about life in the favelas in Rio.

Examples of the new-era practitioners that I am thinking of include Glasgow-based artist Rosalind Nashashibi, who has become increasingly recognized internationally, and whose practice has entered wide fields of artistic enquiry. Nashashibi’s films are set in various locations around the globe including the United States, Scotland, and Palestine. Capturing the seemingly mundane and un-constructively used time and routines of the everyday, her films are respectful delineations of the collective human condition. They possess a subtle humor, such as in her film Midwest: Field, where we listen in on a conversation between a group of men in Omaha, Nebraska, who share a passion for flying radio-controlled cars; or in the poignant Dahiet Al Bareed: District of the Post Office, set in a barber’s shop in Palestine’s West Bank. In her films the artist and her camera are always palpable, and there is a strong sense of investigation into the potential of the film medium itself. Thankfully, despite the ease with which it would be possible to think of her practice in purely racial terms, nobody does, as equivocally, her films should be perceived in far more interesting ways than this. Another example is the artist Runa Islam. Often inspired by the working techniques of Godard and Antonioni, Islam is an artist that has a passion for cinema history. She concerns herself with the mechanisms of the filmmaking process, scrutinizing traditional narrative structure and ocular interface, and attempts to take films beyond this kind of closure. Her films, such as Screentest/Unscript, make transparent (the “performativity” if you like) all the elements required for filmmaking — the lighting, camera, bodies in front of the camera — and allow, through a viewer’s visual and aural perception, for a kind of transcendence of the filmic illusion. Islam treats the production of each new film as a brand new investigative gesture to reappraise the medium and to re-evaluate her working methods as an artist.

I have used these examples because a key factor for this discussion is the idea of “post-race.” No, really, this is something I’m quite serious about. However, I am not foolish enough to talk about post-race as some kind of utopian-idealist vision of leaving behind race. I am simply talking about this condition in solely professional terms; post-race here is not a speculative development that is academically informed within itself by the notion of race, rather it has just happened of its own accord. Perhaps it could simply be designated as a condition where if you were to act to racialize an arts practitioner (along with their practice), you are acting as more of a hindrance to them than a help. A question here is whether this newfound freedom has been a direct inheritance of the work done by practitioners such as the Black Artists’ Movement and others in the Eighties similarly looking for emancipation? My own feeling is that this may have had some effect, however, things have developed so much in a recent, short period of time, it feels more accurate to claim that this has been mainly due to general shifts in societal attitude, common sense… and actually, just producing un-ignorable great art. All has been going good and well. Or it was, until we reached a recent development that has seriously compromised the true advancement of contemporary art. It’s clearly time to get critical amongst ourselves.

The issue here is the total unwillingness to recognize how progressive the current generation of artists from ethnic minorities have been, specifically from the crowd that maintains a sympathetic attachment to the previous generation who gained (limited) recognition through their aspirations for liberation. And so, a new, particularly retrogressive form of “self-othering” has become the latest method used by parts of the “diasporic art” community (truly its own sub-genre!) for maintaining the recognition they currently possess. This curious incongruity is different from the old form of self-othering associated with consenting to hegemonic views of art produced by the cultural other. The new form is purely a marketing strategy timed to occur at the beginnings of a fresh epoch: a post-ironic form of self-othering by falsifying oppression, as it is considered the only way of maintaining or gaining recognition within the limited remit of one’s own production. Just to be clear, it is no longer “I’m a minority, recognize me as this!” but now “I’m not a minority, recognize me as this (but please do it in racial terms)!” — the new emancipatory paradigm. Subsequently, in the process of doing this, any signifiers of progress are deliberately dragged down with you, as signifiers of progress make your ethos look redundant.

The worrying thing is that this has gone so far beyond irony that it has become a perfectly credible method of operating. In the last issue of Bidoun, there appeared a preview of a recent exhibition held at a small project space in London entitled We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us, curated by artist Shezad Dawood. The critical framework for the exhibition was pronouncedly around the idea of levels of racial expectation (from who exactly is unclear) towards artists with Asian Islamic names and the particular issues they may deal with in their practices. Also at issue was an assumed misunderstanding that Islamic artists of various national heritages have some undistinguished connection through a common creative belief system. To assess this exhibition with imminence — looking at it from within the curators’ own method for formulating the exhibition — it is clear that the exhibition’s guiding principle was deeply problematic on a number of levels; and it was mainly the selection of artists that first set alarm bells ringing. A number of the selected artists in the show, such as the above-mentioned Runa Islam, have become renowned, and most importantly for this discussion, are not in any way observed in racial terms; or at least they weren’t until this exhibition. However, after reading the press release, going through the list of artists and coming across Rasheed Araeen’s name, I fully understand what was going on — Dawood had attempted to awaken Eighties-style multiculturalist antagonisms from a new, alterior angle. The peculiar paradox which arose was that in the attempt to criticize ethnically guided expectations and exhibitions, the curatorial strategy employed acted to inadvertently racialize the participating artists through their presence in an exhibition framed as such. Committing the curatorial faux pas of putting yourself in your own exhibition was taken to a new level here, as it asphyxiated the sensitive investigations of each of the other participating artists; a strategy that can be considered diminutive, and through the curator’s invertro-racializing gaze, is condescending even. Yet, some institutions would be willing to host this kind of exhibition due to its tumultuous claims to “criticality.”

Of course, individual artists are not the only ones that are prone to employing the new self-othering within the contemporary arts landscape. No, there are whole institutions that are at it too. The prime example is the Institute for International Visual Arts (inIVA), an institution that despite having received copious levels of funding and having existed for ten years, has barely produced an exhibition of any real note; a truly astonishing achievement indeed. Caught in an indeterminate vacuity between Eighties-style politics around cultural diversity and the consensus-internationalism pervading the biennial circuit, inIVA has ignored the important post-racial developments at ground level within its own locale, and continues to champion what could be most accurately described as “inIVA art” — “diasporic art” that employs an immediacy of apprehension in disclaiming increasingly stereotyped issues of identity for the purposes of spectacularizing and standardizing racial difference. Examples of this kind of practitioner include Zineb Sedira or Jananne Al-Ani, whose utilization of lens-based media provide an easily digestible, visual immediacy. InIVA has always claimed to represent marginalized artists, yet actually it is fair to say that they do the opposite — through their racialized gaze they actually marginalize artists, as each artist that they show becomes part of their brand of “inIVA art.” InIVA is the monad to self-othering. Aware that they are critically redundant as an institution, they self-other themselves and they cause self-othering to stunt the developments in art that have eclipsed postcolonialism, in order to preserve their ebony tower.

This tendency’s occurrence, which at present only appears on the domestic front, is the result of a clear intention to continue dwelling in the relative comfort and safety of domiciliary postcolonial discourse. Obsessing over race and revisiting questions that are no longer valid in order to stifle from within, has become the new modus operandi at the expense of genuine critical self-valuation. And the really ironic thing is that the revitalized strategy adopted here was never really that effective the first time around.