Fluid Identities

Beyond Destinations curatorial essay

Editor's Note:

Rungh Reprints is a new series of occasional archival reprints which will feature significant pieces of writing that need to be revisited to link pasts, presents and futures. This essay by Ian Iqbal Rashid provides a context for "South Asian" film and video in the 1990's which links to Rungh's Longing and Belonging: 1990’s South Asian Film and Video programming, which featured films by Ian Iqbal Rashid.

A Pass to India

I take it with me
along with my bundle of belongings
that soon will seem to float beside me constantly
an absence of metaphor
that my parents live with/out,
no dreams of snow,
home is a place without light
the dark continent
prize won for a victor for whom they mediated
a prize which mediates my narrative
this place of my birth which
after it was conquered conquered
so they had to leave as I leave now
carrying the papers of a man whom I imagine
might vanish, becoming a man like the men
I’ve never known, disappeared;
trying to finish a story
suggested by a gaze at history,
a story told by old photographs
and older women trying
to redress the damage of absence
and early acts of elision
a story whose open end holds me often
in a fist-snake tight-
God(dess)-like serpent embrace
except to caress me now and again, now,
mocking my obsession,
this open hand of a story with
its teasing misshaped fingertip of a subcontinent.
And I leave
reading one of two epic poems,
which governs a struggle that will not vanish
held in a line that zips open a sky of myth
exposing its soft little-boy’s belly,
leaving stiff vestments behind,
leaving an anger behind with the buildings that we are tunneling by with a roar,
leaving for a place as impenetrable as a cell
under attack from a virus. 2

The films and videos in Beyond Destination also speak of journeying. Like A Pass to India, these works articulate the fact that a home has been left behind, but not necessarily that another one has come along to demand its place. This predicament of ‘homelessness’ isn’t offered as an entirely satisfactory state of being, but it isn’t offered as bleak either: there is a sense in most of the pieces that claiming just one home would not be quite  sufficient. The work seems to put forward the position that none of us will ever belong exclusively to just one place.

These films, videos and installations do not long for the comforts of any kind of final arrival, nor are they nostalgic looks ‘backward’. The artists in this programme resist being among the exiled, or the diaspora, of always referring back to a mythical or real homeland. (All of these being among the familiar ‘multicultural’ themes of the past ten years.) Nor are the works simply attempts to chart their artists’ journeys either. Instead they speak collectively of finding a way to live within these journeys. All the points along the way are being claimed as destinations, as ‘home’: and home has names like Birmingham and Toronto and Mombasa and Port-of-Spain. These artists belong to all of these places and to none in particular and it is in this sense that they are ‘placeless’. Through their work they valorize the very idea of ‘placelessness’.

Longing and Belonging: 1990s South Asian Film and Video

Is South Asia a place? The guidelines for the call for submissions for this exhibition asked that the work be produced by South Asian artists without actually defining the parameters of what exactly South Asian might be. Does Malaysia count? Does Manchester? Is South Asian a geographical category? Is it racial? Or linguistic? (There were artists who thought they knew all too well what the term meant and chose not to submit. They didn't feel comfortable with the ways that the modifier ‘South Asian' might play on people's perceptions of the programme or of their work. In other words, they were afraid that South Asian   meant inferior.) What is of concern is that once the definitions are set, there is always a danger of slipping into a narrow way of viewing – and indeed making – cultural work: a kind of  nationalism emerges.

As Peter Wollen has pointed out, the concept of a ‘national' cinema is linked to the rise of nationalism   in the nineteenth century and its circulation in the twentieth. He argues that today, because of the globalisation of capital, communications, people, trade and so on, national cultures can no longer be considered as resolved commodities³. This ‘crisis' of consciousness has acted as a stimulus to the new rise of  nationalism in Europe. People's lives are cast as unpredictable itineraries and ever-shifting subjectivities, rather than as static experiences (except, perhaps, by those that peddle the all-too-easily thrown around term, cultural identity).

It is this quandary of identity which is taken on in Alnoor Dewshi's Latifah and Himli's Nomadic Uncle. The film is both a miniature and an epic that journeys across many landscapes – all contained within a beautifully visualized London. Its two heroines, Latifah and Himli, are offered no solutions to their (and the film's) central problem of belonging. The women are not able to map it – nor can they fix their identity against any bulletin board of history. They just continue on against an ever shifting backdrop, exchanging breezy wisdoms and checking out the territory. Gitanjali both takes on and refuses a similar problem. With splatter gun inventiveness and a landscape painter's eye, she grapples with how to be South Asian in the East, yet of the West, as she documents a trip through India in New View, New Eyes. Forever and Ever tries to gain a perspective on the distance between a name and its meanings. In this deceptively simple tape, Sher Rajah struggles – literally – with the act of naming. The possibility of ever being able to do so at all seems to be elusive. The once clearly defined notions of a familial and cultural identity have become  hazy and less certain.

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Nayan Shah has written that as Black cultural workers we are offered the possibility not just to presume the existence and parameters of our communities and identities but, through our work, to create them4. And as with any project that is concerned with articulating identity, there is always a fear that what might have been an attempt at clarification becomes an  all too rigid characterisation which is narrow and prescriptive. An attempt to advocate one kind of difference serves merely, in the end, to mask other differences. In this way, the term ‘South Asian' has become, for some, a rigid and alienating construct that eclipses, even disallows, individualities.

The work here offers wildly different takes on the possibilities of who and what is South Asian. In Wild Women in the Woods, Shani Mootoo places a butch South Asian lesbian against a rural Western Canadian landscape (South Asian women  in the West are usually portrayed as feminine and rather urban) and then within the grasp of a funky Goddess who in turn places her in the eye of a whirl of silk and jewels. Khaled Hakim's When I was Just A Little Girl – a tape whose sunny, nurturing home-movie surface gives way to a decidedly menacing undertone – blasts expectations as well. The concepts of family and community, often used to define South Asian identities, have never before been portrayed in  a way that is so loving yet also so fraught with danger (and Doris Day has never seemed so frightening). Meena Nanji's Voices of the Morning places the oppressive formats of patriarchal family structures alongside the physical structures of Islamic architecture to speak, in particular, against repressive laws concerning the female body and psyche. This very moving video is also caught in a confounding duality: at one moment, an aspect of Islam is despised and there is the urge to dismiss it in its entirety; the next moment, however, is one of exquisite beauty, also fostered by Islam. Suddenly there is the need to reconsider.

But these journeys that are compelled and repelled by notions of identity are not the only ones taken in the works of this programme. Shaheen Merali's video installation, Going Native, takes journeying on a different trajectory, questioning Western society's need to construct exotic, vividly painted tourist paradises. Through the patterning of images and poetry in Monsoon, Maya Chowdhry uses menstruation to explore the cyclical nature  of journeys themselves. Indu Krishnan's ironically titled Knowing Her Place takes apart one particular woman's schizophrenic story of migration. Alia Syed's mesmerising Fatima's Letter revolves around the confused recollections and perceptions of a woman who feels  as if she has always been travelling on the London Underground: a journey made treacherous by the distorting shadows of time and language and memory.

The exhibition features two new commissions: a video sculpture by Sutapa Biswas that encapsulates the idea of a journey. Through the use of metaphors, she creates an evocative piece that explores both the artist's and the viewer's personal histories. Tanya Syed's film captures the private moments that drift through public spaces: the fragments of stories, glimpses of insight and collisions with strangers that suddenly create points of meaning.

These points of meaning are like points on a map. They hold us together yet allow us to become easily undone: these points that prick and puncture our air-tight beliefs, prick us toward new places and into new subjectivities. To paraphrase the words of the novelist Bharati Mukherjee: South Asian-ness is not a fragile identity to be carefully preserved but a set of fluid identities to be celebrated5. South Asian-ness is now a metaphor for partially comprehending the world. It is in the end an act of invention and can be imagined – and re-imagined – from just about anywhere.

Footnotes

  1. I would like to thank the editors of Fuse Magazine for allowing me to work out some of these ideas in Blasted Categories, an overview of contemporary South Asian film video that appeared in Fuse vol. xvi, no. 4 (May 1993)
  2. From Black Markets, White Boyfriends (and other Acts of Elision, by Ian Iqbal Rashid (Toronto: TSAR Publishers, 1992) p. 52-53
  3. Peter Wollen, Arrows of Desire: 1993 ICA Biennial (London: ICA Documents, 1993) p. 9
  4. Nayan Shah, Sexuality, Identity and the Uses of History in "A Lotus of a Different Colour", Rakesh Ratti, ed. (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1993) p. 125
  5. Bharati Mukherjee, Introduction to Darkness, (London: Penguin, 1985) p. 7

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Ian Iqbal Rashid is a London-based poet, screenwriter and filmmaker. His films have screened at festivals from Sundance to Toronto and been distributed theatrically. He is currently writing a drama series exploring the lives of refugees and asylum seekers in Canada for the CBC, and bastardising Jane Austen for a comedy series in the UK at ITV. He is the author of three award-winning volumes of poetry. View bio.
 
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