Drawing on her diasporic experiences of being born in England, brought up in India and currently a citizen of United States of America, artist-photographer Annu Palakunnathu Matthew’s photographic series ‘An Indian from India’ (2001) plays on the nineteenth century concept of ‘otherness’ and explores the interstitial positions of diasporic identity in a globalised world. While dealing with the questions of geopolitical identity in her everyday experiences as a South Asian migrant despite being a citizen of the USA, Annu in one of her interviews points to the seemingly trivial but difficult question she is often posed with, ‘Where are you really from?’. Taking this query as a point of departure she explores the complexity of new diasporic positions and voices that immigrants often struggle with while addressing the questions of fixed frameworks such as nationality, culture, ethnicity and religion in a transnational location.As the global economy has shifted away from the centre-pheriphery model to de-centralised or de-territorialised grounds, the rapid flow of cultural commodities, information and people has been set into motion. It not only brings in new sets of conditions and situations but also sometimes contests and subverts the older imagined world of the official mind and of the entrepreneurial mentality that surrounds them.¹ By focusing on the politics of ethnoscapes², i.e. the landscape of persons who constitute the shifting world, Annu Palakunnathu Matthew critically reflects on the questions of rootless-ness in postmodern times and essentialised racial hierarchies (which are rooted in nineteenth century Eurocentric views and the politics of colonial empires). Being an Indian immigrant she explores this in her ‘An Indian from India Series’ – by finding allegiance with the uprootedness, marginalisation and ‘double-consciousness’ of the native Americans integral in America’s history, the constructedness of the ‘Indian’ identity by colonials (whether by British in India or by Columbus in America) and by drawing on the works of the colonial photographer Edward Curtis, which attempted to capture the ‘Indian-ness’ and ‘primitivism’ of the ‘inferior’ native race. In 1906, Curtis was one of the many photographers hired by the federal government to record the Western landscape of America inhabited by the native tribes. Offered a hefty sum of $75,000 by J.P Morgan, Curtis was commissioned to produce a 20 volume series with 1,500 photographs documenting each and every aspect of primitive lives of native Indians that was diminishing quickly in the speedy process of urbanisation. He not only produced 40,000 photographic images over a span of 40 years but also collected cultural data like folk tales, housing, garments, ceremonies, rituals and food habits.
In drawing on the ‘otherness’ of the races imagined in the colonial photography of Edward Curtis and at the same time also referring to the similar ethnographic series (The People of India 1868-75) captured in India by John.F Watson and John W. Kaye, Annu Palakunnathu Matthew in her self-portraits of ‘An Indian from India’ series satirically places herself under the camera’s gaze through essentialised poses and staged environments that mimic the constructed-ness of the colonial images. By identifying with Native Indian Americans, she brings forth the complex issues faced by the global immigrants in the US despite being a ‘nation’ formed on assimilation of heterogeneous migrant identities.
- Arjun Appadurai, “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy” from Modernity at Large : Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, Oxford University Press, 1997, 27-65.
As a diasporan artist, tell us about your experiences in America? How do you see the development of the South Asian diaspora in America and its impact on identity politics?
In the US, artists from the South Asian countries are identified as one group and have formed collectives such as SAWCC (South Asian Women’s Creative Collective.) Their impact is not only on identity politics but a broader discussion and understanding of the wide spectrum of people that makes the United States.
As an artist-photographer, do you feel content with the term ‘diaspora’? Do you think ‘diasporic identity’ gives a platform to re-configure one’s social position both in the ‘home land’ and the current migrant location?
Having lived between three cultures (England, India and now the US) I see myself as being a transcultural artist rather than a diasporic artist. Yes, each terms does help clarify one’s place/location within the larger context.
In your ‘An Indian from India’ series, you have drawn references from the colonial portraiture of Native Americans in which the camera separates the photographer from the subject. But in the same series, especially in the final photographs, by juxtaposing your self-portraits with the colonial portraits you have tried to blur this very distinction by confronting the camera and becoming your own sitter. As an artist-photographer, how was the experience of accepting your unmediated images in a constructed environment of a studio?
My work parallels the colonial British ethnographic imagery from India, drawing parallels between the imaging of Indians and the imaging of American Indians. Using the British ethnographic images as a reference point brings up Susan Sontag’s statement from On Photography in 1997 where she wrote, “there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed”. Through my portfolio of self-portraits paired with portraits from the 19th century, I join hands with the Native Americans to reverse the gaze and to expand the viewer’s assumptions, definition and stereotypes of who is different.
In the age of globalisation, social media has shrunk the distances between nations where as fast paced mobility and connectivity has also blurred the concepts of ‘second home’ and ‘native land’. Do you think global networks and technology have reshaped the idea of ‘home’ and ‘belongingness’?
I do think that the immigrant experience that my parents had when they went to England is quite different than my experience of coming to America. Yes, technology, cheap flights and its subsequent connectivity play a huge role is not having as big of a disconnect.
Annu Palakunnathu Matthew’s recent exhibitions include Sepia International, New York City, the RISD Museum, Newark Art Museum, 2009 Guangzhou Biennial of Photography, China, 2006 Noorderlicht Photo Festival in Netherlands, Smithsonian Institute, Museum of National History and Gallery Z2O in Rome, Italy.
Among the list of grants recently supporting Matthew‘s work include a 2012 Fulbright-Nehru Fellowship, the John Gutmann Fellowship, MacColl Johnson Fellowship, Rhode Island State Council of the Arts Fellowship and the American Institute of Indian Studies Creative Arts fellowship. She was recently an artist in residence at the Yaddo Colony and the MacDowell Colony. Her work can be found in the collection of the George Eastman House, Fogg Museum at Harvard, Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Center for Creative Photography and the RISD Museum among others.
Matthew’s work is included in the book BLINK from Phaidon, that according to the publisher celebrates the quality and vision of today’s 100 most exciting international contemporary photographers and Self-Portraits by Susan Bright and The Digital Eye by Sylvia Wolf.