‘Identity is not as transparent and unproblematic as we think. Perhaps instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished fact , which the new cultural practices then represent, we should think, instead, of identity as a ‘production’, which is never complete , always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation.’
– Stuart Hall, Cultural Identity and Diaspora
In contemporary times, if globalisation on the one hand has promoted post national freedom of mobility, diasporic cultures, economic equality and political inclusivity, then on the other hand, it has also resulted in fractured geographies, surveillance states and the militarised control of people and natural resources across continents. If this milieu has given rise to an understanding of diasporic cultures and subjectivity and has brought forth questions of how identities are ‘lived, experienced and practiced’, then post 9/11, a sharp increase in global homogenisation, religious fundamentalism and ethnic backlash has also led to the rise in the population of refugees and people in exile, leading to unsettled zones of stateless citizens. In such a political or cultural climate, how do artistic or photographic practices produce critical interventions while approaching the celebratory nature of mass mobilization and diasporic identities, and at the same time address the questions of privilege and agency? While operating within global corporatism, can there be new creative possibilities to form adequate ways of critically expressing political realities, mass displacements and state hypocrisy? How can artists create strategies for diasporic or transnational representations which move beyond the limitations of categorised identities and modes of ‘belongingness’? How should artist-activists, through documentary strategies, represent noncitizens without giving into the humanitarian politics of victimisation?
Some of these questions have been taken up in the works of photographer-artists like Vasantha Yoganathan, Annu Palakunnatthu Matthew, Preston Merchant, Uzma Mohsin and Rahul S Ravi. Annu Palakunnatthu Matthew as a diasporan artist, in her series ‘An Indian from India’ critically evaluates the construction of concepts like ‘Indianness’, ‘Otherness’ and the stereotype identities prevalent in the nineteenth century, while exploring the interstitial positions of diasporic identity in a globalised world. Similarly the works of French photographer Vasantha Yoganathan look into the hybrid identities and experiences of the Sri Lankan diaspora living in exile in France. While capturing the ‘Theatre of Wars’, he not only looks into the process of production of new identity by the diasporan community for themselves but also narrates their anecdotes of longing, remembrance and nostalgia for their lost homeland. Interestingly, he also documents the ongoing negotiations of the third or fourth generation of the Sri Lankan diasporic community with the history of their country which they have never visited but have gained information only through mainstream mass media. Other artist-photographers like Uzma Mohsin and Rahul S Ravi have turned the lenses of their cameras at the figures of refugees and migrants within their homeland. The mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from their own homeland heightens the visibility of mass phenomena such as religious fundamentalism and ethnic backlash, as repercussions of the process of globalisation. ‘Living in Limbo’, on the other hand, deals with the expression of figures of illegal refugees within the country of their origin, who are no longer wanted by the nation-state as part of the national identity. Despite the celebration of the transnational cultures, even in the age of globalisation, the modern nation-state, through its bureaucratic apparatus, still plays a key role in framing peoples’ political identities and fundamental rights.
By conceptualizing the multiple forms of geographical mobility, either imposed or taken up as a choice, these artistic expressions try and attempt to bring the viewer in close proximity with the lived experiences of diasporic and migrant communities. They critically explore the concept of ‘difference’ and the continuous process of (re)evolving ambivalent positions and identities within a cultural context rather than objectifying or victimising the displaced people and their experiences.
*This article is a ‘work in progress’ and will be continuously revised by the author as the research develops further.