Determining who we are is a lifelong project, for we create a new self with every decision we make and every turn we take. As Marina Abramović once said, “I really think I lose my identity more and more.” Such a thought strikes a major chord within me as it triggers the need for deeper reflection about my own life, and especially about my life as an artist.
Born to my Indian parents who migrated to the United States in the seventies, I was brought up in the USA for the first six years of my life. At the age of six, I moved to India where I spent my formative childhood years till I moved back to the USA at age eighteen. Now, I find myself back in India after spending most of my adult years state-side. This constant back and forth between two countries - two different worlds really - inevitably makes one ponder over their identity. I don’t remember much of my life during the first six years of my life in the USA so when I think of my childhood and upbringing, I remember always feeling more Indian than American. However, very early on after moving to India, even at that young age, I was coined as the “American kid” despite me being of Indian origin. This “American kid” tag continued through the rest of my years in India, albeit in a lesser amount. In no way was this upsetting to me or traumatizing but it played a big factor as to the way people saw me, and in-turn the way I perceived myself. Furthermore, when I was back in America for college, being a person of color, I was a minority and therefore, even in the country that I was born in, I was constantly questioned and reminded of my identity. To sum it up, when in India I am regularly reminded of my American-ness and not being “completely” Indian, and vice-versa when in USA.
This constant reminder of not belonging wholly in both places that I consider home has raised significant enquiries into my own personal identity - an identity mixed up in two different cultures. How important, then, is culture when it comes to influencing personal identities? Culture, as defined by the Webster’s dictionary, is “the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief and behavior that depends upon man’s capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations. It is also the customary beliefs, social forms and material traits of a racial, religious or social group.” It is my firm belief that it is within and from this social network that we shape our personal qualities and characteristics, and it is this network that gives meaning to our personal identity. Thus, culture has a major role in shaping our identity.
Now, when it comes to art, and art in this globalized world with biennales springing up left and right, and easy connectivity between artists across the world, are we able to translate the artist's intentions (perhaps influenced by their inherent personal & cultural identity) and the meaning of art works from all these different cultures? Is there indeed an international language developing within the niche of contemporary art that does cross cultural barriers? With my cross-cultural biography, I would sure hope so. Defining my identity then becomes more open-ended, more infinite. Am I a western artist? Am I a non-western artist? Am I more Indian or more American? If I work on an Indian theme is it truly authentic since I am American born? Do the answers to these questions vary?
Johan Pijnappel, the editor of the book “Crossing Currents’, talks about the growing number of western artists making ‘non-western’ works, and that people in Asia have criticized this ‘claiming process’ as ‘neo-colonialism through the arts’. Similarly, one could argue that mediums such as video art, performance and digital photography from Asia have taken a form that is more identified as ‘western’. The whole question ‘who or what comes from where’ has become more and more complicated in the last decade. And with it comes how could or should we interpret these works? If there is one thing that is clear, it’s that many of these artists have one thing in common: a cross-cultural biography, brimming with questions of immigration, colonization, dislocation, ethnic identity and language considerations. Therefore, I have no choice but to embrace my cross-cultural background and be okay with the fact that my personal identity is constantly changing. I’ll do everything in my power to reflect this through my art.
“Cultures will influence each other so much that interest in each other will be natural” – Dorine Mignot