CAN WE PUT THE INFINITE IN THE FINITE? FOOD FOR THOUGHT ON THE INTERSECTIONS BETWEEN PERSONAL & CULTURAL IDENTITIES AND WESTERN & NON-WESTERN ART

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

Responses

  1. Sarasija Subramanian | 10.17.2017

    There is an interesting dialogue between what you say about the feeling of inevitable alienation in both worlds and identity and its dependence on the other, that Jasmina talks of. Just as identity becomes a dependent entity, an individual whose identity has been shaped in more than one space becomes more than one person in some senses, not necessarily a hybrid that fits in both but a binary that sees the gaps either way. When a few of us were sitting and doing a reading of Edward Said and (with great difficulty and frustration) Homi Bhabha, we kept feeling that as an Indian born in this generation, everything that they said was ever so obvious. The fact that we exist as absolute hybrid individuals, twice or thrice removed from actual colonial times, seemed to be a part of life.
    Very soon after I was in Italy for a few months, and the curator and coordinators at the program I was at were constantly apologizing to me for their broken and often grammatically incorrect English, marveling at the fact that mine was so much better than theirs. At the same time, I was constantly asked as to why a majority of my conversations with friends, parents and my boyfriend back home were never in anything much other than English. Even in situations where we discussing language and the differences in meanings of words and objects in different tongues, I was so often caught without even a translation for certain words in my own mother tongues.

    In that moment I was so aware of the fact that as an Indian, I was hybrid to the extent that I could at instances feel alien in my own skin and history. Almost as if the way the country has shaped a certain section of us has such great roots in the past 100 years of what it has seen. I cannot entirely fathom how the western and Indian binary feels from your perspective, but I do think in some ways the binaries and alienation that exist for some, can be born of just living in India between worlds, histories and futures.

  2. Ushmita Sahu | 10.7.2017

    Hi, Ashok. Your post really strikes a chord. Migration and identity are so intrinsically linked together. whatever the reason, whether economic, social-political personal, one leaves so much behind, even as one gathers new experiences. This pining for the lost, the memory of what was, becomes a life force in some cases. My grandmother was from Barishal in the erstwhile East Pakistan, as she always addressed Bangladesh. She lived here in India for more than half her life, yet she only really existed in the true sense when she spoke of her home of her youth and childhood. As long her memories were alive, she existed in two places equally. This dual existence can be a curse or a boon. According to Anselm Strauss (1969) identity is subjected to constant processes of change. Although an individual tends to minimize this process and establishes strategies for gaining a sense of personal continuity, transformations of identity are an immanent part of each biography. Nevertheless, the change is usually processual. Following experiences gradually make an individual change his or her self-definitions. Changes can be marked by turning points constituted by critical incidents. These moments in a biography enable an individual to see the change and make him or her explore and validate new aspects of self (STRAUSS 1969, p.93).

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