London: Phaidon Press. ISBN 0714840149.
Pramod K. Nayar
Different is a collection of photographs by Black artists in Britain. It explores the collaborative, conflictual or assimilatory relationship of Blacks with white Britain. The artists included in the collection work from the premise that art is primarily an engagement with contemporary social issues.
Different opens its first section, ‘A Historical Context’, with a statement of its aims and purposes: ‘the autographic counter-practices illustrated in this volume mark the site of a long struggle with, and within, the image, to detach the subject from its fixed inscriptions and to produce the black subject again, in a variety of radically new positions’ (4). Both a thesis and a programmatic criticism, the statement provides us with ‘ways of seeing’. The first section on the historical background to ‘reading’ these images is an invaluable survey of the origins and rise of non-white images of non-whites. Starting with Jules Lion, who introduced the daguerreotype to New Orleans, the survey looks at some important moments in the African-American representations of black men and women: the images of difference, differently conceived and executed. These photographers, as the introduction puts it, now become ‘subjects of their own representational practices’ (5). Several major figures find mention here: Gordon Parks with his documentary studies of blacks during the Depression, Mama Caset (whose archives were destroyed), Peter Magubane, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil and Armet Francis.
The second, more evaluative and reflective section, ‘Contemporary Photographers and Black Identity’ by Stuart Hall, begins with a pointed critique of the emergence of modernism as a trend in 20th century photography. ‘Modernism’, Hall argues, has retrospectively become a distinctly western referent. This meant that a western-centric definition of excellence denied photographers access to markets, audiences and sponsors (34). Contemporary black artists in Britain embody (or, as Hall puts it, ‘subscribe to’) Derrida’s notion of difference when they work ‘across cultural boundaries and vocabularies’ (35). Identity for these photographers is not an essence or being but a becoming, a process where subjectivities are formed in the spaces in between binaries of us/them, black/white, or native/foreigner. Hall makes an important point when he suggests that, rather than a western-centric modernity, we need to talk of a modernity that has been ‘de-centred’: where ‘marginalised peoples are Â… [also] the agents and subjects of many possible “futures” ‘ (36-7).
Moving on to the question of form, Hall speaks of the shift away from the documentary mode in photography. In the mid-1980s photographers stopped seeing the documentary as the ‘essential’ truth of photography. Indigenous modernisms from Africa, India and Latin America arrived in metropolitan centres and became ‘reappropriated’. This meant that the photographers began to question the notion that a documentary stood for objectivity. Instead, they argued, reality and truth were always mediated. That is, they accepted the notion that, rather than provide a ‘clear’ or transparent access to reality, representation conveys a certain kind of reality, always mediated by ideology and linked to a ‘politics of truth’ and a ‘politics of desire’ (38).
One of the most significant ‘sites’ of racial, ethnic, gender and sexual difference is the body. Hall argues that simply reversing the black/white terms or stereotype does not suffice. Biology inscribes racial and ethnic difference on the body, and other discourses such as fashion or sport merely reconfirm this difference. Hall suggests that the only way to interrogate and subvert this stereotyping was to deconstruct it from within, that is, by adopting a dangerous ‘politics of representation’. This resulted in the multiple representations of the black subject: re-mapping and re-inventing it in new ways. More often than not, this re-mapping took the form of a narrative told explicitly within the domain of the body as a site of pleasure and sexuality. Thus masculinity and femininity with their desires were emphasised in this way.
Illustrating this argument, the first group of photographers in the collection underline ‘black masculinity as their privileged point of entry’ (39). Rotimi Fani-Kayode is undoubtedly one of the more powerful contemporary photographers. Rivetting his attention on the black body, Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s work relies upon the phallus as a signifier that is less a degraded, ridiculed object (as in the white stereotype of the hyper-sexed African male). Hall comments on Fani-Kayode’s work: ‘the black male body became the “canvas” on which he staged a series of “investigations” of black masculinity and gay desire’. Rather than being simply an abject object, the black body becomes the subject of desire. Fani-Kayode’s ‘Bronze Head’ (1987) is an example of how he translates traditional Yoruba symbols (such as the bronze head, which signifies the artist’s spirit) into a space where conflicting discourses intersect. Thus there is the common insult of exhibiting the backside, there is the image of sodomy (of being penetrated by the head), the image of defaecation and of giving birth. Sexuality, black masculinity and desire all merge here.
Ajamu Ikwe Tyekimba’s work focuses on the black male body. His ‘Body-builder in Bra’ presents the subversion of two stereotypes: of the muscular, hyper-masculine black body and the sartorial icon of femininity. By conflating the two, Tyekimba’s image of cross-dressing resists gender-identification and tests the limits of ‘transgression’ where queer sexuality – itself ‘transgressive’ in a stereotype of hyper-masculine heterosexuality — moves into trans- or cross-gendered bodily pleasures. Cross-dressing and androgyny are also important motifs for Lyle Ashton Harris. Harris uses signifiers from both white and black cultures in the space of the same image. Thus the wedding veil, blonde wigs and filigree necklaces occupy equal signifying space with screaming faces, black and white skins and cadaverous women (as in ‘Miss America’). In a classic instance of what Toni Morrison presented as a ‘bluest eye’ syndrome, Harris satirises the imposition of white notions of beauty and gender upon black bodies. Androgyny and cross-dressing therefore become imperatives to resist racial, sexual and gender stereotypes and aesthetic categories. Cultural signifiers such as clothing and make up also become central to Ike Ude’s work. Ude’s cross-dressed or over-made up figures are a ‘play’ — a central narrative and representational device in all these artists — on sexual identity, stereotypes of dandyism, deterministic sartorial codes and gender identities. For Ude sexual identity is a ‘superficial fashion strategically worn as an armour of convenience’ (50). Play and the discourse of fashion are also important elements in Samuel Fosso’s work. Dandies, over-dressed anachronistic costumes and ‘mixed-genres’ of clothing (adapting elements from sports – swimming trunks, martial arts and contemporary fashion – dark glasses) occur prominently in Fosso’s images. Machismo and dandyism are conflated here. Vincent Allen’s ‘Bangy Boys’ series, Anthony Lam’s ‘Notes from the Street’ and Faisal Abdu’ Allah’s ‘I Wanna Kill Sam Coz He Ain’t My Motherfucking Uncle’ are all representations of youth seeking a role for themselves. The circulating images here include the fashion-conscious, gangster, dandy, ‘common’ and indifferent. The work of these artists marks the theme of self-fashioning, an identity that is constructed, as Hall puts it, through ‘fantasy, memory and desire’ (86). Yinka Shonibare’s images are also about dandies — from the Victorian era. As Hall points out, Shonibare’s dandy suggests an English lord or plantation owner, and thus a certain ‘Englishness’, but is ironically inflected by the clearly black face (64).
African and Caribbean folk/religious practices, rituals, and mysticism inform the work of Albert Chong and Peter Max Khondola. Sunil Gupta looks at Asian migrants in multicultural London, with a particular focus on gay sexuality, the debilitating pathologies of pleasure, and AIDS (a condition that Arthur and Marielouise Kroker famously termed ‘panic sex’). Maxine Walker, Chila Burman, Joy Gregory, Poulomi Desai and Dawoud Bey interrogate circulating notions of ‘desirability’ and ‘style’ by focusing on the processes of ‘feminine’ beautification through their themes of disguise, role-playing and commodity-fetishism. Clement Cooper specialises in miscegenated subjects in his work. Refusing to stay within the stereotype of ‘black’ artist — which expects the subject of the work to be black — Cooper’s portraits celebrate the hybrid and suggest a whole new aesthetics of cross-cultural bodies. Roshini Kempadoo and Dave Lewis deal with hybrid identities and exile in their work. David Bailey and Roy Mehta are similar to Lewis – engaging with the theme of multiple identities. Deborah Wills, Eileen Perrier, Faizal Sheikh and Eustaguio Neves’ appropriate the family, history, and domesticity. These artists thematise what one may term the ‘circumambi/ence’ of the family: the circumscribing, oppressive ambit as well as the secure, comforting ambience of the domestic. Ricky Maynard’s and Remy Gastambide’s work combines contemporary life-‘styles’ with tradition. Traditional body marking and modification practices figure prominently in these images of modern denim-clad young men, and recall the work of the Modern Primitives group in the USA. Postmodernism’s obsession with space, ways of perception and simulation is visible in the work of Eric Lesdema (‘Butchery by Light’) and Mitra Tabrizian. The absence of real communication, the ‘desiccation of the world of senses’ and the blurring of boundaries between the real and unreal is Tabrizian’s central theme.
Different is a significant collection. It seeks not a pattern but rather a kaleidoscope. Resisting the impulse to order these images and artists thematically is a critical comment on the fetish for categorisation. The kaleidoscopic mode of mix and match — though revealing patterns, as the survey above indicates — serves also to highlight the hybridity of any collection, the randomness of selection and the politics of organisation. The non-hierarchic, non-categorised arrangement of photographs presented here is essentially a political statement about identity.
However, themes do emerge even from the most diverse and eclectic collections. Identity is one of the central themes of contemporary debates on culture. Hybridity, dislocation and ‘third-spaces’ are terms that occur with remarkable (even alarming) frequency in today’s commentary-driven world. Different — functionally enhanced by Stuart Hall’s characteristically brilliant critical introduction — embodies these themes. Identity — cultural, racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, national — as a construction is built upon an adaptation, or a series of adaptations, to the Other. This construction, based on the negotiation of differences and the suppression/repression of some traits, is a central concern for all artists in Different. Further layers of complexity to the theme of identity are added in representations of families, domestic spaces, consumerism, cultural iconicity and relationships. The artists of Different also narrow their focus to structures of identity formation and the iconography of identitarian politics — a politics which is either in a co-opted or antagonistic relation with the dominant culture. Some of the structures that the artists look at are: the body and contemporary fashion, cosmetics and consumerism, and community/social relations.
The body — the most visible and ‘real’ site of identity — is naturally the single unifying thread for all these artists. Clothing, fashion and cosmetics are a second common source of identity formation (as well as identity erasure). Through its photographs Different argues for a new understanding of ‘Englishness’ as ‘englishness’. It demonstrates the irrevocable and irascible rootedness of English and European identity (including Europe’s traditional, Enlightenment notions of modernity, liberalism and universals) in colonialism and diasporic migration, from and to Europe. Different proposes, instead of a violent rejection of English/European values of equality, freedom or ‘civilisation’ (a pet theme of postcolonial ‘revenge’ histories), a ‘provincialising’ of Europe. A self-conscious provincialising consists of documenting how these values became universalised, to see how the said concepts extend far beyond their specific points and contexts of origin. Dipesh Chakrabarty suggests that we need to understand that the equation of a certain Europe with modernity is not the work of Europeans alone, and that history’s ‘entanglements’ with grand narratives of rights and citizenship must be unraveled (Chakrabarty, 2001: 43). Chakrabarty is pointing to a theme that runs through Different: that Englishness as a category, notion and ideal was partly constituted by non-white populations, and that the drive towards ‘liberal values’ was achieved through a discourse of liberalism sited in colonial hegemony (the work of Roshini Kempadoo, Dave Lewis and David Bailey signals this). This provincialising is not simply a recognition of the fact that contemporary Britain or British ‘national culture no longer had one central tap root but had become rhizomatic’ (Jantjes, 2000: 267-8)1 but rather that ‘national culture’ is always already multiple and fractured: that there is no national culture which is not hybridised. In James Clifford’s words, ‘practices of displacement might emerge as constitutive of cultural meanings rather than as their simple transfer of or extension’, which means that ‘cultural centers, discrete regions and territories, do not exist prior to contacts, but are sustained through them’ (Clifford, 1999: 3, emphasis in original). This multiple origins and constituents of ‘englishness’ is what Different embodies.
However, when becoming conscious of the construction of ‘whiteness’ as a racial/ethnic category, we also need to be alert to a simultaneous and parallel process. Susan Koshy has pointed out that the radical racial politics challenging white supremacy in the 1960s worked with a ‘parallel minoritization’ rather than ‘stratified minoritization’. This meant that white racist politics was challenged by putting forward the opposition between white and black positionality. What did not figure in this discourse was the relationship between the racial minorities outside this black/white framework (Koshy, 2001: 155). Koshy’s argument — though appearing in the context of Asian American politics — is a useful pointer to the problems in simple categorisations such as ‘Black British art’ or even the politics of ‘difference’. The radical rethinking of categories such as ‘black’ or ‘white’ necessitates what may be termed a reifying imperative, where horizontal differences between minorities must be kept ‘alive’ while presenting a ‘Black British’ face resisting racial discourses. This reifying imperative — implicit in the work of several postcolonial, queer studies and cultural studies thinkers — is missing from Different. Having said that, I must also add that the structure of the book (a textual introduction followed by the collection of photographic works) does not allow for this kind of theorising (nor, I presume, was it the aim of the book’s authors). Different, I suggest, offers itself as a palimpsest where such a reifying imperative can be played out in the form of multicultural theorising.
Hall’s contextualisation notwithstanding, some attention to modes and practices of production and dissemination of ‘Black arts’ in contemporary Britain would have helped. The discussion of related themes such as the exhibition-culture, museumisation and patronage (‘state-of-the-art’, shall we dare call it that?) would have added another level to the volume. Finally, the consumption of these works and artists, and their cultural ‘visibility’ as icons of multicultural Britain — surely an indispensable tool to understanding their ‘role’ in developing, codifying, institutionalising and critiquing representational strategies — would have made the book even more vibrant. That, however, is only one small ‘miss’ in an otherwise invaluable text. Different is a good guide to contemporary black cultural studies.
1 This is how Gavin Jantjes describes post-1980s British multicultural society and social policies.
Chakrabarty, D. (2001) Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Clifford, J. (1999) Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Jantjes, G. (2000) ‘The Long March from “Ethnic Arts” to “New Internationalism”. In Kwesi Owusu (ed.) Black British Culture and Society: A Text Reader. London and New York: Routledge.
Koshy, S. (2001) ‘Morphing Race into Ethnicity: Asian Americans and Critical Transformations of Whiteness’. Boundary 2. 28.1, 153-194.
Pramod K. Nayar lectures in the Department of English at the University of Hyderabad, India.