From Justin Trudeau’s grand apology for his wearing of black face to our own brown face saga here in Singapore, the mainstream media has witnessed a year of disappointments and apologies, in the conversations surrounding race and racial tolerance. As these conversations bubble over in civil society, it seems natural that the art world also turns its eyes on works of art that explore the themes of identity and race. In this year alone, we’ve seen The Raya Show at CODA CULTURE and MAT at Objectifs, and both exhibitions featured an ensemble of artists of Malay descent or ethnicity. “Yes, I speak Indian…” is the most recent showing of all-South Asian artists at Coda Culture, as the artist-organisers sought to create a space for greater Indian and South Asian representation in the arts. It is an exhibition that illuminates concerns that many in the Indian community might resonate with, while also acknowledging the specificity of the various personal experiences of its participating artists.
Upon entering the exhibition, one immediately catches a whiff of the curry aroma that emanates from the minimalist air diffuser from Divaagar’s work, Why this கோழி கறி di? In using aromatics such that his work occupies unseen space, Divagaar speaks to the difficulty that Indian people experience when navigating the local housing market. “Indian households are seen as less desirable to rent to because of what they cook,” Divaagar shares, “so it was a statement to put this at the very forefront of the exhibition, and occupy space with this smell”.
Literally translated to “Why this chicken curry (kolikari)?”, the title references Why This Kolaveri Di (Why this Rage), a popular Tamil song that, according to the artist-organisers of this exhibition, Divaagar and Chand Chandramohan, is “a terrible song but (that) has become a meme within the Tamil-speaking community.” To Tamil speakers, it is a humorous pun that is instantly relatable. Meanwhile, the tables are turned on Chinese-majority, non-Tamil speakers, as they must seek help with translating the title, and the joke must be tediously explained. For myself, a Chinese-speaker who enjoys a majority privilege in Singapore, the sensation of not being in the know at this very moment of parsing the title of Divaagar’s work is unfamiliar, and merely a small taste of what is likely to be an everyday occurrence in the lives of my non-Chinese friends. Why this கோழி கறி di? is a minimalist yet multi-layered work that subverts micro-aggressions through its subtle gestures, while maintaining a lightness of humour.
The works in “Yes, I speak Indian…” address the various aggressions that members of the local Indian and South Asian community commonly face. Entitled AH (PU) (NEH) NEH, the Skarekrow’s strikingly coloured painting of a horned demon face smiles a welcoming smile, though its third eye appears to be crossed out. In front of its protruding tongue, a black horned figure stands between the words ‘ah neh’, its oversized hands outstretched as if in preparation to either embrace or obstruct.
These are images and words whose meanings seem completely contingent on the preference of their viewer. One could choose to read the vibrant colours as either celebratory or clashing, just as one might equally associate the demon figure with the idea of evil, or simply recognise it as one of many gods in a vast pantheon who possess various opposing aspects, both the beneficent and the destructive. Likewise, the term ‘ah neh’ is a respectful one that means ‘elder brother’ in Tamil. Yet, it takes on a darker, more hostile meaning in the local context, where it is often derogatorily used to refer to Indian people. The work thus addresses the systemic misappropriation of a term of endearment, which, in the hands of the persistently ignorant, becomes a racial slur.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, two artists wrestle with the violence of the gaze that is all too often received by the female Indian body. Chand’s papercut collage is a portrait in which the artist depicts herself nude and surrounded by wildflowers in a forest. She is accompanied by the image of Sarah Baartman, or the Hottentot Venus, a South African woman who was exhibited as a freak show attraction in Europe at the turn of the 19th century, due to the public’s fascination with her oversized posterior. IMPART Art Award 2018 winner Priyageetha Dia’s three-part installation includes Quintessential site of unrestricted joy, freedom, power and pleasure, a black blow-up doll whose breasts have been exaggerated to comical degrees, and a digital print that repeatedly proclaims: “The brown body is a black body.”
Both artists relate the experience of the Indian female body to that of the African American body, in the violence and trauma that both brown and black bodies suffer when they are fetishized as being oversexed by a privileged majority. Chand feels that this similarity is one that is founded upon their common darkness of skin tone, curliness of hair, and in the way that the childhood insults which she would receive always seemed to go along the lines of, “Your skin is so black” – as if insinuating that blackness were somehow innately bad or inferior. Likewise, a comment that Priyageetha often received was the backhanded compliment of “you look pretty – for a dark-skinned person”. In a country where many still feel that people who are offended by racism should just learn to take a joke, it’s almost as if the artists must turn to a wider, more commonly documented example of racism (that which is wrought against black African American bodies) in order to validate their own marginalised experiences.
“There is not a lot of agency that we have, a lot of the times. When we do speak, we often get ignored. There’s a lot of intersections when it comes to this identity. We embody a lot of different forms of marginalisation in this very reduced narrative of being Indian. There are so many layers under it. We speak from the experience of being a cis Indian woman. A lot of the violence that we have felt, we wonder how much of it is down to our race, or is it an intersection between our race and our gender?” – Chand Chandramohan
Faced with marginalisation that one cannot run from, art becomes a refuge in which one might have some rare control over the way in which one is perceived. Fierce, Savage, Naked and Untamable is almost defiantly beautiful, an image of the beautiful savage that is of the artist’s own making, while the kneeling form of Quintessential site of unrestricted joy, freedom, power and pleasure, strung up by a metal chain, can only hope to communicate the powerlessness that the artist feels.
The difficulties only get compounded when one’s identity lays at the intersection of multiple marginalised identities. For example, works such as Muda’s Qobul (Acceptance) and Lotus arose from the artist’s use of art as a means to contemplate their various gender, sexual, and racial identities. Being a non-binary trans Malayali Muslim person whose layers of identity were in a state of flux, Muda engaged in the meditative process of working with traditional decorative motifs to find catharsis during their process of negotiating, casting off, and taking on new aspects in their identity. Where Qubol (Acceptance) sees them bidding farewell to Islam, the floral symbols in Lotus welcome a period of blooming and blossoming in the artist’s life as they delved more deeply into Hindu and Buddhist literature. Placed side by side, the two works become metaphors of death and rebirth in the artist’s personal journey.
While most of the works in “Yes, I speak Indian…” relate directly to the difficulties that are variously faced by members of the Indian community, the artists are very clear that they do not seek to represent or speak on behalf of their community. As artist Sharmeen/Sifar asserts, “I’m an artist – I am expressing myself. Why can’t we just be seen as artists? Why do I have to constantly represent my community? Yes, this is a global issue. But we need to move forward from this.” After all, what we refer to as ‘the Indian community’ is itself a vastly diverse one that comprises at least 544 dialect groups. In Singapore alone, there are significant groups of Hindi, Punjabi, Malayalam, and Telugu speakers apart from Tamil speakers, though only Tamil is recognised as one of the four official languages of Singapore.
In this vein, works such as Mithra’s Precious Thots are less about conveying ‘the Indian experience’ than it is a personal expression of one’s anxieties. Though the title of the work leads one to think of the gift shop once ubiquitous to every mall, the work instead depicts a psychedelic array of oversized tropical flowers and mushrooms that surround the housing block, as a figure – presumably a self-portrait of the artist – hides in a rooftop pool filled with the plastic fish from that childhood fishing game. Fantastical and at times phallic, the subject matter in Mithra’s work is a cacophony that seems to convey the messiness of the artist’s internal reality. It is inward-looking and self-confrontational, and like most surrealist works, engenders more questions than it provides answers.
Ultimately, “Yes, I speak Indian…” is an exhibition that seeks to present a safe space in which the artists might find camaraderie in one another as they confront the gaze that falls upon them, and return a gaze of their own. Though it makes no claims to anything more than that, there is much to be gained and learnt by peering at the world through their eyes, and not just through my words. And then maybe from there, the conversation would not move on, but move forward.
Feature image: A detail of the painting, “Faces of Life (Fear)” by Subashini K Chandra, on view at “Yes, I speak Indian…”. Image courtesy of Coda Culture.