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a journal of art + culture(s)  
link - issue 26: March 2016
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This text is by Osman Khan in his capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

This article is part of the 2016 Art & Race Series organized in partnership with the University of Michigan Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design and infinite mile running from January - September 2016.
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Coloring Inside The Lines

Osman Khan

Prelude
Coloring Inside The Lines 01

School Lunch ‘81: White bread/Brown bread (reconstruction)

Here, last night’s curry (keema with aloo) between whole wheat bread, toasted, with a smear of mayonnaise, an apple lovingly sliced and peeled early in the morning but since browned, boxed apple juice…  There, white bread (likely Wonder), green lettuce, slice of American cheese (Kraft crafted), Bologna (perhaps the one that comes with both a first and second name), snack bag of Cheetos (with 40% more cheese flavor), (there’s only one) Capri Sun fruit punch.

Through the eyes of a seven year old, how could shades of cardboard compete against the tricolors of a bologna sandwich: pink, yellow and green on a field of white.  Yes, that was a sandwich (all food groups represented and that’s just in the bologna) equally tempting and forbidden (most bologna available at that time was made from pork) and Cheetos, crunchy clouds whose orange spray lingered on your fingers—and holy shit is that a Capri Sun (just having been released to the U.S. in 1981)?  Forget cardboard boxes, this fun juice came in a spaceman metal pouch! And lest you still pine for Amma’s masala, that molder of American truth, TV, affirmed that there were no commercials of kids singing for their C U R R Y, and that yes this pop colored cornucopia of processed refinement, this, this is America!


...

 

Growing up colored in America is very much an experience of “othering” where even the schoolyard becomes battleground for cultural domination and control.

I don’t want to dwell too much on the shortcomings (and inaccuracies) of using race as a taxonomic system for categorizing or, more acerbically, dividing a nation’s citizenry. Suffice it to say race, at its most naïve, as a system of classification based on supposed unique phenotypes, forces an 8-bit (read limited, white, black, brown, yellow, red) pallet on what really is a complex multi-dimensional gradient (at what shade of tan do we become brown? And how kinky does my hair need to be to pass for black? As late as 1970 East Indians were considered white, as still are people from the Middle-East). At its most nefarious, race exists as a remnant of colonial and imperial histories that saw the need for such construction in order to manifest and justify the superiority of one people over another, its goal to subjugate, exploit and dehumanize, the legacy of which is a pronounced inequity in power relations between America’s citizens, effecting political, economic, social and cultural agency and capital. A legacy that at least in America centered on a binary relation of white supremacy over colored (black and native American) and still casts its dark shadow over the varying shades of other. Of course marginalization of certain communities is not limited to racial (or ethnic) discriminations; class, gender, sexuality, disability and other segregatory systems also work to similarly privilege one group over another.

The debunking of race, as a biologically deterministic basis of differencing, would ideally find us in a Utopian world where we should all be living harmonious and without frictions, but alas, as Babelian castoffs, we exist in diversity/differences. Current use finds it used interchangeably with what might be better thought as ethnicity, or culturally determined factors (traditions, language, ideology, ancestry, etc.) Even the last census in 2010 acknowledged that "race categories include both racial and national-origin groups." In fact, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) recommended the elimination of the term "race" for the 2010 Census, and switch to ethnicity or ethnic group as a more accurate and less negative (read racist) model of representation. The AAA also stated in its report, “yet the concept of race has become thoroughly—and perniciously—woven into the cultural and political fabric of the United States. It has become an essential element of both individual identity and government policy.”1

As much as one would like to see race erased from our lexicon, its continued use points to a refusal to give up on a flawed and wounding grand narrative that still desires a white/western hegemony and still sees that particular group as manifest stewards of the nation and still positions anyone that is non-white as second class citizenry.

Commercial Break: Faust Food
Coloring Inside The Lines 02

Oh my dear Haroon,
maker of lazeez2
handi and karai,
of nihari and paye3
When did the cravings of burgers4
make you forsake Cordoba’s arches

Can I get 2 orders of chapli kabab with fries?


...

Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony5 essentially states the success of the dominant social group in presenting their definition of reality, their view of the world, in such a way that other classes accept it as 'common sense'. The general 'consensus' is that it is the only sensible way of seeing the world. Any groups who present an alternative view are therefore marginalized.

Though Gramsci’s original context centered on Marxist analysis on economic class struggles, the concept finds parity when applied to race (or for that matter any social) relations.  The fact that I can use race as a ‘sensible’ classification only highlights how persuasive a hegemonic regime is in reinforcing its own beliefs.

By buying into a racially contrived system, one is forever the victim or victor simply due to the fact that one cannot change the color of their skin (and more importantly the privileges or handicaps it affords).  However in shifting the discourse from divisiveness of bodies to disruptions in ideological narratives, we move from deterministic narratives to dialectic dialogue where one is afforded agency and fluidity.

I also want to caution against a misread of hegemony.  One shouldn’t see hegemony as a small group of backroom illuminati controlling the world.  In a society, cultural hegemony is neither monolithic, nor a unified system of values, but a complex of stratified social structures, wherein each social and economic class has a social purpose and an internal class-logic that allows its members to behave in a way that is particular and different from the behaviors of the members of other social classes, whilst co-existing with them as constituents of the society.

The dominant narrative of the past three centuries is not only Western, building off of hundreds of years of colonial histories, but since the middle of the last century, also American and propagating and functioning through the logic of capitalism. That it has inherently privileged white people rests simply on the fact that it is a reflection and construction of ‘white’ cultural beliefs, desires, traditions, histories, language, values, etc. That the power, media and aesthetic apparatus in this country all work to reinforce this should already be a drawn out conclusion. Inherently then our worldview subjugates itself through this gaze. And in order to function in it, one is asked to conform to its logic. I want to clarify that ‘white’ refers less to biological classifications and more to the cultural construction of ‘white’ values. Thus, in spite of the color of your skin one can actively participate soundly within this hegemony (though the current social/political climate may beg to differ). So either drink the Kool-aid (or Capri Sun mind you) or stay thirsty.

In the Venn diagram of cultural influence, I couldn’t tell you where white ends but I sure as hell know where brown starts.

Commercial Break: 30 Americans
Coloring Inside The Lines 03

Despite titling the traveling exhibition, most recently seen at the DIA, 30 Americans (18 October 2015 - 18 January 2016), all subsequent text(s) make a point to highlight that the exhibition showcases work of 30 African-American artists or black (American) artists as opposed to just American artists. I find it quite condescending to suggest parity and normalization in national representation when repeatedly highlighting the “otherness” of the congregation. I ask: would one ever hold an exhibition that subtexts itself as an exhibition of 30 white American artists?

Probably, the most troubling is that the exhibition is part of the Rubell collection, white collectors who see fit to have traded the collecting of black bodies with collecting bodies of black art.  This, highlighted by the fact that in many of their individual interviews, the Rubells consistently get the works wrong, at one time even calling appropriated items in Shinique Smith’s a bull, a rose, a tempest, 2007, rags…RAGS, to which Ms. Smith politely (or more likely holding her tongue) explained were items from friends and family. Patron-ising with a capital WTF!

Beyond the pale though is that a traveling representative collection of black artists and art is determined not by their own community but rather through the cultural gatekeeping of white patrons. You have to wonder whose community is really then represented here. Is it the aspirations of the black community or reflections of white hegemonic taste?

 

...

More importantly to our context, what might be Art and the artist’s relationship to hegemony?

Any talk about art and race cannot ignore the underlying power (and resulting economic) relations that govern it. A recent article by The New York Times (“The Faces of American Power, Nearly as White as the Oscar Nominees”6) affirms our nation’s racial condition. Simply put, Danto’s Artworld7 is just another articulation of the hegemonic powers that governs it. Such that all the apparatus’ that define, validate, maintain and reproduce the cultural category of art work to reinforce the hegemony. If it is still a very white America; it is still a very white Artworld. The same structures that have challenged people of color in America with unequal access to education, resources and power as well as a lack of agency and self-determination, are also in play for the Arts and must be first addressed if serious change can occur. Can this occur through the existing institutions or are we in need of colorful alternatives (institutional or not) that challenge how art engages society is something for consideration.

The othering of colored America also works in more subtle ways as well.  As the adage goes, language constructs our realities, so simply observing when racial handles are and are not used to describe our citizenry reveals underlying racial power relations.  Who for example gets hyphenated when it comes to the construction of national identity? African-American, Asian- American, Latino American labels are typically ascribed, not necessarily as a negative but just enough to hint at the minority condition (and even welcomed by said communities as means of self-determination). I have yet to come across someone explicitly introduced as a white or Caucasian-American. Unless one is perhaps David Duke, an introduction of John Smith, a leader of the white American community is not stated in good company, the assumption being either that white America is synonymous with America (and to do otherwise positions whites also as a sub group) or rather shamefully reveals underlying racial tensions of white superiority. When it comes to describing the artist, we see a similar construction.  Unless specifically dealing with race, very rarely does the term “white” artist see use, however colored artist are constantly described through racial and ethnic epithets such as Black artist, Asian artist, Latino artist, Muslim artist, etc. We might find an analogy in the world of rap, where it is typically the white rapper that is called-out. Chuck D on the other hand, needs no racial adjective, which suggest that not only is the normative condition that the rapper is black but also and just as important that the art form is the cultural province of the black community. For those requiring racial handles, the form then is an adopted condition. If similar linguistic logic were applied to our art context, it would seem that the colored artist is similarly “differentiated” from the default white condition.  This logic also asserts art to be the domain of white culture, and colored artists as secondary adopters or as makers of forms deviating from the normative. Which begs the question: what is then produced by these “othered” artists? Is it still what we might collectively call contemporary art or is it more accurately South Asian contemporary art or contemporary South Asian art? It is important to think through the subtleties of these labels beyond just taxonomical concerns as they more importantly suggest deviating loci of control in art production and dissemination.

Commercial Break: Who to root for?
Coloring Inside The Lines 04
1986 West German Men’s World Cup Squad; 2014 German Men’s World Cup Squad

The World Cup had always served as a symbolic forum where global politics play out aspirational fantasies. Yes, of course the jogo bonito always comes first, but this was more than just matches and tourney. This is where the third world got its revenge, where the south showed all who was really on top.

It was not only desire but duty for brown people everywhere to cheer against the industrialized and developed (on our backs no less) former colonizers.  At the Mexico ’86 final, brown lips everywhere cheered Maradonna and Burruchaga, and jeered the likes of Schumacher, Matthäus, Völler (mullets and moustaches not their only crimes). We had no cousins in that ‘86 German squad. Argentina’s victory vindicated global inequities. You may have the world’s riches but we had the World Cup!

Of course, much has changed since ‘86, reflecting the changing faces of their nation’s populations (like it or not). Those white Europeans aren’t looking so white, the Dutch gave us Gullit and Rijkaard (both of Surinamese origin) and many more player of colors joined to represent the flags of Europe, and then of course, there was Zinedine Zidane.  Zizou himself, our Algerian son, who not only won the World Cup for France but became her captain. Yes, we cheered for Zizou and for France not only because he was great but also because he was one of our own.  (I acknowledge the problems surrounding colored people in sports, especially when talking about nations that systemically discriminate against their immigrant populations in other arenas, but for now, let’s see it from the perspective of a the fan).

By the 2014 World Cup, our former adversaries… looked more the United Nations then the National Front. Though this time in the final, a rematch of the ’86 final Germany vs Argentina, among the Neurs, Mullers and Schweitzeigers, we found our Ozil (of Turkish origins), Khadira (of Tunisian origins), and Boating (of Ghanaian origin). Germany would take the cup that day. It would seem there is truth in the power of diversity.

And at the coming World Cup? Brothers who shall we root for?

It can only be Argentina ‘cause Messi’s the fucking G.O.A.T!

Always, the jogo bonito…

 

...

As arguably are all artists, the colored artist echoes the basic concerns of their community, in this case, the existential and political struggle of defining their marginalized group’s identity and to legitimize and bring parity to their cultural values against that of the dominant one.  The artist’s work, like the group, exists in constant opposition and confrontation to the hegemony and demands agency in the group’s representations. This typically takes on an admiring or documentary shape, producing not only self-sanctioned representations but also, more importantly, allowing the public access to them (celebrating the marginalized). The colored artist is also at hand to refute and defuse the misrepresentations propagated on their community through the dominant gaze. These may be outright racist, or just misinformed, typically done through appropriating and controlling them. This may also include reflecting on group traumas inflicted in their discrimination (shaming the hegemony). Lastly, the colored artist desires unique cultural and aesthetic forms that markedly do not exist in the dominant culture and one that can be pointed to as their own. This may be based on their communities own existing folk vernaculars, traditions, and cultural rituals (found within their communities neighborhoods or in the case of the immigrant in their homelands), or revisiting formal forms from their real or imagined homelands that typically existed before colonial and imperial suppression and the enforcement of modernism (though one wonders how far we need ot go back to find the authentic). It would not be wrong to consider these as stagnated aesthetics, forms that, due to colonial interventions, were never allowed the space and time to evolve (ethnic formalism).  Though taken with broad strokes, these elements illustrate that the art produced by the “othered” artist does not look like that of the white artist (how could it, different folks, different strokes, curry and bologna).

More importantly though, similar to what has occurred on European national soccer teams, the colored artist struggles for equal representation for themselves and for their communities’ cultural identity in the collective milieu that is contemporary Art and society in general.  Challenging the orthodoxy by exposing the unfamiliar and marginalized, slowly chipping away at the normative white hegemony in contemporary art (how many of our art books are filled up with white people). Yes, we want to be known as 30 Americans and just that, 30 Americans.

Commercial Break: The right suit
Coloring Inside the Lines 05
l-r; Muhammad Ali Jinnah <-> Quaid-e-Azam Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi <->Mahatma Gandhi

Mimicry in colonial and postcolonial critique is most commonly seen when members of a colonized society (say, Indians or Africans) imitate the language, dress, politics or cultural attitude of their colonizers (say, the British or the French). Under colonialism and in the context of immigration, mimicry is seen as an opportunistic pattern of behavior: one copies the person in power because one hopes to have access to that same power oneself. Presumably, while copying the master, one has to intentionally suppress one’s own cultural identity, though in some cases, immigrants and colonial subjects are left so confused by their cultural encounter with a dominant foreign culture that there may not be a clear preexisting identity to suppress.

As servants of the British Raj, we find Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Mohandas Gandhi and Jawarlal Nehru all trained as Barristers at London’s Inns of Court (Nehru and Gandhi at Inner Temple, Jinnah at Lincoln’s Inn because as related by Jinnah, over the main entrance to Lincoln's Inn were the names of the world's great lawgivers, including the Prophet Muhammad) dashing and dapper in Saville Row finery, demonstrating they more than adequately played their parts as lions in and out of the Colonial courts. When it came turn to become the Quaid-e-Azam and Mahatma, the struggle to liberate their people came with it liberation from their Western yokes.


...

In her article “The Overwhelming Whiteness of Black Art“8, Jamilah King observes more and more institutions are featuring the work of black artists” and asks: “When will the audiences reflect it?” Lamenting the fact that most audience members visiting Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, 2014, were white, she describes precedential social patterns (based on economic and racial histories) that explain black exclusion from participation in museums and art.

Though I agree with the observation that attendance of minority communities at Art venues does not correspond to their demographics, I question why we feel we have to make excuses for our communities not attending hegemonic Institutions (have they not learned to be white enough?) Rather, I lay responsibility on the artists themselves (I include myself in this critique). I have to wonder, who’s culture are we vanguards to? If audience profile is to be measured, then arguably, the colored artist acts more the vanguard to white culture than to its own.  Perhaps as colored artists we echo bell hooks’s lament as an academic, the moderator/interpreter that carries the tales of one group to the other, “[There is] no need to hear your voice, when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. No need to hear your voice. Only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own. Re-writing you, I write myself anew. I am still author, authority. I am still [the] colonizer, the speaking subject, and you are now at the center of my talk”.9

What is obligatory then is to focus inward and play the proper role of vanguards within our own communities. How do the strategies and concerns of contemporary Art practice actually engage our, and non-white, communities and their concerns? Institutional frameworks also need to be reconsidered. If the community doesn’t go to the museum, why build one? What art happens in the mosque? In doing so, forfeits engagement with the hegemony negating it as the center of power and shifts the loci into our own communities, affording autonomy, agency and access. I would argue Music plays a better cultural role at doing this (typically legitimatized by its own community before inviting the external ear). Perhaps music is more authentic, more street, more a product of and for the community. Art, a product of the academy, perhaps still carries with it too much of the master’s gate.

Commercial Break: My way or...
Coloring Inside The Lines 06
(l-r) Miniature style painting commissioned during the Mughal Empire (16th-18th), Company style paintings commissioned during the British Raj (18-19th century) – Though both were painted by Indian artist note the influence of Western painting traditions. Independence from the British for India and Pakistan happened in 1947, and Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971.
Coloring Inside The Lines 07
(l-r) Contemporary Pakistani Freight Truck, Contemporary American Freight Truck

 

...

My final thoughts (or rather thought experiment) address these mimetic vestiges and the specter of western supremacy. As an M.F.A. carrying artist, I have been indoctrinated in and internalized Western culture to such an extent it is hard to imagine any other system of logic. But you see dada10 Duchamp wasn’t my grandfather. Duchamp, white, French then Naturalized American, bourgeois. My grandfather, brown, born in India and died in Pakistan (though he never moved), never had indoor or outdoor plumbing let alone urinals to subvert (besides, our traditional toilets are squat). Perhaps to really cleave oneself one has to rewrite the book and imagine what our own modernities might have been, and what forms and conclusions might have been reached. Looking beyond the obvious surface differences of color and adornment, the contrast between the two transport trucks reveals an underlying difference in logic, where the West sees the transport vehicle as efficient and corporate, the other sees it as a space for personal expressions and aspirational excess. One wonders then where the Mughals miniatures would have evolved to if not stagnated and affected by Western forms. Would something altogether different have emerged? Through what forms would our vanguards preach? Would it be something truly foreign and unrecognizable (and not Art), or would it too reach the same conclusions as the West?

All I know is it would be our own.

COda
Coloring Inside The Lines 07

 


Footnotes

1 A Brief History of the OMB Directive 15". American Anthropological Association. 1997. Retrieved 2007-05-18.

2 Delicious in Urdu

3 Handi, Karai, Nhari and Paye are types of food

4 A mildly derogatory term for people or families in Pakistan, or in Pakistani communities abroad that are "culturally-challenged", enamored by things outside of Pakistan, particularly by the West. The word is often used to describe well-to-do Pakistanis who may have American or British-tinged accents after years spent studying or working outside Pakistan or speak only English fluently and are a bit oblivious to native customs and norms surrounding food, music, clothing, celebrations etc. However, being a burger in Pakistan has value, typically from people with wealthier backgrounds who have stronger English-speaking skills, more international exposure and are thus valued higher in the jobs market.

5 Gramsci, Antonio, Selections from the Prision Notebook, Edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Goffrey Nowell Smith,  Lawrence and Wishart: London, U.K. 1971.

6 Josh Keller, Haeyoun Park and Josh Williams.  26 February 2016.  http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/02/26/us/race-of-american-power.html?_r=0

7 The Artworld, according to Arthur Danto, is distributed through a network of institutions (schools, museums, galleries, commercial market systems, and professions), all of which participate in constructing a global, international system or network of networks for Art.
Danto, Arthur. 1964. “The Artworld”. The Journal of Philosophy. 61 (19): 574.

8 Color Lines.  21 May 2014.   http://www.colorlines.com/articles/overwhelming-whiteness-black-art

9 hooks, bell. "Marginality as a Site of Resistance", in R. Ferguson et al. (eds), Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1990: pp. 241-43.

10 dada, a seemingly made up word, is in Romanized Urdu the word for grandfather on your father’s side.