Friday, March 12, 2010
‘Take’ on Black or ‘Black’ on Take
‘Wherever you come from
As long as you are a black man
You are an African
Don’t mind your nationality
You’ve got the identity of an African’
- Song by Peter Tosh (Jamaican Reggae Singer)
‘Simply Black’- the cover page of ‘Take on Art’ magazine screams. For those who don’t have any idea about this magazine, a little backgrounder here: ‘Take on Art’ magazine, founded and edited by Bhavna Kakkar (director of Latitude 28 Gallery, New Delhi), was formally announced on 18th August 2009 and was formally launched in Delhi on 18th February 2010 along with the opening of Latitude 28 Gallery.
As the title tells you, the first issue of Take on Art has a special theme: BLACK.
Black as color, black as politics, black as identity, black as so many other things. The issue is ‘guest’ edited by Shaheen Merali.
Out of the twenty two artists featured six are Indians and two are Pakistanis. Rest fourteen comes from different countries.
I read the magazine, initially from the last page to the first page, then from the first page to last page.
And…I was left confused. The question I posed to myself was this: why did I read all these twenty two articles, which are no better than any catalogue introductions of the artists discussed in them?
Then came the second question: Why should I know all these artists at all, whether they deal with the ‘black issue’ in their works or not?
Third question: With all due respect for all the artists featured and particularly the six of Indian origin, why does this magazine fail to debate the artists who have made their marks in the Indian contemporary art scene?
Fourth question: Does this magazine pose itself as a magazine from India or a magazine that addresses international art in general?
Fifth question: If it is an international magazine, considering its location of publication, shouldn’t it give some sort of consideration to the art of the place?
Sixth question: What is the ‘intention’ of the guest editor, while lining up all these articles?
Shaheen Merali says in his introductory essay: “TAKE provides a much needed articulation in India of these metaphoric dynamisms in developing its contemporary audience and in bringing awareness to passages of criticality within the imagined, the imaginary and in the production of its sites.”
Did you notice the ‘in India’ part? The guest editor does not say ‘of India’.
Hence, at the outset itself, the guest editor tells the reader that ‘look you are a novice to this discourse of ‘black’, which is very ripe elsewhere and I am going to introduce you to the magnificent world of articulating the black.’
Do you agree with this? Do you believe that you have been excluded from the debate of black till date? And suddenly this editor is going to introduce you to this debate? What have our artists been doing all these years? Have they not contributed anything towards this dialogue?
The guest editor tells us about a post-multicultural scenario. And he very skillfully hides what went before the multicultural debate; the actual uprising of black politics across the western world including the US and the Britain.
Black Politics/ the identitarian politics of blackness was the product of 1980s, especially after the Brixton massacre and the several other massacres in Britain. In the US, it had started with the Montgomery bus incident.
W.B.Dubois, Sojourner Truth, Maya Angelou, bell hooks (all in the US), Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Kobena Mercer to David Debosa (in Britain), Franz Fanon (in French Algeria) and so on had already set the tone for the black debate. (I may be wrong in the chronology).
The black music movement from Jazz to Blues to Ska to R and B to Reggae to Rap came along. Track and field sports and games with black power came along. James Brown, Muhammad Ali, Jackson Brothers, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Alfa Blondy, Jimmy Cliff came along. (I am not confused. Muhammad Ali- the boxer is said to have initiated Rap while challenging his opponents in the press conferences). The legacy followed till Tupac Shakur and Biggie to Snoop Dog to 50 Cent to Akon.
In political movement we saw Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Hail Selassy, Patrice Lumumba, Nelson Mandela, Rev.Desmond Tuttu to Barak Obama.
How can we forget Steve Biko, Ben Okri, Chinua Acheba and so on.
What about Spike Lee and the whole lot of Latino film directors including Quentin Tarantino? What about the black movies and blackploitation movies?
By late 1980s the Black Movement was divided. Especially in Britain and the US, the Black people wanted to go on their on to articulate their own views. The Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans and the people from the other commonwealth countries had to look for their own platforms.
So we got artists like Rasheed Araeen, Sunil Gupta and so on, also film makers like Mira Nair, Deepa Mehta and Gurindar Chadda, also writers like Haneef Quraishy and Salman Rushdie.
The division was inevitable and the whole discourse of multiculturalism was a by product of this division between the blacks and the browns.
Shaheen Merali is a product of this division.
But very carefully he hides this rupture and tries to see how ‘black’ is articulated elsewhere. Somewhere, I feel that he thinks that the Indians are completely unaware of the black politics.
Listen to me, my friend. In 70s several Indian artists, who migrated to the west were really charged up by the philosophy of Franz Fanon as articulated in the ‘Wretched of the Earth’.
In the contemporary times we have several artists who articulate the black body, all those bodies that are left out of the mainstream discourse of the white. Shibu Natesan is one of the artists who has consistently worked on the black politics. And he is not found any mention in the magazine.
Savi Savarkar may not be the kind of artist you would like to follow. But he has been articulating the Dalit Body in his works for the last two decades. Savarkar is also not seen anywhere.
Probir Gupta is one artist who has worked on the politics of black.
If black is about oil, then we have Vivan Sundaram and Sumedh Rajendran.
If black is about identity we have Subodh Gupta and Surendran Nair.
If black is about international struggle for equal rights and justice we have T.V.Santhosh and Riyas Komu.
If black is about the local set at par with the global, we have Bose Krishnamachari and Sudhir Patwardhan.
If black is about bodies that are ousted from the mainstream, we have Sonia Khurana, Anita Dube, Rekha Rodwittiya and Pushpamala.
If black is about black humor, then we have Atul Dodiya and Manjunath Kamath.
(To all my friends, I have not forgotten your names. But the space does not allow. But you are all there in this black discourse)
I can count any number of Indian artists in this regard. Why doesn’t our guest editor see all these? Why does he feel that the articulation on black should happen via some other artists with whom we all find it extremely difficult to relate.
I am not being xenophobic. But certain knowledge is not necessary for me. Take on Art’s Simply Black edition does not give me any special knowledge on black discourse.
Reason is this: Shaheen Merali does not understand Indian contemporary art. He does not have any clue.
Merali proved it when he curated the show ‘Everywhere is War’. He went by the opinion of the so called ‘elites’ in Indian contemporary art. The only ‘black rookie’ in the show was Prasad Raghavan.
Don’t preach us/me on black politics.
Shaheen Merali may be a jet setting curator with no space in the calendar for small little activities like knowing any art scene in detail. Shaheen’s Indian origin does not give him any ‘natural right’ on Indian contemporary art. He simply does not know anything about Indian contemporary art.
Hence, my request to Shaheen Merali is this- before you take up any assignment like editing a magazine like ‘Take on Art’, take a year long sabbatical from your busy life, come to India, study well.
Start with Anand Coomaraswami, Sivaramamurti, Tagores, K.G.Subramanyan, Prof.Ratan Parimoo, Geeta Kapur, Partha Mitter, Tapati Guha Takurta, R.Sivakumar, Ranjit Hoskote, Nancy Adajania, JohnyML and so on. Read them carefully. Visit thousands of artists’ studios spread across the country. Learn directly from the artist’s lives.
Then tell us about what you think about Black in India. Till then you simply does not make any sense.
India is slowly learning to identify with the international black. The major indication is in the latest movie, ‘My Name is Khan’. Popular narratives tell how a populace thinks or wants to think.
So, Shaheen, we are blacks. Thanks to Macaulay’s conspiracy, a majority still thinks that we are ‘white’. But the creative majority does not think so. We are blacks.
We are all Africans, if we go by Peter Tosh.
About the second half of the magazine, ‘taken care of’ by Bhavna herself- it is good. With Baiju Parthan’s call for ‘Low Brow Art’ (Baiju himself has to think about it), Pushpamala’s take on the public sculptures and a few reviews, it looks good. I have a column there. Read it for yourself. Suruchi Khubchandani’s stock taking is interesting. I felt it like holding a bucket of popcorn and watching a horror movie (a la Mr.Bean).
Before closing, let me recount two small stories:
Malcolm X’s autobiography jointly authored by Malcolm X and Alex Haley relates a story how MX comes across the connotations of the word ‘black’ when he refers to the English dictionary while undergoing a jail term as a street drug peddler. He comes to know black is everything against opposite to white. Black is all dirty. It wakes him up into political awareness.
Spike Lee, when he adopted this book to a bio-pic on Malcolm X, had given emphasis on this anecdote. Denzel Washington gave an amazing performance as Malcolm X.
Story two: Student learnt all about coconut tree by heart, thinking coconut tree would be the topic for examination. But the question in the exam paper was to write about elephant. It did not challenge him. He wrote: “First of all bring an elephant and tie it to a coconut tree. Coconut tree is a tall tree, which gives us coconut and blah blah….”
Take on Art’s Simply Black issue reminds me of this story.