Between the 19th century, which marked the upsurge of nationalist passions, and the post-colonial world of the 21st, the accepted parameters of the term ‘homeland’ and other received allegiances have been continually reassessed and redefined. In presenting the British Council’s collection for an exhibition named Homelands for Indian viewers in four Indian cities, curator Latika Gupta probably kept in mind a debated concern of our age of fragile maps, shifting loyalties and diasporic communities. A concern that’s as crucial for individuals as it is critical in its international implications.
Seen recently at the Harrington Street Arts Centre, the show’s draw would have been some known — even celebrated — names, including seniors like David Hockney and Susan Hiller, the younger Patrick Brill (aka Bob and Roberta Smith) and Cornelia Parker and those of Asian origin like Mona Hatoum and Haroon Mirza. But its real strength lay in provoking a rethink on how fluid and fraught identity categories like homeland, language, religion and race are.
In a way, Palestinian-British Mona Hatoum’s + and – could have been deemed a theme piece for the show, positing the paradox of the immigrant’s experience. The work bore the disarming simplicity of her signature with a pair of blades, one serrated and one smooth, rotating on a bed of sand. While one imprinted grooves on the surface, the other deleted them. The contradictory needs to assert one’s identity and, at the same time, seek prudent anonymity to belong in the adopted land could hardly have been suggested more starkly.
Lisa Cheung wasn’t as tacit in I Want to be More Chinese which alluded to a racist attitude to Mongoloid physiognomy in an environment dominated by Caucasian concepts that Indians aren’t immune to either. Much like taking up the white word, black, in the slogan, Black is beautiful. However, by reacting to toxic putdowns, the artist’s righteous defiance inadvertently gives in to a dialogue with those who don’t deserve a response. Besides, it implies that the ones who’ve left their birth place can’t afford the easy nonchalance of native residents towards their roots, while strident nationalism in the latter would immediately be taken for rabid right-wing affiliations.
Religion and language surfaced in the work of several artists as the stubborn, though troubling, adhesive of one’s identity. Martin Parr’s monochrome photographs, tellingly deadpan, echoes the WASP ethos of small-town Britain, with its church and tea rituals. Nathan Coley’s hardboard copy of Bayrakli Mosque, Belgrade, premised the psychological dominance of places of worship over communities. Thus the strategy of conquerors/rulers to undermine resistance calls for their destruction or conversion to the latter’s faith. This mosque, for example, was turned into a church during Austrian rule.
Interestingly, Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell look at the ground plans of four famed mosques to “explore,” says the exhibition note, “the role of architectural spaces on human behaviour”. Whether or not there’s an invariable correlation between the two, it could be that austerity of décor and prayer services as well as the mandatory hall or courtyard for congregations instil a fervour for both faith and ummah, allowing few diversions.
While all religions promise a hereafter, Hiller’s depiction of phrases from endangered or extinct languages as nervous oscilloscope waves that bring heartbeat graphs to mind pronounced all human constructs like language and culture transient, ultimately doomed. The dark alcove, where voices spoke in these dying or dead tongues as their English translation appeared on a black screen, wrapped the viewer in a strange pall to suggest the inevitable eclipse of everything in Time.
Yet, the physical place — a town, a country or one’s home — with its intimate weave of sights, sounds, smells and symbols acquire the imprint of character. This is seen in the elegant economy of Raymond Moore’s photographs; Haroon Mirza’s boisterous, playful mixed media installation evoking a bit of Pakistan; Anthony Haughey’s glimpse of a Dublin Catholic home; Paul Graham’s portrayal of the deceptive calm of Belfast; and Tim Heatherington’s conversational lens that dwells on the colourful Creole architecture of Sierra Leone. But the subversive smirk of Cornelia Parker and the cold appraisal in Anthony Lam’s frames do upturn cherished symbols of British life and its status as the enlightened refuge of dissenters. Because, as Jimmie Durham’s print shows, “our house” must have high fences to keep “the neighbours” at bay.
But then, what is the homeland of the homeless, whose belongings are stuffed into the convenient recesses of London’s regal Victorian buildings in Angus Boulton’s photographs, if not a cold street corner?