Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Bharti Kher: In her own language: Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery.

Bharti Kher’s work is a definite low point of the Perth International Arts Festival. The reason for this is that the work is simplistic, and problematic. Kher is obviously a contemporary artist, who speaks the language of international contemporary art. Yet she has appropriated languages and used her own ancestry as an Indian woman to create these works – and this is at the heart of their problematic. Their failings seem to be in the very title of the show – that it is purportedly ‘in her own language’ yet that in fact, the work is anything but. Kher, in the Sydney Bienalle this year as well, is symptomatic of tokenistic inclusions in international arts festivals, where international artists, trained in western contemporary art schools, are representative of positive hybridisation. The simplest symbolic quotients of Indian womanhood – the bindi and the sari, are everywhere. Yet there is nothing of the lightness of the garment or the spiritual of the circle left in them, they are returned to dull objects, used for visual effect alone. The single strongest work in the show is the small bronze bowl filled with rice, each grain inscribed with words from the classifieds section, apparently adverts for wives. This fascinating work is written quite literally in another language – in Hindu, and its unreadability is crucial to its carving back a space for itself. It is, unlike the other works, something powerful but delicate, not ostentatious and simplistic.


Kher’s Saatchi gallery profile ends with the comment that Kher is ‘challeng[ing] cultural and social taboos in India’ and that ‘With [another work using the bindi as a central motif], the artist is signaling a need for social change and challenging the role of the women entrenched in tradition, whilst also commenting on the commoditization of the bindi as a fashion accessory.’ The ambiguity of this ‘commenting upon’ is at the heart of the problems of the work. Kher is not passing any sort of ‘comment’ upon the commodification of Bindis, but simply re-performing it, playing the part of cultural exoticism. The social change that Kher is advocating is, I am sure, made with noble intentions against the oppression of women, yet there is here only the transformation of the traditional woman into an object – a process best exemplified by the sari works, where the sari quite literally (as stated in the wall vinyls) ‘stand in’ for the women who were there. It is the transformation of the idea of a ‘traditional’ woman into a commodity, into a sign of traditionalism, and not in any way actually ‘challenging’ their role - simply hollowing it out. Kher’s Saatchi profile states that she is ‘Likening herself to the well intentioned ethnographer investigating her culture’, and it is hardly any surprise that it does not end well.

This post has attracted some criticism, in particular criticism regarding my background and position in critiquing Kher on these matters. Although I have not been given permission to republish the criticisms, my responses I have copied below. The original discussion can be found on the Facebook page. The article is a problematic one, and although I wish I could revoke it and write a more considered approach to the work, I will leave it, and my responses, as an testament to the difficulty of thinking through issues of culture and difference.

1.I thought this may be a problematic piece, but I really wanted to post it, because I do perceive something frustrating in Kher's show. I was trying to argue for there being NO such thing as positive hybridisation under the regime of global capital, which this show seemed to be a proponent of and (frankly) propaganda for. I am sorry if my critique of Kher was not clearer in outlining this, but the main element that I wanted to question was the transformation of living tradition into fetishised object. I can attack the ability of someone, even from that same culture, to do something like that. It is not based on nothing, and not based on my privilege, but on reading the catalogue, the wall text, and the art. As to my ability to call out cultural appropriation (your main point, and an ironic position for me indeed, this is true) that is used to fuel this regime: it is perhaps wrong of me to do so, especially as I based it on my (very limited) knowledge of Bharti's life, through her biography, and her Saatchi profile. This is not conclusive, and is flimsy as a point for me to argue, it is true, and I concede it is problematic for me to draw them in as points of reference. However, I based most of it on her art's form and media, and its absence of content: implicit, and from the vapid wall text to the empty catalogue essays. These, to me, are the hallmarks of taking and emptying out; of appropriating. Having said that, I may still be wrong, and it is an indication of this that I agree with your criticisms. one day I may read this and be ashamed I ever thought it, but I am still convinced that there is something fishy about this show.

(some repeats in no.2 as no.1 was in response to a private message)

2.The implication I hoped for was that no 'positive hybridisation' could be reached under the auspices of global capital that this show appears, at least to me, as something of a harbinger for. The problematic remains within the art, its form and material use, and absence of content (from not only itself, but the essays, catalogues and wall text accompanying the show). Is it inappropriate for me to claim that someone is using their cultural roots as an exoticism? someone in Kher's position may have to switch codes, but I have no doubt she also has a better understanding of an international art market, and her audience, than any of us. I spurn the idea Kher is in any position of disadvantage due to this 'switching codes'. What Kher would require is simple: a purpose to be doing these things (perhaps even referred to somewhere, in any form, as opposed to hyperbole and what appears to be glorified marketing in the essays and catalogues) and the very doing and making of these things to involve some more consideration or sensitivity to form and materials.

3.I am glad it is making you think, I am still thinking too, and writing responses. However, this comment is one I think I do have an answer for. It may double up on my eventual responses elsewhere, but it is perhaps worth posting here. At a certain point it is no longer worth defending quick quips, and this is one of these times. There are problems with my article, it is insensitive and crass – admittedly just as it was meant to be, but none-the-less offensive. The lines about the show not being in Kher’s ‘own language’ were not critically robust, but an attempt to play off the exhibition title. Mostly my accusations of cultural appropriation are innapropriate, as Kher does have a stake in her own culture, however much like an ‘ethnographer’ she may admit to being. BUT, without edging gingerly around the exterior of the issue, what is it about Bharti Kher, and other artists that use what is ostensibly their own cultural heritage in a similar way, such as Monir Shahroudi Farmanfarmaian, that stir my discomfort? For although it may not be cultural appropriation, the point of my article should have been to point to the similarity of the processes that cultural appropriation, and this use of culture produces. It is not a process based on any assumption, at least I believe so, but observation: that these objects are transforming traditional garb, traditional forms, into commodities, and in the process, emptying them out. There are of course positive instances of traditional methods and techniques being used in a contemporary art setting, even in a global capitalist setting, I would even point to Fremantle arts centre ‘new Indian textiles’ as a show that moved around western influence in a playful and political way. I don't think it has the same aspirations as Kher's work, but it is also much more successful in those it does have. I feel one symptomatic element In Kher’s show is that moment when the wall text state that the sari’s ‘stand in’ for the women, as opposed to being worn and lived in, they are fixed in resin, no longer are they thought of, or considered, as the cloth of Zamthingla Ruiva's 'Luingamla Keshan' is considered, political, and powerful - and a powerful use of tradition. They have become objects of appreciation and value, and seem to do little else. Of course Kher has a right to use her culture in whatever manner she chooses. It was wrong of me to accuse her of something like cultural appropriation, but I would still like to accuse her. I suppose it is worth taking stock of what seems to be consistently an issue here: namely my own privilege and possible prejudices as a white man. It causes many of the problems surrounding this discussion. That I do not, as a white man, have the place to call cultural appropriation on Kher or Farmanfarmaian. And I do not, it is true. However, it also makes no sense to be silent in the face of an observation, and so I will ask: if it is not cultural appropriation, what is it – if it is the use of a culture that is theirs? Is there no problem at all? Am I wrong in thinking that their work is problematic – that it in fact does not engage with cultural history simplistically? That it empties things of their significance and repurposes it towards the commercial appeal of art? Of course, one could simply sidestep the whole issue, and tentatively walk about it, but this is no way to go about criticism and the thinking through of art. The issue that is specifically at stake in Kher and Farmafarrain is their use of their cultural heritage. It is the central content of their work. To avoid it would be to avoid their central motif. 

4. sorry, that wasn't in reference to Abdul Abdullah's work. I have not yet thought that through.

5.I do think that there is something to do with simplicity. I was reading an interview, not with Kher, but Farmanfarmaian, and she was asked: 'Did you want these works to move people spiritually, as a way to recall or re-express the experience you had at Shiraz?

MF: I don't really believe in these things. I just loved what I saw and tried to copy it and make it something more modern, maybe more flexible and transportable. I try to do something new all the time.'

6.and I don't think any critique of mine could be better

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