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The Problem with Diaspora Art 2


In Autumn 2018, I wrote an essay called The Problem with Diaspora Art. It was an attempt to articulate a set of thoughts that had been banging around in the spare room of my mind for a few years, and I really felt like if I didn’t set them loose, they would eat me. I rushed this essay out: it was barely planned, I didn’t know what I thought (exactly), how I was going to say it or even WHY I wanted to say it in the first place. I just felt this frustration: no one had written about this in a contemporary way — not in the way I thought it should be written about. In the years since 2018, this text has annoyed me. I was right, partly — but the annoying bits were the bits I got wrong. I don’t regret writing it, I see it as a trigger or a set of starting blocks. It set me off on an arc of writing about the way institutions interact with artists of colour and the wider politic of those interactions. I just regret writing it in the way that I did. I wish I had been kinder, fairer, but also more ruthless. I wish I had been more precise and authoritative. I feel like I pulled punches when I should have just said things with my chest and been brave enough to let this text land badly. But I also have love and generosity for the writer I was five years ago (she was doing her best!) and part of that generosity could be to clean up my feelings towards this text. I like having a second run up at something I’ve already had a stab at. I often feel jealous of dancers: they get to do a run through, take a step back and assess what they did well and what they could improve, and then they get to say ‘ok, now let’s do it again’. I wish writers got to do that! — But they do! I can do whatever I like!!! So, second time lucky. This is The Actual Problem with Diaspora Art.

Sometimes, criticism is about drawing a circle around a thing. Maybe part of a critic’s role is to define things for the Culture, so the Culture has a starting point and a baseline. Standardisation is important, because it allows us to speak to each other using the same terms. It affords us precision and clarity. Critics should be precise. They — we — should be direct in what we are saying and who we are saying it to. I don’t trust that everyone will read this text in the way I want it to be read. Some conversations should be specific, protected.

So, specifics. Read this text as a kind of historical overview. I am not writing on the scale of individual artists or practices. I am writing about movements, trends, wider moods. It can be uncomfortable to think about ourselves as part of wider movements because that is not how we experience the world around us, that is not how we experience time. But that is the way we experience culture. Culture is built collectively, enacted collectively. It is about collective mutual agreement. So when I draw my circle, I’m doing that with a blunt tool.

Have you heard of Diaspora Art?

Image description: a graphic illustration of a bengal tiger holding a glass bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin. The tiger has got long fluttery eyelashes and a bindi. It is wearing dark sunglasses perched on the end of its little snout nose. There are 6 tiger arms coming out the back of its tiger body. The figure of the tiger is surrounded by disembodied eyes, floating through the surrounding negative space like pollen in the breeze.

Image description: a clean product shot of a red birkin bag, made from some ceramic material. It has the words BOLLYWOOD BOI written in caps across its flat front and the letters are painted to look like they have been spelled out in sequins.

Image description: a drawing in the style of a Mughal miniature, in neon colours. Three women in salwar kameez are holding little embroidered clutch bags. The focus of the image is their feet. They are wearing socks and sandals.

Image description: a handmade clay ashtray painted to look like a pack of Marlboro reds. Except there is an enormous red chilli where the logo should be and instead of MARLBORO across the packet, it reads MIRCHI! HOT HOT HOT!

Image description: a clean install style shot. In the corner of a white walled gallery, a massive inflatable sculpture of a red plastic lota. A lota is a little jug that South Asians keep by the toilet to wash their bums after doing a shit. Written across its front: SHIT HAPPENS. The inflatable sculpture towers tall, skimming the ceiling. The artist is in the frame, for scale, wearing a sparkly red backless dress and kitten heels. She is embracing the inflatable lota with her eyes closed.

Diaspora Art is defined by the identity of its maker. I’m referring to Diaspora Art as something that comes out of the South Asian diaspora, but it’s really just an approach to making art in relation to identity. In that sense, it can be anything or be in relation to anything that makes up an artist’s identity. The maker’s identity is handled as an object to deploy within the work. Identity isn’t the only component— it is treated as something that circulates or interacts with other devices — but it is the main component. It can be boiled down to a prescriptive formula: presence + morale = representation. In practice, this formula takes something that is recognisably South Asian (and culturally loaded because of that visible recognition) and repurposes it as an artwork in and of itself. This repurposing isn’t an act of artistic appropriation or transformation of readymades, and these recognisable things aren’t explicitly limited to images or objects. It’s looser. Sometimes it’s just a Vibe. Whatever vague thing it is, the repurposing acts at a purely surface level. It’s like something is just shoved into a new context without the recognition or consideration of what a new context brings. The thing is transferred rather than transformed or conditioned. This shove amounts to the transfer of morale, completing that formula and repurposing the thing as an artwork without ever giving it the critical conditioning that an artwork requires.

Enacting this formula amounts to a naivety. The outcome is: work that’s a representative object rather than an art-object. Representational objects act as stand-ins for other things. They don’t act as artworks themselves. They are a proxy, one step removed from an attempt at being an artwork.

Theorists (God knows who, I cannot remember) say that criticism finishes an artwork, that it is the final step in the act of making. But Diaspora Art is characterised by a lack of criticality. This is a vague sentence but it works whichever way you take it to mean. There is little to no external formal criticism, in the form of art criticism. There is little in the way of valuable peer-to-peer feedback, because the transfer of morale involves naming a feeling: ‘it’s important that this exists!’ Celebrating this existence (or presence) is the extent of the social feedback that Diaspora Art gets. With a lack of external or social feedback, even criticality at the level of an artist’s own internal self-reflection is capped. As a result, Diaspora Art exists within what is functionally a critical vacuum.

Protective strategies for making are well established and widely applied, but this critical lack is not well organised enough to constitute a strategy. Critique is also not really something that can or should be done away with entirely. It serves an identifiable purpose in the process of making, building a robustness into the artist’s understanding of the work, or into the work itself. Outside this process of making, critique provides direction and context for an artwork. Artworks need direction and context because we understand them both as individual things, but also as networked things. Without a contextual network, Diaspora Art is effectively diminished to a state of inertia. This critical lack is actually damaging. Focused critique cannot loop the art form in to assemble a history or context around it. Outside of context or history (or unable to reckon with its context or history), Diaspora Art makes itself an exception and untethers itself from anything that could possibly give it meaning. I mean, meaning is relational! I don’t mean literal interpretive meaning, like ‘this means this, this symbolises this’. I’m referring to something similar to value or worth, substance, aura that makes art, art. Something about the soul of the thing is missing.

In my original essay, I wrote about how Diaspora Art capitulates to the white gaze. I don’t think that was quite it. I don’t think the point is about capitulating to the white gaze, or even about art forms that hold whiteness at their centre. The default global understanding of an art audience is one that is white, European, middle class and/or wealthy. Art that speaks specifically beyond that is in the minority, regardless of where that beyond is. People with phds and good intentions might write papers about how that should be challenged, expanded or deconstructed, but that doesn’t stop it from being an actual reality. Until we decolonise the entire world, it’s just kind of a fact that all artists have to contend with when making something. With Diaspora Art, this white centre is invisible and at odds with the art form’s own mythology. This mythology wrinkles because Diaspora Art is an art form that is searching for an Authentic or Essential Asian-ness. This Authentic or Essential just doesn’t or cannot exist. It’s a boring point, but for the sake of clarity: there’s no universal Asian-ness because Asia is not a monolith, South Asia is still reckoning with the fallout that comes with being a post-colonial entity. This search for an Essential or Authentic either fails or it ends up tiptoeing into replicating the aesthetics of fascism (a more dangerous kind of failure).

I wonder if Diaspora Art holds a desire to be in a vacuum where whiteness is a threat but not a presence, not a part of the audience. The complicity of Diaspora Art’s audience is assumed so completely that it’s never even actually demanded. It just gets factored in as an unspoken desire. The work, therefore doesn’t need to ever contend with gaps in understanding or translation, hostility or even ambivalence. It presents itself before every audience member like they are a perfect replica of the artist themselves: always present, willing and generous. In my original essay, I pointed at that assumed perfect audience as proof of didacticism. I think I was using a shorthand; didactic was a pejorative, taken to mean ‘the kind of work that speaks in monotone instruction, prescribing how it wants to be read’. But I think the didactic is more exciting and unstable than that! I think Diaspora Art’s assumption about having a perfect audience is actually just a naivety. It’s a naivety and also a failure. A fundamental part of making something is building in the terms of its own display and exchange. Diaspora Art never gets to that bit because the fiction of its imagined perfect audience means it never has to. It misses a fundamental step in the process. As a result, its cuts off any potential for it to exist or work on any other plane of understanding, beyond just the fact of its own presence.

Diaspora Art exists outside of the art world’s formal pipeline: the Academy (art school), the Institution, the Museum. In my original essay, I wrote about how Diaspora Art functions as a kind of outsider art: off the grid of that structural understanding, but not quite happy to swim through the soup of rudderless chaos that being outside of the formal pipeline provides. In this institution-less state, Diaspora Art scenes gravitate towards brands to compensate. They need something institutional to orbit, to seek some kind of external structure or to figure out a system of creating and assigning their own version of value. I think I was right (in a way), but too tied to the moment I was writing in to consider the trajectory of the scene at the level of trend, mood or culture.

Five years on from my original essay, I’m aware that Diaspora Art has changed. Every time I think it has died, I see something that qualifies as Diaspora Art if I define it by its approach rather than its aesthetic. Maybe it has also moved on as an approach that’s more characteristic of other spaces, beyond the visual arts. Maybe Diaspora artists are not artists in the art world any more. Maybe they are musicians and DJs, maybe their activity looks like Asian club nights, maybe the conversation is about Punjabi garage, Daytimers etc, YungSingh rather than HateCopy — you see? Culture is slippery like that, I guess. Every time you move to pin it down, it shifts and changes. As a critic, I guess that’s good for business. It keeps me occupied. But if the approach remains the same, the category still applies.

Diaspora Art doesn’t just exist in the orbit of brands and corporate aesthetics. Some Diaspora Art gets folded into the trajectory of design or illustration, vocational creative fields that can facilitate the brand-institutional orbit. I think (personally) that that’s quite good. Diaspora Art makes sense as a kind of design or as a kind of illustration. It sits within those strands quite comfortably and it means that artists get money, stability, a recognisable position within the creative field. There is also a kind of Diaspora Art that gets funnelled into the art world’s formal pipeline, via the institution. It skips the first two steps (Academy, Institution) along the way, and just speeds straight to big galleries and museums.

It looks like this: short term interactions, mostly within the realm of public program, education or events. It’s workshops, talks, smaller exhibition opportunities as side shows in the project space or the test space where more ‘radical’ or ‘experimental’ activity happens. It’s typically the activity that runs on a smaller budget than the main exhibition program, sometimes in service of the main exhibition program, as additional or supplementary programming. But artists are in and out. There’s little to no support or investment for their practice.

It’s like an institutional booty call, a one night stand rather than a meaningful relationship. Not to be an old traditionalist, but where’s the romance in that!? Also, aren’t there hard feelings when things are so one-sided? The institution is spared the unfolding cost of sustaining a relationship with a maker long term, even though doing so could achieve something more meaningful. But institutions aren’t looking for meaning in these fleeting interactions, they’re looking for rapid turnover. Keeping this activity in the realm of public program, education or events is beneficial. It’s more public facing and therefore more visible, keeping them relevant with a more progressively minded arts audience, and in the good books of funders with government diversity quotas to fill. It also allows them to collapse their outreach/engagement efforts into public programming by targeting events at ‘hard to reach audiences’. This collapse means they get two departments for the price of one, and they never really have to invest major efforts into nurturing relationships or introductions to these ‘hard to reach audiences’. If I’m allowed to be cynical, it’s also much easier to manage expectations or predict outcomes by keeping interactions and activity on a short sharp turnover. This short term cycle means that most activity represents a point of beginning, because it never involves maintaining relationships, only forging them anew. It works in an institution’s interests! It cuts off the potential for outcomes to develop to a point where collaborators might turn back and ask things of the institution - resources, support, care, change. It neutralises a potential external threat because activity should always be brought inside the tent to piss out.

I am also aware that since 2018, institutions have made promises and proposals about how they’re going to make themselves less structurally racist. These promises have come out basically under duress - public shame is powerful, but there have also been internal demands from their own staff members (who are aware that they could be going about things better, but are unable to change the wider structure of their workplace because of various and innumerable bureaucracies). Diaspora Art gets folded in where it overlaps: as a form of art-making that deploys the maker’s identity as the primary object of attention, as an art form that has fleeting and one-sided interactions with institutions who might cynically instrumentalise it. For the sake of this text’s posterity, I don’t really want to make a point about whether these institutions are capable of making good on their promises and proposals. Maybe one day, they will or they won’t — all I should say is inshallah.

I think the only way to square our understanding of Diaspora Art’s relationship with institutions is by asking wider questions about all of our relationships with institutions, by thinking about labour (relations, conditions, etc). In 2018 I wrote that we (I never defined the we) should unionise. I think that was sweet but naive. It’s not that I disagree, I just think I didn’t quite understand what that could or should mean. It is easy to write about building a new art world, harder to build it. The thing about unions is: they’re there to negotiate with the boss on behalf of the workers. They want better conditions as an outcome, not an idea. While me and my ego might want for the destruction of these institutions (I’d come in riding the wrecking ball like Miley Cyrus), the world continues on with little regard for that particular desire. If there’s one lesson I have learned from being in my 20s during the 2020s, it’s that material conditions win out every time. The power is in the slow friction, the war of attrition, the power is in prioritising outcome over discussion. That feels like a funny thing for a critic to say. But there’s not much point in words as gestures. There is beauty in practicality. We should all just get on and do things. We should all just come out with it and ask for things! Union, new art world, call it what you want. Maybe then, we wouldn’t have to chat about how shit things are all the time.

I ended my 2018 essay by thinking about the neoliberalism of the South Asian diaspora’s wider political project. Diaspora Art was a kind of bloody idol to the false god of neoliberal diversity and inclusion work. Maybe, instead, it is a canary down a mineshaft. Maybe Diaspora Art is the sharp edge of some political point that we all taper into eventually, a sliding scale on a deranged game show called ‘HOW NEOLIBERAL ARE YOU WILLING TO GO!?’ Maybe it is an emblem of how institutions would treat us all if we were naive or isolated enough. The gig economy, rapid thoughtless movement, the totalitarian farce of late stage capitalism, a boot stamping on a human face for ever for ever for ever! Maybe we’d be better off thinking about Diaspora Art as a symptom rather than a cause.

Read the original 2018 text, the Problem with Diaspora Art but don’t judge me! or do, idc. love you! & if you got this far, leave a MANGO! 🥭 emoji on the ig post/in reply to the tweet :)