Beyond Frontiers: Contemporary British Art by Artists of South Asian Descent | Introduction
Introduction to Beyond Frontiers: Contemporary British Art by Artists of South Asian Descent by the volume editors, Juginder Lamba and Amal Ghosh
Beyond Frontiers marks the first-ever attempt to survey the work of contemporary British artists whose ancestral roots lie in the cultures and countries of South Asia (India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka). It aims to unfold some of the complexities, contradictions and potentials that have emerged from a centuries-old intertwining of East and West and, in so doing, to unsettle, once and for all, pat assumptions about the meaning and significance of ethnic origin to artists’ contribution to contemporary culture and experience.
The ‘passage to England’ has many trajectories, none of which is acknowledged by prevailing, simplistic notions of the relationship of British South Asians to their ancestral cultures and which fail to address the meaning and implications of long sojourns in East Africa, for example, or familial migration via the Americas. To deny British South Asians the complexity of their histories is also to deny them the complexity of their lived experience. This book is a contribution to turning the tide, to countering that denial. With its heady mix of texts, illustrations and specially commissioned art works, its project is to elude definition, encouraging a view of South Asianness that is open-ended, fluid and constantly changing in response to the conditions of contemporary life and culture.
The work and lives of all of the artists featured here are informed by a relationship with the subcontinent, even if that relationship is filtered through generations of exile. For some, the subcontinent remains present and immediate — as first-generation immigrants for whom close family ties remain and whose early years and possibly their young adulthood were spent there. For others, it exists as a barely perceptible trace: as Sehnaz Hanslot says to Sutapa Biswas, ‘I am as familiar with India as is any white person living in England who has not been there.’
Some memorable and seminal art of the past two decades has emerged from black artists’ explorations of the nature and meaning of identity. Yet we now see that such explorations have exacted their own price: the constantly shifting, edgy redefinition of self that has constituted the strength of much black art becomes absorbed by the mainstream, the discourses of difference are inexorably commodified and, yet again, ‘the other’ is attended to only provided s/he speaks in the officially sanctioned language of the other. It is small wonder, then, that any form of allusion to racial identity is now considered potentially counterproductive to black artists’ struggle to be heard on their own terms, to be able to speak about the world in as many voices and as many forms as their white counterparts. Yet this book argues that to deny the rich mix of cultures that informs contemporary Britain is to deny perhaps our most fertile potential to speak, through art, about our contemporary world. British South Asian artists who, by choice or otherwise, look, Janus-like, to both East and West are particularly interestingly placed to shed light upon contemporary experience, so much of which remains predicated upon the legacies of colonialism.
From these legacies have emerged both meta- and personal-political discourses which are crucial to the way we see the world now and to our understanding and shaping of British and European society. Also inherent within them are possibilities for cross-cultural influence from which artists in the West have long since benefited and to which artists in the East have long since been subjected. This is a process which, even now, continues to be distorted by inequality: white artists who borrow from the East join a culturally ‘respectable’ tradition of the avant-garde; for artists of the South Asian diaspora to draw upon the art and traditions of their ancestral cultures is to reinforce their otherness in ways that affect their exclusion from the mainstream discourses of art.
Being an artist and South Asian, with all the infinite variety of possibilities implied by that conjuncture, merits celebration and examination, not least because of the extent to which it has prompted some of the most innovative and challenging art being produced in Britain now. Of equal importance is the opportunity such an examination offers to draw attention to the work of artists whose achievements do not shine easily in a culture where the new is prized above all. For painters and sculptors working with ‘traditional’ materials, and who choose overtly to bring aspects of the traditions and philosophies of their ancestral cultures to bear upon their contemporary experience, the very nature of their practices can be tantamount to a kind of professional suicide.
Beyond Frontiers stems from the belief that in Britain’s cultural diversity lie burgeoning possibilities for a reconfigured ‘mainstream,’ one in which those who are able to speak in many tongues and from multiple perspectives occupy the centre, not the periphery, where the multiplicity of discourses that constitute our contemporary culture are seen to develop transnationally and transracially and by means of which the binary oppositions of the very concepts, mainstream and margin, centre and periphery are challenged. The artists in this book exemplify that potential.
As a book about art, Beyond Frontiers aims to introduce the reader to some of the influential political, art historical and theoretical discourses surrounding contemporary visual arts practice, and especially the practices of many British South Asian artists. Eight essays by distinguished critics, art historians, theoreticians and artists themselves, range widely in the subjects they address. Sometimes, they contest each other’s territories in seemingly conflicting and contradictory ways: there are, after all, as many opinions and positions, here, as there are individual artists and writers. Always, albeit sometimes laterally — through Partha Mitter’s discussion of art and nationalism in the subcontinent, for example, or Ian Rashid’s consideration of contemporary South Asian film-makers -— they shed light on the situation and implications of being an artist and South Asian in Britain today.
We wish warmly to thank everyone who has contributed texts and images to Beyond Frontiers, all of whom have been unstintingly generous of their time and advice during the course of its development. In addition, we thank Rosie Gunraj, who has complied the first ever substantial bibliography focusing on South Asian artists in Britain and which provides an invaluable reference guide to the subject. Many other individuals have helped and supported us at various stages and to whom we are also extremely grateful. They include the Arts Council of England, Paul Bonaventura, Eddie Chambers, The Gulbenkian Foundation, Deirdre Figueiredo of Leicester Museums and Art Gallery, Caroline Foxhall of West Midlands Arts, Manick Govinda of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Lesley Lancaster, Sheila MacGregor, Sarat Maharaj, Diva Patel of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Michael Perraudin, Bob Ramdhani, Dipak Shelat of the Institute of Asian Business, Rachel Sherratt, Edward Woodman, John Picton, Sureshi Modi and Sajid Rizvi, without whose faith and trust this publication would not have been possible. Finally, our special thanks to Antonia Payne, who worked as our co-editor on development of the book and whose critical overview and meticulous attention to detail have been seminal to the book’s realisation.
Beyond Frontiers has been financially assisted by the Arts Council of England, West Midlands Arts, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the Foundation for Sports and Arts and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.
Amal Ghosh and Juginder Lamba