Beyond Frontiers | Here and Now 2 • Juginder Lamba in Conversation
Beyond Frontiers: Contemporary British Art by Artists of South Asian Descent, published 2001, was a ground-breaking event for many British artists of South Asian descent whose work, until then, had gone unrecognised. During the development of the original drafts into the book, the original contents were thoroughly revised and amplified. Among the new elements included in the final publication were interviews conducted by Sajid Rizvi, Commissioning Editor for the book and Editor, Saffron Asian Art and Society Series, with the artists Juginder Lamba and Amal Ghosh, who had undertaken to co-edit the early drafts of Beyond Frontiers. In subsequent issues of Eastern Art Report, articles on and interviews with other artist contributors followed. Below is the interview with Juginder Lamba, conducted in 2001 prior to the publication of Beyond Frontiers and reproduced from the book.
SAJID RIZVI. Beyond Frontiers is the final outcome of the South Asian Visual Arts Festival, which you organised. The festival itself came after The Other Story, the Hayward Gallery exhibition that was at the centre of much controversy in the late 1980s. Were there any resonance’s that could be traced back to The Other Story?
JUGINDER LAMBA. The South Asian Visual Art Festival worked on a different principle from the rationale that went into The Other Story. The ideas behind that exhibition had much to do with postcoloniality and a certain view of the function of artists—black artists—and the labelling of black artists. You could not be called a proper black artist unless you, and your work, operated within this framework, with all the attendant political agenda. The issues and ideas behind The Other Story were essentially confrontational and, perhaps, this was an inevitable and necessary step towards the road to recognising and emancipating artists with ancestral roots outside Europe. Undoubtedly, The Other Story was a landmark show, not so much for its content, but because it was the first show of its kind. The resultant controversy put some of the issues it dealt with on the agenda of the Arts Council, regional arts boards, and municipal galleries. While some artists undoubtedly benefited, others, with an absent or less obvious political stance, suffered further marginalisation. The art became less important than the politics, and the louder you shouted the more success you had with the programmers and the funders. Clearly, this was an untenable state of affairs and, in the long term, counterproductive to the appreciation and acceptance of culturally diverse art practice within the British mainstream.
SR. How did the festival differ from The other Story in what it aimed to show?
JL. The festival aimed to demonstrate the diversity of practice by artists on their own terms, rather than pandering to an imposed agenda, thus challenging any preconceived notions of what constituted contemporary art by artists of South Asian descent. The media’s reaction was generally favourable in the sense that they acknowledged this diversity, and the critical comments considered the techniques, mannerisms, and a whole range of issues and ideas beyond the political context. Having said this, I do not wish to deny that postcoloniality is an aspect significant to some artists’ work. It is part of our recent history and the echoes still reverberate in many aspects of our lives.
SR. South Asian art practice in Britain spans as least three generations. Was there any attention paid to that in the festival?
JL. We tried to span the generations and show how each generation affects the practice, so that at one level you have artists like Prafulla Mohanti and Amal Gosh representing the older generation, and at the other you have emerging artists in their early twenties, born, brought up, and trained in Britain. For many of them, knowledge of roots was minimal, as we acknowledge elsewhere in the book. Some of the artists admit to knowing as much about India, or their roots, as their European counterparts. It’s an alien territory to them. And yet their work reflects their early influences, family ties, memories, and a whole range of other things.
SR. Looking back, what has been the impact of the festival? Did it lead to greater awareness and hence changes in terms of opportunities for artists of Asian origin in Britain?
JL. It is difficult to assess the precise impact of the festival, particularly in the long term, but I feel the answer has to be no. Any real changes will take many years and cannot happen until, at least, the arts and funding infrastructure, particularly at the planning and decision-making stage, begins to reflect our pluralistic and transnational society and begins to incorporate this into the mainstream. I don’t think we were so naïve as to think that things would change dramatically, or that the festival would greatly increase opportunities for artists. I was aware that some of the venues, particularly the major ones, that participated in the festival did so because it was a politically astute thing to do at the time when race was such a big issue. They wanted to be seen to be doing the right thing to ease some of the pressure and criticism they were being subjected to. I was also aware of the compromises we had to make in order to get some of the venues on board, resulting in these venues having complete control over their programming for the festival. This is why Beyond Frontiers is so important. It is, probably, the only product of the festival that we have been able to develop exactly as we wanted, without any compromises.
SR. Is it still the case that artists who work within the political framework get more attention than those who don’t?
JL. I think the situation has altered considerably since the early 1990s. The race card, as we knew it, has played out, and now the priorities seem to be different. At one level, we have a situation where every major decision in the contemporary visual arts is made by a handful of people, working in partnership, drawn from the private and public sector, and focusing on the same handful of artists. Packaging, marketing, and heavy sponsorship, laced with a good dose of controversy (to appease the insatiable appetite of the media ) — all of this served up with a lot of hype — seems to be the recipe for drawing attention. The work, itself, has become secondary. Almost anything will do as long as it meets the above criteria. This view of art and artists has filtered downwards into the arts infrastructure and has created a climate not conducive to a free exploration of ideas, rendering many artists, regardless of race, redundant. At another level where race, in some form, still is an issue, as with the Arts Council and other publicly funded organisations set up to redress the balance created by the prevalent eurocentric attitudes in the visual arts, there has been a noticeable shift towards aligning with the main current, rather than challenging it. In this search for respectability and acceptance, there is a tendency in these organisations to hide behind the world of cultural theorists and academia, rather than position themselves with the artists, in all their diversity and grass-root development. The resultant élitism and inaccessibility have made them irrelevant to the majority of British artists with ancestral roots outside Europe. Much of the activity of these organisations focuses around a narrow band of artists whose work slots into their rationale, while the rest are ignored.
SR. You have had a remarkable childhood, crisscrossing continents; has that played a part in your work?
JL. It has, and I am still finding out to what extent — it’s a constant revelation. I was born in Nairobi, Kenya, where I spent all my early childhood. When I was ten our family moved to India and I ended up, with my brothers and sister, in a boarding school in Mussoori. Four years later, in 1962, we moved again and ended up in London. Early influences may not have been conscious, but then the conscious part of oneself is only one aspect, and not necessarily the strongest part. It would be false to deny that my early years in Kenya and India affected the way I see things. My experience of those environments has been instrumental in me being, at least partly, as I am. The outdoor life, the physical contact with the land, its people, and cultures, the trees which I used to climb all the time, have all been very important. The significance of the past crystallised for me in my late teens, in London. I was beginning to understand what displacement, and this sense of not belonging, meant. But I also began to discover the positive side, namely that if you did not belong anywhere, then you could actually belong everywhere. I had the ability to cross and move in between cultures, religion, and nationality without being entrenched in any of them. The acceptance of this freedom and transnationalism as a positive thing and as a vital part of my identity has played a major part in my life and work to date.
SR. Have you been back to Africa or India?
JL. I have been back to Africa, but not to East Africa. I have been to Botswana and Senegal which are very different anyway. I have not been back to India since I left when I was fourteen.
SR. You have said, when you were talking about influences in your work, that you were informed not so much by objects as by images of African art. How was it in the case of South Asian influences?
JL. The years in India, in many ways, were quite different from those in Kenya. Colonialism did not succeed in affecting the culture or the Indian way of life, whereas, in many parts of Africa, these were virtually obliterated. Consequently, you are surrounded by temples adorned with sculptures, ancient monuments going back a millennium, a constant flow of religious ceremonies and festivals which permeate every aspect of people’s daily lives, and a way of life reflecting a civilisation thousands of years old. Art was completely integrated into the fabric of life and, in that sense, was all around you and part of you. Obviously, these have left strong traces which surface and are explored in my work. The desire to look beyond the surface of things, to try and reach an inner reality, and to acknowledge parallel realities, perhaps has its basis in my Indian roots. For me, the most pertinent, successful, and pure form of conceptual and minimalist art is Tantric art, particularly sculpture. I came to Tantra partly as a reaction to the western approach to minimalism and conceptualism which, for me, seemed too deeply entrenched within the intellect and bore little relation to real life. These movements did not seem capable of opening any new doors of perception, or enhancing our understanding of the world or ourselves. Tantric art goes way beyond that.
SR. And was already there for hundreds of years before people started ‘discovering’ it. In Britain, for instance, there was a milestone exhibition at the South Bank, London.
JL. Yes, that exhibition did have a big impact. And, it is quite interesting that we are constantly reinventing things and trying to pretend that they are new. For me, the strength of Tantra is its capacity to extract the essence or the life force, of people and everything around us, and communicate this through very simple forms. These forms, where anything superfluous is done away with, somehow get to the heart of the matter. It is almost like getting to the very core, where processes and outcome are inseparable and part of the whole. The Pod series, in my sculpture, bears a strong connection with Tantra. Seed is the first link in the renewal and continuity of life. The pod, perhaps, is one of the most ancient symbols of fertility and regeneration manifesting itself in diverse cultures throughout history. The pod is an icon of power and invokes the traditional Indian icon of the yoni and lingam. For me, the most potent dimension of the pod is the inward space, the repository for so many mysteries. Pods, at the same time, can be seen as vessels, wombs, coracles, and containers caught in a moment of transition. They convey a sense of movement where there is no beginning and no end.