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English Literature Scholar Bakirathi Mani Examines South Asian American Visual Culture

In the latest addition to our SwatTalk Shorts YouTube series, Bakirathi Mani, professor of English literature and coordinator of the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, spoke about her book Unseeing Empire, which examines South Asian American visual culture in America. The conversation was wide-ranging with topics from South Asian American representation in popular culture to the election of Kamala Harris as the first South Asian and African American female vice president and Mani’s experience as a curator of these images herself. Read on for additional excerpts from the conversation, which, due to time constraints, didn't make it into the SwatTalk.

On reconciling current imagery of racialized violence against Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) peoples with the increased presence and representation in popular media:

“I think about these photographic images, not just as images of representation of AAPI peoples, but as a kind of archive of violence against AAPI peoples. In that context, I think about these images as something that multiplies over time. For example, in relation to the recent shootings of Sikh Americans in Indiana, my first thought went to the state of race-based hate crimes against Sikh Americans in the aftermath of 9/11. Again, we’re almost 20 years since Sept. 11, 2001. And yet the same group of people have been targeted over this time. Sikh Americans were quote-unquote mistaken or misrecognized for Muslim Americans and were subject to violence in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. They continue to be subjects of violence now, or objects of violence now. Why is that?

I think that there’s a repetitive representation of AAPI peoples as other, as foreign, as not part of an American cultural sphere. And I just want to emphasize that this is happening at the same time that so many Asian Americans are finding themselves embraced by the larger American public culture, whether for their artistic contributions or for their contributions to television and film. This is a real moment of triumph for so many Asian American artists. How do we reconcile these two things happening at the same time? On the one hand, an archive of brutality and violence against AAPI bodies. And on the other hand, the triumph of AAPI representation.”

On witnessing the election of Vice President Kamala Harris:

“I'm so excited to see Kamala Harris become vice president of the United States. And I’m particularly excited as a South Asian woman who voted in a U.S. national election for the first time this year to see a Black and South Asian woman become vice president of the United States. I think Harris’s image is iconic for so many different kinds of people. She invites identification from people who are not just black or South Asian, but also people who are Latinx, anyone who identifies as a woman, people who are working class, people who are middle class, and people who are HBCU graduates. There’s something enormously compelling about the iconic nature of Kamala Harris as vice president of this country.

At the same time, I also wonder to what extent does seeing Harris occupy this seat of power every day, how does that change the way that the United States as a whole sees women of color? I know that Harris in her own campaigns has fought long and hard against being stereotyped or represented in ways that are demeaning to her. A lot of these stereotypes come from the kinds of historical oppression that Black peoples and South Asian peoples have endured. The extent to which Kamala Harris has successfully been able to triumph over those negative representations of people of color I think really remains to be seen.”

“What my students were seeing in that gallery were not just the art objects that I had put on view,” says Mani. “They were also seeing me as a scholar.”

On the problem of representation:

“What if representation itself is a problem? What if representation itself is a colonial construct that comes out of imperial histories of the documentation and surveillance of people of color. That’s the kind of main question that this book addresses. And as I said, I take it through a variety of different dimensions. Through the lived experiences of immigrants. Through the artworks that immigrants produced. Through the public spaces, where the artworks are displayed and circulated.”

On becoming a curator of these images:

"In 2015, I had an opportunity to curate a photography exhibition at a nonprofit gallery in Philadelphia called Twelve Gates Arts. It's in Old City Philadelphia. And it was just an extraordinary moment for me. I had trained as a curator in 2010, but 2015 was the first time that I curated my own exhibition.

One of the things that I realized in the process of curation was that … I’m an academic so when I went into the museum space, the gallery space, I thought, ‘Oh, all I have to do is bring the artworks that I talk about in my book into this gallery space and people are going to get the argument that I want to make about the relationship between race and representation in Asian American public culture.’ But, of course, a gallery is not a book. Real people are not artworks or objects that I can talk about. So I just had an amazing experience of really trying to understand the different ways in which my students and other audience members from the general public were coming into the gallery over the six-week run of the show and trying to identify with the images that they saw.”

On students engaging with the exhibit:

“They saw very different things than what I could see. They engaged with the art objects in really different ways. And their relationships of identification and disidentification with the artworks that they saw really helped me to go back to the primary argument in this book, which is why do we desire to see ourselves represented? And in what forms, in what ways, do we want to see ourselves? I think one of the things that I really learned about the process of curation and working in this gallery space with my students is that curation is not just a process of caring for the art. It’s also a process of creating community. What my students were seeing in that gallery were not just the art objects that I had put on view. They were also seeing me as a scholar. They were seeing me as someone who has a life outside of the classroom, and I was seeing them as young people who have huge lives that are completely off campus. That is an amazing moment where we can begin to see each other as full embodied selves.”

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