Listen: Associate Professor of English Bakirathi Mani Discusses Her New Book
This semester, Associate Professor of English Literature Bakirathi Mani discussed her new book, Hunting Vision: South Asian Diasporic Visual and Exhibition Cultures (Duke University Press, 2019). Her work, she says, invites people to “think about how Asian American immigrants create visual representations of themselves, and how these contemporary artworks draw upon the colonial legacy of representing radicalized peoples as objects of display.” Mani's research included fiction, film, and Broadway musicals created by South Asian Americans.
Mani is the author of Aspiring to Home: South Asians in America (2012). Her essays on South Asian diasporic public cultures have been published in American Quarterly, Social Text, The Journal of Asian American Studies, Diaspora and Positions, among other venues. In 2015, she curated Ruins and Fabrications, an public exhibition of contemporary South Asian photography at Twelve Gates Gallery, Philadelphia.
Betsy Bolton: Good afternoon everyone. My name is Betsy Bolton, and I am the chair of the English department, and I am delighted to be able to introduce my wonderful colleague, professor Bakirathi Mani. I just asked back, and she said she didn't care but, I would like to encourage people to move a little further forward, because this is worth more, and people will drift in, and then they'll feel uncomfortable about coming in, sitting forward. If there are more seats at the back, they can fold in more easily. Thank you for doing that.
Betsy Bolton: Baki is the only person I know who has a Bachelor's of Science in foreign service from Georgetown University, which is a pretty fascinating thing, I think. She also has a master's in modern Indian history from Jawaharlal Nehru University, and a PhD in modern thought and literature from Stanford. She teaches, as many of you know, obviously, Asian American studies, cultural studies of globalization, transnational, feminist and queer studies. Baki's first book, Aspiring to Home: South Asians in America, was published by Stanford University Press in 2012. Her essays on South Asian American public cultures have been published in American Quarterly, Social Text, The Journal of Asian American Studies, Diaspora and Positions, among other venues.
Her current book manuscript, which is under contract at Duke University, is called Haunting Visions, South Asian ... Sorry. South Asian Diasporic Visual and Exhibition Cultures. And it considers how images of empire have become archetypes of self-representation in diaspora. My favorite thing is that in addition to her many research and teaching interests, Baki is also a member of the Curators Network, a global organization of independent curators sponsored by the Independent Curators International. So, she has actually put on a gallery show in addition to teaching and writing books. She has serious visual chops. Following the talk, there will be a reception just around the corner in the reading room, and I hope you will come and continue the conversation. Please join me in welcoming Professor Mani.
Bakirathi Mani: Thank you. Thank you so much Betsy for such a warm introduction, and thank you to everyone who's made it here on such a lovely spring day, and it's really wonderful to see so many friends, and I, especially, want to thank my students who actually hear me talk twice a week, and they have voluntarily under just a little coercion come back for more this evening. Thank you so much for that. I'll be speaking today about my current book manuscript, Hunting Vision: South Asian Diasporic Visual and Exhibition Cultures, which I completed while on sabbatical last year, and which as Betsy noted, I'm really excited to say is under contract with Duke University Press. My teaching and scholarship is across three branches of literary and cultural criticism, Asian American studies, post-colonial theory, and feminist and queer Studies.
In this book, I bring my interdisciplinary research to the forefront through a focus on visual culture, specifically, fine art photography, and it's related cultures of exhibition, to think about how Asian American immigrants create visual representations of themselves, and how these contemporary artworks draw upon the colonial legacy of representing racialized peoples as objects of display. In my first book, Aspiring to Home, I examined how first and second generation immigrants from the subcontinent, specifically from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka, identified a South Asian through their production and consumption of popular culture. I looked at fiction and experimental film, beauty pageants and Broadway musicals created by South Asian Americans to understand how immigrants craft forms of identity and community across differences of national background, language, gender, sexuality and class.
But the book was broadly concerned as well with questions of representation. Why is it that despite the preponderance of South Asian Americans, and popular as well as political culture, we feel like we're not represented enough? So just off the top of my head, I can think about Kamala Harris, Hassan Minhaj, Mindy Kaling, Nikki Haley, Aziz Ansari, and so on. The list goes on. As racialized minorities in the United States, we commonly understand our desire for visual affirmation through our invisibility in public culture. An absence that we assume can be rectified by the greater visibility of minoritized subjects. But the fact is that, even as visual representations created by, and for racialized minorities proliferate, these same representations continue to fail us.
In my view, that means that we need to attend to the framework of representation itself, to question both the aesthetic forms of visual representation that are available, as well as to understand more deeply how and why as racialized minorities, we desire to be represented within these same forms. As I was wrapping up the first book, I turned my attention to visual art, particularly fine art photography, that represents South Asian American lives. Over the past decade, my research has led me to weave together visual analyses of fine art photography with ethnographic and experiential studies of museum cultures. I've participated as a viewer, and as a critic at over 130 displays of art by South Asian diasporic artists, in cities that include, New Delhi, Mumbai, Kochi, Toronto, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Washington, DC. The sites of my ethnographic research encompassed commercial and nonprofit galleries, local and national museums, artists talks, studio visits, art auctions and conversations with gallery owners and collectors.
During this time I was also visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of race and ethnicity at Columbia University where I took a graduate seminar in South Asian art history. As my field of research broadened, so too did my interest in curation as a practice of creating visual narratives of race and immigration. In 2010, I trained in curatorial theory and practice with Independent Curators International, which is a professional organization of curators based in New York City. And in 2015, I curated my own show of contemporary South Asian photography, a 12 days gallery in Philadelphia. I don't think [inaudible 00:06:34] were out there. It's a long time ago, before this generation of students. In my new book, Haunting Visions, I bring together my training as a cultural critic of Asian American visual cultures, and as a curator, to examine how and why South Asian Americans desire to identify with photographic representations of diaspora. I focus on fine art by South Asian diasporic women artists, who reproduce copy, or replicate visual elements from a variety of photographic archives.
These archives ranged from late 19th century colonial British photographs of so called natives in India, to early 20th century settler colonial portraits of native peoples, to mid 20th century civil rights photography. I argue that the mimetic reproduction of colonial and settler colonial photography, not only structures the form and the content of contemporary South Asian American art, it also shapes how we clean such photographs as representative of our racialized selves. And I call the affective as well as the visual relation forged between the image, the artist, and the viewer, diasporic mimesis. And I argue for redefining mimesis as a practice of transnational visual production and consumption. So, photography's own mimetic qualities here serve a double purpose, first as a record of the real, that is, its function as visual documentation of the lived experience of racialized subjects, and second, as an aesthetic form that has historically captured the discipline, and the display of racialized subjects.
I'll turn now to the visual part of our presentation. In the artist Annu Palakunnathu Matthew's work, An Indian from India, the problem of mimetic representation comes to the surface of the photographic print. In this series of diptychs created between 1999 and 2007, Matthew takes images from Edward Curtis's early 20th century collection, the North American Indian, recreating the scene of Curtis's photographs with herself as the subject, faithfully adhering to the sepia tone printing, lighting, and setting that characterizes Curtis's studio portraits. Matthews digital images reproduce both the ethnographic form, and the modes of display that characterize the North American Indian. Looking across the diptychs from left to right, and back again, we see the precise and systematic alignment between the archival image, and Matthew's duplication, the ways in which she replicates the stances held by native portrait subjects through her own bodily gestures, and how the torn and whipped edges that mark the archival image are reproduced in her photographs. Displayed as framed prints, the differences that marked each diptychs slowly come into view.
We begin to notice how Matthew incorporates subcontinental fabrics and jewelry in her clothing, how her captions rewrite Curtis's descriptions of his subjects, how she features members of her own family, including here her mother, and how the images make analogous what are in fact two vastly different histories of visualization. Through a mimetic duplication of the aesthetic form, as well as a modes of ethnographic display that characterize in North American Indian, and Indian from India, makes the objectification of the portrait subject, whether indigenous or immigrant, central to our encounter with the photographic image. The problem of distinguishing the Indian from the Indian from India, as two figures separated by the blank space at the center of each diptych, is offered here as a problem of visual consumption. The viewer's ability to recognize the similarities, and the differences between the archival print and Matthew's self-portrait, becomes a means of uncovering who is an Indian. Yet the rhetorical doubling of the series, the fact that one Indian replaces another, is rebutted by the fact that neither of the two photographic subjects are, of course, Indians.
Shona Jackson eloquently argues in Creole Indigeneity, and I quote, "In this regard, we should remember that the term native or Indian was not only a mistake, what Gayatri Spivak refers to as a hegemonic false category, but never existed in any Native American language, just as black never initially existed to describe a group of people, and in the Caribbean, East Indian had to be invented for another. Despite the acceptance of, and even preference for the term by many indigenous peoples, the word Indian speaks to the long reinvention of autochthonous peoples in the Americas, in the languages, cultures, and juridical systems that maintain their support in Asian as Indian as needed as other to European men." If photography can't reveal to us the truth that the Indian, then what do we see when we see Matthews diptychs? Instead of comparing immigrant to indigenous subject, a comparison that's encouraged by the two part structure of each diptych, I redirect our view towards the ways in which the diptychs emerge out of the transnational circulation of photographic technologies of documentation, and surveillance.
I read Matthews portraits against Curtis's prints to consider how settler colonial forms of racial documentation shape the visibility of South Asian Americans. In turn, I made these photographic practices in relation to an earlier history of British colonial documentation of natives on the Indian subcontinent. An archive of images that's not actually being produced in the series, but that surfaces through my consumption of Matthew's work. Finally, I discuss my experience of seeing an Indian from India in a museum exhibit that itself functions as an ethnographic display of Indians, banding together settler colonial photographic archives in the Americas, with 19th century colonial ethnographic portraiture in South Asia, and bringing both to bear in the representation of South Asians in the United States today. I argue that the Imperial archive operates as a site of self-representation and visualization and diaspora. Across these disparate sites of visual production, circulation and consumption, documentation cannot capture the truth of the Indian, whether indigenous or immigrant.
Annu Matthew was born in 1964 in Southern England, and when she was 11, her family moved from England to Bangalore, India. She immigrated to the United States in 1994 to pursue an MF in photography, and she's currently a professor of art at the University of Rhode Island. Her body of work ranges from photographs of Indian street scapes taken with toy cameras, to satirical Bollywood film posters, to digital animations that document the oral and visual history of partition. And across all of these bodies of work, she consistently makes use of the national and personal archival photograph. In an Indian from India, Matthew's work appears to be a revisionist portrayal of the North American Indian, melding digital technology with early 20th century photographs, to locate racialized immigrants in the place of indigenous subjects.
As Matthew notes in her artist statement, and this is her, "In this portfolio, I play on these stereotypes using photographs of Native Americans from the 19th century. I pair these with contemporary images of myself in clothes, poses and environments that mimic these older images. I am challenging the viewer's assumption of then and now, us and them, exotic and local." By reframing Curtis's photographs of unnamed native subjects in relation to her own visible presence in the United States, the prints dislocate the ongoing impact of settler colonialism, and foreground instead, the experience of immigration. To create an Indian from India, Matthew worked in a range of institutional context, including the Peabody Museum, and the Library of Congress, selecting images of native portraiture by white settler photographs of photographers, including, not only Clifford, but ... Sorry. Not only Curtis, but also his peers, B.A Gifford, and Jan Choate. And I'll come back to one of them later.
Among the most prolific of these photographic collections was the North American Indian, which was a 20 volume set composed of over 40,000 images of Native people, taken by Edward Curtis. And these 20 volumes were composed between 1900 and 1930. Based in Seattle, Curtis initially worked as a commercial studio photographer. He died in 1952. He was widely regarded for his award winning images of native subjects such as his photographs of Duwamish princess Angeline, the aged daughter of Chief Siahl (Seattle) in the climb digger, what you see here, and in princess Angeline, which is this next slide. Her face cut by wrinkles, her skin aged by work along the coastal shore, in both images, Angeline is photographed in splendid isolation. The photographs make no reference to Angeline's economic or social dispossession, or that of her community. By the time these photographs were published, legal ordinances obstructed the work, and the residents of native peoples within the city precincts of Seattle.
These early photograph heroes, already depicting native peoples as figures of the past, generated a measure of local prominence for Curtis, and led to his photographing native nations throughout the West, Southwest and Pacific Northwest Coast. Underwritten by JP Morgan, The North American Indian was supported and championed by the imperial ambitions of President Theodore Roosevelt. As Roosevelt notes in his forward to the first volume, "Curtis's project is," and I quote, "a good thing for the American people. The Indian as he has hitherto been, is on the point of passing away. His life has been lived under conditions through which our own race passed so many ages ago, that not a vestige of their memory remains." Roosevelt's teleological narrative of the American people marching into modernity while the "Indian fades away", establishes a temporal framework for the North American Indian, as well as an elegiac aesthetic.
Styled in the manner of ethnographic photographs, portraits in the series were also viewed as revealing the spiritual and cultural essence of indigenous peoples in the Americas. Established through the directive of the federal government, and funded by private capital, Curtis's photographs, and later his wax cylinder recordings, became both a tool of settler colonialism, and a representation of the settler colonial state. What complicates the ethnographic cast of these native photographic portraits, is the fact that the collection is in fact composed of elaborately staged images. Curators have noted that objects of connoted modernity, such as clocks or blue jeans, were systematically eliminated in Curtis's photographic negatives, and that Curtis and his peers used the same material objects such as a headdress across photographs of several different native peoples in order to connote an essential sense of Indianness. As we do [inaudible 00:16:45] Curtis's work have made clear, in both his technology of production, photogravure, as well as his material of reconstruction of tradition through the indiscriminate use of regalia, Curtis's collection created and performed the very subjects that he wanted to see.
Matthew's diptychs follow the crucial and prolific practices of native artists, scholars, and activists who have intervened into Curtis's photographic archives, by creating works across a range of media forms, including theater, performance, film and multimedia installations. Artists such as the urban Iroquois Jeff Thomas, and this is his work here, work to reclaim the form of settler colonial photographic portraiture from the aesthetic parameters of ethnographic documentation. Such methodological practices initiate what Dine Muscogee photographer Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie calls, "photographic sovereignty". In her ongoing project 562, Swinomish Tulapip artist Matika Wilbur takes up the historical legacy of the North American Indian by traveling across 562 nations to photograph native families, elders and children. And, Wilbur is in the top right photograph. Wilbur's dramatically black and white photographs focus on men, women and non-binary peoples, who are depicted within their everyday lives.
Apsaalooke artist, Wendy Red Star fore grounds an intergenerational collaborative practice through which she recast dominant representations of Native women. Collectively, these artists showcase the agentive experience of native lives in images that contravene the static quality of Curtis's early 20th century photographs. Yet even as native artists, such as Thomas and Red Star, create artwork that passionately disavow Curtis's images, in my view, their disavow is itself a recognition of the pervasive aesthetic, and political influence of the North American Indian, and with it the ethnographic impulse to record and document indigenous lives. Recent scholarship in indigenous studies, and in Asian American studies by Jodi Byrd, Aiko Dei, and others, have drawn our attention to the ways in which native subjects and Asian immigrants are networked through the ideology and practice of settler colonialism, or what Manu [inaudible 00:18:58] has called "an imperial continuum", that extends from the project of US settler colonialism in the 19th century, to the contemporary exercise of US imperial power over the bodies of racialized immigrants today.
Situating Matthew's work alongside the work of native artists, is one way of making visible the difficult relations between diaspora and indigeneity as co-constitutive rather than as antithetical categories of rationalization. As a queer and feminist scholar Gayatri Gopinath notes, and I quote, "It seems crucial to place the ongoing colonization of native populations, in relation to processes of racialization of communities of color, and diasporic communities in the US, but to do so in a way that always attends to the contradictions, points of opposition, and contingent alliances of this relationship. Such a framing may ultimately allow us to more fully grasp the workings of the liberal nation state, and its ongoing colonial project, as well as the possibilities for contesting and transforming its killing logic." However, unlike artists, like Wilbur and Red Star who reject Curtis's collection entirely, Matthew reproduces select photographs from the settler colonial archive in their entirety, establishing what appears to be a mimetic relation of identity between the archival image and her own self portrait.
In his analysis of the mimetic encounter between colonizer and colonized, anthropologist Michael Taussig defines mimesis as, "the faculty to copy, imitate and make models." And he goes on to emphasize that, "There's a two layered notion of mimesis that is involved, a copying or imitation, and a palpable, sensuous connection between the very body of the perceiver and the perceived." I want to highlight first, how South Asian diasporic artists like Matthew deploy the mimesis to produce a relation of identification with the archival image through copying and imitation. But I also want to emphasize the palpable, sensuous component of mimesis, what I read as the intimate feelings embodied by South Asian American viewers in relation to these same archival images, as we look at Matthews work and claim to see our own lives. Diasporic mimesis binds together images that appear to represent the lived experience of racialized subjects, with the viewer's desire to be represented in the public sphere as a racialized immigrant, as a strategy of aesthetic production, as a method of viewing, and as a practice of consumption. Diasporic mimesis is how we clean images as representative of our racialized selves.
In Matthew's diptychs, Oregon's Indian Madonna, Indian Madonna, the left side of the diptychs features a 1901 photograph by Curtis's peer, B.A Gifford, showing the profile of an unidentified native woman swaddling a child in her arms. The archival photograph is defined by the careful symmetry that Gifford establishes between those parts of the woman's body that are made visible to the viewer as an object of public consumption, mainly her face, her hair, her shoulders, and her arm, and those parts of her body that are concealed, and that's effectively become a canvas for displaying the intricately woven blanket that covers her left shoulder and torso. The baby who's enveloped by the blanket pokes one bare arm out of it. The textured pattern of the blanket occupies the center of the portrait and the blanket is artfully reversed towards the top of the woman's chest, showcasing the fringe. While the woman's case is directed towards the baby, the baby's head is turned towards the photographer. It's a child's eyes that meet the viewer's gaze rather than the mother's. But as we see the photograph, it's unclear whether the sitter is holding a child related to her, or whether the child is, like the blanket that covers her, another prop for the portrait.
As a native literary scholar, Beth Piatote comments in relation to photographs of Nez Perce women from the late 1890s, and I quote, "Every detail of this photograph is a site to be surveyed, documented, measured, and changed under the terms of American assimilation." Matthew self-portrait on the right side of this diptych becomes a parody of the archival image, a performance of motherhood that punctures Gifford's claims to documenting Oregon's Indian Madonna. Even as she replicates a lighting and color gradient of Gifford's photograph, as well as a torn corner on the upper right of the image, and the paper cut on the bottom right, Matthew challenges every detail of this photograph's set fashions, what we understand is a domestic scene. She redoubles the objectification of the unnamed female sitter in Gifford's print, not just by similar posing similarly, with her shoulders loosely covered in a dupatta, but also by swaddling another objectified representation of femininity, the Indian Barbie. The plastic Barbie doll that Matthew holds, which retains a disproportionately small waist and large breasts of some of its US versions, is dressed in red Hindu bridal clothes, wearing several ornaments on its head, arms and neck.
Like the child in Gifford's photograph, Barbie's head is turned towards us. Her fixed painted eyes are wide open as a certain lipstick to mouth. With her synthetic hair cascading over Matthew's arms, the doll is as authentically Indian as a portrait of the indigenous woman and child in Gifford's photo, which is to say, not at all. As Matthew looks towards her charge, her tender embrace of a plastic doll, highlights the absurdity of Indian Madonna as an archetype of femininity, race and motherhood. And we simply search for Indian Barbie on Mattel's website, and the result showed multiple dolls meant to represent native women literally carrying infants in boxing packs, miniature box game packs, as well as light skinned Sari clad Barbies. And so, in that context I think Matthew's conflation of Indian Madonna is uncannily prescient.
In another diptych, Navajo's smile, Malayali's smile ... Malayalam is a language that spoken in the southern Indian state of Kerala, which is where Matthew's family's originally from. The left side of the diptych is an unpublished photograph from Edward Curtis's archives titled "A Navajo's Smile" that's taken in 1904. On the right side of the diptych is Matthew, who occupies the same frontal position as a subject of Curtis's print. The archival image features an unnamed woman braved in a blanket, her body and her face turn squarely towards the camera. Sunlight streams in from the left side of the picture frame, emphasizing the textures of the blanket, her skirt, and her thickly braided hair. The anthropologist James Ferris has identified that the female subject of A Navajo's Smile surfaces in at least two images later compiled in Curtis's A North American Indian. The Blanket Maker, and Navajo Woman both also taken in 1984.
In all three images, the subject of the photograph remains unnamed. This is Navajo woman, in which the subject directly faces the viewer with one eye slightly squinted, the left side profile of her face is cast in shadow. She wears a woven blanket, multiple necklaces, as well as an ornate belt. And Ferris knows that her jewelry also belongs to Curtis. In The Blanket Maker, the same subject covered in another blanket holds a neatly bundled skin of yarn, but it's totally unclear whether she made this blanket, or what the relationship between the yarn and the blanket and her is. In contrast to these two published images, Ferris describes Navajo's Smile in this way, "This lovely image of the same woman cannot show greater contrast. Indeed her entire face changes and years disappear. If this smile reflects Curtis's relationship with this model, then he caught on very well. This grand photograph was never published in the North American Indian." As Ferris lingers on the woman's lovely image, he duplicates Curtis's imperialist gaze, so much so that he can claim that the expression on the native subject's face is not autonomous to her, but reflects instead that Curtis "caught on very well" with the community that he and Ferris described the singular as, "The Navajo".
By contrast, what I see on both sides of Navajo Smile, Malayali's smile is not an authentic or stable ethnographic subject, but a doubling. Once doubled, the subjects of the prints are already in excess of the national regional Appalachian either Navajo or Malayali that are appended to them. What is invoked by the symmetry of the diptychs is a fact that Asian immigrants, and native subjects are at once racialized as objects on display by the US state, and that Matthew's mimetic reproduction means that Asian immigrants are also set their colonial subjects of this same state. Matthew's strategic use of costumes and accessories here, a sari, that totally reflects the adjacent blanket, directly reproduces Curtis's well known practice of indiscriminately employing jewelry and regalia, to identify his photographic subjects. Not just as Navajo in this image, but also as you saw in the other images as Yurok, Apache and so on. The objects that Matthew uses to identify herself as an Indian, indeed, the very idea that what it means to be Indian can be represented through material objects, are in fact central to the visual archive of another empire at another time.
This is a history of 19th century ethnographic photography in South Asia, images of indigenous subjects created by commercial military and amateur British photographers across the subcontinent. Unlike the portraits of native peoples, this archive of colonial Indian photography is never reproduced within an Indian from India. Instead, I invoke this ultimate set of images through the ways in which I read Matthew's diptychs; the frontal position and the side profiles of her portraits, as well as the captions for her prints. It is this genealogy of the Indian that haunts my reading, and it is a mimetic relation between Imperial British, and US settler colonial histories of documenting racial difference, then flashes of at the interstices of Indian from India.
I contra hear another colonial archive, one that surfaces beneath the photographic representations in Matthew's diptychs, and that shapes my consumption of her art. The People of India is an eight volume collection commissioned as a private memento for Governor General Charles Canning, the first Viceroy of India, between 1868 and 1875. Marking the transition from British East India Company to Crown rule after the Sepoy mutiny of 1857, or what's also known as the first war of Indian independence. The people of India compiled images of "the more remarkable tribes to be found in India", in photographs that as government memo stated, "should be large enough to exhibit the chief physical peculiarities, and the distinctive costume of each race." For J. Forbes Watson, who edited the People of India, the collected volumes promise to "furnish a permanent and more extensively available record of our fellow subjects of the East, bringing us, so to speak, face to face with them."
Across 480 images, many which were originally accompanied by watercolor patches approximating the skin tone of the photographic subjects, The People of India created an encyclopedic rendition of caste, regional, religious, and linguistic groups on this continent, in volumes that were circulated as far afield as Chicago, Melbourne, and Berlin. Preceding the North American Indian by nearly 40 years of photographs collected in The People of India, are distinct in one key respect from the images later produced by Curtis. This Imperial archive is not intent on capturing what Curtis described as the vanishing Indian, but rather documenting a colonized subject population that proliferates beyond the camera’s eye. There are too many Indians to photograph, hence the need for a taxonomic compilation. The sign of excess in The People of India emerges through the absence of a standardized photographic technology to capture images of colonized subjects. Across the volumes, men and women are photographed individually in the classic three quarters pose of ethnographic portraits, in group pictures that are silhouetted as vignettes, in studios, and in natural landscape settings, and imprints that are grayscale, sepia, and black and white.
But what aligns The People of India with the North American Indian, is the fact that both collections cured the cameras claims to scientific truth, as well as the capacity of photography to produce and archive racial difference. Despite its title, in no way can The People of India aspire to be a comprehensive representation of the Indian subcontinent. But such volumes are crucial to understanding as a post-colonial theorist that his Chaudhary rights, how the power of photography in 19th century India is manifest, "not only in the technology of the colonial state, but also as an instrument that extends and transform site for photographers in the body politic, British and Indian alike." The use of the portrait photograph as ethnographic fact is central to the perceptual transformation experienced by viewers of The People of India. A viewership that I understand to include, not only the British and Indian subjects who saw the volumes at the time of their publication, but also diasporic subjects like Matthew and myself who encounter these volumes now. For South Asian diasporic viewers like myself, our affective expression of kinship to such photographic representations of Indians, encompasses a variety of lived experiences.
The desire to produce an affirmative correlation between the archival image that we see, and the person that we are, and concurrently a feeling of deep shame, an attempt to create distance between ourselves and images of these natives, and to search for an alternate genealogy of representation that we can belong to. To be called The People of India via my study of an Indian from India, this produces a surfeit of feelings. It's at once an experience of racial dis-identification as race and place are produced through the panoply of material objects once again, headdresses and jewelry. It's also curiously an experience of historical affirmation. What I know of Indians, and of India in the late 19th century comes entirely from photographic collections like The People of India. And, for that matter, I have no photograph of my own family prior to 1950. So, these are the only kinds of archives that document the country which my family is from. And it's an experience of alienation produced through the racial disparity enacted between the colonial photographer and native subject, which is then doubled by the temporal breach between the photographic object and the diasporic viewer.
There's no historical documentation that confirms whether Curtis was formally influenced by The People of India. However, in recalling this other set of images, which are now freely available on Google, I want to acknowledge how Curtis's obsessive need to photograph the Indian echoes throughout my contemporary viewing of The People of India, and likewise, how colonial technologies of surveillance and documentation that shaped The People of India ripple through the multi-volume structure of the North American Indian. In both the imperial camera becomes a mode of ordering the world, the means through which historical knowledge is produced, and disseminated, and consumed. It is the order that the camera imposes on its subjects, and on the landscapes that they occupy, then comes to appear as ethnographic fact, and as aesthetic beauty. It is these beautiful images that become the photographic matter of the archive. And it's within these imperial archives that racialized diasporic subjects like myself, look for traces of self-representation.
I'm gonna turn to our last reading of an Indian from India, which locates the series within the context of contemporary exhibition display. In October 2015, I went to see a public exhibition at Matthew's work at the Royal Ontario Museum, also known as the ROM in Toronto. Curated by the Canadian art historian Deepali Dewan, this 20 year retrospective of Matthew's work showcased digital projections and photo book installations that highlighted Matthew's personal experience of immigration, alongside that of South Asian Arab American and Asian American immigrants, whom she has photographed and interviewed over the last decade. Titled Generations, the exhibit showcased how a single photographic print can transmute into a fictional narrative, a historical document, and an aesthetic object. Diptychs from an Indian from India took up an entire section of the gallery. As I settled in to take notes, I noticed signs advertising the Twitter hashtag ROMfamcamp, encouraging viewers, particularly core families, and descendants with some link to Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Vietnam, or black communities in Canada to upload archival family photographs. Explicitly soliciting the viewership of diasporic subjects #ROMfamcamp expanded the representational capacities of the museum, as racialized immigrants were encouraged to see their own family photos as part of this show.
Within this curatorial framework, Matthew's art was cast as a representation of a multiracial Canadian national body. A representation that was constituted through the participation of [inaudible 00:35:30] viewers. As Canada's largest Museum of natural history and world cultures, the ROM was an extraordinary site to display Matthew's art. Her photographs were displayed in a gallery steps away from the museum's collection of contemporary South Asian art, which you can see at the bottom right. The renowned Christopher Ondaatje's South Asian gallery, and the South Asian gallery in turn, is three levels above the museum's main atrium, which is presided over a life size dinosaur skeleton. There's many of them, but that's the biggest one. At first glance, Generation appears to be wedged between two contradictory forms of display. On the one hand, an exhibition of evolutionary biology that's typical of a natural history museum, and on the other hand, a South Asian collection that befits a Museum of "world cultures".
But there's also a third form of exhibition at the ROM, one that is central to my reading of Matthew's work, the Daphne Cockwell gallery of Canada First Peoples, situated on the museum's floor. The Daphne Cockwell gallery presents a collection of material objects including sleighs, birch bark canoes, sealskins coats, blankets, and spears, crafted by first nations peoples, all of which are displayed amongst paintings by settler colonial artists. At the center of the gallery space are life sized dioramas that feature the museum's black sculptures of Haudenosaunee men, refashioned with jeans, iPods, and camera tripods, so restoring precisely those modern objects that were excised from Curtis's photographic negatives. Fully renovated in 2005, and more recently modified in early 2018, the Daphne Cockwell gallery is curated through joint collaboration between the Canadian Museums Association and the assembly of First Nations. Yet this collaborative process of curation cannot erase the fact that all the works here are meant to be seen, that is to be displayed as objects. As Asian American theorist Savita Singh remarks, such objects become "an example of how indigenous culture or first nations are meant to last for others, an instance of epistemic violence".
An Indian from India was displayed three floors above the Daphne Cockwell gallery. Matthew's photographs upstairs were curated separately from the objects on display downstairs, but her work was paired for the first time upstairs alongside original prints from Curtis's A North American Indian, a series that also happens to be part of the ROM's permanent collection. At Generations, a glass between contained two large plate images from The North American Indian. Plate number 212, Cheyenne Girl, that's on the right, and plate number 213, Two Moons Shining on the left, both taken in 1910. Loosened from the archive, the large plate format emphasizes Curtis's extreme closeup of the unnamed young woman, and the Cheyenne elder, and in particular the exaggerated attention that Curtis plays to Two Moons headdress, as a mark of social rank and national identity. Duplicated and retitled as Noble Savage in Matthew's diptych Noble Savage Savage Noble, the image of Two Moon Cheyenne is displayed twice more in the exhibit, within two copies of Matthew's diptychs that were placed on display. Walking through the gallery space, my experience of seeing Two Moons Cheyenne on its own, as well as a reproduction within multiple renditions of Matthew's Noble Savage Savage Noble, produced an overwhelming experience of diasporic mimesis, disorienting my capacity to see the difference between the so called original hand and its duplications, between Curtis's performance photography, and Matthew's, between Matthew's self representation and my claim to that same image as a representation of myself.
In my [inaudible 00:39:13] to the ROM, I noticed several viewers lingering in front of the glass between the display of these large plate images from The North American Indian, including groups of high school students taking selfies on their ways to hunt for dinosaur bones. Yet despite my own acceleration in seeing Matthew's work, what haunted my experience of this exhibition was a sense of loss. Despite the fact that racialized viewing subjects, specifically South Asian, black and Asian Canadian immigrants were explicitly welcomed into the show. The exhibit cannot tell us how to come to terms with the disparity between the museum's representation of indigenous peoples under ongoing conditions of settler colonial rule, and its simultaneous encouragement of immigrant representation as a condition of multicultural state formation. I had entered the room expecting to see my own diasporic subjectivity mirrored through Matthew's installations, in an exhibit that was itself a celebration of diasporic self representation. But when I came to experience some of the visual narrative of the show, and within the curatorial project of the museum, was a fact that the imperial archives that shape how I see An Indian from India was shut out of the viewing frame.
Those other material and photographic archives, which also claim to document Indians, were clustered elsewhere in the ROM's capricious museum space, both in the South Asian art gallery as well as in the Daphne Cockwell gallery. So, despite my repeated efforts to walk across multiple galleries in order to tie together these disjointed spaces of representation, my inability to navigate the museum as a whole, brings to life how the desire to be represented is consistently enacted through the visual technologies of empire. For racialized viewing subjects, empire comes to life in the spaces of the museum, shaping our most intimate as well as our most public attempts at seeing ourselves. Popular reviews of An Indian from India have emphasized the oppositional quality of Matthew's self portraits. Situating her diptychs as a form of resistance to the domineering gaze of Curtis's camera. Such analyses they keep with Matthew's artwork into a familiar narrative in Asian American studies, one that moves from marginality to visibility, from racial objection to self representation, and so on.
I've argued instead, that Matthew's diptychs necessitate a different mode of sync, one that pushes through the secular colonial geographic framework of the series to consider the ways in which the work lends other archives of representation, including the many images of indigenous subjects created by British photographers working in Imperial India, as well as the histories of exhibiting Indians within natural history museum such as the ROM. I noticed well, that the practice of documenting racial difference through photography is not only the preoccupation of 19th century colonial and settler colonial administrations, but continues to be manifest in their surveillance of racial and religious minorities through biometric technologies of the US today. Curtis's obsession with photographing the so called vanishing Indian acquires yet another reading here, as the disappearance of undocumented subjects becomes integral to the political and visual histories of South Asian, Muslim American, LatinX, and Arab Americans after September 11th, 2001. At stake in this project, is how we identify which genealogies of colonial visual production surface in contemporary Asian American visual culture, as well as how these same legacy shape how we see ourselves in these images as racialized subjects.
Lisa Lo notes, and I quote, "What we might identify as residual within the histories of settler or colonial capitalism does not disappear. To the contrary, it persists and endures, even if less legible within the obfuscations of a new dominant." The fact that as South Asian guys support viewers, we persist in seeing ourselves alongside the artist in this photographic series, as if we are also Indians, as if these reproduced and refurbish archival images confirm our own existence, makes clear the legacy of images of empire, are insistent, collective desire for representation, is itself in effect of Imperial archives, a haunted vision of seeing ourselves. Thanks so much.