For Issue 4, we are looking for dislocation in art. Art that is out of place, artists out of place, art that somehow represents the experience of being out of place – from the small, ordinary ways we feel we don’t belong, to immigrant and refugee stories, to cosmic shifts. In this quarter’s essay, Sinéad explores what it means to be dislocated and how art is often informed and enriched by this sense of discomfort.
What does it mean to belong? How do we define that sense of belonging? Who gets to define it? As an immigrant these are all questions that I have grown up with. Not that you’d necessarily know it to look at me. My blue eyes and white skin mean I am rarely seen as a ‘typical’ immigrant, but the reality is that I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t one.
I was born in Ireland, but have spent most of my life living in the US, Canada and, now, the UK. I enjoy my disjointed heritage – it informs and colours my writing – but to Americans I am the Irish one and to the Irish, ‘the Yank’. When the lady at my local shop told me last year that I could ‘just go home’ if the UK voted for Brexit, I told her I was. London is as much my home as Boston and, perhaps, more so than the small town I come from in Ireland.
This need to categorise each other – as if we can only ever be one thing or another – seems born out of a desire to know where we belong, and to decide who else belongs with us.
But this binary way of thinking leaves those of us who are constantly told that we physically ‘don’t belong’ feeling dislocated. And this dislocation can be all the more profound for people who immigrate as children, because we are cast adrift – no longer part of the culture we have left, but not quite welcomed into the one we have just entered, either. It can be disorientating, disheartening and confusing. However, it can also become the source of our creativity.
This was certainly true for George Chakravarthi, an Indian-born visual artist who moved to the UK in 1980 at the age of 10. He says the move wasn’t so much ‘a re-location as a dislocation’ that triggered ‘an ongoing process of exploration’ that now informs his work.
That work is anchored by the use of his own body, a practice that began in his early teens when he became obsessed with taking pictures of himself in photo booths. Growing up in London in the 1980s, George was the target of anti-immigrant, homophobic and racial abuse, but in his pictures, he pushed the boundaries of how he was perceived and how he perceived himself. Where many might have retreated, or tried to blend in, George pushed his sense of unease into an outward display, including dying his hair platinum blonde and experimenting with blue contact lenses.
‘From the age of 13, I was taking photographs, which became photographs of myself, and wondering things like, what I would look like with blonde hair? I’m not supposed to have blonde hair because of my skin colour, but what if I did? I was experimenting, but what I was actually doing was thinking about race in very visual, creative, fun ways. I don’t think I’ve done anything as radical as that as an artist since, because it was coming from the heart, it wasn’t an academic place. It was just a reaction to the feeling of dislocation and being isolated, of feeling invisible, even though my exterior was a really visible aspect of life – you couldn’t get on a bus and not be abused in 1985. It was everyday life.’ Looking back now, he says, ‘I think I was trying to dislocate myself even more by doing that, by being provocative. It was a real act of rebellion.’
Rebellion is a cry for change, or – at the very least – for a more nuanced discussion. This feels particularly relevant at the moment, as certain politicians and media outlets seek to exploit binary lines for political and commercial gain. Although George doesn’t believe that art can consciously counteract these forces, its very existence – and the desire that first created it – mean it does so naturally. Think of the rich heritage of protest art that so often accompanies times of conflict or social unease.
Trevor Noah, in his memoir, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, writes that in being bi-racial he could fit in with any group, precisely because he didn’t fit with any of them. As the child of a black woman and a white man, his existence was against the law because he didn’t fit any of the categories of apartheid; he wasn’t black, he wasn’t white and he wasn’t coloured. No matter where he went in the country of his birth, of his family, he stood out and was not accepted. He told an audience at Politics and Prose that ‘sometimes in life it is easier to be an insider as an outsider than it is to be an outsider as an insider.’
As humans, it seems that we are always searching for an ‘other’, perhaps as a way of defining ourselves. For George, Trevor and I, we take on this otherness, claim it as our own and use it to give our art depth. As George says, ‘I think there’s a part of me that’s still in this place of dislocation, but I think I’ve started to enjoy that place.’ There is a power in declaring for yourself that you don’t fit in and that you don’t care to.
George, who was, and still is, reinventing and manipulating his image to enhance his sense of dislocation, sees value to being that outsider, in that it gives him ‘a panoramic view of things, because you don’t really belong to any group, or tribe. So you can dip in and out of tribes and experience and also come out of the whole thing and watch how it works.’
Trevor, too, mastered this art of code-switching, using it, as apartheid ended, to carve out a place for himself at his school, where he mixed with children of other races. ‘Since I belonged to no group, I learned to move seamlessly between [them]…I learned how to blend. I could play sports with the jocks, I could talk computers with the nerds. I could jump in the circle and dance with the township kids…As the outsider, you can retreat into a shell, be anonymous, be invisible, or you can go the other way you protect yourself by opening up. You don’t ask to be accepted for everything you are just the one part of yourself that you’re willing to share. For me it was humour. I learned that even though I didn’t belong to one group, I could be a part of any group that was laughing…I was everywhere with everybody and, at the same time, I was all by myself.’
Trevor, of course, is making an international name for himself with this strategy. His perspective as an unaccepted racial minority under the repressive and racist government of apartheid South Africa gives him a unique perspective from which to satirise the current Western political climate. Comedy Central president, Kent Alterman, told IndieWire, ‘Trevor has an understanding of Trump and presidential politics because of his background that makes him a very astute observer. He gives his own historical perspective that…gives him an incredible advantage to engage with what’s going on and to comment on it.’ Perhaps it is this ability to dislocate, to detach and to become an observer that gives the immigrant artist something unique to say. They can see their adopted culture in a way that someone born into it cannot.
Of course, this knowingness, the suggestion that someone else might know as much or more about your culture, your politics than you do, can be deeply disconcerting and uncomfortable. The natural reaction is to try to categorise people. I find that the most common reaction to my immigrant past is an insistence that I choose one nationality and, when I resist, to have it chosen for me, as though there is some formula:
X years in Ireland
Y years in the US
+ Z years elsewhere
George has fought this categorisation his entire life, from familial and Indian cultural expectations that he would go into a more secure profession than art, to dying his hair blonde in a colour-coded white society and being perceived by some onlookers as a deeply tanned white European. These days, he finds himself as an artist, ‘constantly fighting with the “British Asian artist” label and “queer artist”, that’s another label. Sometimes I have to be very conscious because once you do that it conjures up the idea that you only make that work, which means you’re only accessible to those people. That’s just death to me.’ For an artist who has always felt apart and been told they are apart, the resistance to labels can be visceral.
Instead of accepting labels or railing against them, George uses them in his art, finding new ways to explore binary attitudes. In 2015, he exhibited a series of thirteen photos representing the thirteen suicides in the works of Shakespeare. In making Thirteen, George took on the most English of English heritage because ‘I can. Shakespeare appropriated so much culture. People get upset when you walk on those paths that you’re not supposed to go down.’ For the dislocated artist, art can be a reclamation of sorts, a way to resist society’s constant need to define them by what they lack. It is a way of reclaiming the power to define the self.
And in challenging that need to categorise, an artist can sometimes prompt a sense of dislocation in their audience, creating gaps in their perceived narrative and – even if just for a moment – forcing them to question what they think they know. Great art revels in the blurring of boundaries, and the very best does not apologise for it. ‘I think there’s something lazy about being comfortable,’ says George. ‘You don’t learn from a comfortable place, which is why I make the work that I do. It’s not always important for the audience to feel dislocated or provoked, but some of the best conversations I’ve ever had about my work came out of that feeling.’
George Chakravarthi is a multi-disciplinary artist whose analysis of identity permeates his self-portraits, which deconstruct learned and socially accepted definitions of gender, sexual and racial identity, the intense scrutiny of his personal experiences challenging those received wisdoms. He has performed and exhibited nationally around the UK at venues including Tate Modern, Victoria and Albert Museum, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Site Gallery, and internationally in Germany, Spain, Norway, Netherlands, Austria, USA and India. Find out more at www.georgechakravarthi.com
Words: Sinéad Keegan, co-editor all the sins