[Through] the personification of characters, or prosopopoeia…we display the thoughts of our opponents, as they themselves would do in a soliloquy, but our inventions of that sort will meet with credit only so far as we represent people saying what it is not unreasonable to suppose that they may have meditated; and so far as we introduce our own conversations with others, or those of others among themselves, with an air of plausibility; and when we invent persuasions, or reproaches, or complaints, or eulogies, or lamentations, and put them into the mouths of characters likely to utter them…In this kind of figure, it is allowable even to bring down the gods from heaven, evoke the dead, and give voices to cities and states.
I recently had the opportunity to work closely with American-born, Rajasthan-based artist, Waswo X. Waswo, developing a virtual 3D computer model for the exhibition design of his solo show at Gallery Espace in New Delhi, entitled "Confessions of an Evil Orientalist." Encompassing staged photographs, contemporary miniatures, installation and text-based art, the show takes us through a series of intimate visual and textual "Confessions," in which the symbolic figure of the "Evil Orientalist" offers itself up for scrutiny, generalization, categorization, and questioning. Animated by the rhetorical device of prosopopoeia, described above, this powerful body of work takes us through a series of incarnations and transmigrations as various roles are assumed in order to be deconstructed.
Waswo X. Waswo, Sapna Playing Sita, 24 x 36 in, Archival digital black & white photograph hand painted by Rajesh Soni; Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Espace.
We are challenged to think and rethink the meaning of roles and the place they occupy in an exhibition involving staged photographs as one of its core constituents. As we enter the gallery, "Sapna Playing Sita" and "Sauresh Playing Hanuman," exhibited side by side, reflect the importance given to roles and identities in this show. Here children incarnate the mythological figures from an epic history transposed into a rural setting with hand-painted backdrops that mirror each other. Recasting the appropriated deities Sita and Hanuman as children revalorizes their symbolic meaning. Similarly, in the "Second Incarnation" series of eight archival digital black-and-white, hand-painted photographs, the role of Hanuman is played by a young man. In "Second Incarnation the First," we see the human incarnation of Hanuman in the form of a young man in jeans flying over a backdrop of mountains (possibly the Anjana Giri) carrying the signature Gada (mace) on his shoulder. In "Second Incarnation the Second," we find the young Hanuman in jeans resting with his army against a jungle-like backdrop. In other depictions, the artist invokes the Hindu deity in rural settings, creating a bridge between tradition and modernity such that the diffusion and reconstruction of the myth becomes imminent.
Waswo X. Waswo, Second Incarnation The First, 24 x 36 in, Archival digital black & white photograph hand painted by Rajesh Soni & R. Vijay; Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Espace.
The Hanuman mythology is reincarnated through a rearticulation facilitated by the visual language of the staged photographs. Placing mythological figures in rural loci amoeni (Latin plural for "pleasant place," an idyllic pastoral setting that is traditionally treated as "a geomorphological concept") imbues the setting with "attributes that are normally assigned to characters." This gives rise to a presence that is not exoticized, per se, but rather fictionalized, romanticized and revalorized in the contemporary context. The locus amoenus, in literary theorist Northrop Frye's view is identified with the hero's youthful innocence, and functions as symbolic site of potentiality. The "Second Incarnation" works depict the young Hanuman at the pinnacle of youthful vigor. We see the muscular figure resting with his army, in post-battle scenes defeating his enemies, taking hostages, offering worship and being worshiped. In each "Second Incarnation" work, the hand-painted backdrops emblematically accentuate the preternatural embodiment of a mythological role by human characters. The loci amoeni prevalent in these artworks with backdrops in which trees, grass, earth and water are recurrent compose the fictitious space that the young deity occupies in a human incarnation. The backdrop ultimately typifies the mythological nature of these works, adding to the human resemblance of the deity (Hanuman and Sita as children, Hanuman as a young man). It is the loci amoeni in these works that extend the role of the backdrop and thus amplify the mythological nature of human characters playing the roles of Hindu gods.
The lineal visual language that incarnates these human subjects as Hindu gods by means of a rural backdrop is shared by other works depicting human characters in bucolic environs as well. In "Dal Bati," three elderly villagers are shown sitting on bare ground, cooking outdoors. Similarly, in "The Picnic," a village family is shown before a temple-like structure enjoying a meal. The pastoral scene is transferred to "Washing by the River," in which a young rural woman washes pots and utensils, with sparse vegetation painted on the backdrop. In this group of works, the visual narrative acquires continuity through the common thematic use of the bucolic and rural backdrop.
Waswo X. Waswo, Dal Bati, 24 x 36 in, Archival digital black & white photograph hand painted by Rajesh Soni; Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Espace.
The interjection of "The Evil Orientalist," an archival digital black-and-white photograph, hand-painted by Rajesh Soni and R. Vijay, ruptures this continuum. In this title piece, Waswo X. Waswo plays the role of "Evil Orientalist" in dialogue with the local Indian subjects placed in front of a checkered backdrop. He handles several tools, from magnifying lens and calipers to notebooks and pens, to examine the local Indian subjects with the derisive gesticulation reminiscent of the "silent era" (1894-1929) of early film. The mocking gestures of the Orientalist multiply the dissonance in (displacement of) communication that is produced in the failed dialogue between him and the subjects of his scrutiny. The checkered background adds a sanitary and controlled environment to the piece, creating a dimension that emphasizes the mockery and jesting of the Evil Orientalist, who appears in four interventionist poses in the image. "The Evil Orientalist" photograph serves as a bridge between a variety of works, ones contained within the rustic space of their protagonists, and others that locate the artist himself in a staged role within colorful and stylistically contemporary miniatures.
It is at this point of rupture that a sense of order emerges in the development of a unified visual narrative linking a wide variety of works in the exhibition. Taken together, the artworks tell a complex story that unfolds along four axes. First, the introduction of Hindu deities in a contemporary space alongside the portrayal of ordinary rural subjects in their "practice of everyday life" defines a self-encapsulated space where the subjects, rather than exoticized, are romanticized in a contemporary fashion through bucolic loci amoeni. Second, the Evil Orientalist is brought forth as a self-referential satirical figure incorporating the presence of the artist Waswo X. Waswo, who embodies the role of "the Saidian myopic-pragmatist self-serving ethnographer."
Along the third axis, Waswo’s series of miniatures (conceptualized by Waswo and executed by miniature painter R. Vijay) intervene in an expressive and self-satirical manner with the cartoon-like figure of the Evil Orientalist. The result is a projection (the satirical representation) of a projection (the stereotypical character of the Evil Orientalist). In these miniatures, such as the triptych Convergence, the Orientalist becomes the "Other," subject to the impressions of his objects of study, the local Indians, giving these works a dialogical dimension that is fortified by heteroglossia, which is described by Mikhail Bakhtin as "another's speech in another's language, serving to express authorial intentions but in a refracted way."
Waswo X. Waswo, Dream of the Lotuses, 8 x 8 in, Pigment and gold on wasli painted with R. Vijay; Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Espace.
Fourth, the meta-referential elements that emerge from the dialogue between the works are further supported by the display of text-centric works. Among these are two Arcane Untouchable Books on a Pedestal, locked within glass cases that rest on pedestals. The book covers contain a discernable text that can be read by using the magnifying lens supplied. The meta-referential and the self-referential elements also culminate in the "Confessions" video-text installation and set of collages. This text-based work is displayed in ten ornate frames alongside hanging magnifying lenses offered so viewers can read 101 declarations made by Waswo X. Waswo and attested by his collaborating artists Rajesh Soni and R. Vijay.
The title "Confessions of an Evil Orientalist" is in itself one of prosopopeic proportions. The term "prosopopeia" literally means "a figure of speech in which an absent or imaginary person is represented as speaking" and in the context of Waswo’s "Confessions" it reflects on the speechlessness of the artist before the body of criticism revolving around the topic of exoticism and Orientalism in his work. In the context of the artist’s production, exoticization is imputed by the mere fact that Waswo X. Waswo is American, an outsider delving into an Indian thematic. One could argue that such a term would not even apply were the artist an Indian national producing these types of works. As a result, in this exhibition, the artist assumes the imagined role of the Evil Orientalist in order to deconstruct it through his artistic production. In doing so, a broad set of questions with major implications emerge. These questions revolve around globalization, its intersection with post-coloniality and its impact on artistic production, subjectivity and the construction of identities.
What marks the beginning of globalization? Was it not always present at the juncture of civilizations and since the times of ancient travelers and ethnographers? Was it not present in their representations? Or did it come about with the interconnectivity of the world through a unified system of information and its dissemination and reception in international, transnational markets, via neoliberal avenues?
We live in an era that has made the uncommon world common, and diverse, remote societies seemingly similar and knowable. In the sphere of the political, we have become geopolitical, going from colonial to post-colonial, and ending up in an era where subjectivity can no longer be limited by geographic barriers or bound to a specific location.
As producers of culture, we are produced by cultures that lead to a point of departure from place, from origin, and all too often the origin is found in our destination, and the destination incarnates the origin as the source of our innermost expression.
Some would say we are post-national. Some would say we are post-postcolonial, that we have overcome and produced through our creativity a license to create from the (perceived) margin as if we were in the (perceived) center, that we have made of the perceived margin a conceived center.
Waswo X. Waswo, I am Watched while I eat, 8 x 8 in, Pigment and gold on wasli painted with R. Vijay; Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Espace.
It seems that Orientalism has to stagnate at some point with the advent of post-national cultural production, intersecting with post-modern thought, in which we recognize that the "death of the author" is also the death of the artist. The "laws" of intentional fallacy (or "fallacy of intent") hold in the world of artistic productions (and art criticism), as they do in literature, such that we may contend that the works speak for themselves and have no necessary direct link with the artist, and that the identity of the artist is independent of her/his work, taking into consideration, of course that "identity" per se is a construct bound to shift with time, space, condition and context. Thus, in the world of literary criticism it is a standard practice not to equate the author with the narrator (law of intentional fallacy number 1). The same is applicable to the artist.
As with the death of the author, "the death of the artist" begins with an acknowledgement, a confession, and in this case, I find it to be one of utter sacrifice and potentially/symbolically suicidal. But why would the artist want to "kill" himself? To purge himself of slanted and myopic criticism that is still governed by nationalistic notions of artistic production to the point of being communally divisive and exclusionary? To create a space of meta-criticism that points directly at the fact that a shift of perception, evaluation and reading in art critique is perhaps required?
In addition to being an emotionally powerful, aesthetically rich exhibition, through its inventive use of prosopopoeia in his visual interventions, Waswo X. Waswo's "Confessions of an Evil Orientalist" triumphs in achieving a self-reflexive death of the artist, thus emancipating the work to be observed sans filters, frames, as a work unto itself and unto its beholder/s, independent of the position of the artist, who is as subject to (re)interpretation and remaking as the work itself.
Bakhtin, Mikhail M. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.
Barthes, Roland. "The Death of the Author." Image Music Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 142-48.
Cook, David. A History of Narrative Film. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1990.
Schlobin, Roger. "Locus Amoenus and the Fantasy Quest." Kansas Quarterly 16.3 (1984): 29-34.
-- Amjad Majid