The fourth annual India Art Fair (IAF), held earlier this year, was hailed by Indian and international media as proof of an art culture come of age. The private opening was packed with the art-hungry moneyed class from all over the world, not least among them Indian buyers with an eye on potential investments.
In Peter Jackson's film District 9, an alien spacecraft hangs in the air above Johannesburg. Although the ominous image dominates the story, viewers never learn just why it's there - least of all from its disoriented occupants, a species of large biped langoustines the Johannesbergers learn to call ‘prawns'. These have binocular vision and a language that humans have partly learned to decode. Though armed with formidable weapons, they don't use them on their hosts.
After some years the South African government is driven to offer the aliens earthly shelter, in a shanty town labelled ‘District 9', illustrated by many aerial and close-up shots of Jo'burg bidonvilles. Down there, however, black, brown and white have become united in detestation of prawns, and want them moved on to a suitably remote ‘District 10'. We see the ‘Apartheid' inheritance being exorcised by experience of these newer immigrants. The film relates pitiful episodes from the resulting expulsion. District 9 derives partly from director Neill Blomkamp's much earlier short film Live in Joburg (1990).
Jackson's feature-length movie will remind many of Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996), where alien craft also appear over various cities, before attacking them. But District 9 isn't traditional fodder: it appeals strongly to global liberalism as well as sci-fi addicts. Any internet visit to the thousands of reviews will show this. ‘Prawns' too have little ones, want to go home, and entertain doubts over the meaning of existence. Also, an anti-capitalist strain is prominent. The brutal expulsion has been farmed out to ‘Multi-National-United', a descendant of ‘The Firm' in older alien movies like Ridley Scott's great Alien of 1979 and James Cameron's follow-up Aliens (1986). Today's website visitors receive cod invitations to sign up for MNU (‘one of the world's largest weapons manufacturers') as well as hints on blowing up prawns. But one shouldn't be too distracted by the loudness and non-stop violence - Blomkamp called it the ‘down-and-dirty documentary style' in an LA Times interview. The essential idea is ‘We're all the same', and aliens should be treated as humans.
South Africa's message has been doing huge business, notably in the USA. But something is surely missing. Will the aliens be granted self-government in District 10? No hint is given in the screenplay. However, it is suggested that cross-fertilisation is unthinkable. The leader of MNU's task force, Wikus Van De Merwe, gets accidentally contaminated and starts turning into an alien. Whereupon, Nigerian gangsters (the only real villains) try to eat his arm, which would in turn let them use the prawn weapons of mass destruction. Since administering aliens is so dangerous, the new District will be most likely condemned to inward-looking nationalism - behind electric fences, with UNO membership forever in doubt.
The global-liberal world view retains its universality, but is incorrigibly glum. South Africa has been emancipated at the cost of new discrimination, a racism without hope of reprieve. Humans will remain permanently fearful of ‘prawns' and (oddly) Nigerians as well, from a successful state at the other end of the continent. It feels as if doom-to-come is part of the appeal itself. If humanity has united effectively against the intruders; but without enjoying it much, can it be because tension and dread have become part of its species-being? Thanks to District 10 and the brooding spaceship, the film's conclusion means the probable conservation of this human nature. Gods too will most likely be saved: the brands of spiritual paracetamol that have helped us put up with it.
Why does the globalising age remain so addicted to pessimism? One possibility might be that its beginning is lingering on into the end. Theorists of modern nationalism always stressed the link with industrialisation: modern economic forms could have developed only in states of a certain scale - big and cohesive enough to appear formidable, and competitive.They had to defend themselves, in a sense different from sprawling old empires and tiny city-states. And success with that depended on becoming metaphorical ‘families', possible solely via the fostering of unitary language-cultures. Only there could national market places, states, educational institutions and armies develop. Thus modernity ‘arose',or at least battled into being. The main theorist of the process, Ernest Gellner, argued this was why scale assumed a different significance: big and intimate enough to create functioning industrial societies. One implication was that community and equality came to feel inseparable from a specifically enflamed ‘us-and-them' tension, manifested most clearly in warfare.
District 9 illustrates how difficult it is to untie that knot. Globalisation ought to be bringing the ‘attenuation' of nationalism Gellner himself hoped for. But what if we are more afraid of freedom, the lonely anguish of not finding ‘them' in order to grasp ourselves? Nor should one forget that another Catch 22 looms behind this one. The style of modern-times (‘enlightened') universality has always rested upon an active transcendence of particularisms. How will such meaningfulness go on being upheld, when there is less and less to ‘transcend'? ‘Globalisation' has become the daily answer catch-all title belovèd by sub-editors. Yet all too little spiritual can be seen in really existing global-shmobal, and too much downright sameism - American, Chinese or other. This is probably why so many have resorted to old-time paracetamols. What if populations and cultures ceased being, well...themselves?
Jackson and Blomkamp offer one answer: bring on District 9's absolute aliens, but fence them off. The only other may be, for globalisation to support and foster differentiation, within the bounds of possible cross-fertilization. South Africa didn't rid itself of apartheid to make everybody the same. Neither will the world: isn't that what ‘species-being' is returning to mean, the humane side of globality - the capacity (indeed the value) of generating crosses and hybrid?. Out of natural and on to social selection, to coats and houses of ever-increasing colours, to unpredictable splendours and contrasts - hopefully without a ‘District 10' at the end of any driveable road?
Kader Attia's installation ‘Ghosts' has dominated the media's coverage of the Saatchi Gallery's latest exhibit Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East. It is indeed a striking piece, showing 224 Muslim women crafted entirely from tinfoil crouching in prayer. The figures are hollow and vulnerable, yet their metallic shimmer lights up the room. The haunting quality of ‘Ghosts' permeates the rest of the exhibit, whose artists have used their work to express the trauma of war and the indignity of discrimination.
The theme of gender inequality pre-dominated the work of male and female artists alike. For instance, Ahmad Morshedloo's depiction of a woman at rest is an almost voyeuristic study of a moment of intimacy and solitude. At first glance, the piece is cold, rigid, and almost morgue like; yet the subject's stiffly rendered figure contrasts with the movement in her mass of hair that dominates the canvas. The painting subtly illustrates the long-standing constraints on Middle Eastern women in the private sphere, but also comments on the way in which tradition and custom bequeath power to women. Hair, for example, has historically in the Middle East been considered a potent source of female sexuality and sway over men.
A similar ambiguity is evident in Shadi Ghadirian's compelling photographs of fully concealed women in the traditional Iranian chador, whose faces have been replaced by generic kitchen utensils. The 183 x 183 prints engulf the room with the anonymity of the shrouded, faceless figures. A current of violence and resentment underwrites some of the photographs, as steely cleavers, irons and cheese graters glint ominously in front of the muted, flowery chadors. Yet there is also a comedic and tender element to the pieces; Ghadirian manages to instill a sense of individuality into each of her anonymous subjects, with each utensil portrays a different facet of womanhood in all its complexity.
Equally powerful were the works Iraqi artist Halim al-Karim. Al-Karim's photography is informed by his personal experience with war; he evaded compulsory military service under Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War by hiding for three years in a hole covered by rocks. His distorted, monochromatic print entitled ‘Hidden Prisoner' depicts harrowed, grotesque faces and evinces the monstrous nature of authoritarianism. The subjects' almost indistinguishable mouths contrast starkly with their eyes - wide with terror - forcefully conveying the political oppression of Saddam's regime.
In a recent review, the Financial Times panned the ‘Unveiled' exhibit as providing young artists who "have barely progressed beyond sixth-form competence" with "too much exposure, too soon". On top of their youth, their artists are accused of portraying their cultural identity in a "transposed and diluted" fashion and of re-ifying the West's misguided perceptions of ‘the other'.
But the selection of young artists based both in the Middle East and abroad is an opportunity to highlight the way that a new generation is experiencing and interpreting national identity, exile, and immigration in a transnational era. It is also a valuable expose of the creativity and imagination produced under, and by, the conditions of censorship in many Middle Eastern countries.
‘Unveiled' is a sincere, critical, and unpretentious examination of the political, social, and cultural struggles that are unfolding in the region. It is also refreshing in the nuance and complexity that it brings to issues like gender inequality, the subject of much clumsy stereotyping in the West. The women depicted by Morshedloo and Ghadirian are not merely victims of their environment. They are active re-arrangers of their culture, defying clichés and demanding attention. Like Kader Attia's ‘Ghosts' these pieces portray an honest vulnerability; but it is outshined by a sense of strength and resolve.
This week's editor
Heather McRobie is a regular contributor to 50.50
Heather McRobie is a regular contributor to 50.50