This is piece I wrote about the photographic work of my friend and colleague Roshini Kempadoo for her retrospective exhibition catalogue in 2004 – Roshini Kempadoo Works 1990-2004. See her website for further images referenced here.
At the Edge of the Frame
In postcoloniality, every metropolitan definition is dislodged. The general mode for the postcolonial is citation, reinscription, rerouting the historical.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak i
I am interested in uncovering the contribution photography/the visual makes to sustaining the hegemonic order of western dominance and superiority, where the black subject is still constructed as the ‘underdeveloped’ other; childlike, immature, and in need of either control or consolation. Of course there are many complex ways which this order manifests itself. I aim to re-orientate these notions through artwork production. I am particularly interested in how digital media may have a role to play in disrupting the signification of the black subject as other. The image from Lapping it Up is perhaps an example of these two notions, where a spliced/cut disrupted digital image references the voyeuristic gaze of tourism, associated with the sexual play of skin tones, difference and otherness. The landscape positions it ‘over there’ and yet posits the black male subject as nearer, reflecting, recalling. The cupping of the hands marks the fragility of the sea and the water as a precious resource.
Roshini Kempadoo ii
Much of this photography and text work has to do with ‘making ourself visible’, redefining the image/position of the woman/person of colour in the large discourse.[…]Reterritorialisation includes recapturing one’s (combined and various) history, much of which has been dismissed as an insignificant footnote to the dominant culture. These objects become texts of redemption and emancipation then; not simply adaptations of Western codes, they construct and (re)define their makers’ own relationship with the world.
Kellie Jones iii
It is the ‘liminal space’ opened up by the ‘technological splicing’ of an ambivalent image of (post)colonial desire and mastery, with the scene of (an)other repressed history that Roshini Kempadoo’s creative corpus inhabits. She probes, cuts and re-positions the framings that have rendered the subaltern an object, invisible and exploited. From the early deconstructive monochrome montages of black women to the more recent digitally layered images of the Caribbean, Kempadoo’s photographic works are marked by a passionate intensity of expression and critical reflection. The characteristic juxtaposition and superimposition of different images, from across time and space, produces a complex articulation of multiple discourses that transverse Kempadoo’s photo-world. Her projects are challenging events, for they attempt to make visible the social and historical forces of the ‘outside world’ inside and across the frame of the image, by exposing the limits of representation itself. To view collectively Kempadoo’s intricate photo-constructions produced over the last decade, is to encounter a dense, multi-media labyrinthian flow of still images, through which the diasporic artist interrupts and recontextualises the present. Her work offers a disjunctive and dislocated political vision of everyday survival and struggle in contemporary globalization.
Informed by the traditions of social documentary and photojournalism, and working with the critical developments in cultural studies and postcolonial theory, Kempadoo’s artwork questions the truth claims of hegemonic visual culture, while attempting to construct new understandings of gendered and racialised subjects. Her ‘politics of representation’ is an example of the work of a number of black photographers that emerged in the 1980s, who questioned the prevailing social realist idiom of racial representation. This shift from documentary realism to one exploring questions of identification, desire, the body and spectatorship has been understood as a turn to ‘avant-garde’ modes of expression. Characteristically Kempadoo’s position within this new wave of black creative production is quite distinctive and nuanced – she has operated across, and with, the two generic approaches, deconstructing, with good aesthetic and political effect, the documentary/avant-garde division. Kempadoo, with photographers such as Dave Lewis, Sunil Gupta, Ingrid Pollard, Lorna Simpson and Clarissa Sligh, has been addressing the conceptual task highlighted by David A. Bailey and Stuart Hall ‘…there is a need for a more refined critical apparatus for seeing what someone who is practising in the documentary genre can and can’t do, how the genre limits them and how the genre allows them to refer to certain things which those who are working in the avant garde genres cannot, as well as how avant garde genres open up connections which realism blocks out.’iv Significantly, many of these ‘post- documentary’ photographers have tended to work at the complex intersections of gender, sexuality and racial history. The indexical reference and the appearance of ‘reality’ that the photograph connotes has been the very locus to articulate a political aesthetic, that translates across multiple and at times antagonistic social formations that are rarefied by global media culture. In the case of Kempadoo this has meant examining the potential and limits of cyberculture and virtual reality to represent the vissitudes of sexual difference and (post)colonial history.
Kempadoo has been especially attentive to addressing within her projects the ethical and social implications of artistic production. Her engagement with the politics of gender and black female subjectivity, is worked through a vigorous reflection upon the institutional, historical and cultural contexts in which aesthetics, technology and spectatorship are enunciated. As an experienced pedagogue, her practice is informed by a dialogic approach that creates an environment in which the audience or users positionality is foregrounded and questioned. For example, in recent digital pieces such as Back Routes (2002) and Ghosting (2004), Kempadoo produces an interactive environment that draws the spectator into exploring their investments in the images, by navigating the non-linear pieces through specific user interventions. A constant thematic in the photo-works is the challenging of the fetishistic structures that enframe the black female body. By visualising the relationship between desire and power the images expose the place of voyeurism and capitalism in the oppression of women. Kempadoo’s complex articulation of sexual, racial and commodity fetishisms are thought provoking feminist mappings of the way global power has oppressed black and ‘third world’ subjects. The importance of trade, capitalism and the economy, as the driving force of historical and contemporary imperialism, patriarchy and racism are central concerns in many of the works. In Future Looms (1998) the place of labour, class and work is critically examined through the linking of images of industrial capitalism with the new world of virtual labour. Or the iconic composite digital print, from “The ‘Head People'” in Sweetness and Light (1997) of Kempadoo – the waitress/servant – holding aloft a personal computer superimposed on an anthropological-style archive sequence of naked black women, makes the provocative connection between colonial exploitation and contemporary gendered labour.
‘Who do they expect me to be today?’ (Identity in Production 1990)
‘I wonder is it possible to position
myself from both
HERE and THERE?
No one experience
no one history
but from this an identity
in constant change,
And now I know
it is not only
my fragmented history,
but also my future
my sense of being’
(Constant Transformation 1990)
In Kempadoo’s artwork the displacements produced by empire and its aftermath is the horizon for the mapping of cultural identity and belonging. Kempadoo’s own exploration of her multiple and partial identities – black, Asian, British, Guyanese, Trinidadian, West/East Indian, Indo-Caribbean – are literally inscribed across the bodies of the photo-constructions. The traumatic journeys of slavery, indenture and immigration converge in Kempadoo’s Caribbean ‘auto-graphic’ imaginary. The sumptuous images of the sea and sparsely populated island interiors create a sublime experience of loss and melancholia, where the hauntings of the past continue to disrupt any fixed identification. But this loss is an enabling one – As Françoise Vergès has astutely argued, creolization ‘…stems from a loss. A loss of the culture of origin, loss of native land, loss of language, and nothing can be done about that…loss constitutes the soil on which creolization can be constructed.’v Kempadoo invents through a bricolage of cultural fragments an image of a ‘minimal creole self’, always distorted, blurred and destabilising the imperial gaze. The exposed, naked body of the artist, inhabiting some of the photographic images, is allegorical of the ruptured Indian presence in the Caribbean. The processes of enculturation, from loss and exploitation, required creating a layered, palimpsest identity, where the traces of the past are painfully grafted over one and another. A hybrid Indian culture is reinvented through fictional re-imaginings.
Remember one-third quota, coolie woman.
Was your blood spilled so I might reject my history –
forget tears among the paddy leaves…vi
Virtual Exiles: Going for Gold (2000)
The exiled existence in the over-developed metropolis raises more questions of belonging, home and family. Kempadoo’s scattering of family and homes across the oceans, gives her a critical transnational perspective, always an outsider, but at home in multiple locations, in these ‘global postmodern’ times. The early family album montages of intimate domestic spaces, framed with texts of dislocation need to be read as acts of memory-work and identity formation that resonate across her work. The private and the public fold onto each other to create a place of uncanny belonging and transient home in the maelstrom of migration. ‘The family archive relates precisely to the construction of a ‘third space’…that liminal, in-between, transitional space, neither simply historical and collective nor wholly personal and subjective; an undecidable space ‘in between’ which brings a radically subjective sensibility to bear on the social and historical aspects of agency and the self.’vii
The recent works have returned to the histories of the Caribbean through an engagement with the archive and digital technologies. The internet project Virtual Exiles (2000), with the use of imperial and private archival imagery reconstructs other histories and memories of Guyana. As in Sweetness and Light, Kempadoo makes the analogy between colonialism and cyberspace – the projects create diasporic narratives that are made invisible by the circuits of the global information economy. While technology of the internet is itself mobilised to challenge the marginalisation of the subaltern subjects dispersed across the world, the new media also become objects of critique and analysis. As Maria Fernandez has observed,
‘Many artists have used digital media specifically to remember and to construct that ‘inappropriate’ site of intervention theorised by Bhabha. These artists include Esther Parada, Martina Lopez, Pedro Meyer, Roshini Kempadoo, Rafael Lorenzo-Hemmer, Keith Piper and Reggie Wooleri amongst others. Many of the images created by these artists bring to the digital realm the uncomfortable subjects of colonialism, imperialism and their legacy in the form of immigration and transculturation. Often the work mixes facts and fictions, past and present, materialising Hall’s claim that the past is not reclaimed literally but through the imagination.’viii
The use, by Kempadoo, of electronic processes of production, distribution and exhibition such as CD-ROMs, internet, websites, installations, multi-media environments and digital prints create an expansive contemporary recontextualisation of the still image, exploring the photograph’s inherent relationship to ‘reality’, memory and history.
‘The importance of the indexicality of the digital image has remained a central concern to me – mostly because of my interest in the re-articulation of memories and disrupting dominant historical narratives. There is something still disconcerting in virtual and digital spaces where the break from the real is seen as liberation. I am therefore more enthusiastic about the possibilities of what digital media artwork can engage with to ‘decentre’ what Foucault describes as the twin ‘figures of anthropology and humanism”ix
Virtual Exiles: Frontlines/Backyards (2000)
In Back Routes the slow movement of the digitally manipulated image of the landscape enhances the affective force of the photograph. The still image becomes a contemplative space of reflection and critical thinking. Within the global media spectacle of speed and visual simulation, Kempadoo produces a sublime stillness to the Caribbean. With the use of digital technologies of sampling, editing and processing Kempadoo is able to literally work beyond the boundaries of the still frame. In Back Routes and Ghosting the inventive use of sound and spoken word, as well as written text, creates a ‘sensorous’ soundscape that engulfs the still images. The innovative collaborations with the Guyanese dub poet Marc Matthews produces creole dialogues that are counterpoints to the images, while recontextualising and challenging the hegemonic discourses of authority. The use of voice, words and music within the digital space also references the importance of creole narratives and popular Caribbean vernacular culture in Kempadoo’s practice. As with the use of written texts, the soundtrack doesn’t anchor the meaning of the visual image but in fact multiplies it – it poetises and pluralises meanings. In Ghosting the mixing of contemporary music tracing Trindadian rhythms, with dialogues, conversations and stories signify the social antagonisms, negotiations and cultural translations that are in play in the Caribbean. This sonic montage adds further layers to the complexity of black subjectivity produced in the visual images.
Through digital imaging, and multi-media forms of exhibition and viewing, Kempadoo is pushing the creative and critical limits of the still image. This ‘representational limit’, of the still frame itself, as used by Kempadoo, is not necessarily a restrictive limitation, but in fact a conceptually enabling one. Against the eurocentric cyber-discourse of post-human, post-race futuristic utopia, the digital, for Kempadoo, enables a ‘return of the real’. The digital manipulation of archival material changes the meaning of the past. In a similar context Jacques Derrida argues ‘…the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archiviable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future. The archivization produces as much as it records the event.’x For Kempadoo the electronic interfaced archive becomes a memory screen – a surface to produce new subject histories and engender a counter-tradition. At the same time, the still image as encoded screen covers up, hides, as much as it exposes. The fractured voices of colonial desire, rape and violence that reverberate around the image environment are ‘ghosts in the machine’ of a subterranean space that one could call a cybernetic creole culture. Bodies, machines, languages interact, enabling new configurations of narrative and meaning to be constructed. This counter-colonial cybernetic tradition is not just one of sensory affect and rhizomatic connections, but also one of loss, forgetting and death. It is the silences, the gaps, and the absences that become ‘visible’ when one re-examines the imperial picture in the digital age. The formation of this ‘prosthetic race memory’ allows for ‘postcolonial mourning’ to be performed and worked through by revisiting the traumas and lacunae of modern racial terror. As Iain Chamber’s poignantly observes:
‘In the rewriting, and rerouting, of a particular Caribbean history the literary event discloses a deviation in the logic of representation: for it draws me into considering not only what is put forth, represented, but also to what withdraws from view, remains in the shadows, persists in being unrepresented. In the withdrawn and the non-represented, the event of art reveals an interruption in the linearity of temporal ‘progress’, disturbing the representation of ‘truth’ as the transparent and rational accumulation of ‘knowledge”xi
It is the ‘unrepresented’ that Roshini Kempadoo’s ethical art practice is committed to excavating – an ‘archaeology of silence’. In the gaps, juxtapositions and frissons between different creative and critical discourses we see another truth, another possibility of being and living. The ghostly traces of subaltern poetics produce other modes of figuration and looking, ones that create new hybrid forms of struggle, identification and belonging.
i. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Outside in the Teaching Machine, (New York and London: Routledge, 1993, p.217)
ii. Roshini Kempadoo, From unpublished presentation, DuPont Lectures at The Art Institute of Boston, USA, (October 2003)
iii. Kellie Jones ‘Re-creation’ in Ten 8 Vol. 2 No. 3 ‘Critical Decade: Black Photography in the 80s’ (Spring 1992, p.105)
iv. David A Bailey and Stuart Hall ‘The Vertigo of Displacement’ in ibid., p.20
v. Françoise Vergès, From ‘Open Session, Cosmopolitanism, Urban Culture, and Creole Identity in the 21st Century in Okwui Enwezor et al. Creolite and Creolization, Documenta 11_Platform 3, (Hatje Cantz, 2003, p.205)
vi. Mahadai Das ‘They Came in Ships’ in David Dabydeen and Brinsley Samaroo (eds.), India in the Caribbean, (London: Hansib, 1987, p. 289)
vii. Stuart Hall and Mark Sealy, Different, (London and New York: Phaidon Press, 2001, p.67)
viii. Maria Fernandez ‘Postcolonial Media Theory’ in Third Text (Summer 1999, pp.15-16)
ix. Roshini Kempadoo, From unpublished presentation, DuPont Lectures at The Art Institute of Boston, USA (October 2003)
x. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1996, p.17)
xi. Iain Chambers, ‘The Edge of the World’ in Culture after Humanism (London and New York: Routledge, 2001, pp185-86). The title of this catalogue essay is inspired by the sub-heading of a section in this collection.