There is no essence of identity to be discovered; rather, cultural identity is continually being produced within the vectors of similarity and difference.’According to this statement, culture identity is changing continually in the lead of likeness and unlikeness but can it be apply to all the cultural position? I will discuss this through talking about three artists’ work with different culture roots.
When I think about issues of identity, Pakistan firstly come out from my mind. I think the conflict between Muslim and Indian happen there can be a good example to talk about. I am going to discuss Huma Mulji’s works as they relate to the identity issues within her society very well. Huma Mulji was born in Karachi, Pakistan and her parents are both Indian Pakistani. In her works, she mainly focus on her discontent about The trend of Muslim Pakistani government giving pressure to the whole society to replace their South Asian identity with a Muslim identity. In one of Mulji’s animal sculptures, “The Arabian Delight”(figure 1), it is a taxidermy camel with bended body putted into a suitcase which is way too small for the camel.
The camel is a symbol of Arabian or their culture and the suitcase can be related to Pakistan. This work can be understood as the metaphor of the Arabian culture is not going to fit with Pakistan. It is a strong protest by Mulji to refuse accepting a “new” identity. In response to my discussion in the beginning, I considered Mulji’s works is against the statement as “The Arabian Delight” is an objection of the Muslim culture can be fitted or replace the South Asia culture in Pakistan, which made me think about Mulji and the South Asian in Pakistan insist of their own culture identity, so there is no space of changing. After a deeper consideration, I decided to overthrow my first conclusion because I think even the injection of Muslim culture is excluded by the South Asian race, it can still be a catalyst to toughen the culture identity of South Asian Pakistani. The increase of the differences is actually helping to show the sameness more clearly.
In the following paragraphs, I’m going to talk about one of my favourite artist’s works and how he engages with identity issues. He is called Chun Fai, Chow and he is a Hong Kong artist. He captured scenes and subtitle from several classic Hong Kong movies and create a series of enamel paintings. Some of those scenes are actually pointing out the questions of identity which challenging Hong Kong people and Chow himself. Am I a proper Chinese? Do I belong to China? In Internal affairs,”I want my identity back” (figure 2), the scene shows the undercover was asking his superior to give his police identity back. In the painting, the undercover sitting along the Vitoria Harbour side where is one of the representative of Hong Kong. This is a very direct reflection of Hong Kong people’s hesitation about our identity. As China ceded Hong Kong to United Kingdom in 1842, it lasted for over 150 years and Hong Kong finally returned to China in 1997. 150 years is obviously not a short time. Western culture had already seeped into our blood and totally became part of our culture. After that long 150 years familiarizing a different culture, some of us may think we generate a mixture of western and eastern culture, but oppositely some of us may think we have got lost in our culture. We are confused about what culture is representing Hong Kong.
In Love in the fallen city, “I can’t claim to be a real Chinese”(figure 3). In this movie, it is a love story between a British born Chinese man and a Chinese woman happened in Hong Kong. In this scene, the man was telling the woman he is not a real Chinese because his British background. The man dressed up in a western costume and dance with the woman who dressed up in a traditional Chinese costume which is a great figurative of Hong Kong‘s culture. Chow used this scene to emphasis the helpless of most of the Hong Kong people. We all want to claim ourselves as a real Chinese but it is not easy for us to claim it proudly with our long British colonized history .The smile on the man’s face is likely a wry one when he was telling the embarrassing fact.
Does Chow agree with this man and admitted himself as not a “real” Chinese. Chow shows his attitude and response courageously in another piece of his enamel paintings. In Fist of fury 1991, “we are Chinese”(figure 4), it is a clear statement of Chow to show his want of claiming himself a Chinese proudly.
In the mean while, Chow seems want to prove that there is a harmony between Western and Eastern culture through his photo installation series. He use photo as paint to recreate some of the well known Western master pieces and replace the figures with famous characters in some of the classic Chinese novels. In “rides in a solitary journey” (figure 5), Chow imitated Jacques Louis David’s “Napoleon crossing the Alps”(figure 6).Chow replaced Napoleon with a great marshal in Chinese history who showing the same motion of the original painting and kept almost exactly the same background. In the new version, Chow chose a playful way instead of create a epic atmosphere like the original painting. I believe the reason of Chow chose this way to recreate the master piece is to show that when combining two cultures, which also have great history backgrounds, you can still be creative, energetic and limitless. In response to my discussion in the beginning, I think Chow’s work can fully support the statement which culture identity is changing continually. Because of the influence of Western culture brought differences to the Hong Kong Eastern culture, the Hong Kong culture identity of Hong Kong has been changed literally. By producing works based on Western Culture and combining with Eastern elements, Chow proofed that Hong Kong ‘s culture identity turned to be more diversified.
Lastly, I want to discuss how Glenn Ligon, an African American artist’s work explored the issues of identity. Ligon like to express his feeling of being Black in a White predominant society through his works. Ligon always use quotations from literature authorised by famous African American writers in his well known text paintings. Ligon used oil stick, gesso and graphite to stencil the sentences repeat over the wood to create “I feel most colored when thrown against a sharp white background”(figure 7), Ligon quoted ‘I feel most colored when thrown against a sharp white background’ from Zora Neale Hurston’s essay, ”How it feels to be coloured me”.Ligon said he is fascinated with the sentence as the word ‘I’ create a confusion of being Zora Hurston or Ligon himself when reading it. The sentence is simply asserting Ligon feels his Black racial identity stands out most clearly when living in a White society. I think those two words ‘thrown’ and ‘sharp’ are interesting to be used in the sentence as they give me a negative expression, because in my understanding, “Thrown” can be related to abandon and ‘sharp” can be understood as offensive and biting. Maybe it is also the way of Ligon to express the discord between Black and White American.
Later on, Ligon started a study of 19th century runaway slave advertisements distributed by the slave owners and he produced a suite of ten lithographs. In this “Runaway”(figure 8) project, Ligon asked his friend to describe him as the content of the imaged runaway slave posters. In a result, Ligon found that those descriptions are inappropriately over described if that is the case between an owner and a slave. This series of works seems playful but it is actually showing the tragedy of Black slavery history and the racial identity issue challenging them.
To take a further step to explore the identity issue of African American, in “Untitled (conclusion), 2004”(figure 9), Ligon took part of James Baldwin’s essay,” Stranger in the village” which telling the experience of James Baldwin suffering from racism in a Swiss village. ‘Everyone in the village knows my name, though they scarcely ever use it, knows that I am America though, this, apparently, they will never really believe: black men come from Africa-and everyone… as much a stranger today as I was the first day I arrived, and the children shout Neger! Neger! as I walk along the streets…’
Seems Ligon chose this essay for his work because the story is a close reflection of the situation which Black American facing. Ligon used oil stick , synthetic polymer, oil, coal dust, glue and graphite to produce this very dark painting. Because of its blackness, viewers have to view the text closely and carefully to make sure they don’t miss any part. I believe it is an intention of Ligon to produce this work in this specific way to say that people have to see Black race with their content but not only criticising them only because of their skin colour. In response to my discussion in the beginning, as most of Ligon’s works are related to problem of African American suffering discrimination through years seems the issue is going on and without a significant improvement. In my opinion, the changes of African American ‘s cultural identity can be seen in Ligon’s works. In his “Runaway” portfolio shows the history of Black slavery and pointing their race used to have a lower class reputation in the past century. As Ligon’s works themselves and the literary materials used in his works are also evidences showing they are having a well-improved culture identity.
To make a conclusion, I believe I have made certain that cultural identity is revising itself through the passing time after I putted my discussion together with three artists who come from different cultural backgrounds. Hopefully, the changing of cultural identity can bring harmony to different races but less conflict. In the end, I want to share the most importance message I have learnt by doing this essay, treat all the culture with respect.
Art Practice as Research, Huma Mulji, http://artpracticeasresearch.com/tag/huma-mulji/ (accessed 27-03-11)
Saatchi Gallery, selected work by Huma Mulji,
Schjeldahl, Peter, The Art World: Unhidden Identities, The New Yorker, 21-03-11, http://i1.exhibit-e.com/regen/4b0c679b.pdf (assessed 24- 03-11)
Haber, John, Speaking of Blackness, 2011, http://www.haberarts.com/ligon.htm ( assessed 29-03-11)
Zotos, Brittni, Glenn Ligon’s 82’ reflects on works, The Wesleyan Argus, 26-02-10, http://wesleyanargus.com/2010/02/26/glenn-ligon-%E2%80%9982-reflects-on-work/(assessed 29-03-11)
Arning, Bill, International Artist-In-Residence New York 98.1 http://www.artpace.org/aboutTheExhibition.php?axid=186&sort=none (assessed 01-04-11)
Barker, Chris, Cultural Studies: Theory And Practice, 2nd edition, London: Sage Publications Ltd
 (Stuart Hall, Cultural Identity and Diaspora, 1990 in Chris Barker, Cultural studies: Theory and Practice, 2nd edition, London: Sage Publication, 2003, p. 231)
 http://www.artistpensiontrust.org/view/artist.asp?ID=5604&ImageID=3617(viewed 29-03-11)
 Whitney Museum of American Art, Glenn Ligon: American Audio Guide, Untitled 1990
http://whitney.org/WatchAndListen/Tag?context=curator&play_id=372(viewed & listened 01-04-11)
 Whitney Museum of American Art, Glenn Ligon: American Audio Guide, Runaway 1993
http://whitney.org/WatchAndListen/AudioGuides?play_id=375(viewed & listened 01-04-11)
 Whitney Museum of American Art, Glenn Ligon: American Audio Guide, Untitled 2004, http://whitney.org/WatchAndListen/AudioGuides?play_id=383 (viewed & listened 01-04-11)
 James Baldwin, Stranger in the village from Notes of a Native Son, 1955, https://pantherfile.uwm.edu/gjay/www/Whiteness/STRANGER%20IN%20THE%20VILLAGE.pdf (viewed 01-04-11)
 Bill Arning, International Artist-In-Residence New York 98.1 http://www.artpace.org/aboutTheExhibition.php?axid=186&sort=none (viewed 01-04-11)