Kavita Singh retraces visual artist Waswo X.Waswo’s journey into miniatures, photography and contemporary art. MOA reproduces the catalogue essay for the exhibition This Confessions of an Evil Orientalist which ran in Gallery Espace from December 7, 2011 to January 12, 2012.
Twelve years ago, the American photographer and poet Richard John Waswo moved to India. Two years after the move, he renamed himself to signal the change in his life: eliminating his Christian names, he replaced them with a doubled surname. There were two Waswos now, hinged upon an enigmatic X. Did the X mean Waswo has been multiplied by Waswo, to yield a self-generated clone? Or did it signal a Waswo who was formerly Waswo (a Waswo ex Waswo)? The riddle posed by his name was confounded by the fact that the new person seemed to be an iteration of the old: both old and new selves were, after all, only Waswo.
In an irony that Waswo had probably not anticipated at the time, his new name condensed within itself the issue that was to bedevil the next decade of his life. Much as he would struggle to reinvent himself, he would never fully be able to slough off his skin; and even as he was able to alter some of his own habits and lifeways, he was not always able to counter the attitudes and biases of others towards himself.
Living in India, making it the subject of his work, and harnessing its traditions to extend his own vocabulary, Waswo tried to ‘go native’ in his life and his art. He was accepted: by the townspeople who called him ‘Chacha’ or uncle, thus enfolding him in their kin; by the subjects of his photographs, bemused by his requests, who smilingly accepted his directions and his small bakshish; by his assistants and interpreters, who were piqued by challenges he posed and pleased with the regular income he provided; by a circle of artists and scholars in his adopted home of Udaipur who were stimulated by his presence; by the young men who loved him, or let him love them, for a while. He was criticised: by the artists and critics who said his early exhibition of photographs, India Poems (2003), was ridden with Orientalist clichés; who objected to its images of a timeless and unmodern India rendered in sepia tones; who suspected him of exploiting the locals whose bodies and labour he was incorporating into his own work. And he could not help but notice how his friends and helpers saw him as an inexhaustible source of money; how his whiteness made him exotic and many people he dealt with could not see the individual inside the American skin; or how quickly he was accused of orientalising, neo-colonising, exoticising an Indian other, when the position he occupied was little different from that enjoyed by any comfortably-off Indian middle class person relating to the Indian poor or working class.
In 2008, Waswo mounted an exhibition titled A Studio in Rajasthan. The fruit of his years of living in Udaipur, the show’s photographs and paintings meditated on the complexity of his situation in extraordinarily complex ways. Instead of taking photographs, Waswo was now making photographs: in a basement studio, in front of painted backdrops, he and his assistants posed models brought in off the street. Ranging from shots of single figures to elaborate theatrical tableaux, these photographs featured barbers, farmers, camel drivers, fortune tellers, dhobis, chaiwalas, schoolgirls, office-goers and village louts posing as themselves. Their often homely and care-worn faces stared out of these photographs with a strange intensity. At the same time, the absurd artifice of the images - the lurid backdrops, the stagey poses and props, the reiteration of visual tropes from 19th century ethnography – seemed to want to turn these singular people into litany of types. The palpable tension between individualisation and homogenization made these pictures witty commentaries on stereotyping and portraiture.
While continuing Waswo’s photography, this series also explored different ways of making art and of being an artist. Not only did the figures pose against backdrops painted by Zenule Khan and Chiman Dangi, but the models, who were often discovered by Waswo’s assistants, also participated in the process of their imaging; and after the black-and-white photograph was taken and printed, it was lightly hand-tinted with watercolours by Rajesh Soni, a local artist. Waswo remained the photographer and key orchestrator of these photographs but he insistently called attention to the multiple agencies and complex collaborative processes that lay behind their production. And in the practices he adopted of attribution and remuneration, he foregrounded also an ethics of collaboration, examining his own attitudes and methods, and laying them open to the scrutiny of others.
If the photographs in that exhibition were poised to raise questions about the relationship between artists and their usually invisible assistants, the paintings in the show navigated a terrain that was infinitely more fraught. For these were miniature paintings that, despite being Waswo’s works, were also entirely untouched by his hand. The paintings were made by Rakesh Vijay, an Udaipur miniaturist who up till then had been producing souvenirs for the tourist trade. Waswo employed Rakesh to make miniatures on order; he would describe themes and situations and make preliminary sketches, which Rakesh would turn into fully-fleshed paintings in his carefully detailed but slightly naive style. In their scale, medium and technique these paintings adhered to the norms of current-day miniatures that strive to look traditional; but in their content they were both startlingly original and deeply personal, describing Waswo’s Indian encounters with merciless honesty. Waswo appears here as a suit-and-fedora-wearing firangi, marked as white by his clothes as well as his skin. We see him searching for spirituality among sadhus but complaining about the loudspeakers blaring from temples and mosques; believing he is having the authentic Indian experience by watching folk dances in the marble terrace of a five star hotel; finding the picturesque in labouring bodies in the fields; wishing to melt into India while carrying always a bottle of mineral water. If in the photograph series Waswo wishes to draw our attention to the way he constructs images of ordinary Indians, in the miniatures he literally reverse the gaze. Through these paintings, he articulates the way he thinks (or fears) ordinary Indians see him: a well-meaning, thoughtless, naive, generous, exploitative, perpetual outsider blundering across the Indian landscape. Part-confessional and part cartoon, this series occupies a liminal space: it is an autobiography of Waswo, written by another (but dictated by himself).
It is to the theme of his not-quite-requited love for India that Waswo returns in the current exhibition, making his own outsider status a major subject of the works. “Over the past ten years photographing and exhibiting in India I have become acutely conscious of issues pertaining to Orientalism, hegemony, and the ‘colonial gaze,’ ” he says, recalling the criticisms that have been made about him in the past. Now, titling his show Confessions of an Evil Orientalist, Waswo presents himself as the very incarnation of the Evil Orientalist, the NeoColonial Oppressor, the purveyor of a Hegemonic Gaze. For the first time, we see him inserted into one of his photographic tableaux: in the photomontage titled The Evil Orientalist he appears four times in his trademark white suit, using the tools of 19th c. ethnographers to examine Indian ‘natives.’ Standing in front of a checkerboard (which helped ethnographers record the height of their subjects) the Evil Orientalist uses callipers to measure the circumference of the head of a man who ignores him, remaining busy on his cellular phone. The Evil Orientalist places a magnifying lens upon the chest of another young man, who stands proudly confident of his splendid body even as the Orientalist primly presses his own legs together as though repressing his body’s response. The Orientalist sits cross-legged on the floor, compiling his notes, while the ornamental screen behind him is hung with the ethnographer’s coat and calipers, Waswo’s own earlier photographs, and a work from the artist N. Pushpamala’s recent series critiquing ethnographic photography. And finally we see him expressing mock-surprise as he measures a hunchback and finds he is as tall as the other men – evidently not noticing that the man has gained height by hopping onto a stool. Waswo casts the Orientalist-self as a buffoon who is unable to grasp the reality of the subjects that he believes he is scrutinizing with the tools of science.
Parallel to this work is another large photographic triptych, Tribal Signs, in which an array of lively figures are ranged against the arresting backdrop of a Meena (tribal) mural. It is as though the black and the white colours of the checkerboard have broken free and have re-formed as these marvelously energetic animal drawings; the people who pose here too, have come to life and are engaged in their own activities of work and play. Amid the teeming characters, the Orientalist reappears, now oblivious to the thrumming life around him as he examines the mural through his magnifying lens: again, his intense focus on a specific detail seems to blind him to larger realities.
Just as the ‘knowledge’ that the Orientalist produced was housed in learned tomes, Waswo too has produced two Arcane Untouchable Books for the exhibition. These are large leather-bound volumes that are not just shut and locked but are sealed within ornate vitrines. In their remoteness, the Arcane Untouchable Books refer to the world of knowledge that Orientalism produced that may have been about the Orient but that remained inaccessible to its own subjects. We are unable to open and read these books, but they have long-winded Victorian-style titles stamped upon the leather that allow us to imagine their content. One title begins thus:
"Erotic Attractions of the Indian Male ...Conjectures and Theories
Consisting of fragmented attempts to explain languorous and sensual charms in the context of subcontinental anxieties produced by cultural difference and a mutual awareness of race. With special attentions paid to provocative stances, machismo, sly glances, pouting lips, wide white eyes, quivering muscles, glistening chests and deeply whispered innuendoes…"
The title suggests a work of voyeurism masquerading as science, by the Orientalist who loses himself among the ‘quivering muscles and glistening chests’ of his subjects and then recovers himself sufficiently to write his learned book; viewers will be able to recognize the resemblance to actual works by ethnographers which endlessly probed the sexual habits and customs of their chosen tribes or documented bare-breasted tribal women in the pursuit of knowledge.
And yet, we note, both of the books are encased in highly decorative and distinctly Indian vitrines. The respect given to the physical body of the books is reminiscent of the treatment of holy books in India. Is Waswo then referring slyly also to the studied subject’s own veneration of Orientalist knowledge, which over the years becomes the authoritative source for them to recall or understand their own habits and traditions?
If in his photographic works, Waswo turns himself into the comical figure of an investigator who is blind to the realities around him, as the protagonist of the miniatures his presence becomes considerably more complex. While the miniature paintings in Waswo’s earlier exhibition were remarkable, in this show they have reached an altogether different level. Multilayered and dense in their narratives, they are also superbly painted: the artist Rakesh Vijay has clearly grown in his imaginative powers and his skill. Where earlier he had relied on symbols to convey meanings, meaning now reverberates through the entire painting, as all the elements in a pared-down composition coalesce to create an intense bhava. A restrained palette, a rhythm built out of repeating elements, and the lush beauty of minute detailing makes them utterly poetic. No longer can the firangi-figure be seen simply as a buffoon: in these images even his delusions become tragedy rather than folly: in A Prayer for Rain and Lotuses and Crocodiles, for instance, where the firangi is shown meditating in the midst of drought and flood, his vain gesture of prayer in times of disaster or danger provoke empathy rather than derision. In the large tryptich, Convergence, we see the firangi engaged in two clichéd quests of the foreigner-in-search-of-himself-in-India: spiritual enlightenment and sexual fulfillment. The central panel shows the happy consummation of both quests, as the protagonist reclines in a jungle bower with a lover while he listens to an ascetic’s speech. In the flanking panels the firangi photographs both lover and ascetic with his camera, trading inner experience for an objectified image. The transactional nature of the relationships is suggested by the ethnographic checkerboard in one background, and the bags of coins in the other. Yet the density of the paintings, the tremendous palette of greens for leaves and rocks, the silent theatre of the jungle creatures in the background, turns this into an artwork that far exceeds the sum of its parts: it is a painting to relish, and to meditate upon.
An important aspect of Waswo’s work has been his systematic use of appropriation as an artistic mode. This was perhaps inspired by early charges that he was appropriating ‘India’ for his work. Since then, Waswo has explored the limits and possibilities of appropriation. He has worked in collaboration with local artists, he has commissioned works from artisans, he has cited traditional imagery, and he has inserted himself into Indian tradition by making new versions of old myths. For some years now Waswo has been working his way through the avataras of Vishnu, by mounting lush photo-performances related to the legends of Krishna and Rama. Last year, Waswo had shown his Krishna series, in which a model adopted a series of poses inspired by calendar art. With swoon-inducing sensuality, the handsome man embraced a calf, or licked butter off his fingers; Waswo’s photographs mischievously brought the latent sexuality of the child-Krishna themes to the fore. Now, in this exhibition, Waswo mounts an elaborate series of photo-montages inspired by the Hanuman myth. With tails affixed to their trousers, a galaxy of beautiful men becomes the monkey army of the Ramayana; the protagonist Hanuman himself is an Adonis-like youth who is alternately shown as worshipful and militant, as he crushes enemies and bows in front of gods. The images may be translations of calendar art imagery, but their re-embodiment in these gloriously beautiful men foregrounds the latent homoeroticism of the theme. It is bold of Waswo to stake his right to make these myths his own at this time. For the past twenty years, in an atmosphere of growing intolerance and ignorance, right-wing religious forces in India and the Indian diaspora have been policing the representation of Hindu myths. Unfortunately, the fear they provoke has led to self-censorship, where we tend to crawl when we are asked to bend; as with Delhi University’s recent withdrawal from its syllabus of the great folklorist A.K. Ramanujan’s scholarly essay on the plurality of the Ramayana retellings.
Traditional myths and traditional imagery are by definition commonly held and should be commonly accessible; the very term ‘heritage’ suggests a distribution of ownership of cultural goods, whether among a particular community, or among humanity at large. However, in his exploration of appropriation as an artistic mode, Waswo audaciously ventures into that zone of cultural production where authorship is most fiercely guarded: contemporary art. Some of the most compelling and complex miniatures in Waswo’s previous exhibition had claimed the work of modern and contemporary Indian artists as part of his own heritage: we saw Waswo sitting on a leaf inside an A. Ramachandran lotus-pond; or taking the place of the goddess in a Ravi Varma print; or stumbling into an Amrita Sher-Gil composition, or becoming the protagonist of an Anju Dodiya water colour. Now, Waswo goes so far as to appropriate himself: his earlier suite of miniatures become the graphics for a comic book also titled The Evil Orientalist. Zooming in to details, splicing and juxtaposing images and using speech and thought bubbles, Waswo threads the miniatures together to tell a story of his own love of and alienation from India. We see him travel from one tourist enclave to another, stopping to take photographs; speech bubbles reveal what he says about his subjects and what his subjects feel about him. As euphoria alternates with depression, we see the protagonist ‘sink into the black lake of his despair:’ in the end, he feels, he must make his confession. And then follow the 101 incantations of Waswo, the Confessions of An Evil Orientalist.
Crafted with the skill of a poet, the 101 confessions are a fine piece of writing that evoke, as they are intended to do, conflicting emotions. If there are sins that are the Orientalist’s own,
"- I have drunk away nights cursing how your country is backward."
there are others that every reader would know they have committed too,
"- I have looked with pleasure over landscapes peopled with impoverished farmers."
there is acute honesty and self-knowledge.
"- I have embroidered my stories to make myself appear more civilized and you more bizarre."
and finally, there is his vulnerability as he utters:
"- I have come to think I belong here.
- I have come to think I have rights here.
- I have dared to call this home."
What then shall we make of the second set of confessions that are clumsily typed on legal paper and collaged with images from Waswo’s oeuvre; stamped in red ink with Hindi words that call out ‘Danger!’ ‘Shameful!’ ‘Selfish!’; signed and witnessed by two of Waswo’s collaborators, Rajesh Soni and Rakesh Vijay; and mounted in elaborate frames? If the confession in the comic book seemed like an intimate and personal admission, this iteration, which carries the menace of a legal document suggests the public humiliation of the protagonist. Through its exaggeratedly serious consideration of Waswo’s all-too-human ‘failings,’ the second Confession becomes a parody: not of the confessor but of the accusers who would feel the need to extort such a confession from a man. From the post-colonial, Waswo now moves into the post-post-colonial: dismantling critique by showing its inability to reckon with empathy and compassion; for its incapacity to see others as anything but Others.