Archive for the ‘Representation’ Category

A shortage of Identities

October 9th, 2012 | Alina Müller

Identity is an attractive concept in the fields of critical theory, philosophy and art. When you have an immigrant background, however, the topic can get quite personal.

Last week the artist Matt Stokes held a talk at Whitechapel Gallery about his new work, ‘Give to Me the Life I Love’. I went because I had happened to read that Matt’s thing is to  ’immerse himself in communities to look at the culture that shapes people’s lives and identities’. This particular work revolved around the Bangladeshi community in the Whitechapel area in London. He was joined on the panel by scriptwriter Syed Rahman and community organiser Sotez Choudhury, who both have a Bangladeshi background.

About an hour into the talk, that had covered language, cultural heritage, the tension between the artist and the writer, a member of the audience asked Syed and Sotez the inevitable question: ‘Do you feel British or Bangladeshi?’ The audience member confessed that he himself was Irish but had grown up in London and often struggled with this type of existential query.

This is a classic type of question for most people with an immigrant background. In fact, as an immigrant, you might encounter it so often that you eventually decide to spend a significant amount of time, sometimes a whole degree, engaging with the eclectic writings on the topic of identity. You might start with nationalism, to understand how this most prominent of group identities is formed and the practices of exclusion that sustain it. And you get a bit anxious when you find out just how central national identity still is, not only to being formally recognised as a citizen in a specific country, but also to most people’s sense of self. Digging deeper and broader, you eventually come across cultural studies, post-colonial and post-structuralist theories, perhaps some of Homi Bhabha’s writings, and learn about the notion of ‘hybrid identity’. This calms you down a bit, as there seems to be a recognised alternative to being and feeling of any one nation or ethnicity in particular.  You are a Hybrid, you conclude relieved. And in fact there are many just like you and, with globalisation, there are likely to be even more. So it’s ok. Phew.  Soon enough, though, you realise that ‘hybrid’ is also applied to describe a certain type of car, bike, martial arts and the result of plant and animal breeding and frankly, you just start finding the word itself irritating. You also get into the mess of trying to figure out what you are a hybrid of. A hybrid bike is a mix between a road and a mountain bike. What about you? Instinctively, you start lining identities up: Swedish, Romanian, German, maybe a bit of Hungarian, Londoner… and then you’re right where you started.

Do you feel British or Bangladeshi?

Sotez, our friend on the panel, answered that  when he is in London he feels Bangladeshi, but when he is in Bangladesh he feels more British. A classic answer to a classic question. What it told me was that neither of the two options  he was offered were adequate descriptions of his own experience. Perhaps that’s why he ended up not choosing. Instead, he simply described how he is seen by others in different contexts and, by doing so, he made explicit the narrative under which personal identity is always understood as national identity or, at best, as a mix.

The more I engage with the topic of Identity, the more I sense that when the options on offer don’t suit and when one tires of being a Hybrid, the only thing left is to create more options.

When Granta Magazine launched its Aliens  issue in London in February last year,  there was an art project as part of the launch event where one was asked the question ‘Are you an Alien?’.  At the time, I hesitated to answer yes. In retrospect, I should have gone for it. Even if only in the spirit of putting another option out there.

A migration museum

May 8th, 2012 | Alina Müller

(Image from Samamidon's video 'Saro' )

I’m always searching for instances that document some aspects of the shared experience of people that have migrated. I continue to find fragments of it in music, literature, films and conversations. The most recent example that comes to mind is Ian Nagoski’s presentation of the record ‘To What Strange Place’, a collection of music recorded in New York by immigrants from the dissolving Ottoman Empire between 1916 – 1929. Among the tracks is one with the brilliant title ‘I wish I had never come to America’. Another example was the London launch of the ‘Aliens’ issue of Granta magazine, which features a selection of photographs by Afshin Dehkordi, who, having grown up in London, went back to photograph his country of origin, Iran.

But I have very rarely – actually I can’t think of any example – found an initiative, political or cultural, that represents migration and the story of people that migrate as a coherent and, more importantly, distinct narrative decoupled from that of the national one of the country of origin or of the ‘receiving’ country.

I recently came across The Migration Museum Project, a project initiated by a group of people that seek to create Britain’s first major migration museum.  The idea that a Migration museum always evokes for me  is precisely that of a place that tries to represent and explore the migration experience and process in a historical perspective. I imagine it as a place where I as a migrant would walk in and be able to situate my own personal narrative, very much shaped by moving and settling across national borders, within a broader historical one shared by others. A place that would offer me what I feel is a much needed alternative to the default national narrative  and identity of either my country(ies) of origin or the one where I currently live.

The objective of a museum as proposed by the Migration Museum Project is however slightly different. It is that of creating a space that conveys the importance of the British history of immigration and emigration in the national narrative. In the context of  today’s culturally diverse British society, this would in turn help to ‘advance a shared sense of history and through that to create a stronger sense of shared identity and common values’.

This purpose should perhaps not be surprising. It is after all a ‘national’ museum. And to help British people think of themselves as a nation of migrants is a worthy cause in itself. Nonetheless, I would argue that if such a space fails to engage with and explore what aspect of ‘Britishness’ has been shaped by the migrating experience  and in what way, only half of the job will be done.

In one of the papers produced by the Migration Museum Working Group, there is a really great reflection on the need for a migrant museum: ‘ For when a group or individual’s heritage is ignored or overshadowed by the dominant narrative- in other words when they cannot see themselves reflected in the mirror – the long-term outcome can be ‘disaffection, disillusionment and disenfranchisement (..) it is like being rubbed out of history’.

But what if, to this end, the task is not to re-define the dominant narrative with the purpose of making it more inclusive but instead to provide a space for displaying and exploring a narrative that is out there and in the making – the migrant narrative?