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Radical Housing and Socially-Engaged Art

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It’s been a little over a week since I arrived here in Khirkee Extension, and the phenomenal street of S-17(massive), which houses Khoj – this truly brilliant and daring place for contemporary art here in India.

S-17 in Khirkee Extension is one of the most exciting spaces I’ve had the pleasure of walking through in a long time. Sometimes I feel like I’m walking through the pages of an Old Wild West novella. Other times, it feels like I’m walking down a rapidly expanding highway.

As a Jahajee/Indo-Caribbean, I am thankful to have gained so much in heritage from a Motherland, without the complicated legacies that haunt it. At times, I feel guilty to enjoy such a vast concept, culture and community without truly knowing the reality of the blood that’s been shed to get here. No matter how much I read, books can’t provide this knowledge.

Exile has not provided this knowledge.

Being a complete outsider to India and its many realities, I feel a certain freedom from local social norm: The gargantuan set of gentle, but ultimately severe investigations into humanity. In other words, that which governs the space of the social, cultural, gender, political, intellectual and financial.

So, it came as a pleasant surprise when people on the streets, fellow artists/academics, craftspeople, fruit sellers and others have shot me a smile or a wink when noting my choice of wardrobe here. Which over the last week has been predominantly a lungi. This particular one has kept me warm, clothed me, and travelled with me for almost a decade now. As Jahajees, we wear our lungi’s to pray, to eat, to love, to laugh and to labour.

I never thought much of it until yesterday evening. I was passing through the regular security routine at City Walk Mall, and the security guards were of increased suspicion to see me and my lungi arriving at their gates. So, when their eyebrows raised, I finally figured there must be something to this piece of cloth I’ve been strutting around in.

In a semi-joking, semi-heated discussion with a fellow artist here this morning, an artist who happens to call India home, he informed me that the lungi is something that could be perceived to represent a “lower class,” or someone who labours. This brought up many questions for me. Because wherever I am, I live in the clothes that I work in. As an artist, even with the occasional conceptual bent, that generally means I’m wearing the clothes of a labourer more often than not.

I thought back to City Walk Mall and I wonder about these “spaces.” How do we use them, guard them, segregate them? As someone who labours, is it not okay to enter certain spaces here in India?

Or must we continue to assert that class is not governed by appearance? Because anytime I hear the word class in the Indian context, it always seems to be said with a slight assertion of a British accent. And yet, whenever I hear the word Caste in an Indian context, it’s more often than not whispered.

Do we have to pretend that class exists and Caste does not?

As artists, it is ultimately important for us to be aware of the context of the ground that we walk on and the spaces we labour in. Admittedly, I don’t pretend to understand the many contexts that govern space in India. Though, I think it may be impossible for anyone to truly understand this, whether they admit it or not.

In Northern California, where I work and in Taipei where I also work, I wear the clothes of someone that labours.

In California that’s denim, it’s rugged and comfortable in a way that suits both climate and the context of the studio.

In Taiwan, I wear slippers, a t-shirt and light fabric shorts.

Whether at an opening, an event, or in a meeting, I tend to wear the clothes that I labour in.

As artists, we are labourers.

We tend to work physically and intellectually with rigor, and more often than not have to fight for compensation. This is the realm of labour. So, as I continue with my time here in Delhi, in S-17 and in India, I will continue to dress as I always have.