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Who do you take me for?
On first seeing the title for this exhibition – Who Do You Take Me For? – the image that leapt to mind was far from the range of photo based works actually presented. Instead, I thought of a piece of television merchandising –that Matt Groening cartoon character T·shirt, the one with the caption "I'm Bart Simpson, who the hell are you? ". While at first glance these two queries about identity may appear to be quite similar, it quickly becomes clear that they actually suggest the existence of quite different power relationships. While the fictional interlocutor, "Bart Simpson ", speaks confidently of sell-identity, aggressively challenging his respondents to identify themselves, the question, "who do you take me for?" – as a call for extra-subjective definition – seems to suggest uncertainty on the part of the speaker; not 'this is who I am, who are you?", but "who do you take me for?" ("I'm uncertain of my identity, how do you define me?"). Read this way, the title of the exhibition seems to cut against the positive politics of self-definition that are a dominant concern of many of the works.
Significantly, this process of interrogation and assertion has the potential to place the viewer in an unstable position in relation to many of the works, one which requires some rethinking of the simple "self/other" binary system – around which this exhibition is necessarily constructed. As curator, Clare Williamson, states in her catalogue essay, this "is an exploration of photo-based work by British and Australian practitioners whose work deals with issues of 'otherness' as perceived by the dominant culture in which they live". Thus, the exhibition both sets out to critique simple oppositions, at the same time as it enmeshes the viewer within such a structure – as a subject already complicit with the discriminations of the dominant culture.
To drastically oversimplify what seems to be going on in the exhibition, it would be possible to locate the works between two polar characterisations: either the work functions as a personal search for self, an attempt to locate or construct an individual identity between cultures, or it is explicitly engaged in a more general analysis (or exposure) of the politics of cultural marginalisation. Clearly, if these are "false" poles, a work might deal with both issues at once, or, through its location in relation to other works here, be opened up to readings which might lie dormant in other contexts – which, I think, is what happens to the latent "political" aspects of some of the Australian contributions.
In general, there seems to be quite a difference between most of the British based artists' work and the work produced in Australia. This may, in part, be a result of the quite specific set of cultural-political struggles that could be taken to provide some of the foundation for the British artists – particularly the policy framework established by the Greater London Council (GLC) in the mid-eighties. As Dawn Langley's catalogue essay points out, the GLC developed policy "in favour of an alliance of the dispossessed", contributing to the emergence of a "Black arts" movement, explicitly challenging the discriminatory practices of mainstream art institutions. My understanding of the Australian work included in the exhibition, is that while it can clearly be understood in terms of questions of cultural displacement, it does not seem to have so direct an engagement with the policies and programmes of the public sector (although Franco di Chiera's video, A Change of Face, is a clear exception).
The exploration of self-identity, and the deconstruction of the non-anglo as 'other ', emerge in this exhibition, not by an explicit pursuit, critique or interrogation of local or national policy objectives (around multiculturalism , for example), but through contemporary approaches to (self) portraiture and visual forms of "textual analysis". In this respect, the works do not differ markedly from approaches that have featured regularly at the Institute of Modern Art over the past decade. What is different, is the explicit prioritization of the cultural position of the individual artists-and hence, the collective position these artists might be seen to occupy within, alongside, or excluded from the "mainstream".
Some of the tensions that might emerge between the taking up of a position as a "mainstream" artist and a critical practice from "the margins", were explored within the exhibition and taken up explicitly in a documented exchange between curator, Clare Williamson, and Tracey Moffatt. In declining an invitation to be involved as an exhibiting artist, Moffatt suggested that such contexts have a tendency to "ghettoise" the very artists they aim to support, and end up preaching to the converted, rather than actually changing the system. While to some extent this may be so, such a position depends upon a highly differentiated conception of art world discourses and exhibition contexts. It also depends upon one view of what art practice is about – giving priority to ART, over "activism".
To illustrate the difference – at three points on a linear scale – it would be possible to contrast the work of Sutapa Biswas, Roshini Kempadoo and Rhonda Wilson. While Sutapa Biswas's photographs are dark, mysterious and evocative investigations of self identity, Roshini Kempadoo mixes appropriated images, 'self-portrait' and text, to "deconstruct" dominant visual codes and stereotypes – through this more "critical" process she clearly asserts self identity: "I refuse to be claimed by events and eventualities other than my own in constant expression". If the work of these two artists, like the bulk of the work in the exhibition, falls within the framework of "aesthetic" or "deconstructive" practice, Rhonda Wilson's offset poster, A Sense of Place : Women and Homelessness 1988-89, is easier to identity as a work of cultural activism – just the kind of work that is often excluded from "mainstream" art contexts, on the grounds that it lacks "quality".
The real problem then, is how questions of racial and cultural background are overlaid by the issues of "quality", "good art", or even "ideologically sound" cultural activism. How do these issues have an impact on the "politics of exclusion"? How can art discourses have an impact on broader issues of racial and cultural politics? Can art play a role in changing the way different cultural groups interact? In the end, I don't think that "Who Do You Take Me For?" provides answers to these questions – what it does do is provide a matrix of lines of investigation and of address – speaking within marginalised contexts, and challenging dominant forms of social/cultural construction. In so doing, many of these works leave no clear space for "the dominant viewer", and even less of a sense that there is some easy cultural unity within "the art community" to which "we" all belong.