Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Fallacy of the Authentic Other

Last week I had written a post about making our national identity more inclusive. Since then I’ve been thinking a lot about how rich English-speaking Pakistanis are excluded from the national identity by the discourse of authenticity. This discourse is most obvious in the Urdu media where columnists and talk show hosts enthusiastically denounce English-speaking Pakistanis as traitors and dupes of the West. But what is a bit more surprising is that this discourse is equally prevalent in the English media and among English-speaking Pakistanis, who also tend to see themselves as less-than-authentic Pakistanis.

This past Tuesday Koel Gallery put up a photography and video show by Maazin Kamal and Ahmed Omar titled “Bereft in the Fatherland”. It was as apt an example of this discourse in English speakers as I could imagine. The photos were high contrast black and white portraits of orphan children from Machar Colony, the largest slum in Karachi. In each photograph an orphan stared out with large doleful eyes, the image framed so tightly around the child that the background was invisible. Under each of the dozen or so photographs were Urdu couplets that read like plaintive pleas from the children. The one on the brochure, which if memory serves is quite typical of the rest, reads:

میری حساس امیدوں سے لرزتا ہے زماں
پر میرے دیس کی مٹی پہ میرا نام نہیں

At the opening, people, including myself, were hunched over the couplets struggling to decipher them. Later, over doodh pati and dhoklas, people clucked about these unfortunate souls captured so poignantly by the intrepid photographer. The whole show, consciously or subconsciously, was aimed to remind the viewer of the ‘real Pakistan’ outside the air-conditioned art galleries and cafes. The insistence on using Urdu for the poetry when most of the people there were much more comfortable in English further emphasized those children’s authentic pakistaniat.

Perhaps, someone will argue that the poetry was giving voice to the disenfranchised children and their voice of course cannot be in English. In that case it would have been more accurate for the poetry to be in Bengali, Sindhi and Pushto, the languages most heard in Machar Colony. But the fact is that those photographs had very little to do with reality. They were more interested in constructing the authentic other. The expressions were consciously selected by Maazin – it is hard to believe that these children, difficult as their lives are, never smile. The poetry was carefully crafted by Simi Kamal, Maazin’s mother and is tantamount to putting words in the children’s mouths. The decision to make the images black and white further aesthetizes them adding to their carefully calculated poignancy.

The photographs were the visual embodiment of ‘the masses’ whom the rich so airily talk about: the illiterate masses, the unfed masses, the helpless masses, the masses that need our sympathy and assistance. They put forward an utterly uncritical, patronizing and reductive view of the children of Machar Colony. The photographs reminded me of those NGO ads that pop up during Ramzan exhorting people to give zakat. They too use especially pitiful images of the ‘helpless masses’ to loosen people’s purse strings. But at the very least the money NGOs collect goes to people with similar needs to the ones who had excited the viewer’s sympathy. The money earned from the sale of these photographs goes straight to the photographer and the gallery, which strikes me as little more than exploitation.

But there is more to the story than Maazin and Mom’s dubious use of the orphans’ photographs. These images appeal to English-speaking Pakistanis. We like casting ourselves as saviors of these orphans. These images evoke noble (and thus pleasurable) sentiments in us. They simultaneously confirm our superiority over that other Pakistan. And equally crucially they stir in us a delectable guilt over our privilege and our inability to relate or even communicate with this other Pakistan. It becomes a delicious exercise of self-flagellation. Evoking the unfortunate but authentic other becomes a form of masturbation for English-speaking Pakistanis: a quick and easy way to revel in and relieve our feelings of guilt.

Tellingly, what is missing from rich English-speakers’ conception of the authentic other is the Pakistani middle class. The middle class is equally conspicuous in its absence from Pakistani art. But this is wholly understandable. The middle class is a bit too much like the rich and their antagonism is a bit too palpable. They wield economic and political power and frankly the rich don’t really know what to make of the middle class. This is not to imply that the two groups are hermetically sealed or entirely antagonistic. There are way more familial links connecting the upper and middle classes than between the upper and working classes. It is more that we (not just the rich but Pakistanis at large) haven’t quite made sense of who the middle class is as a social group and what its role, character and capabilities are. It is easier then to cast the authentic other as the helpless poor Pakistani and leave it at that.

Ahmed Omar’s video, on the other hand, was a refreshing contrast to the photographs. It was a long clip of children playing in a street in Machar Colony. The strength of the work lay in the freedom it gave to the subjects. The camera lay stationary, the shot was uninterrupted by cuts and the children played without interference or apparent direction. They bounced all about the street and every so often came up to the camera and boldly peered in. They asked for no sympathy and were in fact extremely relatable. Their exuberance and curiosity immediately reminded me of my own three-year-old sister. In Omar’s video, the aesthetized other of Maazin’s work recovered their humanity. The other it turns out is not so different after all.

Corrigendum: The post incorrectly notes that sales from the exhibition went to the artists. Profits, in fact, went to the Hisaar Foundation, an NGO that works in Pakistan's slums. Furthermore, while the post attributes authorship of the photographs to Maazin Kamal and of the video installation to Ahmed Omar, they were both collaborative efforts.


Faizan Ahmad said...


Brilliant post!

Saba said...


Anonymous said...

Hi Shayan,

This is Maazin! A friend of mine recently stumbled upon this post and forwarded it to me. As one of the artists that collaborated on this exhibition I thought I would personally respond to a few of your observations on Bereft in the Fatherland.

It wasn't a terribly enjoyable read for me - not because of the way you interpreted the work (interpretations and opinion are of course, personal) but because there seemed to be an inherent scorn that ran through your piece about my "English-Speaking" background. This was the premise upon which you built much of your article, and as a result many of the points that followed were based on clunky conjecture and misguided assumptions.

I think it would be fair to assume that you did not make inquiries at the gallery about what was being done with the money collected from sales? That may have been helpful in dispelling any notion of exploitation and "the loosening of purse strings" you had regarding the exhibition.

The majority of what was collected went to the Hisaar Foundation, which is an NGO for water, food and livelihood security chaired by my mother Simi Kamal. They have been active in not just Machar Colony, but a number of other slums nationwide. A portion of the sales of course, was set aside for exhibition-related expenses, such as the amount entitled to Koel, and Noorjehan Bilgrami was in fact kind enough to lower her rental rates for Bereft to increase the sale percentage that Hisaar would inherit. A reproduction of the entire exhibition now also hangs in Hisaar's main lobby.

While I understand that bloggers aren't bound to any ethical codes of journalism, one would expect them, at the very least, double check what they present as fact. This is a responsibility they owe to those that are subject to their harsh (and in this case inaccurate) moral judgement.

Ahmed and I were also under the impression that our exhibition was a collaboration. Dissatisfied Pakistanis are often prone to creating divisions where none exist, so I will choose to disregard your references to "Maazin's photographs" and "Ahmed's video" :)

You articulated your opinion honestly and critically and for that I am exceedingly grateful. But I hope you will agree that the personal experience is what forms the basis for conceiving reality, making it unique and subjective for all. For us, this exhibition was a personal expression of empathy. Journalists empathize by reporting on their experiences, bloggers reflect on theirs, and artists give theirs a form. I wouldn't think that makes any of us saviors, it just makes us human.

- Maazin

Shayan_R said...

Hi Maazin,

First off, thank you very much for taking out the time to respond to the post. I apologize for the factual errors that you have pointed out and I have acknowledged the mistakes in the original post. I hope that these regrettable errors do not overshadow my larger premise that English-speaking Pakistanis consistently fail to imagine themselves as 'authentic' Pakistanis. This criticism is not meant to be scornful of this group. It worries me that English-speakers are actually contributing to their own exclusion from the national identity instead of insisting upon their legitimate claim for inclusion, a claim that is already hotly contested in hypernationalist Urdu discourse.