Postcards From The Edge

Postcards From The Edge: Exploring the confluence of Bollywood, the Indian diaspora in New Zealand and neoliberal multiculturalism

One of the highlights of May was getting mail (remember that? with stamps and everything) from New Zealand containing a fabulous catalogue and postcards created by Bepen Bhana for his solo exhibition. The envelope was beautifully wrapped in cloth and sewn, rather like mail you used to get from India.

The envelope the catalogue came in.
The envelope the catalogue came in.

Bepen, an Auckland-based artist had asked me last year if I would contribute to the catalogue for his solo exhibition. It is the first time I have written something for an artist and I have another in the pipeline. Catalogues usually contain images and descriptions of the pieces being exhibited by an artist or artists with essays written by the exhibition’s curator and other specialists in the topic which provide context and a way for people to understand what they are seeing.

Bepen’s photorealist paintings superimpose Bollywood actors and scenes onto New Zealand composite landscapes. If you haven’t seen the exhibition already, get yourself to Te Tuhi, it’s on from 04 May 2013 – 14 July 2013.

This is the most exquisite artist catalogue I have ever set eyes upon.
This is the most exquisite artist catalogue I have ever set eyes upon.

Bepen has kindly given me permission to reproduce the essay I wrote for him below, but I think it would be even better if you went and checked out the exhibition and the exquisite catalogue. You can also watch this Nightline report about the work by Ali Ikram.

This is the image for my piece.
This is the image for my piece.

First published in May 2013: Postcards from the edge by Bepen Bhana.

Most postcards or promotional brochures of New Zealand foreground the natural beauty of the country, its pure unspoilt assets of snow capped mountains, pristine beautiful lakes, and isolated beaches— there for the enjoyment of tourists. Bepen Bhana’s seven large scale landscape paintings in a simulated Graphicswallah hoarding style are juxtaposed with iconic highly visible Bollywood couples who are lush, colourful, and passionately engaged with each other drawing the eye to themselves and to these hypothetical landscapes. Bepen Bhana’s work has a special resonance for me as a twice migrant (now thrice having moved to Australia in January). These images combine my own nostalgia for the glamorous and beautiful aspects of an imagined Indian culture that I’ve always been displaced from— and been on the periphery of— with the clean, tidy, orderly New Zealand landscape, a place devoid of roaming animals, where everything in its proper place. Bepen’s work also provides a welcome opportunity to begin to explore the confluence of Bollywood (a huge and diverse film industry made up of a range of Indian cinematic traditions), the Indian diaspora in New Zealand and neoliberal multiculturalism. Different members of the Indian diasporas negotiate belonging through Bollywood differently for example Being Goan or Tamil in Kenya, Fiji or New Zealand in the context of diverse viewing practices and diverse mediated identity constructions (Punathambekar, 2005).

Reterritorialization refers to how migrants recreate their cultural identities in new contexts and locales (Punathambekar, 2005). In the Nairobi of the seventies, Indian cuisine, Indian sweet shops and massive Bollywood billboards/hoardings were ubiquitous. Not so much in New Zealand when we arrived, nothing in the mainstream media or landscape reflected my inherited cultural experiences nor the difficulties of migration (Punathambekar, 2005).

The New Zealand Indian experience has been shaped by legislation in response to political and economic factors. Indian people first arrived as deserters from British East India Company ships in the late 1800s (Swarbrick, 2005). Despite being British subjects they were subject to hostility and exclusionary legislation including the 1899 Immigration Restriction Act aimed at restricting Indian and other Asian immigration (Beaglehole, 2002). Indian migrants who were largely men (because of the legislation) were perceived as a threat, both as competitors for jobs and threats to sexuality and morality (Leckie, 1995). Anti-Asian feeling directed at Chinese and Indian communities continued to increase after World War I. Anti-Asian organisations including the White New Zealand League, formed in 1926 on the basis of the apparent threat Chinese and Indian men presented through miscegenation, alien values and lifestyle (Cormack, 2007). The New Zealand Government introduced restrictions under a ‘permit system’ in 1920 (Museum of New Zealand: Te Papa Tongarewa, 2004). However, a review of immigration in 1986 catalysed by neoliberal concerns about the ‘brain drain’ and decreased immigration to New Zealand led to The Immigration Act of 1987. This legislation introduced a points system shifting migrant selection from preferred source countries to skills criteria. Subsequently, Business Immigration Policy and ‘family reunification’ and ‘humanitarian/refugee’ categories were introduced which cumulatively increased migration from Asia. These policy changes and the Fijian coups increased the range and number of Indian migrants beyond the historical kin migration from Gujarat and the Punjab.

The New Zealand of the seventies differs from today. There’s been an indigenous Maori resurgence and the changes that I’ve outlined mean that there is a plethora of pan-Asian spaces, festivals and celebrations. This ‘happy hybridity’ (Lo, 2000) belies the weak link between a politics of multiculturalism and a politics of anti-racism. The former is consumptive and makes few demands and all that’s required to engage is superficial and temporary. The fissure is exposed through incidents like attempts to purchase land by Chinese interests which reveal “it is fine for Asians to own the corner dairy, but not a dairy farm” as Raybon Kan quips referring to the Crafar farms furore. Some things remain the same, the media selectively screens the nation (Fresno-Calleja, 2011), representations of ethnically diverse New Zealanders are scarce and draw on stereotypes, reproducing unequal power relations instead of culturally inclusive narratives (Kothari, Pearson, & Zuberi, 2004). Consequently, the inadequacy of mainstream media has led many diaspora to develop their own media. Another reversal is evident in the switch from the diaspora being a market for Bollywood, to now settings including New Zealand extending the cultural imaginary of Bollywood cinema (Punathambekar, 2005).

Bollywood might represent the export of Indian nationalism or a “feel good” version of Indian culture (Punathambekar, 2005), but I am grateful for this counter discourse. It’s a break from the relentless discourses of people who are backward, deficit laden, poverty-stricken and patriarchally confined that circulate through mainstream media in New Zealand. The stereotype of India as traditional yet modern and prosperous is preferable (Kaur, 2002) but it too needs to be interrogated. It is a double-edged neoliberal sword that Tourism New Zealand wields in its bid to leverage off the powerful marketing influence of Bollywood films. Attempting to increase the 30,000 annual visitor arrivals from India while in the same breath, Indian origin residents have suffered historical discrimination and continue to do so in fields such as employment.

Apart from being beautiful, Bepen Bhana’s postcards from the edge pose crucial questions at a critical juncture in New Zealand’s relationship with India. Who belongs and who is out of place in the New Zealand landscape? Do our exploitative past relationships with India and Indian communities mirror our future neoliberal aspirations for export earnings and tourism trade? Bepen’s work provides a platform for interrogating these and many other social and political questions.




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