Arts & Culture

Alienated Cosmopolitans

Can we be world citizens yet still retain a sense of place? NMA Gold Medal: Portrait Photography

by
• 2,164 words

In her adopted role as Miss Canadiana, Toronto artist Camille Turner revels in national clichés. Attracting adoring fans in Canada, Europe, and as far afield as Dakar, Senegal, Turner decks herself out in a tiara, a Miss Canadiana sash, and a bright red gown, a maple leaf handbag and umbrella serving as accessories, and insinuates herself into public spaces. She then records the often-surprising responses. Apparently an authentic celebrity and public figure, Turner herself is the art object, and reactions range from celebrity worship to the frank and revealing.

After her show in Dakar, a French woman enthused, “When you’re Miss Canadiana, I don’t even remember that you are black.” Perhaps this fan saw Camille as “Canadian” in her role and as “black” when she was just Camille Turner. Turner elaborates: “Camille’s cultural identity has been defined through the guise of ‘multiculturalism,’ as a fetishized display of ‘diversity’ rather than an integral part of the fabric of Canadian culture. In response, she transformed herself into Miss Canadiana, an icon that challenges assumptions about Canadian identity and normative beauty.” Turner and other contemporary artists are seeking alternative models for living with a sense of belonging in a world of migrants and travellers. In the company of commentators such as travel writer and novelist Pico Iyer, anthropologist James Clifford, and art writer Kobena Mercer, they are searching for a renewed cosmopolitanism.

Returning to the notion of the cosmopolitan is courageous on several counts. Worthy ideals often suffer a decline when they become part of the popular imagination. The concept of cosmopolitanism might still imply a vague sense of world citizenship, as it did in the hands of the Buddha or the Cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope. But these days the word is largely bereft of its ancient pedigree, more readily used to name a magazine or a cocktail than to recall the responsibilities of world citizenship. The term has been dulled by the glitz of travel, fashion, and trendy drinks, and corrupted by the slippery protocols of the multinational, multicultural, and global.

How much do we really care about cultural specificity, its irreducibility and resistance to exchange? Iyer writes in The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home that “a true cosmopolitan, after all, is not someone who’s travelled a lot so much as someone who can appreciate what it feels like to be Other.” Among the privileged of the world, however, a consumerist cosmopolitanism based on tourism and purchasing power has become a reflex. “Otherness” is readily made into an item for sale and thus largely neutralized, a syndrome that raises pressing issues in a world that is ever more dependent on and troubled by the movement of peoples and ideas. We should also ask if our easy translation from context to context is such a good thing, if in fact we lose too much of the local in becoming global. Visual artists like Turner and Yinka Shonibare of Britain help us to understand why cosmopolitanism is at once a given, largely ignored, and of critical importance.

Cosmopolitanism stands against nationalism and regionalism, against particular and parochial interests, and would seem to facilitate such exchanges. Who in the art world would argue with such liberating values? Seduced by the benefits of the international art market, which frequently rewards the assimilation of art to Western paradigms, many visual artists today unthinkingly wear the attractive cosmo mantle. Others are more attentive to the nuances, the issues, and the promise of the ideal. With an insistence on the specifics of place and with wicked humour, Turner and Shonibare resist the worn notion that the visual is a universal language. Their stance revises an older form of cosmopolitanism that effectively elided the sense of place and belonging. It is their productive double vision of the particular and the worldly that offers a glimpse of a new cosmopolite.

Take the Miss Canadiana tour, for example. The idea of performing both Canadianness and beauty came to Turner when she was in a mall in North Bay, Ontario, shopping for supplies for that quintessentially Canadian activity, the camping trip. As a black woman, she was the object of stares and felt as if she were “some sort of alien.” This experience gave her the idea to become a symbol of the country, not to celebrate its official multicultural inclusiveness but as a way to explore personal alienation. Miss Canadiana exposes the irony that the ideals of tolerance and belonging function best when race becomes temporarily invisible in concentrated urban settings. As Turner says, there are “different levels of Canadianness.”

A new work is emerging from these concerns, titled The Final Frontier. Invited to speak in Lethbridge, Alberta, in 2005, Turner relates how taken she was with the landscape of the nearby coulees, their undulating grasslands serving as a platform for expansive skies, what Turner calls their “extraterrestrial” beauty. She felt a melancholy in the former frontier and discovered that this area witnessed confrontations between the native inhabitants and the North-West Mounted Police in the nineteenth century. There was also an internment camp for Japanese-Canadians nearby during World War II. And then there is the town with the irresistible sci-fi name of Vulcan. She imagines a benevolent invasion of the coulees by black people, an incursion that will move gradually into Vulcan, where the “alien” race will distribute cheap gifts and mingle with the locals. She emphasizes that the idio-syncrasies of place determine the work: “If I hadn’t grown up in southern Ontario, going to Lethbridge would not have made such an impact on me. I would not have responded with The Final Frontier. I like to think of myself as transnational, but I still experience the reality of place.”

Shonibare describes himself as a rascal, a description that captures Turner equally well. Though their work has not been compared, she credits him as an inspiration and they share a sense of the limits and promise of a new cosmopolitanism. Both manipulate their experience of alienation into an insistence on belonging, on feeling as if they are at home in their homelands and not hyphenated or qualified Canadians or Brits. Coincidentally, Shonibare has also turned to sci-fi to make a point about our terrestrial inequality. Dysfunctional Family (1999) presents four space aliens, each about four feet tall, who have landed awkwardly in our field of vision. The family grouping makes them somewhat familiar, but they remain assertively foreign. And not unlike Miss Canadiana, the group makes its comment on the social fabric through costume. Perhaps we should call Shonibare, Turner, and these new world citizens “cosmonauts.” Each sports what has become Shonibare’s signature: batik.

Born in London and raised in Nigeria, Shonibare has remained in the UK since his student days. He claims to be a citizen of the world, but the term does not imply ready movement and assimilation. Shonibare’s revived cosmopolitanism is both culturally specific and mobile. It recognizes immediate cultural context but is not parochial; it allows for trans-lation across borders but is not easily assimilated. His batik-clad figures belie the existence of Africanness, Britishness, or any other national or racial essence. The textiles that Shonibare buys in London’s street markets to clothe his sculptures have only the look of authenticity. The fabrics are remnants of empire: originally Indonesian, they have since the nineteenth century been simulated in the Netherlands, Germany, and England, then—ironically—exported to Africa, where they have become something of a national dress. One of Shonibare’s strongest works, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews Without Their Heads (1998), was purchased by the National Gallery of Canada. The signature headlessness of the human figures makes us ask who these brown, batik-clad people are. But at the same time, many will recognize them as exotic substitutes for the oh-so-English landowners in Thomas Gainsborough’s most famous conversation piece, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews (1750). Even if one misses the historical punchline, the decapitated group is amusing rather than disturbing.

Like these figures and like batik, Shonibare is a cosmopolitan hybrid. To use James Clifford’s memorable phrase from Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, both Shonibare and Turner produce and live a “discrepant cosmopolitanism,” one that acknowledges the peculiarities of their positions precisely as a way to recalibrate our understanding of world citizenship. The new, discrepant cosmopolitanism of Turner, Iyer, and Shonibare employs particular cultural manifestations such as Shonibare’s batik to avoid the blandness of a global monoculture. At the same time, his revelation of the economic, historical, and symbolic prolixity of this very fabric overrides local concerns.

Casting himself as the protagonist in a 1998 photo series, Diary of a Victorian Dandy, Shonibare and a group of actors constructed five tableaux vivantes in a rented English stately home. Each scene presents a fantasy of opulence and indulgence for the central character. The Dandy rises late, attended by a large and fawning staff. By afternoon, he is the finely dressed centre of attention in his library, where he dictates a letter, encouraged and supported not only by his many friends, advisers, and servants, but by his impeccable heritage, overseen by the worthies looking on in the form of art objects.

Shonibare’s grand genuflection here is to William Hogarth, that most outspokenly English of artists. In Hogarth’s art and period, blacks were not typically central to British society. Hogarth’s racial Others were stock figures, usually servants, exotics, or miscreants. Shonibare updates these stereotypes. He knows that when blacks are rich and famous in the UK these days, they are often sports stars who not infrequently flaunt their wealth in ways that are anything but aristocratic. In Diary of a Victorian Dandy, Shonibare portrays no evanescent celebrity but a member of the landed gentry. Not only does he time-travel to the apex of empire and dare us not to see him as typically English, he projects these images into the current public arena in the form of posters, about a hundred of which were placed in tube stations across London. Enacting the border-crossing passions of the cosmopolite by bringing the realm of high-Victorian privilege down to the level of everyday commuters, Shonibare again challenges us to see him as out of place, as somehow an “extra” in the excess he pictures.

It’s hard not to notice the letters that appear after Shonibare’s name in biographical statements: mbe, or Member of the British Empire, an honour bestowed on him in 2004. For a self-proclaimed post-colonial hybrid, this designation is deliciously ironic. The British government’s website explains that the mbe is awarded for “service in and to the community of a responsible kind which is outstanding in its field; or very local ‘hands-on’ service which stands out as an example to others. In both cases awards illuminate areas of dedicated service which merit public recognition.” Shonibare, an exception among mostly military and sports figures, was cited “for services to art.” In significant measure, Diary records his initially ironic but later actual placement at the centre of contemporary British society.

Turner and Shonibare are of course not alone in rethinking multiculturalism. Their paths intersect with the statecraft of Tony Blair. The British PM is at pains to declare that his recent insistence on “the duty to integrate” and “shared British values” is a redefinition, not a rejection, of multiculturalism. In a controversial speech on December 8, 2006, Blair expounded his vision: “Multicultural Britain was never supposed to be a celebration of division, but of diversity. The purpose was to allow people to live harmoniously together, despite their difference, not to make their difference an encouragement to discord. The values that nurtured it were those of solidarity, of coming together, of peaceful co-existence. The right to be in a multicultural society was always, always implicitly balanced by a duty to integrate, to be part of Britain, to be British and Asian, British and black, British and white.”

How are we to assess Blair’s creed? Perhaps we would do well to look hard at what Shonibare and Turner show us about the downsides of multiculturalism, to think about Turner’s admonition that there are “different levels of Canadianness.” What Blair’s celebration model tends to elide is the insistence on the specifics of place underlined by these artists, Turner by contrasting her urban Toronto home with experiences in North Bay and Lethbridge, Shonibare through his vision of being British in a new way. These artists propose an alternative to official multiculturalism. Their new, critical cosmopolitanism offers the hope of mediation among affinities and affiliations of the multicultural precisely by turning from ecumenism toward local specificity, to inhabit what Kobena Mercer calls “cosmopolitan locales.” Stimulated by the textures of alienation specific to their circumstances in London and Toronto, Shonibare and Turner alert us to what these places might be. What we might think of as an heirloom cosmopolitan would have edited out such peculiarities. The new cosmopolite uses them as a passport.