A Sense of Belonging

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Twenty-eight contemporary artists explore the idea of home not only as a physical space, but also in terms of racial identity, sexuality and even languages that are dying out

Just before beginning to write this piece, I went to speak to the new people who had moved in on the first floor. They had been leaving the building’s grill door ajar, thus enabling the black dog that owns our street to come up and chew its way through a portion of our doormat every night. I explained the situation to the pleasant young man who opened the door, in a mixture of Hindi and English. An elderly man with a long beard came to see who was at the door. He was given a précis of the conversation in what sounded like Pashto. He sympathised with my dog crisis. Then he asked, where are you from? Since the conversation was premised on the fact that I lived upstairs, I said, upstairs. Third floor. Yes, yes, he said, but where are you actually from? Umm, I live here, I said. I’ve lived in the neighbourhood for six years. No, no, he said, I don’t mean that. Oh, you mean city, I said, smiling in relief: I’m from Delhi. Ah, but this is where you’ve married into, said the old man, where’s your parental home? And what about your husband? And his parents, where are they from?

When I managed to extricate myself, leaving behind a terribly dissatisfied old gentleman, I realised what I ought to have done—asked him where he was from. But I had assumed I knew the answer. Even if my guess was right, it seemed to me that I had failed the basic test of neighbourliness. I’m not sure which was worse: having refused to satisfy his curiosity, or having denied him the pleasure of satisfying mine.

Latika Gupta, curator of the British Council’s ongoing exhibition, Homelands, has described the show as an attempt to answer that constantly encountered, hard-to-answer question: ‘Where are you from?’ Homelands, which just completed its Delhi run and re-opens on 1 March in Kolkata, before going on to Mumbai and Bangalore, contains 80 works by 28 contemporary artists from the British Council collection, united by a shared concern with questions of belonging, with the relationship between selfhood and place.

The biggest name here is probably the British artist David Hockney, represented by his eight-part series, A Rake’s Progress, a wry and personal homage to William Hogarth’s 18th century series of the same name. Hockney’s etchings in black and red and aquatint are a far cry from Hogarth’s paintings. Hogarth’s view of the Rake’s decline was both salacious and righteous—we watched as he skittered away the family fortune on prostitutes and drink, as he married ‘an old maid’ for her money, went to prison and then gradually descended into insanity. Hockney replicates some of these things, such as the old maid, the prison, and the decline in fortune—there’s a memorable image, for instance, of the drooping Rake making his way down a staircase with the legend ‘The Wallet Begins to Empty’—but he is far less judgmental. Hockney’s Rake is autobiographical, inspired by his own time in America as a young gay artist in the 1960s. It is about being at home in a new milieu, and beginning to be at home in one’s sexuality.

Another kind of being at home in one’s body is achieved by Lisa Cheung’s I Want to be More Chinese (1997). Cheung’s series of posed photographs superimposed on china plates depicts her friends exaggerating the slantedness of their eyes. She takes a physical characteristic usually picked on as a racial slur, and subverts it with sly humour. Cheung’s work is an act of reclaiming, using a playful gesture to make a serious point. It involves a positive ownership of racial identity— and yet to insist on enacting the ‘Chinese’ body is a way of refusing its supposed naturalness.

In the four untitled images from Suki Dhanda’s 2002 photographic series Shopna, we move from an identity defined by the body to the external signs that are often read as the language of identity. Shopna, a Bangladeshi-British girl, was 15 when Dhanda photographed her and her family over the course of a year. In one image, she sits primly on a chair in a salwar-kameez, her legs folded up; in another, she plays at a pool table; in a third, she eats a piece of fried chicken at a fast food chain. It is when Shopna is outside her home that she wears her hijab, using it to distinguish herself from the other British girls who may be playing pool or getting a bite with friends at a chip shop. The most interesting image here is of Shopna at her bedroom window. The white lace curtain is drawn shut, and Shopna puts her head under it. It is as if the curtain is a veil with which she covers herself—but it is also a way in which she emerges from the darkness of the room’s interior to look out at the world beyond.

The idea of home is most commonly defined in terms of space—a space in which one is comfortable, in which one feels able to be oneself. The aspirational home is the subject of Gillian Wearing’s Melanie and Kelly (1997), in which two adolescent girls describe in their childish way the details of their dream home. A bedroom with purple tiles with pictures of animals, an ashtray by the bedside ‘for my husband’, a cot for an imagined future child—the imagination of home fuses objects and persons into a fictitious whole.

Objects and people also come together in Anthony Haughey’s photographs from his 1991 series Home, which are part of his documentation of the Ballymun housing estate in Dublin, where he encouraged young residents to photograph the lives of their own families and community.

Family and community also form the subject of the two photographs here by Martin Parr. These stunning black-and-white images are both of the Steep Lane Baptist Chapel in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, taken in 1976 and 1978. Part of Parr’s earliest work, they already reveal his interest in everyday life in Britain, though here the prism is not the weather, or consumption, as it would be later, but religion. The image of Baptist Chapel Buffet Lunch, in which a reproduction of Michelangelo’s The Last Supper is juxtaposed with an old lady spooning some sugar into her cup of tea, is a masterpiece, an ordinary moment somehow transformed into a tableaux.

A different kind of evocation of religious spaces is contained in Langland and Bell’s embossed prints on satiny white paper of the architectural plans of mosques around the world: the Great Mosque in Cordoba, Spain, the Q’ala of the Banu in Algeria, the Friday Mosque of Yazd and the Great Mosque in Samarra, Iran. These geometrical white impressions on white paper manage to produce a strangely empty, echoing effect—a sense of both presence and absence that is beautifully evocative of the idea of space itself. Space only acquires a shape by something surrounding it—but then it becomes something that can shape us.

Two exhibits evoke childhood, but then appropriate that evocation for rather grim adult purposes. Bob and Roberta Smith’s Concrete Boats (1996) look like enlarged toy boats, tugging at our nostalgic selves—and yet the fact of their immovability weighs us down. They cannot float, and neither can we. Jimmie Durham’s Our House (2007) is even clearer: the childlike simplicity of his scrawled separation between ‘Our House’ and ‘Others’ is a powerful indictment of the unreconstructed ‘us versus them’ emotion that governs the behaviour of most adults, whether as individuals or in communities.

The Lebanese-British artist Mona Hatoum is represented here by three works. The most hypnotic of these is a kinetic sculpture called + and –, in which a stainless steel brush in a sand box creates furrows in the sand on one side, while smoothening them out simultaneously on the other. It is a work of almost unbearable beauty, gesturing to the infinite and unending process of engraving and erasure, creation and destruction. Prayer Mat (1995), made of thousands of upturned pins glued on canvas, with a compass to tell the direction of Mecca, seems to point to the ambiguous sense of belonging that faith offers in the world today. A video work called Measures of Distance (1988) overlays images of Hatoum’s mother taken on a rare trip back to Lebanon in 1981 with the spiky Arabic text of letters written by her, unravelling the idea of home in a time of war and enforced exile. Even as the work speaks of a hard-won intimacy between mother and daughter, it can seem to lock someone else out: Mona’s father feels threatened and excluded by their conversations about the body.

The family and language both recur in Zineb Sedira’s well-known work Mother Tongue (2002), where three consecutive videos capture the limits of communication between three generations of a family: Sedira, her Algerian-speaking mother, and her English-speaking daughter. If the limits of our language are the limits of our world, then these women inhabit different universes: their homelands barely intersect at all.

The most haunting work in the exhibition, Susan Hiller’s The Last Silent Movie (2007–08), is also about languages. Hiller brings together sound recordings of 25 languages that are either already extinct or on the verge of dying out, providing the name and current status of each language as well as English translations of the recordings: Kora, Manx, Xoklang, the cheerfulness of Jèrriais, the whistling beauty of Sibo Gomero. As you sit in that dark curtained room and listen to a voice say, “Now we are going to speak Comanche again. From now we will speak Comanche for ever,” the hair on your arms stand on end at that hopeful enunciation of a patent untruth, the act of speech by which the speaker hopes to turn it into truth. “I can speak my language. I am a fluent speaker,” says another voice. Then, throwing down the gauntlet, gently but firmly turning the tables on us, the listeners, the voice says: “Can you speak your language?”

It’s a question even harder to answer than ‘Where are you from?’