Waswo X Waswo began his career as a photographer in Milwaukee, US, before visiting India in 1993 out of sheer curiosity. On his maiden trip to the country, the artist landed in Delhi and Udaipur, following which he shifted base to the City of Lakes in 2003. In his upcoming exhibition 'Like a Leaf in Autumn', Waswo has collaborated with Indian artist R Vijay to produce a set of miniatures, where he examines the self through orientalist history.
In an interview with Firstpost, Waswo X Waswo talks about his work in India, his response to the country's colonial history, collaborative process, and his disillusionment with leftist politics.
Why this return to colonialism, and why did you choose miniatures? What has your response to India's colonial history been?
In the last major exhibition that I had at Gallery Espace, I explored my own Orientalism as well as the often knee-jerk perception of Orientalism among today's scholars. It was an exhibition that cut both ways: looking inward, but also looking outward at the grip post-colonial theory has over our ability to just see beauty and humanity unclouded by politics. In this new exhibition, which is titled Like a Leaf in Autumn, I'm really addressing questions of race head on. The concept of "whiteness" is very much a motif that runs throughout. Once again, the racial allusions my collaborator R Vijay and I evoke are open to interpretation. One miniature depicts the white fedora-wearing man, that sometimes represents myself, crawling away from a crashed jet airplane onto a pristine Indian beach. Indian figures taken directly from the Fraser Album of Company School painting stroll upon the beach. This miniature is titled 'Refugee', but is this man a refugee or a future colonist? In the history of colonialism, and even our present times, it is not easy to answer such questions without knowing the future.
As an artist who has entered the Indian art scene as an outsider, what have you learned about it that is unique, or different? How does your collaborative process work with Indian artists?
The Indian art scene has been very good to me. It wasn't easy at first, being an American who was at first thought of as just a tourist, and later as someone exploiting opportunities that people thought I didn't deserve, "White Privilege" and all. However, Indians are on the whole so friendly and welcoming, and more, so impressively intellectual. It's often been difficult for me to keep up with the Indian intellect. I took it upon myself to learn as much as I could about the history of Indian modernism and how that informed Indian contemporary art. The more people came to understand me, and the more I came to understand them, the more friends I made in the art community. R Vijay, whose real name is Rakesh Vijayvargiya, has been a tremendously sensitive and sympathetic collaborator for nearly 13 years now. I conceptualise the composition and he paints, though there is always a tremendous amount of back and forth in the process.
You mention in your note, about the upcoming exhibition, that ‘populism, conservatism and leftism, all scare you’. Have you withdrawn from any one of these, or all, and if so, what prompted this withdrawal?
All my life I've considered myself an old-fashioned liberal. In the US, I was a loyal member of the Democratic Party. Twice I voted for [Barack] Obama. I used to regularly contribute to such organisations as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Media Matters. But as we all know, everything changed around 2015. I found the American Left just going off the deep end with all their talk of gender-fluidity, invented pronouns, and borderless societies. I've always been openly gay, and I'm an immigrant myself, but the Western Left was just taking it all to illogical extremes. Without changing any of my beliefs, I suddenly became a "conservative" to my friends. It's a very strange time we live in.
How does an artist represent the fear of ideologies they once themselves followed, when so many have spent lifetimes representing one or the other? Does it mean you are apolitical, if that is even possible?
It's a mistake to think I'm apolitical. I have very strong political opinions; it's just that they do not easily fit a right-left dichotomy. I've always been very concerned about the ecology, and the way we are destroying our planet, and that has always been reflected in our miniatures. I'm a great believer in the need for equal opportunities, and I loathe prejudice and discrimination. But I also tend to be nationalist, not a globalist, and a capitalist, not a socialist. I'm as close as you can get to being a free speech purist, but somehow that position has switched from left-wing to right-wing in recent years. I think the role of an artist should be to transcend propaganda and narrow ideological viewpoints. The artist needs to be first and foremost an open-minded, empathetic human, and that involves understanding other viewpoints, and visually evoking questions rather than propagating dogma.
White, aged, there a number of things that are factored into your worldview, working out of Third World, post-colonial India. What are the things you consider essential to your practice? What are some of the criticisms you've had to ignore on the way?
My being of European descent, and making a life for myself in Udaipur, certainly has affected the ways I perceive the world, not just India. I've become much more rounded in my views. I don't think of India as "Third World". It is what it is: a mixture of the old and the new, the rich and the poor, the hyper-educated and the illiterate. In our current times, all countries are struggling with these issues, so I see no reason to single out India. Though our miniatures dwell in an idealised Rajasthan, and are mildly humourous, there is actually a serious, even grim message behind them. Our art talks about isolation, despondency, cultural confusion, degraded environments, racial tensions, casteism...it is a mistake to think our art is merely cute or pretty. We try to embed social concerns in very subtle, very human ways. I think many of our messages work more at a subconscious level. I operate from the viewpoint that we are all imperfect, and through self-effacing imagery I think people are touched, recognising their own follies and foibles in the process.
'Like A Leaf in Autumn' opens at Gallery Espace, New Delhi, on 11 October.
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Updated Date: Oct 06, 2019 09:59:20 IST