Painting Works by Expatriates Artists in a New Light

Recently, I have been considering the identity of the expatriate artist with measured amounts of hope and dismay. To begin simply: What would it mean for me to be an artist of Indian origin choosing to live and work in the Los Angeles art world? It would mean that I could likely make riskier art critiquing or investigating my country of origin, that I would likely have access to greater financial resources with which to make art (grants, fellowships, residencies etc.), and that I could likely continue making art using a Westernized visual vocabulary.

This visual vocabulary means that if I hypothetically want to make a work empowering Islamic feminism through photography, I'd be using my Western photographic education, with my Western audience in mind, yet making work that is rooted in a non-Western belief system. In my hypothetical world, the work would be received well by friends and critics, given that it is from a different culture and deals with “unique” subject matter that comes off as risky and slightly mysterious to the non-Islamic feminist. And, given my expensive education, I'd hope that it is also quite visually arresting. So what's the problem here? Allow me to backtrack…

The artists that visit our senior seminar class say that Los Angeles is the place to be right now. They flick their hair when they discuss the New York “scene” as old, tired and institutionalized. Los Angeles is the new frontier: cheap rent, space to stretch, laid back attitudes, and “such, refreshing, art!” they say. To the art connoisseur, if Chelsea has become an “oversaturated art gallery traffic jam,” the many miles of freeway between Venice and Highland Park are glimmering pots of art world gold. Yikes. However, as I understand it, the Los Angeles art scene is not exactly a cash-monies free-for-all. There is always talk of day jobs to pay the bills and the four-hour post-work-past-midnight window in which to make passionate frenzied work, and really just hustling real hard all the time.

As a senior art major, despite all my saltiness, there is a certain excitement that comes from being a student of the studio arts at this bizarre crossroads of Southern California art boom and rapidly-evolving discourse on class, privilege, race, and immigration that finally seems to be boiling over. The idea of joining the burgeoning league of expatriate artists that live in Los Angeles but were raised in late 80s to mid 90s Asian capitalism is at once incredibly exciting—so many people to discuss post colonialism, drink Milo and argue about ideas of nationalism with!—but as I mentioned above, it is also more than a little bit irksome.

Expat artists and their work, however exciting and interesting, are more prone to romanticizing, reducing or appropriating their country of origin. Then, because they are working in a more accessible Western setting, like a high-speed-wifi-connected loft in downtown L.A., their work is likely to have a far greater impact on how a foreign culture or issue is viewed. Many artists make good on that responsibility, but more often than not, that responsibility goes unacknowledged.

The idea of the expatriate artist has existed for a long time now. Salvador Dali came to the United States to escape the war, the hype around Fitzgerald and Hemingway's stint in Paris has yet to die down—thanks for nothing, Woody Allen. The artist as nomadic explorer and creator has been a tired trope for a long, long time, wherein living overseas instills the artist with the thrill of novelty and awe but also allows them to crystallize how they reflect on where they came from, a.k.a. to see it from a distance and then creatively engage with it from the safety of a faraway place. In both India and China's biggest cities, the flood of expats who are 'creative types' (code for “I'm an experimental sound artist but I don't mind shooting slick Nokia ads”) is apparent and widespread—the expatriate artist is not about to go extinct.

However, what does it mean that most of the artists at the LACMA's incredible Islamic Art Now exhibit or at the Brooklyn Art Museum's equally incredible Double Take: African Innovation exhibit are expats? That most bylines say things along the lines of “b. Morroco, lives in London” or “b. Iraq, lives in Houston” or “b. Benin, lives in Paris.” What does it mean that the most “exciting” and “interesting” art in shows highlighting South East Asia, or the Middle East or West Africa are coming from artists working in Brooklyn, N.Y., or Richmond, Va., or San Francisco, Calif.?

My biggest question is this: How does the work of expatriate artists change the way we perceive art from the Iranian artist actually living in Tehran, or the Indian artist actually living in Delhi? Does the fact that these expat artists are creating art that is viewed more frequently by Western audiences make it easier for those same audiences to then understand the nuances, complexities and strengths of work coming out of Tehran or Delhi? Or does it put an unrealistic pressure on the local Iranian or Indian artist to create work in a Westernized language in order to be understood or given recognition? My vote is on the latter.

Sana Javeri Kadri PO '16 is from Bombay, India and can usually be found making things.

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