On a recent visit to Singapore, I was reminded that the Portuguese had forayed into the region some years after their Malaccan encounter in the sixteenth century. In 1587, the Portuguese, led by Paulo de Lima Pereira, destroyed Johor Lama, the royal administrative centre of Temasek or Singapura, as it was then known. Returning to the present, 2015 is the year that the city-state of Singapore celebrates its 50th anniversary as a modern nation, giving rise to many cultural programmes. Among them is the Singapore International Festival of Arts which will take place in August, and as a precursor to its main exhibition, the organisers hosted “The Open Participate Engage Negotiate” (O.P.E.N.) programme from 16 June to 4 July. According to the event brochure, since art festivals are so fleeting, the planners created O.P.E.N. to serve “as a popular academy … to transform attitudes, mindsets, knowledge and emotions…” To this end, the pre-festival included the work of Bangalore-based visual artist Pushpamala N. Using José Veloso Salgado’s 1898 painting “Vasco da Gama perante o Samorim” as her inspiration, Pushpamala N. recreates the orientalist canvas depicting the Portuguese navigator’s first meeting with the Zamorin of Calicut, in 1498, as a photograph. While nearly identical to Salgado’s portrayal of the historic moment, Pushpamala N.’s remake, titled “The Arrival of Vasco da Gama”, departs significantly in that not only are all the figures in her image, including the Portuguese, ‘played’ by South Asians, but also in that it is a self-portrait. The artist herself occupies the role of da Gama.
Painted four centuries after da Gama’s audience with the Zamorin, Salgado’s painting conveys the significance of the incident, not least because of the Portuguese discovery of the sea route to the Indies. Yet, rendered at a point in history when Portuguese colonial power had rapidly been declining, Salgado’s representation of the legendary episode was meant to function nostalgically as a reminder of past glory. In so doing, the picture also reimagines the past, for the Zamorin is said to have been less than impressed with the goods da Gama brought along for the purposes of trade. As for Pushpamala N.’s recasting of Salgado’s depiction, the artist’s use of South Asian bodies, including her own, to people the tableau, strives to centre the colonised, postcolonially. By cross-dressing as da Gama, Pushpamala N. deliberately genders the colonial past, and asks how women, while absent from Salgado’s memorialisation of historical events, might be returned to the scene. Replacing da Gama’s body with her own, Pushpamala N. enquires into the impact colonisation had on those subjects who were part of the milieu in which Salgado’s painting is set, even as their presence is erased.
However, in noting the “feminist commentary” Pushpamala N. offers through her photograph, critic Mayo Martin remains wary of how successful the artist is at dismantling “the original painting’s politics”, given that “[w]hile an Indian cast … take on the roles of the ‘Portuguese’, the ‘Indians’ are, well, still Indians. And it’s still a face-off” (Today, 26 June, 2015). What Martin zeroes in on is an excess of identity in the artwork – an overdetermined ‘Indianness'. But it is precisely because the Indianness in the tableau still settles into a dichotomy that one must question why this is so. A postcolonial rendition of an allegedly successful endeavour, as put on display at a programme hosted in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of a nation, Pushpamala N.’s meta-image at O.P.E.N. links oceanic histories and places nationalism in tandem with historical fiction. Nevertheless, how effective is the piece in deconstructing the replication of power hierarchies even when the coloniser is removed from the picture?
To answer this query, I turn to the Indian politician Shashi Tharoor's speech last week at the Oxford Union. In it, Tharoor, who hails from Kerala – coincidentally the coast upon which da Gama met the Zamorin – argued that Britain owed India reparations for having impoverished the region which, prior to the arrival of the English, had been on the rise economically. Apart from retroactively imagining a precolonial Indian ‘nation’, Tharoor, much like Salgado's painting, conjures up a mythical past worthy of celebration. For Tharoor, therefore, the problem is solely colonisation, with no mind paid to such matters as caste divisions that not only predated the colonial era, but also continued on and still exist even after the exit of the Europeans. The parallel with Pushpamala N.’s installation, then, and its inability to erase difference in postcolonially representing oppression, is that both Tharoor and the artist fail to see how Indianness is quite capable of sustaining its own hierarchies with little to no assistance from elsewhere. Colonisation may have added other shades of oppression, but the canvas of the past was never pristine to begin with.
From The Goan.