Culture

Name-Place-Animal-Thing: Meditations on Individual, Social and Familial Identities

This week’s selection of arts and culture pieces from around the world focuses on the ways we make and also unravel different versions of ourselves.

Riz Ahmed in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, in which he played the lead. Credit: Youtube screenshot

Riz Ahmed in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Credit: Youtube screenshot

In Typecast as a Terrorist, Riz Ahmed, a Muslim actor from the UK, narrates his experience of juggling multiple selves growing up as a South Asian immigrant, then coming to terms with being perceived as ‘Muslim’ in a post-9/11 world and navigating all of this through his acting career. Both his ethnicity and profession expose him to the perceptions of other people to a larger degree than most others endure, leading to an insightfully drawn out parallel between being an actor and being a Muslim man in the current moment.

“You see, the pitfalls of the audition room and the airport interrogation room are the same. They are places where the threat of rejection is real. They are also places where you are reduced to your marketability or threat-level, where the length of your facial hair can be a deal-breaker, where you are seen, and hence see yourself, in reductive labels – never as “just a bloke called Dave”. The post 9/11 Necklace tightens around your neck.”

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Representative image. Credit: Pixabay

Representative image. Credit: Pixabay

If changing yourself into different characters in line with a filmmaker’s vision constitutes art, then what about still photography? Can a person’s quest to be photographed by notable photographers make this endeavour of being photographed but not creating the images be considered an artistic project? In The Opposite of a Muse, the New Yorker wrote about a French woman, who did exactly that over the course of twenty years, building an extensive and bizarre archive of pictures of herself. While the piece asserts that Isabel Mège managed to surrender her identity to each photographer’s conceptual vision for the image, it makes you wonder if that is even possible for other people, such as say a Muslim American man, whose perceived religious or ethnic identity sticks to him because society will not allow him to be perceived as anything else.

“Though, in each case, the photographer was the director of the image—the one who conceptualized and oversaw it—it was Mège who created it, using her body. Mège has never made an art object—but neither does a dancer, who makes art by moving around from place to place, under the direction of choreographers. If some have trouble coming to terms with what Mège has made or done, it could be useful to think of her work, as conceptual as it might be, as a dance that lasted twenty-two years.”

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Men waiting on a train from Rishikesh to Chandigarh. Credit: Ringnam Wangkhang/ flickr/CC BY 2.0

Men waiting on a train from Rishikesh to Chandigarh. Credit: Ringnam Wangkhang/ Flickr, CC BY 2.0

While primarily aimed at an American audience, NPR’s piece, In India, A Rich Food Culture Vanishes From The Train Tracks, brings forth a wave of nostalgia for Indian trains and childhood food but more importantly, implicitly asks about the condition of civil society in India, especially if we no longer think of food as a cornerstone for social interactions. If people aren’t interacting with each other in public spaces or indulging in civic camaraderie, where do we meet and talk to people with outlooks and experiences different from our own? Has the venue simply shifted or are we increasingly more isolated?

“I think back fondly of these times during my rare train journeys these days; like many in India’s upwardly mobile middle class, I have mostly switched to the convenience of air travel. I was especially distressed when recently, my husband held out a box of homemade cake to a little girl on the next seat, only to be rudely ticked off by the mother, who then lectured her daughter about the dangers of accepting food from strangers.”

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Edward Albee. Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Edward Albee. Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Edward Albee, most famous for writing Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, passed away this week, prompting a flurry of emotional recollections and obituaries. In Me and Prof. Edward Albee, the author who was a student and friend of Albee’s recounts snippets of their relationship, that now make her think of him as a father-figure, an identity he never intentionally took on but wore well anyway.

“Maybe Edward Albee didn’t have biological children. But, as he said to me that rainy day, “I thought I was having kids by writing plays.”

And he’d had them by being a teacher as well. Now he is gone, and I miss him — well, what else? — like a father.

At the end of our conversation, the rain stopped. The sudden quiet was shocking.

“That was huge,” Edward said. “Huge and brief. But fun.”

Want to suggest a piece that should be included in this column? Write to me at nehmat@thewire.in
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