Desi in Durban: Indian-origin artists are claiming a space in South Africa’s art scene

A group of LGBTQ+ artists of South Asian descent are exploring diasporic identity and working towards increased representation

October 22, 2021 02:36 pm | Updated 02:36 pm IST

‘Thai Poosum 2021’ collage by Youlendree Appasamy.

‘Thai Poosum 2021’ collage by Youlendree Appasamy.

Many facets of India’s layered and rich relationship with Africa are buried in the stories of the continent’s three-million-strong Indian diaspora. A consistent exchange of ideas and people has helped foster a deep-rooted sense of familiarity about India in most parts of the region. It’s true that this primarily stems from shared political histories and similar socio-cultural experiences, and is driven by diverse economic engagements, but at the heart of it is the human connection.

While the lived experiences and collective contributions of the many waves of Indian migrants to various African countries have been studied and documented, the role played by artists and their art in creating a notion of shared ‘Indianness’, far away from India’s borders, remains relatively unexplored. Enter Youlendree ‘Len’ Appasamy, a South African Indian writer, collage artist and zine-maker who is part of the Kutti Collective, a grouping of LGBTQ+ multidisciplinary artists of South Asian descent, who are working towards increasing the representation of ‘desi’ South Africans in the country’s art world.

Appasamy and I discuss the role of art in deepening relationships between people across these geographies, how Indian-origin artists bring an amalgamation of history, politics, nostalgia and a sense of displacement to their work, and how art can be used to rupture the boundaries of citizenship and nationality.

Writer-artist Youlendree Appasamy.

Writer-artist Youlendree Appasamy.

In particular, the collective uses various forms of art as a medium to document the history of indenture from the perspective of Indian passengers. These young artists, many of whom are descendants of those who undertook the journey, talk of how their families have tried to trace their roots in India. They wonder how indentured (bonded labourers transported to South Africa under colonial rule) and passenger (those who immigrated voluntarily and paid their own way) Indian communities in South Africa are spoken of, and thought about, in contemporary India. Their art, informed by and grounded in their Indianness, tells a story of a chapter in Indian history from a unique vantage point.

Multifaceted identities

The collective is working to shift conversations about what a diasporic Indian identity means in a deeper historical sense, in a more embedded way. Appasamy explains that “in South Africa we are more of a creolised and hybrid identity, and as a minority in the country, our work and worlds have often been subsumed into other people’s understandings of Africa and blackness. Through the work we’re individually and collectively doing, we want to articulate that ‘Indianness’ is a complicated and multifaceted feeling, especially in the Global South — in Africa.”

While members of the collective often use the term ‘desi’ to identify themselves, Appasamy admits that it’s a phrase she personally struggles with. “Its rootedness is in a lexicon that feels strange to me as an Indian South African where the local slang for those of Indian/ South Asian ancestry is charou (a mix of Afrikaans and English), as opposed to ‘desi’. However, as a collective, we come from different places in understanding ourselves and ‘desi’ is a strategically useful term, especially when interfacing with Global North or first and second-generation South Asian diasporic communities, where that label is used more commonly.”

‘Thinking about her thinking about me’ by Talia Ramkilawan.

‘Thinking about her thinking about me’ by Talia Ramkilawan.

These artists, some of whom can trace their ancestors to different parts of South Asia, have cultural, religious, ethnic, linguistic and class differences. However, it is the shared experiences of those that came before them and their separate but similar ordeal of blending into a new land that inform their art. “Within the hybrid Indian identities in South Africa, there are things that have become part of our culture due to assimilation. I’m thinking of the bunnychow, chutney and bhangra music, tripe and trotters curry and a deep love for madumbe. The slang and vocabulary used by some Indian South Africans also points to this mixed masala heritage, as it’s a mish-mash of IsiZulu, Afrikaans, Tamil and Hindi.”

Black and white

While the Kutti Collective’s art is often informed by, or rooted in, their Indian heritage, one of the biggest challenges seems to be in breaking into an art scene that is dominated by the black-and-white binary. Appasamy relates this to a fundamental issue — that a lot of other racial groups in South Africa simply don’t know the history of indenture and passenger Indian journeys in South Africa. “There is no embeddedness in the social fabric of the art world, or broader society here, unless through an orientalist gaze. Making work that comes from the texture of lived realities of being Indian South African becomes a task in hand-holding — whether these are editors, curators, funders or other gatekeepers. It adds to your cognitive and emotional labour quotient.”

She goes on to say that in South Africa, the black-and-white binary feels unbreakable in many ways and is a barrier to finding a language that welcomes and accommodates difference. “There’s a general feeling that Indian South Africans have of ‘not being black enough; not being white enough’ or people wanting your work to be more ‘Indian’, or less ‘Indian’ — that has to do with the traumas of colonialism and apartheid, as well as the violence racialised groups have enacted towards each other.”

‘Simran Scowls in the Face of Heteronormativity’ by Akshar Maganbeharie

‘Simran Scowls in the Face of Heteronormativity’ by Akshar Maganbeharie

While artists respond to this problem differently, Appasamy’s approach is to be cognizant of it, but sidestep the binary completely. “Feeling trapped between two worlds and two static conceptions of race does not make good art or a good state of mind, so I make myself and my communities the centre, and allow what happens to happen.” To drive home the point, she quotes Toni Morrison: “I stood at the border, stood at the edge and claimed it as central. l claimed it as central, and let the rest of the world move over to where I was.”

The writer is a researcher at the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi, who works on Asia-Africa issues and is currently based in New York.

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