Alienated Cosmopolitans

Can we be world citizens yet still retain a sense of place? NMA Gold Medal: Portrait Photography
In her adopted role as Miss Canadiana, Toronto artist Camille Turner revels in national clichés. Attracting adoring fans in Canada, Europe, and as far afield as Dakar, Senegal, Turner decks herself out in a tiara, a Miss Canadiana sash, and a bright red gown, a maple leaf handbag and umbrella serving as accessories, and insinuates herself into public spaces. She then records the often-surprising responses. Apparently an authentic celebrity and public figure, Turner herself is the art object, and reactions range from celebrity worship to the frank and revealing.

After her show in Dakar, a French woman enthused, “When you’re Miss Canadiana, I don’t even remember that you are black.” Perhaps this fan saw Camille as “Canadian” in her role and as “black” when she was just Camille Turner. Turner elaborates: “Camille’s cultural identity has been defined through the guise of ‘multiculturalism,’ as a fetishized display of ‘diversity’ rather than an integral part of the fabric of Canadian culture. In response, she transformed herself into Miss Canadiana, an icon that challenges assumptions about Canadian identity and normative beauty.” Turner and other contemporary artists are seeking alternative models for living with a sense of belonging in a world of migrants and travellers. In the company of commentators such as travel writer and novelist Pico Iyer, anthropologist James Clifford, and art writer Kobena Mercer, they are searching for a renewed cosmopolitanism.

Returning to the notion of the cosmopolitan is courageous on several counts. Worthy ideals often suffer a decline when they become part of the popular imagination. The concept of cosmopolitanism might still imply a vague sense of world citizenship, as it did in the hands of the Buddha or the Cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope. But these days the word is largely bereft of its ancient pedigree, more readily used to name a magazine or a cocktail than to recall the responsibilities of world citizenship. The term has been dulled by the glitz of travel, fashion, and trendy drinks, and corrupted by the slippery protocols of the multinational, multicultural, and global.

How much do we really care about cultural specificity, its irreducibility and resistance to exchange? Iyer writes in The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home that “a true cosmopolitan, after all, is not someone who’s travelled a lot so much as someone who can appreciate what it feels like to be Other.” Among the privileged of the world, however, a consumerist cosmopolitanism based on tourism and purchasing power has become a reflex. “Otherness” is readily made into an item for sale and thus largely neutralized, a syndrome that raises pressing issues in a world that is ever more dependent on and troubled by the movement of peoples and ideas. We should also ask if our easy translation from context to context is such a good thing, if in fact we lose too much of the local in becoming global. Visual artists like Turner and Yinka Shonibare of Britain help us to understand why cosmopolitanism is at once a given, largely ignored, and of critical importance.

Cosmopolitanism stands against nationalism and regionalism, against particular and parochial interests, and would seem to facilitate such exchanges. Who in the art world would argue with such liberating values? Seduced by the benefits of the international art market, which frequently rewards the assimilation of art to Western paradigms, many visual artists today unthinkingly wear the attractive cosmo mantle. Others are more attentive to the nuances, the issues, and the promise of the ideal. With an insistence on the specifics of place and with wicked humour, Turner and Shonibare resist the worn notion that the visual is a universal language. Their stance revises an older form of cosmopolitanism that effectively elided the sense of place and belonging. It is their productive double vision of the particular and the worldly that offers a glimpse of a new cosmopolite.

Take the Miss Canadiana tour, for example. The idea of performing both Canadianness and beauty came to Turner when she was in a mall in North Bay, Ontario, shopping for supplies for that quintessentially Canadian activity, the camping trip. As a black woman, she was the object of stares and felt as if she were “some sort of alien.” This experience gave her the idea to become a symbol of the country, not to celebrate its official multicultural inclusiveness but as a way to explore personal alienation. Miss Canadiana exposes the irony that the ideals of tolerance and belonging function best when race becomes temporarily invisible in concentrated urban settings. As Turner says, there are “different levels of Canadianness.”

A new work is emerging from these concerns, titled The Final Frontier. Invited to speak in Lethbridge, Alberta, in 2005, Turner relates how taken she was with the landscape of the nearby coulees, their undulating grasslands serving as a platform for expansive skies, what Turner calls their “extraterrestrial” beauty. She felt a melancholy in the former frontier and discovered that this area witnessed confrontations between the native inhabitants and the North-West Mounted Police in the nineteenth century. There was also an internment camp for Japanese-Canadians nearby during World War II. And then there is the town with the irresistible sci-fi name of Vulcan. She imagines a benevolent invasion of the coulees by black people, an incursion that will move gradually into Vulcan, where the “alien” race will distribute cheap gifts and mingle with the locals. She emphasizes that the idio-syncrasies of place determine the work: “If I hadn’t grown up in southern Ontario, going to Lethbridge would not have made such an impact on me. I would not have responded with The Final Frontier. I like to think of myself as transnational, but I still experience the reality of place.”

Shonibare describes himself as a rascal, a description that captures Turner equally well. Though their work has not been compared, she credits him as an inspiration and they share a sense of the limits and promise of a new cosmopolitanism. Both manipulate their experience of alienation into an insistence on belonging, on feeling as if they are at home in their homelands and not hyphenated or qualified Canadians or Brits. Coincidentally, Shonibare has also turned to sci-fi to make a point about our terrestrial inequality. Dysfunctional Family (1999) presents four space aliens, each about four feet tall, who have landed awkwardly in our field of vision. The family grouping makes them somewhat familiar, but they remain assertively foreign. And not unlike Miss Canadiana, the group makes its comment on the social fabric through costume. Perhaps we should call Shonibare, Turner, and these new world citizens “cosmonauts.” Each sports what has become Shonibare’s signature: batik.

Born in London and raised in Nigeria, Shonibare has remained in the UK since his student days. He claims to be a citizen of the world, but the term does not imply ready movement and assimilation. Shonibare’s revived cosmopolitanism is both culturally specific and mobile. It recognizes immediate cultural context but is not parochial; it allows for trans-lation across borders but is not easily assimilated. His batik-clad figures belie the existence of Africanness, Britishness, or any other national or racial essence. The textiles that Shonibare buys in London’s street markets to clothe his sculptures have only the look of authenticity. The fabrics are remnants of empire: originally Indonesian, they have since the nineteenth century been simulated in the Netherlands, Germany, and England, then—ironically—exported to Africa, where they have become something of a national dress. One of Shonibare’s strongest works, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews Without Their Heads (1998), was purchased by the National Gallery of Canada. The signature headlessness of the human figures makes us ask who these brown, batik-clad people are. But at the same time, many will recognize them as exotic substitutes for the oh-so-English landowners in Thomas Gainsborough’s most famous conversation piece, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews (1750). Even if one misses the historical punchline, the decapitated group is amusing rather than disturbing.

Like these figures and like batik, Shonibare is a cosmopolitan hybrid. To use James Clifford’s memorable phrase from Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, both Shonibare and Turner produce and live a “discrepant cosmopolitanism,” one that acknowledges the peculiarities of their positions precisely as a way to recalibrate our understanding of world citizenship. The new, discrepant cosmopolitanism of Turner, Iyer, and Shonibare employs particular cultural manifestations such as Shonibare’s batik to avoid the blandness of a global monoculture. At the same time, his revelation of the economic, historical, and symbolic prolixity of this very fabric overrides local concerns.

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