Saturday, 20 January 2018

The Indian Ocean Studies Framework: Malyalee Transnationalism

I was asked to introduce Dr Nisha Mathew’s talk, Dubai, The Migrant Imaginings of a Cosmopolitan World in Dubai, which was graciously hosted by Art Jameel. (I had some involvement in bringing and organizing the talk. Nisha was one of the conveners of the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore's conference on Gulf-South Asia relations. [I presented the Treading Gulf Waters essay at the conference.] I asked her to present a talk when she visited Dubai earlier this year).

What was meant to be a casual and intimate introduction, unravelled into a pensive mediation on Dubai and the Indian Ocean; it took me almost twenty minutes. Some joked and said they felt like they observed and listened to two talks. Others found the long introductory format rude and patriarchal!

I elected this format because, at that moment, I thought I must seize all opportunities and platforms to say things I think. I still do.

Here is a full transcript of the introductory note (a transcript from memory, btw, so this is not a live transcript from the recording and some of the content might have been expressed differently).



Welcome and thank you for joining us.

I am Ahmad Makia. I write about geography, urbanity, Dubai and sex. I will be chairing today’s talk.

First, I would like to thank the Art Jameel team for assisting us with organizing and supporting today’s talk. And by ‘us’, I am referring to peers and friends, some of whom are present in this room. We collectively come together to generate encounters, experiences, speculations, observations, interpretations, talks, performances, exercises, around the concept of Dubai.

Someone else interested in exploring Dubai is, Art Jameel. They’ve been in town for several years supporting a variety of local programmes and cultural initiatives. Today, they are working towards their largest effort yet, the Art Jameel Contemporary Arts Centre, which will host several gallery halls, a research/archive studio, a library, and artists/writer residency. It will launch in the upcoming winter season, and is currently under construction on the banks of what is considered the Dubai Wharf/Al Jaddaf area, opposite Dubai Festival City, slightly inward towards Ras Al Khor. It is one of the many venues and facilities that will come to populate Dubai’s new maritime corridor, the Dubai Creek Canal.

I bring up the location as I think it is reflective of where the city is today. Urbanists tend to teach you that state-led hydrological projects are not initiated for their commercial or utilitarian value solely, but that they are also created to say something about the state itself. That is, engineered intelligence over the environment. In this process, a seemingly ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ space is appropriated into something ‘naturally’ managed, which, subliminally, or not so much, demonstrates the creative forces of an authority. This phenomenon then contributes to very fixed and ever-present ideas of ‘the landscape’ in people’s imaginations; it is these fixtures that we hope to uncover and interrogate today.

Dubai’s previous engagements with hydrology looked to attract and seduce a foreign gaze inwards. Today’s cultural shift, however, as evident with the Creek Canal project, which I find to be an understated, yet marvelous, and entitled, engineering project, signals how the city no longer needs external purveyors, but that it justifies its actions for itself, thereby permitting it to do things like tax you, ask for your loyalty and devotion, and monitor your happiness and well-being.

On another scale, and in connection to Art Jameel and Dubai’s arts and culture sector, I desire to address the context of this room and presentation. In the late 2000s a variety of individuals, who hailed from various wealthy diaspora communities and had remade Dubai into home over the last forty years, initiated art galleries. In them, they displayed art works from their respective homelands, which they had been displaced from or left. In virtue of these gallery spaces, they transformed into community centres, in which its members were able to express an affinity to their homelands; more so than only being a place for the acquisition and viewing of art only.

This emerging, celebratory public congealed into the MENA arts, mostly Arab and Iranian art, which, today, is a very institutional, popular, and bureaucratic space. MENA arts found great appeal in the global art marketplace, who, like other creative industries (music, fashion, graphic design, etc), and like capital itself, is always looking for underrepresented and marginal voices, affects, products to keep itself relevant, sustainable, and marketable.

MENA arts, now MENASA (with South Asia), in which SA serves a new addendum to the voice of marginality cultivated by this imagined cultural region, -- which itself is created through the cultural statecraft of Dubai, Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, and Doha -- also developed in tandem with geopolitical shifts, and the liberal Western conscious to understand the cultural spaces of its militaristic encounters. This gaze and expectation then created a legitimate space for Middle Eastern art to be perceived in connection to diaspora, war, refugee and exile narratives, and its associated expressions for loss, despondency, and annihilation.

Today, there is a plethora of support programs that aim to nurture this voice and perspective, so as to ensure and sustain the MENASA’s (itself an economic construct) participation in the global fine art institutions, specifically in the West and in Asia.

Today, however, we witness a new development and turning from these local spaces. They are no longer only interested in showcasing themselves through their material acquisitions and possessions, ie their artwork collections, but also through support for immaterial cultural currencies: critical discourse, cultural studies, and knowledge development. These spaces are interested in shifting their alignment towards the knowledge economy and contributing to a wider intellectual community, especially, an Asian, post-colonial, and Arab, cultural space, as exemplified by the institutional support for this talk today.

This, I find, very relevant and contemporary, as most of what is considered at the frontier of experimental theory, literature, fiction, as well as the bodies of ‘new’ concepts and philosophies, is written in consideration for circulation and consumption in the contemporary art world. Harvard University Press’s semiotext(e), Ugly Duckling Presse, and Punctum Books, are some examples of contemporary arts in connection to critical thinking platforms. This merger is becoming especially prevalent, as the literary world is becomes more fulfilled with writing from professional academic affiliations, ie ‘creative writing’ departments/ degrees, while academia, especially the social sciences, further encloses itself by discussing the autopsy of its own theories.

So, hopefully, adding to this confluence of contemporary arts, the knowledge economy, and Dubai, I am very pleased to present Nisha Mathew’s talk, Dubai, the Migrant Imaginings of a Cosmopolitan World. Nisha is a Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East and Asia Research Institutes at the National University of Singapore. Her work is interested in the articulations of Malyalee transnationalism, especially in how it is refracted and expressed through the migrational history to the Gulf region, and how it then expunges out into the globalizing world. This is an offshoot from a larger strand of her work, which looks at conceptualizing the Western Indian Ocean world, through the material relations, gold especially, and affectations, between West Indian port cities and the coastal Gulf states.

Both Nisha and I have used the Indian Ocean Studies Framework in our own work. I will provide you with a contextualizing note about the framework to situate you in the academic discourse that Nisha’s work comes from, and hopefully, to encourage you to consider the framework in your own imaginative and creative pursuits.

The Indian Ocean Studies Framework comes in association to South-South relations, which I understand to be cultural realities existing between Asian, African, and American, specifically Central and South, continents, or Tricontinentalism, that are not read through the biased narratives of Anglophonic, European, or Atlantic forms of coloniality or diplomacy.

This, of course, emerges from the post-colonial academic consciousness that works to oppose the tradition of the linear progression of a Western civilization, and to address the stark narrative of an unequal and unjust relationship between a few metropolitan Western centres, and their concentration of wealth and knowledge, and a large poverty-stricken, corrupt, colonial, now postcolonial, hemisphere.

In response, the Indian Ocean Studies framework emerged as a methodological tool, in which a shared water rim is instrumentalized as a more ecologically friendly framework for understanding space, society, identity for communities in the Afro-Asian-American worlds. The framework allows for a reading that does not favor, and avoids, ethnic, national, continental, institutional, and religious connections, which have been diagnosed as limiting and oppressive.

What I find to be the most exciting proposal from the Indian Ocean Studies framework today, is that it is fashioning itself as an Asian method, and proposing a kind of Asianness about the world. Again, here, when I refer to the ‘Asian’, or the ‘Indian’ in Indian Ocean, it should not be understood ethnically or continentally, but that by invoking an Indian Ocean understanding of the world, we are able to reveal and deduce an Asian conception, or dynamism, of trade and mobility, that heavily informs and inscribes itself on what we understand today as global trade and mobility.

This thinking also works to problematize the features and narratives of ‘global’ civilizational progress, in that there was a time in which the world witnessed a decline in the Eastern dominions, and the rise of a Western power. As an example, the Indian Ocean, is being used to express a counter-discourse to the suspicious narratives around the eminence of ‘China’. If one is to look through the history of the Indian Ocean, trade has always extended and linked itself towards China, and thus the ‘Rise of China’ is not necessarily a new, and contemporary phenomenon, but that the Indian Ocean, as well as China, had to shift and reinterpret its activities, given the interruption and turbulence it encountered by Western colonial fleets, during the 18-20th centuries.

The framework is also demonstrative of the dynamism existing between South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. The two areas have generally been connected through the history of British Raj colonial administration, or the movement of indentured Indian labor in the early 20th century, as you have in the Caribbean and Pacific islands, or even linked to the Gulf’s kafala sponsorship system in which it looks to South Asia to source its labor, muscle and energy. Rather, the connection and movement between the two areas is a ‘traditional’ and inherent occurrence from the Indian Ocean world.

So, many possibilities are being verbalized through the Indian Ocean. The domain has become quite sophisticated, that many scholars are now accusing practitioners of the Indian Ocean of overly romanticizing its surface as a place in which they are projecting their ideals, especially towards conceiving of an Asian cosmopolitanism. In this criticism, these scholars are being accused of being too ‘water drunk’, and this is because the ‘ocean’/water, as a cultural construct, is a romantic media from the cultural mainstream.

What I think these critics are actually trying to claim is that Indian Ocean scholars, most of whom tend to be postcolonial, are using the landscape to imitate what scholars in the Western domain enjoy in their own academic cultural establishments; Indian Ocean scholars, therefore, narrate stories in which they too are powerful. 

However, I find much of this discourse invalid and lazy, as the Indian Ocean does not sit at a great distance from me, or others who harbors its borders, in which we collectively long across its surface, hoping to arrive to a distant horizon, it is a surface in which you can swim into, and use a variety of technologies and infrastructures to travel on its surfaces. The Indian Ocean is an urban space that is used to express the connotations and continuities of global modernity. It is a practice that works to ensure that a person’s perception of space, or themselves, does not end where the national territory does.

What is incredibly exciting, for me at least, is that the Indian Ocean framework is providing a much needed destabilization to the Atlantic view of the world, which has standardized, and calibrated, collective aspirations for the civic national model and social republic. It is important to note that this ideology descends from developments in landscape technology, in which a slave-labor plantation economy transitioned towards an equal-wage industrial economy. In this socio-economic transition, demands for self-determination, and representation, were expressed as ‘land rights’: territory, soil, and property. On the other hand, the Indian Ocean framework, is suggesting a similar humanistic expression and articulation, that is represented through an an oceanic, non-object space. It is an active, almost unseen, technology, especially in how it is being conceived: commerce, trade, and mobility.

This kind of ‘water turning’ or aquatic conception, I think, is succeeding, as the Pacific is emerging as its own cultural terrain, and other water bodies are becoming expressive of a world that supersedes the myopia of global distinctions and identity politics.

In today’s presentation, we will do the same with the Gulf. So, to start, I ask you to not consider the Gulf terrain as an infrastructure of oil-wealth, or as a Khaleeji-Muslim territory, or in connection to the nations who share its waters, but as a fluid, circulatory, and interpretive domain. This proposed flexibility will be articulated through the Malyalee community’s connection to the UAE. As most know, the Malyalee community has expressed itself in the UAE through a variety of social classes, professions, and cultural realities. It has been able to identify itself autonomously in the UAE, and across the Gulf, next to an already well-expressed, and conceived Indian identity. It operates as a sufficient entity, mostly through its perspective and connections to the Gulf, which Nisha will be sharing with us today.

Please join me in welcoming her presentation, and we look forward to hearing your thoughts, observations, and questions afterwards.

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