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1.K. Humanities at Large Blogpost 9 November 2017

Jackman Humanities Institute Blog
9 November 2017

The Aesthetics of Indigeneity in the Post-colony: art and visual culture in Nagaland, northeast India

Akshaya Tankha
Doctoral Candidate, Department of Art
Graduate Fellow at the Jackman Humanities Institute 2017-18
University of Toronto

For his presentation at the Jackman Humanities Institute’s weekly lunch seminar, Akshaya Tankha provided an overview of his research on the relationship between art, visual culture and politics in the Indigenously inhabited and largely Christian state of Nagaland in northeast India. Nagaland was home to a longstanding movement for political autonomy from the Indian state carried out by armed political organizations or “Naga nationalists” against the Indian army between 1953 and 1997. However, the political movement can be traced to regional investments in the idea of “tribal” difference from the nation that began in the late colonial period. Since 1997, under conditions analyzed elsewhere as the late-liberal management of Indigenous difference (Povinelli 2002; Comaroff & Comaroff 2009), artists, entrepreneurs, even formerly armed Naga nationalists began to mobilize varied interpretations of “Naga culture” in numerous visual, material cultural and exhibitionary forms.  Based on formal and ethnographic case-studies, Tankha explained that his dissertation project explores regional artistic interpretations of Indigenous craft practices, house museums dedicated to the cause of Naga nationalism, commercial festivals of “tribal culture” as well as public memorials and photographic calendars produced by formerly armed Naga nationalists that have emerged in the post-conflict region after a political ceasefire was signed between the region’s principal nationalist organization and the Indian state in 1997.

Although shaped by the colonially constituted discourse of “tribes” and the settler-colonial conditions of military and administrative control wielded by the postcolonial state in the region, Tankha argues that aesthetics practices in contemporary Nagaland foreground forms of being and belonging in the postcolony that exceed discursive and ideological formulations of indigenous identity and/or culture. By exploring the aesthetics of indigeneity as sites of emergence shaped by Christianity, the politics of Naga nationalism, globalization and Indigenous practices, Tankha highlighted that his research sought to deepen the scholarship on forms of art and life that Indigenous difference constitutes in the world today outside the liberal paradigm of recognition.

Tankha’s presentation focused on the work of Veswuzo Phesao, a contemporary Naga artist and curator who has worked at a major state funded cultural institution in the state of Nagaland since 1986. In particular, it discussed a private project to build a traditional Indigenous dwelling that Phesao began on his private plot of land in the semi-urban village where he resides in 2011. The discussion provided a glimpse of how Indigenous craft practices are both shaped by and exceed the exhibitionary mode in which the Indian state has sought to re-cast them as the nation’s cultural diversity. So for instance, Tankha talked about some of the many state commissioned replicas of Indigenous dwellings that Phesao had previously constructed in various state run cultural institutions to illustrate the regional artist’s entanglement in the state’s effort to reconstitute Indigenous arts practices as an object of national salvage and preservation.

Tankha contrasted the postcolonial state’s reconstitution of regional Indigenous practices as cultural heritage with the embodied forms of Indigenous community that characterized Phesao’s process of constructing an Indigenous dwelling in the village in which he resides. Through a focus on the artist’s process of constructing the house, the indigenous dwelling emerged as a site of multiple accommodations, including of temporally numerous modes of being Indigenous and material forms of being Christian and recollecting Naga nationalist history.

The talk highlighted the symbolic significance of motifs like the bison horns and happy or contented faces that were carved into the house-front, animal skulls hung from the horizontal beams that support its imposing roof and Indigenous figures carved into the load bearing pillars. At the same time, an ethnographic focus on the artist’s process revealed the forms to be embodiments of a wider human and animal landscape that was animated by oral narratives of spirits, an attentiveness to Christianity as well as the history of the Naga nationalist movement.

For instance, while reflecting on the life-sized “warrior” figure carved into the central pillar of the house, Phesao remarked that that there were no warriors left in Nagaland anymore. The last Naga warrior was probably Phizo, he suggested, referring to Angami Zhaphu Phizo, the most prominent figure in the Naga nationalist movement. Phizo had spearheaded the regional movement for political autonomy over its most tumultuous phase of armed war against the Indian state from the mid 1950s till the 1970s when he went into exile in London to escape arrest. He remained the movement’s de facto leader until his death in 1990 when his body was flown back to Nagaland and buried with full state ceremony. Phesao attended the funeral in Kohima and described it in great detail to me as we spoke about the “warrior” figure, associating the symbolic value of the icon with the political and affective value that Phizo commands in the popular imagination in Nagaland even today. His reference to the political leader in relation to the warrior figure was relatively short and didn't translate into any particular formal or iconographic reconfigurations. Even so, it hinted at a wider association between material cultural practice and Naga nationalist politics that remains unaccounted for in studies of Naga and/or other Indigenous crafts in India. Moreover, it highlighted an aspect of the contemporaneity of Indigenous art and artists that exceeded the simplistic opposition between the linear time of the modern and the ritual time of the “indigenous”. Instead, it highlighted the difficulty of thinking contemporary Indigenous practice apart from the history and cultural politics of the movement, signaling the heterogeneous materiality and temporality of postcolonial indigenous modernity. It also suggested that the anthropomorphic form of the “warrior” didn't easily fit into the readymade categories of either “tribe” or “nation”. Similarly, while Phesao was at times keen to demonstrate that he was Christian and hence removed from the embodied materiality of the indigenous dwelling, i.e. its association with human and animal spirits and processes of ritual and ceremonial appeasement, his discussion of the house suggested that it embodied how being Christian for the artist was in fact inseparable from being Indigenous.

Based on a discussion of Veswuzo Phesao’s house project, Tankha concluded his talk by emphasizing the importance of the aesthetic as an arena to reflect on the processes of inhabiting and negotiating Indigenous difference rather than being defined by it. By demonstrating that artistic interpretations of Indigenous material culture as a field of negotiations included but ultimately exceeded analysis as an object of recognition, Tankha emphasized the importance of treating the aesthetic as politically constitutive rather than merely illustrative of politics. Tankha summarized his contributions to South Asian art history as a postcolonial analysis of Indigenous artistic and cultural forms at those points and scales where they intersect with religion, the economy, the politics of governmentality and of belonging under conditions of settler-colonial existence in the post-colony. Tankha rounded off his presentation by reflecting on the importance of engaging the aesthetic as a site and mode that operated outside yet was re-constitutive of the liberal field of Indigenous rights and recognition across settler-society and postcolonial contexts.

Veswuzo Phesao and house in Dimapur 2013

Veswuzo Phesao in front of his house United Village, Dimapur 2013. Photo credit: Akshaya Tankha

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