Unruly Visions: Understanding and Interrogating Queer Diaspora Via Visual Culture

This book review “Book Review: Unruly Visions: The Aesthetic Practices of Queer Diaspora by Gayatri Gopinath” was first published on Feminism in India on November 4, 2019.

Unruly Visions: The Aesthetic Practices of Queer Diaspora (Zubaan, 2019), is a work of immense scholarship by Gayatri Gopinath. It is a quest to studying, evaluating and meditating queer studies and diasporic areas through different avenues of visual culture — movies, texts, photography etc.

From its introduction itself it’s clear what sort of interrogation of queerness Gopinath is doing when she describes the gaze of the subject (Abed in “Abed, a tailor”) as something “forthright, uncompromising, fierce,” and that’s what “evoked the femme aesthetic of the young queers of color” she encountered in New York City in the early 1990s.”

Ahmad el Abed, a tailor | Photograph: Hashem el Madani | Artist: Akram Zaatari

She is scouting, in every form of art, what she calls the “visual record of the past,” answers to these questions: Who the person “really” was? Their desires, gender embodiment etc. The beauty of this quest is that that it’s not always possible to get answers to all these questions (she herself confesses her own “(mis)recognition[s]”); however, one must attempt to analyze and assess it to unfold many stories within the subject of study.

Queerness of the Archives

Various forms of visualities that Gopinath is assessing, or rather meditating, are a study in the “everyday” of its subjects. It aims to “revalue” them by associating their past in the reading of their present form. She has considered, according to her, only those works that “instantiates alternative cartographies and spatial logics that allow for other histories of global affiliation and affinity to emerge.”

Is this only a romanticism of the past, one may ask? Answer: No. She notes, and it’s an appropriate reason for the “No” as an answer: “This queer excavation of the past does not seek to identify or mourn lost origins; nor do queer visual aesthetic practices necessarily aim at visibility or coherence.”

However, her very success in comprehending her subjects of study — split in four chapters that cover queer representations from the critique of Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings to Agha Shahid Ali’s homoerotic poetry (who never wanted to “talk about certain things,” as Amitav Ghosh, a dear friend of the deceased poet mentions) to finding her own family inklings (Gopinath discovers that in one of Varma’s paintings, Krishna Menon and his family’s portrait, Menon was, in fact, author’s own great-great-great-grandfather) — is in its deft articulation of desires, and it’s ability to surface their nonnormative desires and other affiliations within the dominant historical, or we can say, extremely masculine narratives.

“These queer articulations of the region of force us to see beyond the limited vista of conventional knowledge production, as well as dominant articulations of both nation and diaspora, that depend on heteronormative framings of family and community.”

— Gayatri Gopinath, Unruly Visions

These were many observations and inferences, often different, that one can draw by reading this book. For example, Chitra Ganesh’s 13 Photos, which “suggests alternative routes to queer desire, subjectivity, and relationality”; Agha Shahid Ali commentary on a friend’s death, which he thinks is also “the death of tribes, the death of landscapes, and the death of language”; Allan deSouza’s photographs, which are portrayals of how one grapples with the questions of historical memory and diasporic loss; and Zaatari’s queer visual excavations. But I’ve three principal observations to make, which I think will be relatable for even with little to no knowledge of nuanced articulations of queer desires.

1. Hiding nonnormative desires in high-rise buildings of Abu Dhabi: It’s a known fact how many Keralites leave for the Gulf in search of employment opportunities. But these are always looked from the heteronormative view, never from a queer optic. Gopinath mentions of these “Gulf Dreams,” where she notes that the “queer socialities” are hidden in the shadow of the luxury buildings in Abu Dhabi, which are always less pronounced. It is where she remarks that such “aesthetic practices of queer diaspora” shapes up when several terrains of human existence like sexuality, diaspora and region collide; which eventually get “transformed, undone, and remade.”

2. Understanding Kerala via Sancharram: Sancharram happens to be the only Indian queer feature (not in English or Hindi, but a regional language) that made it to film festivals internationally. The portrayal of same-sex desires and the forceful marriage of people who desire a person from their own sex by the family members unfolds the history of policing of gender and sexuality in Kerala.

“The fact that Kerala exists as a tangential, ‘other’ space in relation to the Indian nation means that representations of a ‘queer Kerala’ never bear the burden, for better or for worse, of representing the nation as a whole.”

— Gayatri Gopinath, Unruly Visions

3. Critiquing LGBT individuals replication of a heteronormative lifestyle: I identify as gay, and I couldn’t agree more when Gopinath writes: “The aesthetic practices of queer diaspora powerfully challenge the way in which the concept of ‘the family’ is fetishized within both mainstream liberal gay and immigrant rights contexts in the U.S., in the service of a politics of incorporation and respectability.” We certainly should (we must) love who we want and be with anyone who we wish to be with; but is it necessary to replicate the lifestyle of heterosexuals? Should we be marrying just like them? Aren’t we giving away an opportunity to explore a different form of companionship? Why do we need to embrace the sanskritized version of union?

Such is the nuance approach that Gopinath has taken that has mobilized conceptual categories such as region, aesthetics and archives, which makes this book a must read. It’s interesting that she mentions that this book is a curation of archives, but here “curate,” which stems from the Latin root meaning “to care for,” is not used in the pejorative sense but “to heal.” It’s this healing of all the disappeared or undiscovered queer articulations in the popular, or, even, the culture of the masses that Gopinath successfully articulates.

Featured image credits: LensCulture “Black Queer Diaspora in the Netherlands”

Source: Twitter (@ZubaanBooks)

Feature image credits: LensCulture, “Black Queer Diaspora in the Netherlands.”

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