05 August, 2009

The Scottish Diaspora

Ong Keng Sen is the director of TheatreWorks (Singapore). Keng Sen and a group of video artists have searched for real-life stories of diaspora and displacement, creating a visionary production, layering music, video and live story-telling. Here, Ong Keng Sen talks about how he came to collaborate with Rabiya Choudhry, one of the video artists involved in Diaspora.

"I asked Rabiya Choudhry to join us onstage with Diaspora. I am particularly interested in her work as an expression of a new generation of Scots. She oozes confidence about who she is and yet, has a coexisting vulnerability. What is evident in her paintings/drawings is their connectedness with her personal choices. There seems to be a direct conduit between her dreams, her fears, her insecurities, her strengths and what she draws. The paintings are not forced nor artificial but instead are sharings of inner conversations. In her work, there is a blurring of private and public space, as obsessions tumble into the open and are embraced by her public.

I was first introduced to her work by The Skinny, an arts/entertainment newspaper in Edinburgh. The expressionism, the abstraction is compelling and yet it seems of the here and now, of clubs, of fashion, of the urban. I can imagine her drawings on the street as graffiti, as street art. In fact I have seen them or I imagine I have, so potent and iconic is the expression. Yet it has a direct line to Picasso, Gauguin. It is the narrative of a generation of disenfranchised inner-city street kids speaking to the power centre of our times. However, when you meet Rabiya, you realize that she is balanced, well adjusted to her mixed or double heritage, very comfortable with who she is in Scottish society. Of course, there are anxieties but it is clear that these anxieties are channeled into art. The now- generations of Scots embrace these anxieties in Rabiya’s work as a reflection of their own anxieties. This hints at the times, everyone has begun to feel the alienation of being the outsider. The alien-nation is truly well and alive as otherness is negotiated through art.

On 26 March – 1 Apr 2009, we filmed Rabiya and her family. The above questions were not answered initially but we decided to proceed and discover. On 26 Mar, we filmed Rabiya talking in depth about her work, her impulses, her themes, her worldview. On 27 Mar, we visited her parents. Her mother Moona had converted to Islam when she was a teenager even before meeting her future husband. As a young girl, Moona took on this Islamic name and was convinced that she preferred Islamic faith to her white family’s Christian faith. At that time, she fostered herself to a Muslim family. She remembers being chased down the street by Scottish children who called her a paki-lover. As she reached her late teens, her foster family felt that it was becoming difficult for Moona to continue staying there unless she was betrothed. This was how Moona met Rabiya’s father, Mazar. Mazar had come from Pakistan in search of a tertiary education but had stayed on after. He did not complete his studies and instead set up his own businesses which failed one after the other. Today, he works at a call centre while Moona is a housekeeper at a home for the elderly. He is a devout Muslim. Rabiya is the only daughter and she lives as an artist in Edinburgh. When she visits Moona and Mazar in Baillieston, Glasgow, she becomes their daughter.

We drive out to Girvan after picking her parents up from Baillieston. This is the second time I was meeting her parents. We had broken the ice a couple of days earlier, meeting for dinner in Glasgow. As I had an agenda of filming them, I wanted to seek their approval. It was a dinner with bated breath. Thanks to reality TV, Mazar was not disapproving and actually looked forward to his 5 minutes of fame under the camera spotlight!!!

In Girvan, the three of them was a gripping sight. Moona, a ginger-blonde woman in her Pakistani national dress or shalwar qameez; Mazar a respectable, solemn, elder from the south Asian community, physically still strong; Rabiya, their child who has grown into a young woman, an ‘emerging artist’. We followed them down the streets of Girvan where they had lived for a couple of years. Mazar had a sundries shop surviving through the patronage of the holiday beach crowd. He also worked in a restaurant. Moona looked after their three young kids. As they walked down memory lane, we filmed them from behind, referencing the camera which followed Vito Acconci as he trailed strangers in the streets of Manhattan in the 60s. It was an interesting memory walk which transformed Rabiya into a child again, unconsciously, as she relived the town. Girvan is now a deserted beach town. Today, most Scottish travel abroad for their holidays, rather than going to another local town. Girvan was almost a film set, it was our film set for that day anyhow.

On 29 Mar, we all met in Edinburgh in Rabiya’s apartment and filmed her work again. One of her best-known paintings is Moona Mother, Paki Lover and the Coffee Coloured Children (2004). Her father appears (owl-like) in one of her self-portraits, The Art Show (2004), on her shoulder for it is the Islamic belief that there are angels on one’s shoulders recording one’s good and bad deeds.

Rabiya professes her fascination with Hindu cosmology and visual imagery where the woman’s body is not shameful but indeed can be powerful like the Hindu goddess Kali. We joke that she is a leftover from before the Partition. We finally move onto Calton Hill where Rabiya talks about her love for Edinburgh, her journey between self/artist/lover in Edinburgh and Mazar’s daughter in Baillieston, Glasgow.

On 30 Mar, we return to Moona and Mazar. We visit Govanhill, their first home together in Glasgow. They had first lived here separately. It was also here that they met for the first time after Moona had chosen Mazar’s photo as a potential suitor. Govanhill is still the South Asian enclave of Glasgow, of Scotland. We returned to the family house in Baillieston where we filmed the old albums and learnt more about Mazar’s family in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Moona had visited, staying for one year. She learnt from her mother-in-law how to keep a Pakistani household, especially how to cook curries for Mazar. Mazar visited but shortly, he was keeping a business in Glasgow. Moona became pregnant and continued to live alone in a strange country, a foreign culture. It was only when she became ill that she was sent back to Glasgow. Both Moona and Mazar were worried that she would have a premature birth in Pakistan where there were few good medical facilities."

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