Review of Unruly Visions: The Aesthetic Practices of Queer Diaspora by Gayatri Gopinath
A film theatre marquee that reads, “If you know what you’re looking for, the backward glance can be a glimpse into the future”; a reinvented ‘honeymoon’ photograph in an indeterminate location, remarkable only for its utter desolation and loneliness; a reframed childhood photograph of a picturesque Australian landscape that on closer inspection reveals bits of other photographs torn apart and imperfectly sutured together. These are among the countless visual texts that constitute the archives that Gayatri Gopinath delves into in her 2018 book, Unruly Visions; Aesthetic Practices of the Queer Diaspora. It is a body of work that trains its sights on the quotidian and the inconsequential to arrive at alternative histories and affiliations, speaks to the productive possibilities of dwelling in a state of suspension and disorientation, and envisions new worlds that open up once we reject fantasies of return to lost origins or homelands.
Gopinath’s book is an extensive curatorial project that weaves together queer studies, area studies, and affect studies, and draws on genres as diverse as photography (Allen deSouza, Chitra Ganesh, David Kalal, Tracey Moffatt, Seher Shah, Akram Zaatari), film (Aurora Guerrero, Ligy Pullappally), memoirs (Saidiya Hartman), poetry (Agha Shahid Ali), painting (Ganesh, Moffatt), and web-based art installations (Sheba Chhachhi, Ganesh, Mariam Ghani). Gopinath deftly arranges and repositions the works of these contemporary queer diasporic artists to identify a shared queer visual aesthetic. Her main claim is that this aesthetic can only be seen and understood through an ‘unruly vision’ or a ‘queer optic’—a way of seeing, knowing, and moving through the world that is both impossible and unintelligible through a normative lens.
Unruly Visions takes forward the work that Gopinath started in her critically acclaimed 2005 book, Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures, where she examined how queer diasporic practices make possible sexual subjectivities and desires that are rendered invisible or unintelligible within dominant nationalist and diasporic discourses. A queer reading of mainstream and feminist diasporic cultural texts in Impossible Desires allowed her to identify the gaps and slippages where such non-normative subjectivities find the space to exist. But while she pointed to the limitations and occlusions of viewing the world through the binary lens of nation and diaspora in this earlier text, she did not quite succeed in dislodging that binary and coming up with an alternative.
In Unruly Visions, the search for that alternative leads Gopinath to train her lens on the “minor sites and locations of queer possibility”, namely, the region. Not only does she propose a revised understanding of queer diaspora through critical analyses of their aesthetic practices, she also establishes the ways in which critical regionalism can interrupt and throw into question the binary distinctions of local vs global, nation vs diaspora, or diaspora vs indigeneity. It is an exercise that uses as its methodology a “queer curatorial project” (4) that casts an unruly gaze at seemingly disparate regional archives, brings them into dialogue with each other, and reframes them into queer archives that point to alternative histories, and establish affective and affiliative trajectories in ways that coalesce the past, present, and future. This curatorial project bypasses dominant mainstream nation-centred narratives and, instead, centres the so-called trivial and insignificant—the region, the personal/autobiographical, and the familial.
Gopinath’s project builds upon the foundational work of queer theorists such as José Esteban Muñoz, Lauren Berlant, and Jack Halberstam to intervene and challenge assumptions within area studies. In her conceptualisation of a “queer regional imaginary” (19), the region is a relational, and not a prefixed category. By decoupling the diaspora from its usual referent—the nation—the book allows us to think instead about South-South, diaspora-region, or region-to-region connectivities (18), in ways that render apparent the intimacies of our conjoined pasts and potential futures. At the same time, it holds up to scrutiny dominant discourses of queerness that remain oblivious to regionally inflected gender and sexual formations. As in Impossible Desires, Gopinath’s understanding of queerness extends beyond sexuality to encompass non-normative modes of reading the archives or looking at the world.
In the first chapter, Gopinath brings together Ligy Pullappally’s 2004 queer diasporic film Sancharram, the visual art of David Dasharath’s Kalal’s reworking of Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings, and Sheba Chachhi’s web-based artwork Winged Pilgrims. These texts foreground a queer regional imaginary, which operates as a counter to nationalist cartographies that aggressively obscure the multiple socialites of a region. Gopinath argues for a peculiarly queer perspective on migrant or diasporic populations by examining representations of the Southern Indian state of Kerala in these texts as sites of a queer regional cartography that challenge the dominance of the nation-state. This is the most evident in the comparison Gopinath makes between the 1998 film Fire, touted to be India’s first ‘lesbian film’. In her analysis, the outrage against Mira Nair’s depiction of same-sex relationship in Fire between two sisters-in-law had much to do with the film’s setting in Hindi-speaking North India, a region that is often a stand-in for the nation as a whole. The depiction of same-sex love in this context presents an urgent and visible to the heterosexual patriarchal nationalist imaginary. Sancharram, in contrast, being set in Kerala, remains firmly rooted in the realm of the region. At the same time, its depiction of same-sex love is marked by transnational feminist and gay rights discourses, allowing it to both supersede a national frame and escape both the nation’s ire. Region is also read in a supranational sense. Chachhi’s queer diasporic framing of Asia rejects a Eurocentric gaze to map older histories of encounter and exchange that predate European colonialism and foreground South-South connectivities. All three texts make use of the region in different ways to force us to look beyond the limited frame of the nation and offer alternate modes of affiliation.
In Chapter Two, the concept of queer regional imaginary is extended to personal/autobiographical visual texts like photographer Chitra Ganesh’s reinvention of her migrant South Asian family’s photo album, Aurora Guerrero’s 2012 queer Latina coming-of-age film Mosquita Y Mari, and the poetry of Kashmiri American poet Agha Shahid Ali. Gopinath argues that these texts use personal histories of queer diasporic nostalgia and memorialization to subvert dominant heteronormative framings of migrant subjectivity and familial and kinship relationships in transnational landscapes. Set in “off-center spaces” and often suspended in a state of disorientation and “staying lost”, the very indeterminacy of region in these texts leaves open the possibility of imagining and shaping new pathways.
In Chapter Three, the aesthetic practices of queer diasporas are mobilised to connect histories, formations, and processes that are seemingly unrelated in geographical and temporal terms. Gopinath utilises the lens of queer affiliation to expose proximities and connections between diaspora studies and indigenous studies, instead of viewing them in oppositional terms. By juxtaposing the works of three artists—Tracey Moffatt, Seher Shah, and Allen DeSouza—which appear to have little in common in terms of regional affiliation, theme, and genre, Gopinath, once again offers us an alternative logic of identity and belongingness. She identifies unexpected collisions between British colonialism, white settler colonialism, postcolonial histories, and imperialism in relation to undercurrents of capital and labour across nation-states as underlying points of interconnection that draw these texts together.
In the final chapter, the works of Chitra Ganesh, Maryam Ghani, and Akram Zaatari support a critical meditation on how queer visual aesthetic practices harness affective possibilities to produce interconnections between bodies, regional communities, geographies, and temporalities. The highlight of the chapter, and perhaps also the book, is the analysis of Akram Zaatari’s curatorial work on the photographer Hashem El Madani—it is his photographed figure, ‘Abed, a tailor’, that gazes at the reader calmly from the cover of Unruly Visions. Gopinath is at her most lucid as she examines how Zaatari’s curation of the Lebanese-born photographer El Madani’s aesthetic practices perform new histories, explore the effects of war and violence–particularly in their fascination with the figure of the Lebanese resistance fighter (153)–and also offer an alternative, queer optics of same-sex desire.
By weaving together these seemingly incongruent visual texts, Gopinath successfully stages unexpected encounters between disparate geographies, temporalities, racial, and diasporic formations, as well as colonial and postcolonial displacements and dispossessions. But while she is careful to explain their interconnections, keeping up with this train of thought requires an attentive and patient reader. More crucially, in drawing these comparisons, Gopinath often runs the risk of conflating diverse diasporic and migration histories. It is a risk that she is keenly aware of and flags off at several points in the text, yet it is not something that she is able to fully overcome.
That said, the book is an important intervention in the fields of queer studies, affect studies, and most importantly, area studies. Gopinath’s unique take on the unruliness of these archives makes for delightful, if painstakingly patient, reading. In illuminating newer ways of understanding the past and the present, time and space, and history and memory, this is a project executed with great nuance and care.
Unruly Visions: The Aesthetic Practices of Queer Diaspora by Gayatri Gopinath. Duke University Press. 2018. 248 pp.