'Cultural identity' in modern art

We live in a world where society plays an important role in every person's life. The most affected by the imposed models of society are young people. Globalization, by bringing a multitude of cultures to the same place, has a considerable effect on the confusion over the concept of identity throughout the world. A person's identity is a wide subject, but at the same time, even if anyone can discuss the meanings of ‘identity’, the person who decides what his/her identity is, is only that specific person. Through identity can be understood both the behavioral traits specific to the gender and the traits that a person takes automatically from the surroundings where he/she lives or was born - the cultural and national identity - but also the language, the color of the skin, the style of clothing, the tastes and the hobbies.

© Image by John Hain from Pixabay.

I will be looking into how the concept of identity has changed over the years, especially in the contemporary era. Some factors discussed are the expansion of immigration, the fight against gender and the color of skin discrimination, and the courage of some people to expose their totally contradictory identity of classical models imposed by society to the public. Equally important is how identity influenced the creative world. In the following paragraphs, I will explore the concept of ‘identity’ according to Stuart Hall in relation to modern art. I will be referring to the perspective of identity of Glenn Ligon in the series ‘Untitled from Runaways’ (1993), which is a portfolio of ten lithographs. My second argument would be the artwork ‘Half Indian/Half Mexican’ (1996) made by James Luna in which he expresses the misunderstandings of a person’s heritage through visual stereotypes.

From this I came to understand that identity is not a set of fixed attributed, the unchanging essence of the inner self, but a constantly shifting process of positioning. We tend to think of identity as taking us back to our roots, the part of us which remains essentially the same across time. In fact, identity is always a never-completed process of becoming - a process of shifting identifications, rather than a singular, complete, finished state of being. - Stuart Hall

According to Stuart Hall, the concept of identity is structured in two forms called positions: "The first position defines ‘cultural identity’ in terms of one, shared culture, a sort of collective ‘one true self’, hiding inside the many other, more superficial or artificially imposed ‘selves’, which people with a shared history and ancestry hold in common. Within the terms of this definition, our cultural identities reflect the common", through which he expresses his opinion as to the national or group identity, where one identifies himself as having the same characteristics of the group to which he belongs to. For example, in India the style of clothing, the traditions, the types of food, the materials they use are national characteristics that are supposed to be attributed to any person who is born there as an identity form. As for the second position, according to Stuart Hall, “this is an identity understood as unstable, metamorphic, and even contradictory which signifies an identity marked by multiple points of similarities as well as differences. This cultural identity refers to “what they really are”, or rather “what they have become.”. Stuart Hall considers this second definition superior to the first one because it refers to the fact that a person's identity should not be based on past cultural events, but that every person should have the right to find their own identity and, he supports the fact that "the identity is fluid and under constant construction". He calls them ‘positions'.

To explain these positions more clearly, Stuart Hall named three 'presences', which are: European, African and American. First, it refers to Africans as being culturally retained. One of the major issues that Stuart Hall addresses is racism, mainly for black people, because over time, wherever they were, black people have been marginalized even at the first impression only because of the color of the skin. Hall draws the attention to the label of 'African slaves' attributed to them because of past events, their rights being considerably less, and the chances of moving up into a career are much lower than the others, based on the physical identity they have. Secondly, Europeans are considered the colonization part, the party that holds the central power. He also describes the European presence as the one that excludes, does not accept and at the same time claims that certain features of the European presence are present in African identities. Americans, the third presence, live in the continent that is populated by a multitude of cultures. For all that, Stuart Hall argues that black people in the diaspora are constantly developing, reinventing, seeking and finding their identity.

Firstly, considering the theory described above, racism against black people is based on African past events, as they were being called 'African slaves'. This subject is explored by Glenn Ligon, a conceptual artist, who has attempted an identity experiment through his composition 'Untitled from Runaways’ (1993), which he describes as "is broadly about how an individual’s identity is inextricable from the way one is positioned in the culture, from the ways people see you, from historical and political contexts". Since he identifies himself as a black man, he carried out an experiment by asking his friends to describe him as if he went missing, and the police needed a description to find him. Resembling the results with the ways in which the black slaves who ran away from their owners were depicted in the nineteenth century, he produces a series of ten lithographs. He uses the model of adverts made by slaves’ owners, attaching the descriptions made by his friends below the picture, showing how the identity of black people is perceived today, having the same traits both physical and behavioral as African slaves. In this way, he draws the attention to the black people labels and terrifying past. As stated by Stuart Hall, identities are "far from being the mere recovery of a past, waiting to be found, and once found will secure our sense of self into eternity". Glenn is in Stuart Hall's assent to the history of black people, illustrating through his work the gain of freedom in the contemporary age of black people, a new identity that is beginning to be recognized. From Glenn's work of art, it can be understood the difficult past of black people, but also a slight release of their identity from this stamp, which, unfortunately, is still attributed to them by a part of contemporary society.

Secondly, one of the ways in which society automatically judges and assumes the identity of a person is its origins - the cultural background. According to Stuart Hall, "cultural identities come from somewhere, they have histories. But like everything else that is historical, they undergo constant transformation.". Through this, Hall conveys the fact that it is obvious that absolutely every person belongs to a country that has a whole history, countless events happened in terms of the social, cultural, and political aspects. However, these are not reasons to block one's freedom to find their own identity. For example, an American does not forget his origins, he will always remember the history of his country, the historical events, but this is not the reason why this American, if he has the opportunity and wants to change his lifestyle, simply in China, he cannot be identified as Asian, having tastes similar to the new culture, feeling more in his place in that country because it is to his liking. According to Stuart Hall, history is preserved, but it is in constant change, as in a normal way.

Therefore, another artist who was intrigued by the society's perception of a person's identity was James Luna. He was Mexican-Indian but he was born, studied and lived in California. His mother was Indian, and his father was Mexican. Throughout his career, he had the same perception of identity as Stuart Hall. He has always recognized his Indian and Mexican origins and tried to highlight them through his artwork, being an excellent photographer. In one of his works, 'Half Indian/Half Mexican', James Luna directs the public's attention to the misunderstandings about a person's heritage through visual stereotypes. His work is composed of three images - two of them are made up of his facial right profile and the left facial profile, and the middle one is a front-shot photograph in the style of a mugshot. He wears a simple black T-shirt, he keeps his expression plain without smiling, focusing on the most important aspect - visual stereotypes about identity. In the first image of his work, only the right side is seen, indicating James Indian origin - the long hair, the typical earring. Whereas, in the third image, which is the one where just his right side is visible, his hair is cut, there is a mustache, clues regarding his Mexican origins.

He has constructed his work as a 'identity book', in which one identity can be seen in a photograph and another identity in the next one. Regarding the middle image, here is the moment when things change. It is a representation of two halves that do not fit into a whole, something that generally seems absurd. James Luca shows in an obvious way how, sometimes, society can mislead the identity of a person. It also refers to how Indians are looked at by one of the ‘presence’ suggested by Stuart Hall: "America loves to say, ‘her Indians.’ America loves to see us dance for them. America likes our arts and crafts. America likes to name cars and trucks after our tribes.", which demonstrates the acceptance of immigrants by this continent, which has a place for everyone.

References: Hutchinson (2014). Postcolonial Thoughts: Out of Many, One People- Notes on Stuart Hall’s Cultural Identity and Diaspora essay. [online] Creative Thresholds. Available at: https://creativethresholds.com/2014/04/27/postcolonial-thoughts-out-of-many-one-people-notes-on-stuart-halls-cultural-identity-and-diaspora-essay/ [Accessed 25 Mar. 2019]. Anilpinto.blogspot.com. (2011). Cultural Identity and Diaspora- Stuart Hall. [online] Available at: http://anilpinto.blogspot.com/2011/02/cultural-identity-and-diaspora-stuart.html [Accessed 25 Mar. 2019]. Rlwclarke.net. (1964). [online] Available at: http://www.rlwclarke.net/Theory/SourcesPrimary/HallCulturalIdentityandDiaspora.pdf [Accessed 28 Mar. 2019]. Moma.org. (2019). MoMA | Glenn Ligon. Untitled from the Runaways. 1993. [online] Available at: https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/glenn-ligon-untitled-from-the-runaways-1993/ [Accessed 28 Mar. 2019]. Medium. (2018). Stuart Hall’s theory of Cultural Identity. [online] Available at: https://medium.com/@greyflak/stuart-halls-theory-of-cultural-identity-19c22f64721a [Accessed 28 Mar. 2019]. Smithsonian. (2011). Q and A: James Luna. [online] Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/q-and-a-james-luna-74252076/ [Accessed 2 Apr. 2019].

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