Shwetal Patel in discussion with Shaheen Merali
Panchayat and more...
In 1988, Shaheen Merali and Allan de Souza co-founded the Panchayat Collection, after consultation with artists Bhajan Hunjan, Symrath Patti and Shanti Thomas. The Panchayat Collection consists of documentation and reference library material relating to cultural activities and activism predominantly in Britain, mainland Europe, North America and Southeast Asia between the 1980s and 2003. The Panchayat archive’s collecting strategy focused on the growing interactions within a globalising artworld of Black and Asian artists, as well as documenting their commitment to the intersection between race, class, gender, policed sexualities, and (dis)ability. Dr Janice Cheddie and Shaheen Merali were keepers of the Panchayat Archive at the University of Westminster from 2002 -2015. In May 2015, the contents of the collection were donated to the Tate Library as part of its Special Collections.
London-based arts practitioner and researcher, Shwetal A. Patel, is a founding member of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in India and currently a PhD scholar at the Winchester School of Art.
Patel interviewed Merali for the International Times to discuss the impact of the archive, its contemporary relevance, and what we can learn from it in our own time.
Shwetal Patel: I want to start by asking you about your own background and what led to the emergence of these activities at that time in the 1980s.
Shaheen Merali: I graduated with a degree in Fine Art (Sculpture) from the University of Wales, Newport and returned to London where I quickly realised that one had to be involved in some sort of relationship with education. However, at that time, education somehow felt limiting, and many of us sensed the importance of working within community education. In many ways, this was very stimulating, as we came into contact with other people who had similar ideas about working with communities and who were mainly operating through workshops in community settings. Many artists were involved in working in these settings in the outlying boroughs of London but also in more centrally located places including Paddington, Westminster, Brixton and Lambeth.
We managed to reconfigure ourselves as artists in settings that were mainly meant for youth culture, in terms of youth centres, for instance, or sometimes in centres for young offenders, interfacing with youth workers, as well as with other artists, alongside actors, dancers, writers and poets. In hindsight, one realises it was a really important way of responding to how we understood ourselves as artists and writers in relation to ‘the community’. It came out of a necessity to allow forms of expression for artists and groups in creative ways other than hanging out in the street. We were functioning in a space that was ‘off street’ at a time of a high volume of stop and search activities by the police. It is hard to imagine that certain citizens could not always use the streets in those days, but had to find other places in which to congregate.
Thus, one found oneself working within youth and community centres. Such spaces assisted in re-imagining the theatre or the arts, in workshops that included experiments with photographic techniques and conceptual drawing classes including self-portraiture, all the while exploring notions of the self in a divisive society. On a number of occasions, text-based works resulted from those working within these visual and temporal explorations. In many ways, there were very different things going on. I remember instances in which the public gathered to view or partake in public forums, including plays by Tara Arts, talks and openings at the Black Art and Horizon Galleries or book launches at New Beacon Books—all equally doing important work. Different models emerged from this community-based work, providing a comprehensive configuration and expansion that accommodated our perspectives in the early ‘80s and shaped us all in some ways. This configuration was later used by larger platforms, including Greater London Arts (GLA) and Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) who recognised that there was this crossover between the artistic community, community development and community education that provided a very particular focus to the notion of cultural identity. Whether it was to do with issues around policing, or housing, homelessness or even archiving certain types of emerging consciousness on policed sexuality and sexual developments, there was an emerging sense to provide a space for activism and conjoining activities to do with who we are. Larger and comprehensive grants were often offered and provided, as happened around Tower Hamlets and specifically around Spitalfields, responding to the needs of large groups of Bengali youth. Similarly in Lambeth, specifically in and around Brixton, artists and other community workers became involved in a number of initiatives for those from the Caribbean diaspora.
Gradually there began to emerge some very specific areas with highly developed ideas around offering a provision for Black and Asian communities. In a sense, the rudimentary stages of being in public were initially led by ‘negotiated arrangements’ via community settings that helped to intensify the greater multicultural presence, including artists in schools and, later, in community galleries. And, out of a number of these community initiatives, came this relationship with collecting materials and creating archives and conceptually developing ideas and opportunities. Embedded within the notion of the developing ‘Black’ community was the aim to liaise and collaborate and, even, to contest our abilities, the necessity for stabilising forums (including permanent workshops rather than ‘events and festivals’) and professional development as a means of influencing the public as well as public policy.
The concept of influencing the public arose from the success of various forums including exhibitions, conferences and even publications. We were very much bound in the 1980s to the recent past of the diaspora, of the long journeys that had been taken in the preceding thirty to forty years, whether they were from Asia, the Caribbean, or from the coastal landscape of Africa, and we wanted to counter the prevailing narratives, which seemed to remain in the shadows, by throwing a certain light on the realties of that period.
SP: I was curious as to the naming of the collection and the larger purpose of building and collecting the archive. How did these emerge?
SM: Panchayat has a specific meaning: a group of five persons organised, (historically as an unofficial council for an Indian village), to act as an influential body towards self-governance. Under the founding members’ initial guidance and the work undertaken by Allan de Souza and myself, the terms of its initial configuration expanded to accommodate a widened international perspective that we felt was lacking at the time.
The collection was characteristic of its time, representing contemporary artists who produced issue-based work, with a particular focus on cultural identity. As with all archives, the collection is fragmentary and reflective of the conditions of self-funded collecting.
The collection addressed the interdependent relationships of cultural conditions, predominantly in the so-called critical decade of the 1980s, which witnessed artists embracing the new technologies. Video art, copy art and digital media were being used to explore, through a range of aesthetic devices, the political and social formations of identities, imagination and artistic production and the policing of sexuality, the emerging migration and refugee crisis of the early 1990s.
SP: What does the collection include and how does it reflect the art and politics of that era?
SM: Panchayat's collection includes a library of catalogues, fiction and non-fiction books, independent publications including fanzines and copy art, an expanded form of leaflets, as well as reports and journals. In the late nineties, the collection built up a slide library of over a hundred artists’ works including artists’ files, which collectively provided a broad overview of cultural activities and activism, predominantly in Britain and North America, together with several countries in Europe and Asia. A certain emphasis on how it was catalogued suggested certain tendencies, including a particular orientation in making, representing or in the process of becoming. Strategic exhibitions and conferences were seen at the time as inevitable for development and an effective way to sustain, broaden and deepen a practice aimed at the broad challenges to modern life in and around the cosmopolitan centres of the UK.
Panchayat primarily remained a way of further examining issues and a depository of information from contested arenas, one which is often a subject deemed as either specialist or neglected or relegated, due to its origins in a specific agenda. As the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson,stated, ‘We have learned that we do not see directly, but mediately’. In a mediated manner, Panchayat’s activities can be seen as interventionary, or coming from an intermediary agent or means, by indirect mediation, indirectly.
SP: How did the collective form? Were you part of an informal network at that time in London?
SM: It partly happened as a result of the public forums that we were addressing, and along the way there were a myriad of minor adjustments to whom we were portraying through visual tropes, including exhibitions, at a time when becoming part of the public became more and more important for the urban audience. Panchayat was one of these observation posts for the influences unearthed, not only in exhibition-making but also what was being fashioned from both the effects visible in the generational perspective as well as from the evolving radical one. At that time, one’s involvement in Rastafarianism and the Punk movement were expressions of historical pain and radicality that involved black history, populist political expression and encountering ‘colonial’ traits. Panchayat as a collection was influenced by the fragmentary presence of information accompanying these trials and experiments with the formations of collective notions of Black power in midst of mainstream power structures. The collection provided for and enabled many artists from diverse backgrounds and concerns to communicate the historic changes in the local and international environment under the edifice of Black Art or issue-based arts or even New Internationalism.
In the Asian community, the unspoken violence in relation to domestic violence and the challenging violence in the UK’s streets included racist attacks that the communities faced on a daily basis, both from the indigenous British and the very monocultural police force. Organisations including Southall Black Sisters, the Southall Monitoring Groups or the Newham 8 Defence Campaign provided the guiding forums enhancing the place of the artists within activism. Working together on certain issues for publications and exhibitions, or even addressing the curriculum, activism was both a route to learn collaboration strategically and a way to make others cognisant of political issues that were starting to dominate our perspective of what was happening all around Britain and Europe.
All this colonial atrophy was a time of particular focus on evidence, of lived realities, of violence and sociological challenges facing us, and the hopes to resolve our aesthetic in that which came to be known as Black Art to some extent. That aesthetic, the notations built on notions of surviving and portraying the contemporary heritage as a place where we lacked power, in desperation we found ourselves recording Britain in the late twentieth century. In a sense, coming from different backgrounds, we came together thinking about how we could represent ourselves and develop a postcolonial dialogue.
The five of us, who met at Slade School of Arts, in its canteen, formed a Panchayat; of thought about the potential, of what would happen if we started collecting this material, rather than allowing this material to drift by. A lot of the materials were ephemeral, there was not much money for printing catalogues or monographs, and only sometimes were there enough resources to print a postcard for an exhibition or a leaflet. Rapidly, we realised that there was a necessity to create a process, to collect, to include, and that fleeting moment held within it a grander rethinking. Panchayat was an experiment as to what a collection could be and what an archive could do, and what might emerge as a counternarrative. These documented small exhibitions and experiments were part of our legacy about the doubts we had about living in Britain and Europe at that time. So it felt very important to make sure that these leaflets, postcards and photocopies—because photocopying was just about coming into its place at that time—were preserved. We had to produce images in such a way that they did something, as what we wanted to do was to create a sense of multi-locality—to show that what was happening in a certain part of London was also happening not only elsewhere in the city but also perhaps in other cities like Birmingham and other parts of the country and continental Europe. Prior to the Internet, connecting Birmingham and London was very difficult. These forums of multiculturality remained separated, and the means to produce a sense of collectivity remained challenging. Panchayat, alongside African and Asian Visual Arts Archive (aavaa); South Asian Diaspora Literature and Arts Archive (SALIDAA); autograph and the Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva) were very much about trying to create a certain space that could deliver a sense of what was going on in Britain and could also provide a clearer portrayal of what was going on for the forthcoming New International.
At that time, the notion of the international was very much about what was going on in the English-speaking world, and, in particular, the English post-colonial world. Our references and our transferring of knowledge was about reflecting alongside the chasm of North American civil rights activities and those in the countries from which we originated.
SP: I am interested in how this idea of the critical decade transpired and the emergence in the globalised field of cultural activities, as well as the ability of artists to work in Europe and internationally and the curator’s place in the arts as revealed in its expanded definition of the contemporary at that time.
SM: Well, we had some very interesting key thinkers around, including Kobena Mercer, Maud Saulter and Sunil Gupta, who were very much involved in looking at photographic experiences of the gay and lesbian community and other issues of representation.
Very interesting ideas were explored by sociologists including Ulrich Beck and John Tagg, who invested their thinking in suggesting the idea of carrying the burden of representation. Much of what was going on was to do with the recording of power, or the lack of power, or the transmission of power and how we could, to a certain extent, produce a greater picture of our concerns within racial vectors, as well as beyond race—an amalgamation of different concerns if you like.
The emergence of hyphenated identities was both an interesting and important device to break up the monopoly of experience and nationalism. The African-American, Afro-Caribbean, the Black-British, the British-Asian, the gay-artist, the feminist-author, all these were hyphenated identities through which people started discerning various realities. Exhibitions that had domains of segregated ideas of race started to explore relationships beyond the material in spaces that proposed concerns around gender, sexuality or disability. Exhibitions postulated complex questions by gay and lesbian artists, black British artists, or artists with disabilities from various communities with a research-based criticality, related to the power structures that impacted their particularities and individualities. A discursive formation of both art and politics was formed from lived experiences that introduced multiplicity, and muliculturality in a decade—a critical decade of concerns—from what had been on the sidelines of disjunctions for a very long time.
The collecting policy, as well as the manner in which Panchayat disseminated its material and contextual histories in the late eighties and the early nineties, was based to a large extent on its effective relationship to its ‘vernacular realism” (as Mercer calls it)—one that highlighted the expressive qualities of an ‘artist’s relationship to reality as referred to in their depictions’.
Interdependent relationships built ‘spectral dances’ between contexts, across communities and fragile affiliations. One realises, in hindsight, that there never was an artistic consensus as ‘to what made such an identity distinctive’. In the same way, Kobena Mercer has suggested the representation of African American cultural identity is ‘an “amalgamation” of disparate elements’.
Kobena Mercer’s concept of vernacular realism, as the constant reference of artists to their realities, is easily observable in the photographic work of Samena Rana, whose physical disability impeded the process of ‘taking photographs’, whilst her aesthetic decisions influenced her work and perspective. Due to her (dis)ability, she held her camera in a certain way and shot images from the position of her wheelchair. She often shot images of objects she found beautiful from above and in this way a vernacularism developed through the manner in which people looked at their specific conditions.
The work of various artists seemed to have a critical distance (here distance is the measure that allowed the proposing of complex innate concerns) or from an approximation of their condition. One had to start thinking in ‘new’ relationships performed within an amalgamation of concerns. The term ‘Black’ started to seem prohibitive and monocultural in this hyphenated landscape of acknowledging political realities that held complex concepts together. ‘Black’ in a strange way, by the late ‘90s, remained about race, whilst the New International brought about a globalisation of interdependent senses of historical realities or relationships and structured closer contexts and affiliations beyond British colonialism. The scepticism at the heart of the Black Art movement’s work was always based in British coloniality, and the acrimony of its images arose from colonial violence. The New Internationalism was in actuality seen as a way of re-affiliating and making sure that those affiliations remained complex and more broadly drawn. As the cosmopolitan widened in grasping its citizen base beyond the commonwealth, its cities approached a broader range of concerns, so there was a shift from the ‘80s to the late ‘90s where it became very much about how do we understand the progressive ideas about globalisation within the European Union.
SP: At that time in the 1980s and 1990s, theorists and practitioners such as Stuart Hall and Sarat Maharaj were teaching in institutions such as Goldsmiths’ College and were bringing post-colonial discourses into British art schools. How much of an impact did that have at the time?
SM: We had access to many people who were embedded in the education system at the time, and often at the postgraduate level, where the process of art making was prioritised as, in a strange way, the ‘thinking’ involved in making art, which was seen as a particularly postgraduate preoccupation. This meant people were involved in cultural theory and philosophy, and access to these created a bridging mechanism and an awareness of self-representation through academic registers. I think we tend to take that for granted now to a large extent and do not esteem it so highly. Today, the Internet has become a greater mirror than any person involved in an academic capacity. At one time, we felt the necessity to listen to Jean Fisher, Sarat Maharaj and Homi K. Bhabha. Now, possibly, we only need to find a quote from any of those figures to insert into an essay to think that we have an understanding. Yet, I believe that hearing and quoting are two very different ways to understand academic positions.
SP: Panchayat’s activities in this era seem to have taken place on the cusp of profound changes in the arts, artists and the art world; global and globalised arts, the enhancement and development in the making and display of the white cube, the increasing capacity of the commercial market, the art fair and residencies. You also took a group of artists to the 1989 edition of the Havana Biennale, which was seminal in developing new South-South relations and discourses. Can you tell us what was going on at that time?
SM: In Panchayat, it was very much about coming to terms with this kinship, and love for this kinship; it was very basic in some ways. Our curatorial policy was based on the notion of what we found akin to ourselves, where was the rupture, where was the rumour to challenge the hegemony, where was the shortfall? What should we be observing in terms of what should be produced, what and where is the struggle? So these were very basic ways of understanding kinship, and this moved some energy from the ‘local’, therefore the community, to a notion of the ‘International’, the kinship, the process of broadening into the international perspective. On reflection, it was a very strategic long-term aim, because globalisation was coming in a way felt in one’s own practice. So, for the first time, the Arts Council of England offered people the opportunity to travel to Europe and, also, offered the opportunity for research through partnership with other European organisations. This was not possible in the ‘80s, only starting in the early 1990s. Thus, the spheres of development really broadened for many practitioners, whilst people of colour wanted to make those links even further afield; with the Caribbean, South Asia and other artist groups in ‘the elsewhere’ beyond the commonwealth. Thus, the value of what were the counter-hegemonic spaces and discourse was also something we wanted to try and work out with other spaces across the world. The 1989 Havana Biennale was the first time I managed to work with a group of people who met us and wanted to develop some sort of working relationship, without just looking at Europe but looking at South-South equations. Although it was seen as transnational, it was really built on kinship. It was also about developing strength through a network that advanced a permeation of the historical past in our present realities.
SP: It feels important to revisit archives such as Panchayat and others at this point in Britain’s history. Also, artists such as Keith Piper and others are now being given larger platforms in museums such as the Bluecoat in Liverpool and INIVA in London, though it seems that the political context of that era is also important to understand at this time?
SM: The premise of Panchayat was that there were many sites of contestation and many experiments that were being carried out with limited resources, but the congruity of what artists were making and saying and the challenges that they were depicting and the political challenges that they were negotiating were very important emerging paradigms for a new type of aesthetic and new sense of the self. It was really a time of substance and not a time for style.
Keith Piper’s Unearthing of the Bankers Bones as well as his new work, Pulp Fiction, are works similar to those I commissioned when I curated the exhibition, Black Atlantic, at the House of World Cultures in Berlin in 2007. The series of digital works for Black Atlantic examined the relationship of the symbolic monetary and its historical relationship between race and the advent of an enforced diaspora. Piper, in many ways, has been involved in the active deconstruction and rethinking through visual tropes, the management of sense and safety of the self. The never-ending relationship between power and money, the access and control of the body and the symbolic control of race and the knowledge system are key and central to his works. His research around and about transatlantic slavery, often inversely juxtapositioned within interactive digital environments, is important work in the history of art. Piper manages to explore histories of the 17th and 18th centuries and the altruism that defines our futures. What remains interesting about working with Piper is that he allows us all to look at issues and opportunities with a difficult historical past still present, waiting to be re-engaged through multiplicity and from multiple sources, and then, in a sense, his artistic inventions create new ways of looking at them and new relationships between structures of power as new records of perception. Keith Piper has been doing this work in many different ways, through teaching, through writing and making artworks and video works for the last four decades. In his art, we find the amalgamation of ideas, theories and research, which allows various environments from these decades to pose further new questions. His fertile, natural ability within the art world and through writing and education, through his lived history and the work of the ‘80s and ‘90s, continues and has not lost its importance.
Many references have been brought to bear through artists’ work, not only Keith Piper but a myriad of artists from that era, including Fred Wilson, Jimmie Durham, Gavin Jantjes, Rashid Araeen and María Magdalena Campos-Pons, who have forced into the open the illusion that had been controlling us. They shifted agendas and, therefore, this critical decade remains important now within the global arts. It is important that we continue to exist within various aspirations that vie for control of our destinies and intelligence. In this globalisation of the arts, we continue to work and live through nuanced forms of barbarism and specialisations, and these forms of barbarism have constructed illusions, which need re-addressing.
The deconstructive possibilities of the archive provide opportunities to work with artists and institutions on exhibitions, performances, publications, and even to set up a studio. As C.L.R. James observed of the post-war era and the late ‘70s and ‘80s, ‘No age has been so conscious of the permeation of the historical past in the actual present as our own.’
I remain a firm believer in the need to create a parallel axis of knowledge, generating new archives and generating contesting ideas of globalisations, multiplicity, multi-locality and the imaginary. All of this has to be a continuous process. It is important and interesting to create further opportunities for liaison, collaboration and discussion and to find kinship. We have to continue to operate as artists, curators and archivists—as people who are willing to be collecting rather than remaining within the narratives, which are applied to us, but to create the counternarratives that challenge us.
Furthermore, I would encourage this sorry contemporary to think about these issues and further our understanding stemming from the archival possibilities of the vectors of production and victories of practices. The search for meaning is to be found in continually inventing aesthetics unhinged and unbound by economics but aligned with the urgency of ecological harmonies.
Shaheen Merali is a curator and writer, currently based in London. Between 2003-8, he was the Head of Exhibitions, Film and New Media at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany, curating several exhibitions including The Black Atlantic, Dreams and Trauma—Moving images and the Promised Lands, and Re-Imagining Asia, One Thousand Years of Separation. In 2006, he was the co-curator of the 6th Gwangju Biennale in South Korea, and the co-curator of the 4th Mediations Biennale in Poznań, Poland in 2014.
Shwetal A. Patel is a founding member of Kochi-Muziris Biennale and PhD scholar at the Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton.