Introduction / Akhil Sharma
When I was a child, I hoped I had been Muslim in my past life. Most of the little Hindu boys I knew did so as well. This was in Delhi, India and it was because Muslims appeared so much more glamorous than us Hindus.
Whatever the Koran might say, based on the movies we saw, we imagined Muslims as drinking wine. We also saw their lives as primarily involving reciting poetry, and, of course and best of all to us little boys, having multiple wives.
Orientalism is a complicated concept. Not only does the west exoticize the east, but the east exoticizes itself. I went to school with Muslim boys. I played cricket with them. I went to their homes and we played board games. And yet I thought that as soon as I left their company, they and their relatives began to lead exciting lives.
I think I chose to imagine their lives this way because it was nice to tell myself stories, to imagine that the world was full of adventure. It might make sense that I as a Hindu had a sense of Muslims as exotic. But when I meet Muslims in India, they too appear to view their past as exotic. I once talked to a Muslim scientist in the Indian army who told me that things such as flying carpets had once existed but we had lost the technology.
This imagining of a magical past might have something to do with a sense of feeling helpless before the west today. It might also have to do with making the past more legible. Most Muslims are baffled by their own theological past. The Koran is, of course, the word of God and one way we know this is simply through its self-evident beauty, but what do we do about the hadiths?
It is because the Koran does not cover every aspect of life that we end up with strange behavior like pouring milk on a certain wall in the Old Fort in Delhi because the djin that lives there can help one get pregnant.
Each viewer brings himself or herself to a painting and this is why to me, the first and most obvious response to Pamela Golden’s Thunderstruck is an enormous sense of loss.
These stunning watercolours, moody in a way watercolours rarely are, incorporate stills from the orientalist fantasia that is The Thief of Bagdad with images from the bombing of Iraq in the early 2000s, as well as flowers that bloom at night and which are primarily propagated by bats.
The wonderful and delicately balanced Phantom Linebacker has in the middle left, almost at the periphery of the canvas, a half-naked man balanced on a flying carpet. His arms are waist high with the hands to the side and slightly down, looking very much like he is on a surf board.
And on the opposite edge is a much more obscure figure, also it seems a man, but turned away from the clearer man and lost in contemplation. In between, obscuring the landscape, is smoke like it is burning Baghdad that the carpet is flying over.
I think to a western audience, the image might provoke thoughts on orientalist stereotypes and a clash between East and West. To me, though, the West in this image is not particular. It is the West that is general and exotic and the East that is specific.
In this sense, the West is Occidentalized and the east is left alone. Because that is my experience of the work, the mood and meaning that presses on me is more internal. I identify with the figure on the flying carpet. This man is looking down on what has been lost.
I have the same response to other works in the exhibition: Centaur Rodeo, Phantom Fury. They can be experienced without having a sense of a particular West or even a West at all. The violence that is represented inside the paintings could just be violence without it being violence from the West. What is most palpable for me in the works is an idealization of a past and a loss of this fantasy. All of this can be experienced from within the culture that is being painted.
Orientalism is a complicated concept. Not only does the west exoticize the east, but the east exoticizes itself.
There is, of course, a more traditional “Western” way to interpret these works. Many of the paintings are titled based on the AC / DC song that American soldiers played during the bombing of Iraq. The paintings therefore act as the space where an orientalist fantasy and another artwork (the AC / DC song) that was part of the moment of destruction meet over reality (the actual bombing of Iraq). With this interpretation, we are reminded of the distance between fantasies and reality.
Still another way to experience these artworks is to see that the fantasies being represented make each other possible. The fact that Baghdad is seen as “other” and so to some extent not real means that it is possible to enjoy the heightened emotions of a song while bombing human beings.
To talk about these artworks only as meaning generating objects is to do them a disservice. They generate not meaning but experience. It feels essential therefore to acknowledge their handling of color: the green in the palm leaves of Centaur Rodeo and the burnt orange of Golden Phantom Fury. There is also both a comedy and pathos to how figures and objects are arranged on the canvas. And finally there is a restlessness generated by how the narrative inside the works feels not yet concluded.
Pamela Golden appears to be going from strength to strength in her work and these latest watercolours show her extraordinary talent and intelligence.