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On Visual Art and Diasporic [un]Consciousness

Updated: Sep 17

Zainabu Jallo

In conversation with Artist and Curator, Patrick Dougher.


DIASPORA CHRISTIAN II Collage/ Bible Pages/Acrylic/Glitter on Paper- 9"x12”

©Patrick Dougher 2019


Prologue

A dispersal from an ancestral homeland. A collective memory about the homeland. A feeling of not fully integrating within a host community. A yearning for a return to the homeland. Maintaining an image of the homeland, maintaining individual or collective relations with the homeland. Do these points highlight the elemental traits of a Diasporic individual or group? What, other than geographical displacement, voluntary or enforced, constitutes a Diasporic individual/group? Wherein the Diasporic individual/group is always conscious of a dislocation, struggles with the sense of belonging and never fully integrating into the host community. Descriptions of the Diaspora from its etymology diaspeirō-a scattering-to attempted descriptions by George Shepperson (1966)[1], William Safran (1991)[2] and George Cohen (1997)[3] among others, convey a consciousness of displacement laced with a longing for a return the homeland.


Stuart Hall, on the other hand, discards conventional meanings of a scattered community with a yearning for the homeland. He writes:

I use this term metaphorically, not literally: Diaspora does not refer us to those scattered tribes whose identity can only be secured in relation to some sacred homeland to which they must at all costs return, even if it means pushing other people into the sea. This is the old, the imperializing, the hegemonizing, and form of ‘ethnicity’. (235) [4]

Another position is held by James Clifford who looks through the lens of transnational networks when he contends that:


“whatever their ideologies of purity are, diasporic cultural forms can never, in practice, be exclusively nationalist. They are deployed in transnational networks built from multiple attachments and they encode practices of accommodation with, as well as, resistance to, host countries and their norms. Diaspora is different from travel (though it works through travel practices) in that it is not temporary. It involves dwelling, maintaining communities, having collective homes away from home (and in this it is different from exile with its frequent individualistic focus). (308) [5]

With the continuous cross-border traversing for innumerable purposes, attempts at defining the Diaspora have, over the years, expanded to accommodate many strands of mobility and the rationales behind them. Once upon a time, the term Diaspora was a historically and politically encumbered concept. For political theorist William Safran, it appears that Diaspora, formerly an object of suspicion, has become one of fascination. Defining Diaspora under one rubric will certainly not do justice to the different historical conditions of some groups. If one accepts that the prevailing strand in all definitions of Diasporic conditions is mobility, how about settings where mobility is not concerned? By this I mean, descendants of transplanted groups who, through conduits such as transgenerational epigenetic memory, actively carry on with expressions and affirmations of a Diaspora group. In his 1997 essay, "A Question of Place : Revisions, Reassessments, Diaspora" curator Okwui Enwezor describes the formation of a diaspora as "the quintessential journey into becoming; a process marked by incessant regroupings, recreations, and reiteration. Together these stressed actions strive to open up new spaces of discursive and performative postcolonial consciousness.”


I understand Diasporic Consciousness as a palimpsest of anamneses expressed in multiple ways. In what patterns could such consciousness manifest through visual art? I had the great pleasure of musing with Brooklyn-based artist Patrick Dougher, using his Diaspora Christian Series as a starting point and moving towards the overarching thematic concerns of his art. Born and raised in Brooklyn New York, Dougher is a self-taught fine artist, musician, poet and actor. His artistic opus is quite extensive. He has worked as a co-curator at the Museum of African Art, as a youth counsellor and teaching artist at Project Reach and Studio in a School and most recently as the Program Director of Groundswell, New York City’s premier community mural arts organisation, where he oversaw and directed over 300 public mural projects throughout the city of New York.

DIASPORA CHRISTIAN II Collage/ Bible Pages/Acrylic/Glitter on Paper- 9”x12”

©Patrick Dougher 2019


ZJ An untiring question I have regarding the Diasporic condition is: How long should it take for a Diasporic community/ entity to become fully integrated within a host community? The term has evolved to encompass several conditions in today’s mobile world. How would you describe the Diaspora today? Given that you were born and raised outside of Africa, and quite interestingly, your body of work has a persistent reference to African ancestors, what does Diasporic Consciousness mean to you?


PD Thank you for the question. Honestly, I don’t think being “fully integrated into the host community” is possible or even ideal in most cases and in particular in the case of America. I think it would be just and fair if the Diasporic community were to be granted equity and the rights enjoyed by members of the host community, but I think there is an argument to be made for preserving the richness and unique culture that the Diasporic community brings to the host culture. It’s been said that African – American culture IS American culture and certainly it is the contribution of African- Americans that have given so much in terms of music, art, style, language, literature, cuisine and science to the world. We are what’s “cool” and we set the trends. I think that would be lost if we were totally assimilated into the host culture.


ZJ Would you say this artistic continuities are expressions of Diasporic Consciousness? In order not to lose a heritage?

PD I call it “Diasporic Unconsciousness" meaning African-Americans have been purposely stripped and distanced from our original cultures. Our names, religions, traditions, stories and history were intentionally hidden from us, yet still, the unknown connection to our stolen culture comes through organically in our expression. I believe “you can take the person out of Africa but you cannot take Africa out of the person” It is literally in our DNA. So much of my work is about trying to call to attention the unconscious connection we African- Americans share with Africa that manifests in our artistic and cultural expressions.


ZJ I read your Diaspora Christian series as a very conscious, restless in-betweenness, a here and there dilemma that has been attributed to a Diasporic state. Can you talk a bit about the Diaspora Christian Series? I was struck by it, for the reason that it resonates with some aspects of on Afro-Brazilian Candomblé; the commingling of two religions. In a sense like what Robert Hayden refers to as Antagonistic Tolerance, configurations of coexistence and conflict amongst different belief systems.

PD So much of my work is about drawing the connection to traditional African culture and ceremony and African–American culture, particularly when it manifests in subtle ways. The African-American church consciously tries to distance itself from what it perceives as the “heathen/ pagan practices” of Africa and yet so much of what happens in the black church mirrors those practices. From “catching the spirit’ to the call and response of the music to even the idea of dressing in your “Sunday best”. The spiritual connections, the depth of devotion and the actual practices are so clearly derived from Africa. There is almost a hypocrisy in not acknowledging and accepting this connection. In the collage images, I created the African-American “Christian” is literally hiding behind the mask of Africa.


MOORISH MADONNA

Acrylic/Mixed-Media on Canvas- 16” x 20”

©Patrick Dougher 2020


ZJ Could you share some information about your practice? You were a part of the Afropunk movement; did that nudge you towards making connections between African-American street culture and traditional African Culture?

PD I was part of the “Afro Punk” movement before the term was coined. I was simply a black youth that was interested in music fashion and politics that were considered alternative and rebellious. Punk Rock taught me to question the status quo, express myself as an individual and to think critically about established systems. I also came of age with the birth of the Hip Hop movement that was heavily influenced by the 5 Percent Nation of Gods and Earths (an offshoot of the Black Muslims) and with the Roots Reggae movement that was heavily influenced by the Rastafarians. Being born and raised in a West Indian neighbourhood in Brooklyn New York, I was exposed to a lot of information about African roots and Black pride, so I began making the connections early.

ZJ You often talk about depicting everyday people in "divine ways”. By divine do you mean exalted? Or aligning them with some scared entity? What does the sacred mean to you? And how would you describe your method of Sacred Geometry beyond symbolism? Your Triptych inspires this inquiry on the divinity of Black women, where I found syncretic symbols such as the Akwaaba doll and other symbols.

PD I was influenced early on by the 5 Percent Nation, which taught a philosophy that the Black Man was God. This is where the term “God Body” that I use to describe myself and my art comes from. It is similar to the Hindu idea of “Namaste” which basically means that we all embody the divine. My father was Irish Catholic. He would take me to church when I was little. I was always attracted to and in awe of the majesty and sacredness of the art in church but even as a small child I recognised that none of the Divine souls depicted looked like me or people in my community. So to answer your question: Yes, I intend to depict “ordinary” people of colour in exalted and sacred ways to intentionally claim (reclaim) and call attention to our Divine nature. I am not an authority on Sacred Geometry, but I find it fascinating. The mathematics and harmonious balance that makes up the known and unknown, the seen and unseen Universe. I do recognise the power and significance of sacred symbols and am amazed at their similarities across cultures and time.

Dougher in his Brooklyn Atelier. 2020 ©Patrick Dougher

ZJ Your atelier walls are lined with African masks, could you share the provenance of your mask collection? They appear to be more prominent with one of your missions; to “Mirror African art with found objects”.

PD Ha! My growing African mask collection is somewhat unintentional. I’ve always had an affinity for African masks. I find them to be fascinating in their variety, beauty, craftsmanship, originality, beauty and power. I love the ceremonial use of masks and that each mask has its own story and energy. That said I could never really afford to buy any African masks as the real ones that weren’t made for tourists tend to be quite expensive.

I started making African mask/sculpture inspired found metal sculptures as a direct result of wanting to have African Art but not being able to afford it. When I was in my early 20’s, I got a job as an art handler at The Museum of African Art in New York. I was able to afford two masks that had been damaged in transit. I proudly displayed them in my home. Soon friends caught on to the idea that I liked African masks and I began to get them as gifts. I also had a friend that was my once my drug dealer who segued from dealing drugs to importing African sculpture and he would often give me pieces that “fell off the back of the truck”. So, my collection feels humble but unique in that any mask or sculpture I have acquired seems to have come to me by Divine sanction.

ZJ I find the many journeys and encounters of such material culture fascinating. Thank you for your time Patrick.

Epilogue

Within the context of a Diasporic group, one could define Consciousness as the state of being acutely cognisant of thoughts, feelings, memories, or sensations. Perhaps Phenomenology, the study of configurations of Consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view, will help us understand the idea of Consciousness better. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the central configuration of an experience is its intentionality. “An experience is directed toward an object by virtue of its content or meaning together with appropriate enabling conditions”. We will take that! Consciousness is a state of the human mind that unconsciously regulates one`s responses to the outer world. In Dougher’s case, this response comes through his art, an intentional exercise in keeping alive, the dignified image and mores of a violently transplanted people.

Dougher`s art reflects his life’s mission to inspire and empower by "honestly" and "fearlessly" holding up a mirror to society’s inequity and injustices. Through his art, he seeks to celebrate the noble beauty and divine spiritual nature of people of African descent and to connect urban African-American culture to its roots in sacred African art and ceremony.

WORKS CITED

Clifford, James. Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Harvard Univ. Press, 1999.

Cohen, Robin. Global Diasporas. Routledge, 2008.

Enwezor, Okwui. “A Question of Place : Revisions, Reassessments, Diaspora.

Transforming the Crown: African, Asian & Caribbean Artists in Britain, 1966-1996, by Mora J. Beauchamp-Byrd and Franklin Sirmans, Franklin H. Williams Caribbean Cultural Center/African Diaspora Institute, 1997.

Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Jonathan Rutherford (ed.), Identity: Community, Culture, Difference Lawrence & Wishart, 1990. pp. 222-237. 37

Safran, William. "Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return." Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 1.1 (1991): 83- 99

Shepperson, George. The African Diaspora, edited by Martin Kilson and Robert I. Rotberg, Harvard University Press, 1976, pp. 1–10.




[1] George Shepperson, “Introduction,” in Kilson and Rotberg (eds.), The African Diaspora, pp. 1-10. [2] Safran, William. "Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return." Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 1.1 (1991): 83-99 [3] See Robin cohen. Global Diasporas. ( 2008) where he attempts to define features of global diasporas [4] Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Jonathan Rutherford (ed.), Identity: Community, Culture, Difference (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990), pp. 222-237. 37 [5] See James Clifford, "Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century in Traveling Cultures(1992) pp.17-46

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