PRINT May 1997



Whose house is this?
Whose night keeps out the light
In here?
Say, who owns this house?
It’s not mine. I had another, sweeter, brighter
With a view of lakes crossed in painted boats;
Of fields wide as arms open for me.
This house is strange.
Its shadows lie.
Say, tell me, why does its lock fit my key?

—Toni Morrison, “Whose House is This?” 1992

WHAT DOES IT MEAN to be at home in the world? Home may not be where the heart is, nor even the hearth. Home may be a place of estrangement that becomes the necessary space of engagement; it may represent a desire for accommodation marked by an attitude of deep ambivalence toward one’s location. Home may be a mode of living made into a metaphor of survival: Say, tell me, why does its lock fit my key?

The general drift of Morrison’s lyric may evoke the precarious political displacements, the poignant psychological and cultural disjunctions, that too frequently underlie the claim to “world” citizenship: according to the latest report of UNESCO’S World Commission on Culture and Development, recent decades have seen greater movement and settlement across national frontiers than ever before. “The number of foreign workers is estimated at over 40 million, the number of refugees at about 15 million and the number of people who had to leave their country because of political upheaval since the Second World War at no less than 37.5 million.” Forced and unforced migrants form a scattered nation unto themselves, a state without sovereignty whose population is almost twice that of Britain, France, or Italy. Morrison’s song, however, is much more than a hymn to the “homeless” or a dirge for the displaced. Her concluding question—Say, tell me, why does its lock fit my key?—changes the tenor of the discussion to the contingent forces of survival: perhaps, an existence unfolding through a quotidian quest for what may be, day by day, the experience of transition without seamless transformation. Or learning to survive in a new landscape of identification where anguish becomes a way of working through alienation toward a tryst with history—for when “this house is strange” you encounter a shadow of yourself that is nonetheless animated and creative as shadow puppets can be, concealing their secrets from the light, casting their darkness into a profound suggestibility. The door opens onto a room that is not my own, the window unlatches to display a country that hurts the eyes, this is neither my locale nor my lock, but in this milieu of mischance, suddenly my key turns . . . and I have no choice but to choose to belong.

Such choosing is not free, as the freedom of choice purports to be; nor does such estranged belonging endow authenticity, in the manner to which “national” belonging accustoms us. For those who bear the mien of the minority freedom is paradoxical, and choice is the contingency of claiming one’s subaltern presence as it is projected in and through the power of another’s possession. To choose to belong in this peculiar sense, with its double consciousness and split identifications, is also to commit oneself or one’s community to an agonistic existence: “Each, in his own way, rages against the dread requirement to represent; against the demands of ‘authenticity,’”– writes Henry Louis Gates. “People who have been vested with meaning [define themselves] by struggling against other meanings, other allegories. . . Somehow the choice is always between alternate inauthenticities, competing impostures. Another approach toward the question: How does it feel to be a paradox?”

In Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man, a recent collection that brings together the profiles he has written over the past few years for The New Yorker, Gates lavishly illustrates the paradox of the representation, and representativeness, of “blackness.” This paradox is embodied in a norm raging against itself, a paradox of racialized subjectivity forever playing Freud’s fort/da game in the space between what can be symbolized and what must remain spectral. Gate’s argument, as I understand it, does not suggest that, somewhere over the rainbow, behind or beyond the “inauthentic,” lies the aura of the sincere and the true. What emerges most forcefully for me from his portraits of black men bearing the “burden of representation” (including James Baldwin, Albert Murray, Anatole Broyard, Bill T. Jones, Louis Farrakhan, Colin Powell, and Harry Belafonte) is the stark confrontation between the “social fantasy” of race or masculinity that projects them into the public sphere—fort!—and the eerie awareness that a sense of “agency,” any deliberative or subversive action, must be derived from working, at once, within and without those very mechanisms of “representation,” or strategies of regulation and discrimination—da! It is as if home is territory of both disorientation and relocation, with all the fragility and fecundity implied by such a double take: Say, tell me, why does its lock fit my key?

Such an anxiety of belonging moves beyond both the black American and the national contexts to become embedded in particular forces at the heart of the old empires and the thresholds of new ones. “The anxiety of belonging,” Toni Morrison writes in the recently published The House That Race Built, “is entombed within the central metaphors in the discourse on globalism, transnationalism, nationalism, the break-up of federations, the rescheduling of alliances, and the fiction of sovereignty.” As we make our global leap—a leap in technology as well as faith—we must return to that early form of globalization that we have known for at least the last 250 years in its different phases as the histories of imperialism, neocolonialism, or postcolonialism. Can the inequalities of power and wealth between First and Third Worlds, North and South in each nation itself, allow us to celebrate the global as if we are all participants in the same local festival? What these ambiguities in the global condition produce are profound anxieties about the way in which we see ourselves as part of a “shared” history of human civilization and barbarism.

Britain, for instance, has had a complex and contentious history of transnational intimacy, partly as a consequence of its colonial heritage, partly thanks to the global reach of the English language and its cultural and media institutions. The anxiety of “Englishness” is most acutely felt along its internal borders—Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales—where relations become sensitive to what Freud once called “the narcissism of minor differences.” But let me explore the moral of a certain postcolonial intimacy in a tale of two paintings. Remember Peter Blake’s “The Meeting” or “Have a Nice Day, Mr. Hockney,” 1981–83, that icon of “English” art and artists, a signature work of the British Pop generation that hangs at the Tate? Two portly gentlemen greet each other, one resting on a cane, the other leaning on an oversized paintbrush; a third stands aside, his head bowed. Of course, the staged meeting between the artists Peter Blake, David Hockney, and Howard Hodgkin at Venice Beach, California, is a translation/transposition of Courbet’s The Meeting, or “Bonjour Monsieur Courbet,” 1854. In the move from provençale to LA landscape, the figure of the British artist is recast in an international frame. The studied poses, replicating those in the Courbet painting, recall a European painterly past that is surprisingly restaged in the midst of a Southern California of youth, lust, and leisure that has been exhaustively explored elsewhere by Hockney. In this palimpsest of Courbet/Blake/ Hockney/Hodgkin—these interlocking landscapes—that argues for a “tradition” of Western painting, the West Coast ambience, the endless azure and lilac horizon looking out over the ocean, has a marked “Pacific Rim” light about it: out there lies Asia, Australia. From a late ’90s perspective, Blake’s peculiar facture gives the painting the appearance of computerized image transfer avant la lettre, an artifice of the anxiety of relocation and inauthenticity. For there is an edginess about Blake’s transnational staging of both art history and cultural history, an edginess that suggests that these very “English” artists find themselves culturally or exploratory and innovative space between the national and the international.

Might this hybrid, culturally diverse landscape then make visible the rough edges, the complex negotiations of aesthetic values that find themselves not only “outside” the artwork in the social problematic of its production but “inside” the work itself, both formally and affectively? Cultural contradictions, disjunctive historical spaces, identifications created on the crossroads—these are the issues that the arts of cultural hybridization seek to embody and enact rather than “transcend.” It is an art that is no less valuable because it takes what is unresolved, ambivalent, even antagonistic, and performs it in the work, underlining the struggle for translation.

Such a perspective becomes clearer if we look at a picture by an Indian artist named Vivan Sundaram who lives in Delhi but shows and works internationally. People Come and Go, 1981, shown at the Royal Academy, is just such a work of the crossroads: awkwardly intersected picture planes, edgy surfaces, a burst of mottled pointillist light flooding one corner, while another corner emphasizes the heavy glare of Indian sunlight, flat, overturned illumination reminiscent of a Hodgkin canvas. The mise-en-scène is unmistakably “Indian”: a dhoti-kurta-clad artist squats on the floor, while behind him, in a space analogous to that behind Peter Blake, where Hodgkin stood, in “The Meeting,” is a laconic, lavender-suited foreign visitor. Bathed in a pool of light, oddly at home and out of place, this figure is in fact none other than Howard Hodgkin. A Hodgkin-like canvas beside him, the artist is now to be found in Baroda, in western India, in the studio of his painter friend, Bhupen Khakhar, whose playful postprimitivistic figures are part of a narrative that is both quotidian and “proverbial.”1 The interlocked gazes of Hodgkin and Khakhar are fixed on a canvas that is turned away from us. What are they thinking? Where do those two very different visions meet—and necessarily part?

Let us not be persuaded, with all the goodwill in the world, that this is a simple celebration of cultural borders and boundaries collapsing before the transcendence of the artistic vision—an international coterie of the inspired auguring well for the multicultural millennium. The last time such an assumption was made by Aziz, in E. M. Forester’s Passage to India, his carefully laid plans to host what he called an “international picnic” at the Marabar Caves went, as we are aware, badly wrong. The title of Sundaram’s painting, People Come and Go, especially when used by a postcolonial artist, is too ironic and informed to be either celebratory or nostalgic. The hybrid nature of the work, with its citations, imitations, and enigmatic, unreadable canvas that hits the sightline at a peripheral, even anamorphic angle, raises for us the issue of identity and cultural authenticity.

This is a question related to the art of hybrid translation rather than transcendence, which is not to suggest that such cultural practices need sacrifice anything in the way of elegance or sublimity. What it does suggest is that we have overemphasized, even fetishized, the relation between culture and national identity, or traditional, customary community. There is, of course a link between territory, tradition, and “peoplehood” that serves certain functions of state and governance and bestows an important sense of belonging. But the strong, nationalist version of this relationship can lead to a limiting collusion that returns us to the dominant sociocultural paradigms of the nineteenth century. To be overly focused on the authenticity of national identity leads to an “authoritarian” or “paternalist” gaze—however well-meant—toward those who are part of the great history of migration. Authenticity unleashes a restrictive sense of indigenous or native “belonging” that can only calm itself by thinking of cultural or racial differences, and the products of those histories, as being “appropriateable,” naturalized into the national myth itself.

What both “Have a Nice Day, Mr. Hockney” and People Come and Go demonstrate is the power of a secular creativity that emerges when culture is seen as the crossroads for articulating different landscapes, histories, genres, styles of perception, and performance. Hybridity is a gesture of translation that keeps open the question of what it is to be Indian in Britain or a gay British artist in California—not open in the facile sense of there being “no closure” but in the revisionary sense that these questions of home, identity, belonging are always open to negotiation, to be posed again from elsewhere, to become iterative, interrogative processes rather than imperative, identitarian designations. Or viewed from the other side of the globe, such thinking bears witness to Sundaram’s “translating” Hodgkin by placing an imitation of his signature style beside the ironic primitivistic-proverbialism of Khakhar, in the process producing an art of the interstices. Let us end with this iconic image of an intersective cultural narrative of the history of the contemporary “global” moment. The disjunctive locations and displaced temporalities that formally structure the world of the work—people come and go—enable us to envisage the picture plane as inscribed in a movement that shifts the perceptual and evaluative balance between the canonical and the hybrid, peripheral and central, refusing to settle the question one way or another. The anxiety of belonging encourages us to choose to live in a house whose shifting walls require that stranger and neighbor recognize their side-by-sideness, their lateral living, because “This house is strange. / Its shadows lie. / Say, tell me, why does its lock fit my key?”

Homi K. Bhabha is Chester B. Tripp Chair in the Humanities at the University of Chicago.


1. Geeta Kapur, Introduction to Contemporary Indian Art, catalogue to “Festival of India,” London, Royal Academy of Art, 1982, p.7.