ALIA PATHAN - FIRE ROOSTER @ PRIMARY
Emoji summary: 🌸🐘❕
i am biased. Last summer i interviewed Alia Pathan for a contribution to their ongoing audio archive: the white tiger project, which is a research project n collection of interviews with 2nd and 3rd gen south asians whose family came to the UK via East Africa. I am biased bc my mum was born in Nairobi, and more than having a shared or collective memory of Gujarat; her brothers n sisters reminisce about their aunt’s house near the beach in Mombasa, the houses and apartments they moved to and from in central Nairobi, where exactly in Nakuru my nani was born. I also spoke on a panel as part of the public programme for this very show; i’m glad i did, bc Notts is too in my peripheral vision for me to have j casually swung by.
this show, bc of these biases, felt heavy in my hands. I debated not writing about it, bc how could i navigate that weight? i am writing about it now bc of that weight. This show meant a lot to me; some works felt referential (in a good way!), some were closed off talking to only themselves, not even me (A ViewerTM). So yes, Alia Pathan’s show: Fire Rooster @ Primary in Nottingham. off we go.
As you walked in to this blackout space you’re confronted by a wall-sized projection of Alia dressed in some absolutely banging, incredible costumes against opulent interiors. They are singing a song from an opera (?) (apparently it’s from Rinaldo by Handel, pls see this link for more info) it is still and contemplative in a way that western aesthetics so rarely are. beyond being about brown bodies looking starkest against a cold white backdrop, this work also feels like a stretch into stillness, calm, aesthetic hybridity n tbh fashion. on the right long wall was a chalky line drawing spidering across the length of the wall like veins or like the white bits on an orange. i think it was a river? a map? idk idk, i touched it and the blue came off on my fingers, it was deeply satisfying as background, as anchor and placement. on the floor off to the left was a white glass disc on the floor; projected over the top was a kaleidoscopic abstract, blooming flowers and glittering jewels, all tinted deep magenta. Like those whatsapp greetings cards, a truly indian aesthetic in the purest way (see this twitter thread i did) completely devoid of irony (that western invention), a sincerity in beauty and appreciation of beauty in a way that feels passé or unrefined. On the glass disc, under the projection lights, were two coconuts and a lump of gor. Like a man spread, like an accessory;;;; omg yes, an accessory. this work was earrings, nose ring, necklace. i don’t wana academicise or bang on about what it meant or the affect bc truthfully, it felt nice n that was it. it made sense in the space formally, added balance to an outfit. i don’t know if i would’ve thought this if it was just this in the room, but it was like salt; you shouldn’t rly notice it’s there if it’s about with other spices. It was a harmony line amongst the bigger works, and that was ok bc it was beautiful n balanced and right.
There was one work that held me, by my head and my heart and my hands; a small box tv off to one side with headphones and a video less than a minute long. it was small and subtle, and i feel like that day i wasn’t in the mood for the large sprawling engagement of the bigger more encompassing works. My attention span wasn’t prepared or wasn’t primed for that. I was glad for a small respite. The video was a rolling loop of that statue by elephant and castle shopping centre; that one of a pink elephant with a castle on its back. a shot from below, close up on the trunk and tusks, with camera hands trembling slightly, hard up against the sky; intercut with footage of Alia on a bus towards elephant & castle (i think?). words roll over the screen: ’they reckon you can tell where an elephant is from based on the shape of its ears' scene change, ’but where you from and where you goin.’
this, this text and these small close shaky videos, and booming over the top was Punjabi MC’s universally recognisable diaspora banger: Moorni. the song choice felt like a happy one, compared to the populist/mainstream and now negatively racialised Mundian To Bach Ke that he’s so famous for. Moorni feels like a pan-brit-asian anthem safe from the shadow of white recognition, where Mundian To Bach Ke has been twisted by that white context as a presiding recognition/memory of it. the song feels like a protected space of universal yet specific language, and its usage in this video felt specific in terms of its affect. idk man, something about the smallness of this video brought tears to my eyes; i was even thankful for the isolation of headphones. I was in this very small private space of me, this intimate little video, and this fucking song that every wedding dj knows will bring the house down regardless of whether ur punjabi, gujarati, hindu, muslim, sikh; this fucking song felt hopeful alongside this video.
I can’t believe i’m this moist that i’m waxing lyrical about a 60 second video n a Punjabi MC song; but u know u know, this moment is rare. It is rare indeed to see a brown artist engage with the idea of brownness in diaspora and not turn it into a trope, a solipsistic individualised account, a self-indulgent mess that reaches nowhere, moves us nowhere. this video tapped into a collectivity in its smallness and its celebration, its text voiceover of a voiceless disembodied speaker enquiring about elephant’s ears and destination. I respected this video in its subtlety, bc where so many have gone bigger and done less, this video did so much, stretched so far in such a small gestural format. as I was on the train home, half-asleep, breath fogging up the window, travelling backwards; i thought about what i’d have thought of this video if i’d seen it on instagram rather than in a blackout gallery. i think i’d have liked it all the same. good art is art that isn’t necessarily trying to reinvent the circle, good art is sometimes in its good references. i like this speculative brown future of artists citing Punjabi MC in a small resurrection beyond the wedding dance floor, reference reference, we have a history in this country we have roots in this country’s history of art, even if it’s Alaap and Heera rather than fucking paintings. chorus looping, shaky footage of the elephant’s tusk against a bright blue sky, but where you from and where you goin; mate idk idk. i ride the train till the end of the line, i put my song on repeat, i lie my head against the window and watch fields and pylons swing past. god bless the canon, this tiny film affected me. i rest my faith in the canon, but not ur canon;;; MY canon.
Fire Rooster closed at Primary on 16th June, n i normally hate writing about show’s that have closed, but i think this show affected me so nicely that idea; i am glad for it to live on in this text, for u to experience it through my words. this show was on in London before, and i think it is generally touring (?) keep ur eyes peeled on the artist’s
website ~ http://www.aliapathan.com/ ~ to see if it makes it to a town near U! (hope it does!)