Remaking celluloid histories
Iftikhar Dadi has practiced as an independent artist in his own right but currently works in collaboration with Elizabeth Dadi. Their works comment upon the far-reaching effects of global media and advertising in advancing contemporary cultural imperialism, in the construction of identities and historical narratives, and in the preservation of colonial legacies. Drawing on universally recognisable visual languages, they create vivid, iconic images that play upon our difficulty in separating fact from fiction to show how this clouds our contemporary understandings of the past and our present conceptions of other cultures.
Based in New York, Iftikhar and Elizabeth Dadi draw on global media and advertising, and the visual culture of South Asia to create works that comment on the construction of national, ethnic and religious identities, the manipulation of historical narratives, the ever-present legacies of colonialism, and contemporary cultural imperialisms. Global electronic media in particular, with its capacity to commodify every aspect of culture, provides the Dadis with potent reference points and a universally recognisable visual language.
In an increasingly fragile and intolerant world, we are, according to the Dadis, caught up in a ‘carnivalesque power play in which both state power and mass response are theatrically enacted in cannibalistic consumption’. Their response is to create work that is playful and irreverent, and its content, like the mass media they critique, has the power to both seduce and appall at the same time.
The Dadis’ are fascinated with Hollywood’s rampant rewriting of history and the influence that such cinematic readings have on the public’s consciousness of great political figures and events. This is reflected in They Made History (1999), a series of six circular lightboxes, each displaying a computer-manipulated portrait of a historically significant non-western character.
The faces of Geronimo, Zapata, Gandhi, Malcolm X, Genghis Khan, The Empress of China, the Mahdi of Sudan and The King of Siam are set against appropriately transcendent backgrounds of sunsets, cascading waterfalls, snow-capped mountains and infinite space. Closer inspection, however, reveals a charade: we see Denzel Washington parading as Malcolm X; the King of Siam turns out to be Yul Brynner in the King and I; Ben Kingsley plays Gandhi; Chuck Connors is Geronimo and John Wayne mimics Genghis Khan.
The work was conceived in the run up to the millennium, when transnational media groups were busying themselves with categorising people and events in order to identify and celebrate the greatest individuals and moments of the twentieth century and, indeed, of the millennium. For the Dadis, this process was sustaining ‘a universal global perspective, deeply implicated in the Enlightenment narratives of progress’.
They explain, ‘Greatness is to be measured by the impact these personalities have had on our contemporary perspectives; our frame of history then leads to a slippage that becomes universal world history. In this way a global narrative that remains Western is endorsed, as the very idea of a teleology powered by great men energising the march and progress of civilization has become a certitude of almost all nations and groups - the gifted human subject creating and shaping the dynamics of history. Any recuperation of a suppressed or alternative history by the non-West remains caught in the very idea of history itself.’
The work plays on our inability to differentiate fact from fiction, suggesting that ‘it is impossible to think of great personalities without being haunted by filmic narratives – the events of history are recuperated most effectively in the imaginary of the electronic media’. Contesting the way the media frames and trivialises the past, the Dadis appropriate these popular Western representations themselves, as a way of recuperating suppressed histories and suggesting alternative readings.
Popular iconography is again interrogated in ‘Clash of Civilizations’, a series of large digital images that parody cinema billboards. The poster is literally of the text ´Clash of Civilisations´, which is taken from the title of Samuel Huntington’s controversial thesis of an irreconcilable and enduring conflict between the west and other civilizations, especially the world of Islam. The presence of Muslims in Europe has been seen as a ‘private nightmare’ of every European, evoking historical memories of ‘Saracen raiders in Western Europe and Turks at the gates of Vienna’.
Against a red-orange sunset, the text, as if carved in from boulders of rock, looms over the landscape; at the base of the giant letters a fierce battle takes place. The image mimics an old movie poster, which evokes clear-cut notions of goodies and baddies. Cultural conflict is written in stone. The Dadis exploit this ideologically charged imagery to highlight the absurdity of these simplistic and reductive formulations.
Source: Adapted from Bryan Biggs’s essay for the Liverpool Biennial catalogue, 2002
Author: Diana Yeh, Visiting Arts
Iftikhar Dadi was born in 1961 Karachi, Pakistan. He graduated with an MA from the University of Washington, Seattle, USA and later undertook a doctorate in art history at Cornell University, New York. He currently collaborates with Elizabeth Dadi, with whom he lives in New York. Dadi has participated in exhibitions worldwide.
Exhibition / Installation
2003 Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, USA
2003 Street Level Photoworks Gallery, Glasgow, UK
2002 ‘Liverpool Biennial’, UK (catalogue)
2002 EV+A 2002, Limerick, Ireland (catalogue)
2001 Admit One Gallery, Chelsea, New York City
2000–2001 ‘Let’s Entertain: Life’s Guilty Pleasures’ toured Walker Art Center, Minnesota; Portland Art Museum, Oregon; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany; Miami Art Museum (catalogue)
2000 Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial, Japan (catalogue)
1999 Third Asia-Pacific Triennial, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia (catalogue)
1999 Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial, Fukuoka, Japan (catalogue)
1998 XXIV Biennale de Sao Paulo, Roteiros, Sao Paulo, Brazil (catalogue)
1997 ‘Mappings: Shared Histories’, Eicher Gallery, New Delhi, Gallery Chemould, Mumbai, India, and NCA Gallery, Lahore, Pakistan (catalogue)
1996 ‘Container 96 – Art Across Oceans’, Copenhagen, Denmark (catalogue)
1998 Khoj 1, Triangle Arts
Walker Art Center
´Let´s Entertain´ exhibition at the Walker Art Center
Liverpool Biennale 2002