Rough as an Ocean Wave, Soft as a Plumeria: A Look Into Unironic Tropicalism.
I sit here on a vacation to my hometown of Honolulu, Hawai’i, hiding under the AC because I spent all day in the heat that was a bit more scorching than usual. My adventures today took me to a museum I really only once set foot upon only being notable for being on a mountain and across the street from an old friend’s house. A couple of years ago, I realized this mountain museum had become the Honolulu Museum of Art (aka HoMA) a mostly contemporary museum in which it’s collection actually shocked me on it’s content. Below the mountain in which this museum is located is a spanned metropolis, that while it’s downtown core is as populated similar to Hamilton, Ontario it has the capacity of skyscrapers and highrises that only comes behind Chicago and New York in it’s country. In many ways Honolulu is both an internationally recognized diverse crowded “place to be”, yet has the charm and comfort that no matter what you don’t get lost in a tight suffocation through a sea of hyper-populated apathy.
I moved away from my home for two extremely integral reasons to get a arts and/or creative industry based education and to experience for the first time what it is not to be an extreme minority. It wasn’t a systemic struggle, moreso a personal one; the only South Asian people I knew where family, family friends, and if I was lucky mixed brown and white kids like me who have gone through tribulations of “other” but not real language on how to explain due to our financial privilege and white-washed socialization. Though having this, there is something truly special about Hawai’i is that a large percentile of residents were mixed to the point where there was something more relaxed when came to race as a construct. Even though it was a wonderful freedom, I did not really see it until I went away.
On this trip I have fully confirmed something that has been brewing for a few years, tropicalism is a lifestyle not a trend. My work unintentionally has veered into this realm many times not really knowing why, though I did have a long connection to Hawaii it puzzled me why I began to make generalized aesthetic art based on tropicalism, finding connections to different tropical and island based states and nations of their legacy in colonialism, independence, and re-built sometimes unintentional multicultural society. When coming to Toronto I realized that I felt much more lost in my identity than I did back home. I had to ask myself why when there are neighbourhoods, communities, and events that I could reach out too? While in many ways that did give me a sense of being more educated in my roots but the overwhelming need to center upon whiteness in this city always left me in a even moreso tokenized “othered” space. I came to realize that I had exchanged my extreme minority racial status for a extreme minority cultural one in terms of things I believed and what I ethically valued.
Being in an art institution within a city centre means you’re going to be around flocks of majority white students in which diversity may be a new concept to them. It was weird to see the effects of “diversity” in the neoliberal sense, as if the world and it’s aesthetics were at the palm of their hands as if this diverse world is their personal creative oyster. Post-Internet has left me almost always in a conflicted emotional state particularly; on one hand it’s aesthetic beauty leaves me floating in a nostalgic yet metalic sense of home but on the other it angered me to see imagery be so portrayed flimsy and simplified. This became even more of a real anger when I’d go to galleries and art shows, see a coconut palm, or an item from Chinatown, or a Caribbean grocery item aestheticized by white suburbanites it left me in a fire-y mindset of how I felt about my “leftist” peers in general.
Still indulged in tropicalism as an aesthetic, I didn’t even mean too it just followed most of the things I would do, from facebook photo’s to instagram. I befriended people with the same experiences from long reaches of the world like Brazil, Jamaica, Mexico, Bermuda, Sri Lanka, The Philippines, and the country of my mother’s origin India. Talking out these experiences made me go back to a memory I had when I was little and my Gujarati grandparents who had lived in Canada for 40 years came to visit us in Hawaii for the first time. In this memory we lived by a park filled with mango trees, free for anyone to pick. My grandmother would have us take her to the park, prepared with used grocery bags and she would pick about as many mangoes as you could fit. Her face would light up anytime she saw a tree available and make us stop the car so she could pick them. On my backyard porch would be the cut up green mangoes my grandmother picked pickling on sets of newspapers with me unsure if they were edible at all.
This memory was just a catalyst, as we’ve hosted family, distant family, and family friends in our house that I kept seeing a brightness and certain nostalgia in my family member’s eyes that I didn’t really witness whenever I’d visit them on the mainland. The history was rich, it was like home, the air tinted by the smell of flowers, animals like mongooses and mina birds roamed free (both were intentionally and unintentionally imported to the islands), it wasn’t home but it felt like it in a sense. It came clear to me that while I felt I was a extreme racial minority, I also have the natural experience of it what it means to live in that certain climate. Tropicalism is not really the purpose of vapourwave aesthetic it is an unironic way of life. The aesthetics of it that you find on products, clothes, and art in the west, even back home and elsewhere are not of leisure and relaxation, it is a way to simulate the experience and capture that culture through memory.
I think the reason why I do work with tropical aesthetic is stemmed from family history, my own personal history, and the different viewpoints of race and colonialism your learn just from what you’ve witnessed. Living in these two worlds there are many pro’s and con’s to both but there is a stuckness that you can feel when you can’t decide between home and opportunity. Portraying the nature that liberates me but concocting it in an industrial manner makes the for sense for practice as it gives me a release. With this catharsis, I begin to look into both the love and complexity of it all, and that’s how the experience of home away from home is reached.
Published in DUTY-FREE MAG edited and directed by Sanjhit Dillon and Misbah Ahmed in 2017.