Visual Colonialism

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By Omair Faizullah

Yes, it is in Urdu.
When you landed on this page, you immediately thought of two things.

1. Why is the title of this piece in Urdu?

2. Why is there an image of an animal famous for its scavenging habits,  standing in the middle of an empty road staring at me with an apprehensive  yellow eyeball?

I recently had the honor of visiting (and judging) at one of the more prestigious art institutions of this country. Among the great pieces of art and communication, I couldn’t forget one project. A visual communication student had realized that Urdu was going through its inherent metamorphosis and will eventually hybridize until the parasitically global English, or more precisely, Roman alphabet will take over in form and function and we will be left with an entirely new alphabet and script.

The concept, needless to say was excellent and we may even be alive one day to witness its manifestation. It had great potential to produce some excellent and thought provoking communication. Sadly, what the student ended up putting on the wall seemed rather contrived, ill conceived and pretty much fell flat on its face. Why you may ask? Well, aside from being designed badly, the entire project was in English. Not a single trace of Urdu in the entire piece. The entire communication module was developed on the assumption that the audience did not really need Urdu – thus proving (rather ironically) the project’s hypothesis but leaving the viewer with absolutely no take away. But we mustn’t be quick to judge the student here, interestingly; they are not to be blamed at all. I would however, like to blame most of the visual culture that is being developed and shown around us.

Nicholas Mirzoeff in his book “An Introduction to Visual Culture”, defines visual culture as “visual events in which information, meaning or pleasure is sought by the consumer in an interface with visual technology. By visual technology, I mean any form of apparatus designed either to be looked at or to enhance natural vision, from oil painting to television and the internet. Such criticism takes account of the importance of image making, the formal components of a given image, and the crucial completion of that work by its cultural reception.”

In simpler words, everything that we see around us on television, in print, on walls, signboards and everything in between adds to the pool of popular culture developing around us. It affects us in ways much deeper than what we may imagine and on levels that most of us cannot even foresee. Therefore, it becomes imperative that we, as people, who generate visual information across media; study it, generate critical discourse and eventually realize the state we are in as a consequence.

Let’s jump back to the two questions I posed at the start of this article. The answer to the first question is: The title of this piece is in Urdu to highlight the irony that this entire piece is being written in English. The way visual culture behaves around us – in Pakistan – is not too different. For the most part, it runs on a loop that lacks context and instead of generating intelligent discourse, nullifies it. The reasons, I believe are a can of worms that we don’t really either see or may want to open. Because let’s face it, where there are worms (and not much else to eat) and such, there are bound to be scavengers. With apprehensive yellow eyeballs. And there you have the answer to the second question. That’s a rather smug way of putting it but hey, it is what it is, there is no other way. When has reasoning or rational argument ever proved anything, right?

Pakistan it seems is in a constant state of cultural colonization. More so perhaps than our neighbors to the west and east. That is quite a bold claim on my part I realize and it will take quite a few more pages for me to properly justify it. But for the sake of argument, let’s make believe that visual culture in Pakistan really is that porous; that it is being influenced by forces and mediums outside of the country more than inside. The fact validating this argument is that we in Pakistan simply do not generate as much visual information as we import it. Thus our culture – visual or otherwise – becomes susceptible to foreign streams of information and their influence.

To support this further, let’s just take film for example. While India produces hundreds of films every year, Pakistan produces only a handful. Next thing we know, we’re enjoying watching someone’s little kid on Facebook, dancing to the latest item number. A similar phenomenon happens when an Indian song is used as the track for our latest political debacle in a news report. Why is that you ask? Well, because we simply do not produce enough songs. Our journalists are left with no choice but to scavenge the immense and constantly expanding music library originating from our neighboring country. So in effect, we depend on a foreign culture to make a societal comment on our own culture. The entire phenomenon is mind bogglingly ironic. And extremely interesting.

Here is another more recent example. Celebrity endorsements. They have started trickling in and will remain a steady stream for some time to come. Salman Khan making sure we wear clean clothes. Kareena Kapoor wants to sell us the latest cell phone. Nargis Fakhri is plastered all over the urban landscape selling us some other such thing. Jacqueline Fernandez urging us to become white-er. And let’s not forget Juhi Chawla selling us bovine oriented cooking oil.

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