The aesthetics of diaspora
Location G
Date and Time 12th December, 2008 at 10:30


Pnina Werbner (Keele University)
Mattia Fumanti (University of St Andrews)
Mark Johnson (Goldsmiths, University of London)
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

This session will look at relations of property in the diaspora seen through the prism of popular and mass aesthetics - by analysing the symbolic props of self-decoration, celebration, the renewal of links with home and investment back home, and which also allow for the emergence of an ethnic economy based on widely shared aesthetic tastes.

Long Abstract

This session will look at relations of property in the diaspora seen through the prism of popular and mass aesthetics - by analysing the symbolic props of self-decoration, celebration, the renewal of links with home and investment back home. Transnational relations are asserted in these appropriations by claiming ownership of 'culture' in its material and symbolic forms as well as in the shape of monetary and property investments. Important in the consideration of diaspora aesthetics, and especially in their mass produced form as food imports, clothing, films, videos, cassettes, popular music, CDs, and so forth, are the possibilities such objects open up are not only for celebration of community in the diaspora but also for communication between ethnic groups who may otherwise be divided by language, nationality or prior hostilities. This is particularly evident in the African, Middle Eastern, South Asian and other Asian diasporas. In these, crossovers in art, music, performance and food facilitate shared interaction and common focus. They also allow for the emergence of an ethnic economy based on widely shared aesthetic tastes.

Discussant: Pnina Werbner

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Theorizing the Aesthetics of Diaspora: towards a translocal field of distinction?

Author: Mark Johnson (Goldsmiths, University of London)

Short Abstract

This paper considers whether or not Bourdieu's work on taste and distinction might be applied and developed in the context of diaspora or whether, despite his claims to thinking multi-dimensionally, it is in fact too static and bounded a theoretical model to deal with people's movements across time and space.


Bourdieu's notions of social and cultural capital have been used to think through some of the issues involved in the complex movements of people and their social projects and relationships. However, there has been no systematic attempt to critically assess Bourdieu's complex model of Distinction (1984) in relation to the aesthetics of diaspora. Bourdieu's model provides a multi-dimensional and processual account of social struggles and reproduction that takes seriously the role of taste and aesthetics. At the same time that model relies on the static fiction of a national cultural space. In fact, the application of Bourdieu's ideas in migration and diaspora studies have tended to focus on processes within particular ethnic groups that paradoxically reproduces the idea of a bounded social space. The question is whether or not Bourdieu's model can be reconceptualised in a way that does not depend on a delimitation of a social space in ethnic or national terms, and more particularly whether or not we can usefully speak of a translocal field of distinction. I argue that at the very least thinking through the limitations and possibilities of a translocal field of distinction encourage anthropologists and other social scientists to think about the aesthetics of diaspora in ways that treat ethnicity not as necessary starting or end point of cultural practice but as one among a variety of ways that differently positioned social agents struggle for and contest the terms of symbolic capital or social legitimacy.

"Being in the world": Ontology, Aesthetics and the construction of Diaspora Subjectivities among Ghanaian migrants in London

Author: Mattia Fumanti (University of St Andrews)

Short Abstract

This paper explores the relationship between ontology and aesthetics in the formation of a diasporic subjectivity among Ghanaian migrants in London through an analysis of Ghanaian public events both in Ghana and the Diaspora.


For Ghanaians in London attending public events and rites of passage is fundamental for the process of socialisation and for the formation of a diasporic subjectivity. Naming ceremonies, christening, birthdays, weddings, associations' parties, church services and funerals all play a very important role in the life of Ghanaian migrants as they define life in the Diaspora, as spaces for recognition and distinction, and provide a way to re-establish and reinforce material and symbolic connections with Ghana. In this sense these events acquire an ontological dimension as they represent a way of reasserting one's presence in the world, 'of being in the world' in Heidegger's sense. That is being visible and distinct within an otherwise invisible context. In this paper I want to argue that Ghanaian migrants' ontology is best understood when seen in dialectical relation not only with Ghanaian aesthetics, but more broadly with West-African aesthetics both in the African Diaspora and Ghana. This is realised in linguistic terms, through proverbs, mottoes and wise sayings, in material terms, through the use and display of elaborate dresses and other material objects and through the consumption of food, and finally in visual terms, through the use of videos and photographs. By using a range of ethnographic examples from London and Ghana I will show how the complex overlaps of the linguistic, the material and the visual in Ghanaian and West-African Aesthetics contribute to the formation of an African migrant's subjectivity and to the reassertion of one's place in the world in the London Diaspora

Balinese Aesthetics in Postcolonial Netherlands

Author: Ana Dragojlovic (University of Melbourne)

Short Abstract


This paper, based on ethnographic fieldwork among Balinese migrants in the Netherlands, analyses various forms of visual and performing art forms, and aims to explore the Balinese notion of aesthetics by examining how contemporary encounters inform the performance of cultural identity both in artistic expression and in the (individual) experience of everyday life of Balinese individuals living in the Netherlands.

Throughout history performing and visual arts in Bali have played a significant role, not only in religious ceremonies but also in defining and creating relationships with outsiders - other islands, the Indonesian nation state and tourists from various parts of the world. These displays of various forms of art, which are not necessarily 'traditional', are also performed and exhibited both in the contemporary Netherlands and at different cultural festivals and exhibitions around Europe. They are spaces in which the relations between selves and others are played out, but also occasions on which Balinese assert and negotiate what it means to be Balinese outside of Bali. I scrutinise not only how visual and performing practices play an important role in the realm of personal passions in performance and popular culture, but also how they distinguish Balinese from other foreigners in a socio-political environment which stresses the integration of foreigners who reside in the Netherlands.

Production and reproduction of locality: shifting inhabited spaces of Filipino migrants and their families

Author: Alicia Pingol (University of Hull)

Short Abstract

This paper explores the relationship of inhabited spaces and sense of security of its occupants. Filipino workers in Saudi Arabia as well as their families left in their places of origin produce these spaces. Filipino diasporic identities are explored as these localities are produced and reproduced.


From a year long ethnographic study in Saudi Arabia it is observed that the production of neighbourhood succeeds where power is deployed in the colonization of space putting order to those chaotic elements, socio-physical, needing conquest. Although moving from one villa to another is routine, a consequence of "end of contract" with employers or at the start or end of relationships, this move from place to place confirms or demolishes identities which are in the making since with these transitions come violent actions in respect to physical structures or to a hostile environment.

This paper, employing Appadurai's production of locality in delocalized world, compares the process of production of these localities by migrant workers in a foreign soil and that of their own families as remittances provide them the capacity to relocate in new neighbourhoods. As producers of these localities they also evolve into new subjects since their community is built in contrast to or similar to existing neighbourhoods. Be they the migrant worker or their families living in their own homeland, there is an observed alienation from their ethical roots. Their imagined communities come into play, and get embedded into their locality-producing activities.

Appropriating the Black Part of the White City: Filipinos' Making of Home in Tel Aviv

Author: Claudia Liebelt (Bayreuth University)

Short Abstract

As elsewhere in the diaspora, Filipino migrants recruited for domestic work in Israel have created a space of their own. My paper will describe their appropriation of the Tel Aviv central bus station – clearly a 'black' part in the so-called White City - on the background of their legal and economic exclusion.


When thousands of Filipino domestic workers arrive at the Tel Aviv central bus station on Saturday nights, the beginning of their weekly day off from work, the neighbourhood resembles a Filipino barrio rather than a part of Israel's so-called White City. While inside the station, pawn shops, travel agencies and Karaoke bars cater to a large Filipino clientèle, street vendors sell home-made Filipino dishes, newspapers and Tagalog movies in front of it, an air of roasted pork in the air. Filipino domestic workers have clearly appropriated the Tel Aviv central bus station and its neighbourhood aesthetically, even though their own legal status in the country is fragile and ownership of shops and shared weekend apartments here remain in the hands of Israelis. Herein, the Tel Aviv bus station is similar to other public meeting places in the Filipino diaspora, such as in Hong Kong or Singapore. Within the social geography of the White City of Tel Aviv, the central bus station area is a socially segregated space, so to speak its black underside. In my paper, I will give an ethnographic description of Filipinos' appropriation of this 'Black Part' of the city. In narrating the neighbourhood as Little Manila it becomes clear that Filipinos relate to it similarly ambivalent as to the capital: positive in the sense that it evokes 'home' and negative in the sense that it is a space which signifies their social and economic exclusion from riches and the West which they hoped to reach by migrating.

Bollywood: Transnational Dialogues and the aesthetics of diaspora

Author: Gabriele Shenar

Short Abstract

In a global media world acts of appropriating and managing cultural-cum-aesthetic knowledge/products are becoming ever more complex. Focusing on the consumption of Bollywood Cinema, and investigating its popularity among Jewish Indian immigrants in Israel, the paper raises questions about the politics of consumption and the embodied performance of identity.


Research on Bollywood Cinema's increasingly global presence and its worldwide consumption and celebration among minority diasporic audiences such as the Bene Israel, the largest Indian Jewish community now mainly settled in Israel, identifies the genre as a significant cultural domain for the articulation of diasporic 'Indian' identity and its constitution. Indeed, consuming South Asian popular culture in the form of Bollywood cinema has helped to sustain a link with India, and this despite it being predicated on fantasy and modified by contingent realities (Kaur & Sinha, 2005:19).

The paper argues that while written texts and powerful political speeches are crucial for memory and its transmission, other, often neglected media also play a vital role in shaping diasporic identity, sometimes in tension with religious or nationalist convictions (e.g. in the case of Judaism). I suggest that the force of South Asian aesthetics produces diaspora identity and community through its potential to evoke shared emotions and a sense of place and subjectivity, as mediated by the qualities of objects, styles or etiquette, among diasporic communities who may otherwise be divided by religion, language, nationality or even hostility. Furthermore, as the increasing visibility of NRIs (non-Resident Indians) in Bollywood films shows, Bollywood Cinema is a significant force in mediating ongoing and new dialogues between India and her diaspora(s). Indeed, Bollywood films offer spaces in which a widely shared South Asian aesthetics is celebrated, challenging thereby also the senses in which 'Indianness' may be claimed by various local diasporic communities.

Imaging, Performance and Ownership in the Indo-Caribbean

Author: Leon Wainwright (The Open University)

Short Abstract

This paper will debate the sovereign place of the cultural in the Caribbean’s South Asian diaspora. It will explore whether contemporary Indo-Trinidadian forms of image-making, celebration and performance might offer contrapuntal opportunities to assert ownership and ‘belonging’ in the face of state-sanctioned notions of diasporic difference.


Drawing from long-term fieldwork since 2004, this paper will explore Indo-Trinidadian or 'East Indian' contributions to the aesthetic dimension of diaspora experience, focusing on image-making, celebration and performance in the Southern Caribbean. Trinidad has a large community of those descended from South Asians who came shortly after Emancipation as indentured labourers, alongside an equally large number of the descendants of enslaved Africans. Against the background of this unusual demography, Trinidadian nationhood has become a space for the production of ethnic signifiers condensed in forms of official 'culture'.

This paper will ask how the prevailing, state-sanctioned forms of Trinidadian 'Indianness' are being renegotiated in popular contexts, in ways that throw light on contemporary, counter-hegemonic ownership of cultural practices within diasporic space. How do image-makers, wedding performers, and the singer-songwriters of Chutney and other identified 'East Indian' musicians, struggle to offer alternatives to the legacies of 'Indianness' instituted during decolonization?

Much research in anthropology and visual and material culture studies continues to insist on framing cultural objects as significations of national place, transnational connection, political position, or ethnic 'belonging'. This has yet to confront the allure of a commoditized aesthetic of diaspora culture in which cultural practices are assigned the singular role of media of representation. A closer discussion of their aesthetic presence under the rubric of ownership reveals how the cultural might refuse such a status.

Neo-Lockeian post-war reconstruction and transnational aesthetic intervention

Author: Andrew Dawson (University of Melbourne)

Short Abstract

Contradictions within the Dayton Peace Accord have created a large property owning expatriate population that struggles alongside other local and international agents in redefining Bosnia’s ‘post-domicidal’ spaces. This paper considers the roles and contextually particular forms of transnational aesthetic intervention in this struggle.


The Dayton Peace Accord (DPA) that brought an end to the war of Yugoslav succession in Bosnia and Herzegovina left a contradictory legacy. It sought to bring lasting peace, by recognizing the division of the country into ethno-nationalist homelands. Contrastively, it also sought to reverse ethnic cleansing by promoting 'minority return.' Central to this was a reconstruction process that placed property restitution at its core. This has created a large property owning expatriate population that struggles alongside other agents, such as locally-based ethno-nationalists, international aid donors, and Middle-Eastern Islamic states, in redefining the 'post-domicidal' spaces from which it was displaced. This paper considers the aesthetic dimensions of this struggle. It highlights how the forms that transnational aesthetic interventions take are contextually contingent, in this particular ethnographically informed case, on the histories of diaspora, immigration and their management in Australia and UK.

Owning a national dance that only exists in migration

Author: Monika Winarnita (La Trobe University)

Short Abstract

An Indonesian migrant dance group in Perth, Western Australia, has appropriated different music and dance styles in order to perform their ownership of a trans-national identity.


Anthropologists have interrogated the nature or even the existence of an Indonesian national culture (Accaioli, Widodo and Yampolsky). In this paper, I discuss the creation of a national dance (called “Unity in Diversity” or “Bhineka Tunggal Ika”) by the Silk Veil Indonesian Community dancers of Perth, Western Australia. In this dance, the migrant group adapts dance moves from various Indonesian ethnic groups, an international belly dancing style as well as an Indonesian national aerobic campaign. All this is choreographed to a popular ‘traditional’ song imported from Malaysia. What the dancers try to achieve by appropriating these different elements is ownership of an Indonesian trans-national identity. This ownership is performed for Indonesian migrant community and the Australian multicultural audience. As Indonesian migrants they project their aspirations to be ‘cosmopolitan patriots’ (Appiah). In other words, they believe they are educating the Australian audience about Indonesian culture as part of the diplomacy of culture between the two nations. The Indonesian migrant community, however, is constantly engaged in debates as to whether this and other ‘Indonesian’ dances represent their identity as Indonesians in Australia. This paper thus illustrates that by owning and appropriating a recreated national performance, the dance provides an opportunity to reflect on and reconsider their migrant identity in ‘multicultural’ Australia.