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Shadows in White. -  W.H.I.T.E A.R.T
The Fuschia Tree
Editor's Note.
I was about 9 years old—a 3x3 cube—and my school had a class, an hour a week, called 'Value Education'. Our teacher gave us an A4 sheet of paper, split into 12 boxes. Each box had a patternless constellation of dots. Our task was simply to create a square, a rectangle or a triangle within each box, without leaving a single dot astray.

While I connected the dots into stars and baby elephants with stubbed noses and large antennae, my peers were coerced—I say coerced because it was a time when lines did not come naturally to us, when we didn't feel obliged to color inside trees and they didn't need to be green—into following the structure.
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By Shaheen Ahmed
Black is beautiful but the shadows can only be seen in white. Maybe that’s why the ghosts of the past are always in white, the ghostly memories of time, of people, of periods, things, commodities… Such an evocation brings to mind these lines from Charles Simic’s poem “White”.  

The sky of the desert,
The heavens of the crucified.
The great white sky
Of the visionaries.
Its one lone, ghost-like Buzzard hovering,
Writing the long century's Obituary column
Over the white city,
The city of our white nights.


The first image that the very word WHITE raises in my mind is that of sanitation. Have you ever seen a black or purple hospital corridor or operating theatre? Even The doctors’ coat and the barbers’ smock come in pure, sterilized white.

These images come at me from my work in popular visual and cinematic imagery, specifically from what I have seen of the Fifties and the early Sixties on the celluloid, that is, the  ‘white-ness’ of the set in a barber shop or the sterile clean bathroom with the quintessential white bath-tub, the scene for numerous ‘crimes of passion’.

So what is it about ‘white’ and the fascination or the revile that one may have for it - the color which, in most religions, cultures or traditions often stands for what is pure, naïve and virginal. I met a dancer once who casually remarked to me, “I hate white. It just makes me feel claustrophobic”. I was taken aback, how can a color that denotes ‘space’ make someone feel claustrophobic? I thought over this statement for the next few days; there is definitely something about this particular color that can be of cool comfort as well as unsettling at the same time. What makes this concept of white unsettling for me? Perhaps it stems from my postcolonial roots.

Post World War II modernization in the West was marked by a flooding of consumer goods. The ‘clean sterile’ kitchen became the symbol of the new-modern woman. The clean white tiles, the white fridge, the white Formica tabletops, everything that was white and sanitized became the symbol of modernity. Even the idea of the white cube, in gallery spaces, came in initially from domestic spaces.

If one studies the modernization process in France, this obsession with white-ness stemmed from the fears of a waning colonial power. Things, objects that were not white signified the post-colonial Other. And this fixation of the binary between dirty/ clean, black/white, took a heightened stance during Algeria’s struggle for independence from France.

The modernization wave in India post-Independence was of a completely new construct than that of the West. It was seeped in the euphoria of a new nation-state marching forward with the ideals of Nehru’s socialist project. Hard-core consumerism was yet to hit the denizens of the country and it won’t till the early Nineties when the economy is liberalized. But even then, think modernization and technological progress, and the first image that hits my mind is the whirring old white Kelvinator fridge standing in the kitchen corner for years, a product that was present in the house even before my parents’ marriage. And of course the country’s first indigenous car – the ubiquitous Ambassador. The car came to symbolize a newly developing post-colonial country’s rising aspirational middle class. Fondly called as the ‘King of Indian Roads’ the Ambassador or the Amby, has gone down in history as one of the most iconic cars of the last century. And yes, this car cannot be conjured up in imagination in any color other than White. Even today, especially in a politics centric city like New Delhi, the sight of the beaming red beacon atop a white Ambassador often accosts one – and that image without a doubt still screams out POWER. This in turn, implies an imposition of a law and order that is artificial, sterile, objective, white.

Bill Brown in his ‘Thing Theory’ mentions that history can unabashedly begin with things and with the senses by which we apprehend them. This seems to hold ground for me when I look back at history but looking not at only at the traumatic past, but at a past that was colonial and is actively trying to analyze a neo-colonial contemporary time, where the notion of modernity, postmodernism etc. often seem to be denoted by images of things and objects.

So the paradoxical connotation over something as seemingly simple and innocuous as the color White lingers and intellectual debates over this paradox persists. For me as a postcolonial Third woman, White stands for the suppression of a colonial past. However, even as the concept of White may be oppressive, in writing this on a blank white page, it represents a kind of freedom too.

Shaheen Ahmed is a student, writer and an experimental art-practitioner based in Delhi.

Also in this issue

  • His aim to produce pieces that can never be replaced as they were lived out has a political agenda. He feels a glut of material art, which makes art objects to be possessed rather than experienced.
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  • The paper planes, stark in their textbook paper whiteness, were messengers of the past as well as soldiers of resilience. The act, to begin with, is childlike. The artist folding paper, revelling in the feel of parchment, of sudden,
    Read More
  • The artist plays with this natural instinct. He lures, controls, guides. He dodges, seduces, tricks and transforms ‘realization’. He allows negatives areas to become part of his subjects. He imagines beyond
    Read More

Illusion: Seeing Beyond Seeing
Meaning: In Search of Significance.
Melody: A Different Tune
Rhythm: Ordering Time

Dhrupadi Ghosh is an old friend of mine. We have often had long sessions of adda late at night, discussing her dream projects since her college days at Santiniketan, where she majored in Sculpture.