In Geometric Landscapes and the Spectacle of Force, the Pakistani artist Seher Shah works with archival images of the 1903 Delhi Durbar and contemporary images of the U.S. “war on terror.” This essay examines how Shah's digital print binds together theaters of U.S. and British imperialism across the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries, with specific attention to the performative effects of photography. Recent debates on the uses of the archive in contemporary photography highlight the affective qualities of iconic national or personal images. However, Shah's work resists such nationalist interpretations by delineating the expansive qualities of empire in the United States and in South Asia. By historicizing the Delhi Durbar as an aesthetic spectacle of empire, this essay highlights how geometric motifs of colonial India are linked to the architectural landscape of post-9/11 America. The essay also foregrounds a methodological question, one that underlines the vexed relationship between visual histories of South Asia and the visual economies of race and religion in the United States. Viewing Shah's drawings demands a different perspective on South Asian American visual culture, an aesthetic field that is triangulated among the legacy of British colonialism, decolonization movements on the subcontinent, and the emergence of the United States as a global power. Such a visual perspective shifts our focus away from a dominant American-studies narrative of the United States in Asia and toward an understanding of how colonial and postcolonial histories on the subcontinent produce a different set of visual memories for diasporic subjects in America.
Bakirathi Mani; Archives of Empire: Seher Shah's Geometric Landscapes and the Spectacle of Force. Social Text 1 September 2011; 29 (3 (108)): 127–138. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-1300001
Download citation file: