Who is Niranjan Rajah?

Zip (detail), La Folie De La Peinture. 1998 (Web Art). An early photo-performance (circa 1994) at the Parc de la Villette – a ‘gloss’ on Bernard Tschumi’s marvelous system of red enameled steel folies located systematically throughout the park.

Zainub Verjee asks,“Who is Niranjan Rajah?” She notes that this is a question she has been posed many times in the context of my successfully nominating her for the Canadian Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts.

She begins her answer to this question most generously and I am delight to quote her here “So let me take this opportunity to bring to you an amazing Artist, intellectual, empath and a generous person. “She continues, “A photo-conceptualist, performance artist and theorist, his work is cutting edge and he doesn’t mince his words: Be it at the Burning Man in Nevada, or in Japan or in Lisbon or in Singapore Biennale or very much in Oshawa at the Ideas Digital Forum!”

I have decided to use this header ‘Who is Niranjan Rajah’ for a series of blog posts that introduce some images and ideas from my earlier art work. Thank you Z!



Telinga Keling (1999)

Telinga Keling, Silver Halide Print, Niranjan Rajah, 1999. Permanent Collection of the National Visual Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur

Updated on March 29th 2021:

With reference to the recurrent controversies around the use of the term ‘keling’, and with particular reference to the recent Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) inclusion of the word “keling” in its definition of “tambi,  there is no need for hysterical reaction from Indians about the presence of the word Keling in the Malay lexicon and publications in the Malay Language. After all if Indians think about it carefully, ‘thambi’ itself is problematic, as it can reflect status, class and cast when used to refer to adults. In fact it is far more troubling that we use the word ‘pariah‘ as a put-down in English as well as in Malay with scant criticism. However, it reveals an extremely poor standard of scholarship and professionalism on the part of the DBP that they have used the term ‘keling’ as an index for ‘Indian’ in the contemporary setting. Yes, this failure to recognize that the main contemporary usage of of the term is to put Indians down, might even reflect a systemic (unconscious) racism in the esteemed authority in whose care we have put the future of the Malay Language.

Telinga Keling (1999) is in the collection of the National Visual Art Gallery in KL. It is currently (oct 15 2019) on display again in a selection from the collection. ‘Keling’ is a today taken as a derogatory term for ‘Indian’ although, from its etymology, it is clear that this was not always so. The items obscuring my ears in the image are Malay sweets which are colloquially referred to as ‘Telinga Keling’ (Indian Ears). More formally and publicly, given our multi-racial Malaysian society, these cakes are referred to as ‘penyaram’ or ‘denderam’. Ironically, this Telinga Keling sweet is quite likely to be of Indian origin. My mother used to make something that tastes exactly the same that we call it ‘athirasam’

The idea of the piece is that I can engage the Malay viewers regarding this juncture of ‘sweetness’ and ‘derision’ while excluding the others, who would likely be unfamiliar with the cake’s colloquial name. Of course, there’ll be some Indians who know, particularly those from Kelantan where the sweet is prevalent, but empirically speaking, during the opening of its inaugural exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, the Indians had no idea and kept asking, ‘Why did you insult yourself in this work? ’, The Malays, however, smiled at me in and nodded in awkward acknowledgement.


Kabali Da! 4

back in tokyo.png
Like our Thailavar Tun Dr Mahathir, I too am back (in a much more modest way of course!) I AM BACK IN JAPAN after about 20 years .. On my first trip in 1998, I saw our Rajinikanth beaming down at me from a cinema hoarding .. and thus was the seed sown that has flowered into the Koboi Balik Kampung roadshow that I am now taking round the world! I used to be a regular visiter to Japan in the late 1990’s under the auspices of the Japan Foundation and the Fukuoka Art Museum and I am really happy to be back here for Cowboys and Indians: Tokyo Edition. Please come … all are welcome!


コートヤード HIROO:2018年5月11日午後7
〒106-0031 東京都港区西麻布4-21-2
Courtyard HIROO : 7pm 11th May 2018
4-21-2 Nishiazabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo, 106-0031 JAPAN
Tel. +81-3-6427-1185     info@cy-hiroo.jp

Image: https://www.facebook.com/niranjan.rajah/timeline/story?ut=60&wstart=0&wend=1527836399&hash=2187518281479683616&pagefilter=3

カウボーイズとインディアンズ: 東京版

カウボーイズとインディアンズ: 東京版
コートヤード・ヒロ: 2018年5月11日午後7
〒106-0031 東京都港区西麻布 4-21-2
Courtyard Hiroo: 7pm 11th May 2018
4-21-2 Nishiazabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo, 106-0031 JAPAN
Tel. +81-3-6427-1185     info@cy-hiroo.jp

The Koboi Project is series of a photo-conceptual performances, involving photographic images, traditional icons, story telling, collaboration and conviviality. For Cowboys and Indians: Tokyo Edition at Courtyard Hiroo, Niranjan Rajah will present an 18ft banner of Tamil movie SUPERSTAR Rajinikanth and an antique Momotaro doll made by the Kyugetsu Company. He will make an offering to the SUPERSTAR, to Momotaro-san and then, to one member of the audience. The visionary film critic and promoter Fumio Furuya (a.k.a. Jun Edoki), who is responsible for introducing Rajinikanth to Japan, has accepted an invitation to attend as an honoured guest. A scaled down version of the performance will be taken around the city for a series of impromptu interventions between the 7th and the 10th of May 2018, starting in Nishi-Kasai, Tokyo’s Little India. Niranjan will be accompanied by: Hiroyoshi Takeda – Autokaran, Chef; Tara Rajah – Cello; Jane Frankish – Poems on the Megaphone; Mikan Bindu (leader and choreographer) Hiroyoshi Takeda, Shinji Kashima, Hiroyo Yamaguchi, Saki Ito, Emiko Sawada, Yumiko Honda, Shinya Asanuma – SANDOSHAM Indian Movie Dance; Durga Rajah – Photography. For more information please visit: https://koboibalikkampung.wixsite.com/momo


momomdiumMomotaro-san arrived in Vancouver today from San Francisco. He will be accompanying Jane, Tara, Durga and myself in May to perform in Tokyo. The Cowboys and Indians: Tokyo Edition performance will take place at 7 pm 11th May 2018 at Courtyard Hiroo, as part of a show titled ‘Home’ in the Expanded Field’. Momotaro-san will be back in Japan in time for  Tango no Sekku (5th May) or ‘Boys Festival’ (now  renamed Kodomo no Hi  or Children’s Day) a day on which he is traditionally celebrated and honoured throughout the land. Momotaro or  ‘Peach Boy’ is known to have been born of a giant peach found by an old and childless. Momotaro grows up and as a youth, he goes off on an adventure to overcome the Oni (ogres) on Onigashima (Ogre Island) and becomes a hero.  Momotaro is, for the Japanese people, a symbol of boyhood, vitality, and valiance. He is also a martial figure.


Sathiavathy Deva Rajah

29314262_10156147022193232_1854508514102214656_o (1)On the 17th March 2018 I presented at the dialogue session of my Gift of Knowledge Installation at the Piyasasa Gallery. I also did a casual gallery tour with members of the audience and in the above photograph I am accompanying my mother Sathiavathy Deva Rajah as we look for acknowledgments of her contribution to the work of my uncle Durai Raja Singam whose life work is the subject of the exhibition. My mother was uncle’s favorite proof reader and language editor as she was mine in my UNIMAS days. As such she has contributed to seminal works such as Durai Raja Singam’s pioneering annotated bibliography of Ananda Coomaraswamy, Hasnul Jamal Saidon’s and my own 1st Electronic Art Show catalogue and to my essays in Insyirah: lukisan Sulaiman Esa dari 1980 hingga 2000 and Bara Hati, Bahang Jiwa.

Thanks Ma!

Image: https://www.facebook.com/dayang.kartini/posts/10156147022858232

Zainub Verjee

Zainub Verjee: From Signifier to Signified

Zainub (Untitled)Zainub (Untitled), Leraian, Draft image for Silver-Halide Dye Print,  Niranjan Rajah

Zainub (Untitled) is part of a set of twelve images that comprise the upcoming  Leraian ( Denouement) series of my Koboi Project. The overarching narrative of the Koboi Project can be summarized as follows – The diasporic Koboi returns home to Kuala Lumpur from Vancouver. He looks to his Tamil origins while acknowledging his own miscegenation. The Koboi returns again with an understanding that his home is constituted in relationships.  He stakes his claim in Southeast Asian art as an Indian Malaysian artist. The Koboi reflects on his migration to native Indian land in the Americas. He critiques the relationship between Malaysia and British Columbia in the context of global LNG investments. He explores Canadian art and the cultural mosaic. He finds he is at home in both his places. He reveals the underpinnings of his work.

In Zainub (Untitled), I celebrate Zainub Verjee as a friend, as a guide in my diasporic wanderings and as a prominent figure in the Canadian Art landscape. I met Zainub in 2004 soon after I had immigrated to Canada, and while I was developing an International Conference at the Vancouver Art Gallery for the New Form Festival. She was Senior Program Officer Media Arts at the Canada Council for the Arts and was supporting the conference in that capacity. In the course of New Forms, I was able to develop and apply a new post-traditional theory whose framework informs my work to the present day. This engagement with Zainub confirmed for me the indispensability of enlightened art administrators to the cause of alternative and critical approaches in the arts.

In my consequent encounters with Zainub I have learned that she is a highly professional administrator, a generous provider of networks and an astute participant in critical discourse. Working with as much regard for the center as for the periphery, her modus operandi has been one of promoting counter positions for the different constituents of the Canadian artistic community, thereby enabling a transparent and ethical framing of the whole. In her own words “it is always a question of building coalitions and alliances.” Zainub has always managed to give effective voice to innovation and dissent,  while directing the attendant energies towards attaining a degree of functional harmony.

Ecoute, S’il Pleut Video Still 1993. Zainub Verjee

Zainub was part of the seminal Vancouver Conceptualism of the 1980’s and 90’s and has shown her art at the Museum of Modern Art and the Venice Biennale. The epitome of Zainub’s enmeshment in the avant-garde milieu of her home on the Northwest coast is the inclusion of her video work Ecoute, S’il Pleut (1993) (Listen, if it is Raining) in Road Movies from a Post-colonial Landscape in 1997. This exhibition was curated by Judith Mastai at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art. Zainub’s piece transposes the poetics of water and space from the inner courtyards of Islam onto Montreal’s urban gardens. She evokes the sense of the space of text on the page and at the same time alludes to the fundamental extrusion of the nation upon the native landscape. This exhibition was the British Columbia component of a three part Traversing Territories series, the other two parts being centered on Washington and Oregon. These exhibitions explored developments in contemporary art on the West coast that were emerging outside of the institutional frame. Traversing Territories II comprised work from Zainub and nine other artists including the luminary Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham and Ian Wallace.

In 1997 Zainub produced a 4 channel video installation titled Through the Souls of My Mother’s Feet. It was presented within the precincts of the Jamatkhana Ismaili centre in Burnaby. This work was centered on the idea of ‘nomadic architecture’ or the physical and social structures that peoples carry with them to maintain communal coherence over space and time. It was developed over the period of four years beginning in 1993. Zainub used auto-ethnographic methods that would become the norm for reflective subaltern artistic practice throughout the 1990’s. This is what Hal Foster had theorized as the ‘ethnographic turn’ in a paper titled ‘The Artist as Ethnographer?’ This ‘turn’ was understood in terms of notions like ‘fieldwork’, ‘the politics of representation’ and a ‘dialectic with globalization’.  As an artist, Zainub seems to have been moving with both regional and global currents.

Having made her mark as an important emerging Canadian Artist in the 1980’s and 90’s Zainub shifted the emphasis of her contribution to the administrative and policy arenas of art. Indeed, in the latter half of the 20th Century Canadian arts administration was a field of ideals, excitement, contestation and intense activity and it is here that Zainub found her niche. The impact of her work must be set in the context of postmodern developments in art practice and theory which meant the end of the innocent or unreflective art object. As the nexus of artistic production moved out of the object and into the process, the installation, the performance, the concept and ultimately, into the institutional framework, curatorial and administrative imperatives began to take on a more overt creative function. There emerged an interpenetration of the workings of administration, politics and aesthetics and an attendant interoperability of their levers. In all her good works Zainub has brought the creativity and insight of an important artist to bear on the task of raising the individual talents as well as the collective profile of Canadian visual and media arts.

lum_img1_v1000 (1)Entertainment for Surrey Video Still 1978. Ken Lum. Collection Surrey Art Gallery and Vancouver Art Gallery

Zainub (Untitled) is a re-make of the work of another major Vancouver artist with whom I have a connection. When I was studying for my MA Fine Art at Goldsmiths College in the early 1990’s, we had a visiting lecture from Ken Lum. It was exciting to see his deadpan post-pop, post-conceptual identity blasting photographic works but what really struck a chord with me, as an artist who was intent on divining his art in the gap between names and things, was his presentation and explication of a performance video titled Entertainment for Surrey (1978). In this documented performance Ken stood by the side of a highway for a number of days during the morning rush hour and at the end of the cycle replaced himself with a cardboard cut-out. The attention and honking responses of the drivers diminished as they became familiar with his presence on their route, and by the time he came to the cardboard substitution the responses had attenuated – Ken might as well have been a cardboard cutout and then … he was! While there must be issues of neighborhoods, immigration, identity and class being raised in the work , what got to me was the clarity with which he had achieved the marking of the transition of substance to sign.

zipZipLa Folie De La Peinture scrolling page from Internet (offline), 1998. Niranjan Rajah

In 1995 I returned to Malaysia to take a posting at the Faculty of Applied and Creative Arts, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak. It was a new university built at the height of Malaysia’s ambitious bid to be a centre in the burgeoning Internet economy. The World Wide Web had just opened Internet communications to the masses and we had world class infrastructure and information specialists at our University. I immediately saw the correlation between my photo/conceptual/installation aesthetic and the multimedia, hypertext and virtual geography of the internet. In 1996 I made The Failure of Marcel Duchamp/ Japanese Fetish Even! This work, to the best of my knowledge, stands as the first work of Internet art in Southeast Asia. Technically simple though it was, this piece articulated the time, space and textuality of the internet in order to effect a critique of the relationships between the local and the global. In 1998 I made a second Internet work, La Folie De La Peinture.  These works involved photo-performative actions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and at the Parc de La Villette, Paris, respectively.  I feel that these works may have had their initial stirrings in my understanding of Entertainment for Surrey (1978). I am happy to say that I have since been able to develop a friendship with Ken in Vancouver and to apprise him of this debt.

08-ken-lum-rwUntitled (Zainub), Mixed Media 1984 Ken Lum. Collection M+ Museum for Visual Culture, West Kowloon Cultural District

I first met Ken in 1992 in London, and then met Zainub in Vancouver, in 2004. In 2011 Ken Lum had his 30 year retrospective at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and I went, with great excitement, to catch up with the wider body of his work. I was, of course, hoping the ‘highway piece’ would be on display. The route we happend to take through the gallery led us away from the video piece and, momentarily forgetting the search at hand, I began enjoying the show. Between this absorption and the underlying anticipation of finding the video piece, I was totally blown away when I turned around to see, larger than life, and younger than ever, my dear Zainub Verjee. My family was with me and we all relished this moment of defamiliarization together. Ken’s art, which had attained its status as such by parody, pastiche and inversion of everyday Vancouver kitsch, was itself turned around. In our collectively surprised and sentimental gaze, high art had turned into to the simple kitsch of – hey look its Zainub! And so was I, the jaded and astute artist, no longer in possession of my critical eye –my gaze had turned to a gape … it was a rare moment, and of course this moment is the genesis of the upcoming remake, 5 Zainub (Untitled).

received_1045929462208723Ken Lum and Zainub Verjee at A Matter of Life and Death, Art Gallery of Mississauga, March 2017

When I told Zainub of this encounter with her image in Untitled (Zainub), she was delighted and explained a deeper connection at this wonderful nexus of art and life. She and Ken had been very close in their early explorations of art, its politics and its aesthetics. They had been students together at SFU, both of whom were not art students but still gravitated to its expression and its critique. They have remain close friends.

In concluding this writing, I want to return to the semiological understanding I gained from considering Entertainment for Surrey. If the incremental familiarity of a body standing by the road turns its substance into a sign of itself, then it seems to me that renown and reputation might also diminish the capacity of a body to be a signifier of things other its person. When Ken made his Untitled (Zainub) it was early in her career and ‘Zainub’ seems to represent certain qualities: ethnicity, gender and by her dress perhaps, class and profession as well. The figure in the image takes on the quality of a ‘signifier’ for other qualities or concepts that are ‘signified’. While the title anecdotally informs us that she is a real person with a name (Zainub), she is not presented as a known quantity. Over 30 years have passed since Ken’s image was made in 1984 and ‘Zainub’ now has a strong identity within the Canadian arts community. She is known in a much wider circle than before. Given the accretion and sublimation of qualities into this identity, it appears that the slightly defamiliarized figure in the red Cowboy Hat in my Zainub (Untitled) can now only index the very singularly signified – ‘Zainub Verjee’.

Note: This post has since been developed into an essay for an important anthology of writings on Media Arts titled Other Places: Reflections on Media Arts in Canada.