Sharlene Khan: “It Started Off as Them and Ended Up as Me”

[This will be my last post of Indo-African material, and I wanted to end on a note of cultural solidarity. Thanks again for accompanying me on my trip to Kenya.]

A few weeks ago, Amardeep wrote a nice report from a conference about Indo-African writers:

Desai argues that there were some members of the Asian community — especially artists, playwrights, and poets — who were trying to envision a sense of shared culture with their black African neighbors.

It started of as them and ended off as me - 2001.jpg

On that note, I thought I would share the work of my friend Sharlene Khan, a South African artist I met in 2004. She was born in Durban to Muslim and Christian parents (she is Christian) and lives now in Johannesburg, having collected two masters degrees in art, despite her deep antipathy toward all things institutional and official, and done residencies in Cairo and the south of France — like any good artist, trying to avoid joining the work force.

Indian painting has become very popular (and lucrative) in the global art market these days, with post-modern, post-cubist, semi-abstract renderings of Hindu deities and Indian village scenes being all the rage — the proteges and imitators of MF Husain. But Sharlene’s work is none of that.

Her themes are African, her sensibility humanist. One of her series concerns the plight of laborers and street musicians in Durban. She also did an installation based on the little tents that itinerant barbers, often immigrants from other parts of Africa, set up on the sidewalks of South African cities. She has painted murals like Diego Rivera and designed clothing for a fashion show, painting the fabric and inscribing it with text.

A good phrase to describe her stance is the title of the painting above: “It Started Off as Them and Ended Up as Me.”She once emailed me about her disdain for the term “diaspora,” since the notion behind it (a people outside their homeland) has been a political issue in South Africa: “”It chiefly recognises similarities at the expense of equally important localised differences. I don’t really consider myself as part of such a diaspora, I am a South African Indian who is very located in this specific country at this specific juncture in time. And while I realise that the sense of ‘Indianness’ is probably a valid one among many migrant communities, in South Africa it was promoted by the apartheid government to ensure that Indians in this country were made to feel like outsiders. Indians have been in SAfrica since the 1820′s.””

Her work takes up themes of alienation and longing, the degradation of unemployment, and the simple human joys of family. Her realism is deeply sympathetic, which is a rare trait (it’s also the hallmark of the very best photojournalism, which is one reason I admire it).

So here is an African artist of Indian descent, painting African themes that touch on universal human experiences. But don’t call it diasporic.

Photograph of Sharlene Khan by Preston Merchant
Paintings by Sharlene Khan

6522625-Custom.jpg Sharlene Khan

2002 - Madonna and Pokemon Child.jpg Madonna and Pokemon Child (2002)

A Friend loves at all times, but a brother is born in adversity - 2002.jpg A Friend Loves at All Times, but a Brother is Born in Adversity (2002)

dotcoza - 2001.jpg Dotcoza (2001)

gokarting - 2001.jpg Gokarting (2001)

ikhaya, The Long Walk - 2000.jpg Ikhaya, The Long Walk (2000)

man down - 2000.jpg Man Down (2000)

Two Fish and Five Loaves - 2002.jpg Two Loaves and Five Fishes (2002)

Two Fish and Five Loaves - Detail 1 - 2002.jpg Two Loaves and Five Fishes, detail 1 (2002)

Two Fish and Five Loaves - Detail 2 - 2002.jpg Two Loaves and Five Fishes, detail 2 (2002)

29 thoughts on “Sharlene Khan: “It Started Off as Them and Ended Up as Me”

  1. this is fabulous! preston, i have enjoyed your posts so much over the past few months — thanks for taking the time to share your experiences. ms. khan may be more willing to identify herself as a global south asian rather than part of a diaspora?

  2. Cool paintings. I like the first two the best, and also “Man Down.”

    I wonder: how has her work been received by black South Africans? It may “have started out as them and ended up as me,” but I wonder — in South Africa, is she “them” or “we”?

  3. these are wonderful. what is the scale of her paintings? i especially like “ikhaya, the long walk” and the detail on the girl’s dress (looks like other similar scenes). also seems to have done that on the jacket in “man down.”

  4. This is great. Well done Preston.

    And well done Sharlene: for your work, which is excellent; for your ideas, which are noble. You’ve lived deeply.


  5. Two Loaves and Five Fishes looks like a great installation. I wish I could have seen it.

  6. wow. look at the detail in Two Loaves and Five Fishes. very interesting titles some of these work have, too. most impressive pieces i’ve seen lately.

  7. I was surprised by how young Sharlene looks/is. I really like that picture of her. It’s so natural and refreshing.

    What a great post, and great inspiration. It’s really nice to see a Desi create art that embraces Africa. It is a nice change from all the Indians (and Indian-Americans) who still carry seeds of racism towards black people. I’ve had to deal with way too many racist Indian people, and it drives me crazy, and also fosters an unhealthy resentment towards my own community.

  8. It is nice that she saw so much beauty, and so much to celebrate, among a people that she identified with on such a strong level…when many of us (myself included) would have probably seen them as something separate. Her ideas are indeed noble. And the artwork is beautiful.

  9. Is there a story behind “Two Loaves and Five Fishes” ? I get the Biblical reference, but can’t figure out what the story of JC feeding the 5000 has to do with the piece. Her paintings are lovely (and, like JOAT said, so is she).

  10. I do like her paintings very much, especially the richness of the colors. I was struck by her comment ..”I am a South African Indian…” I’m not going to pretend great knowledge of the history of Indians in S.Africa, but her national allegiance got me thinking. At first, it was hard to grasp, why? Of course, then I belatedly realized that it’s no different than me thinking of myself as an American first, desi second..if that’s possible to think so linear-ly. Great post.

  11. But donÂ’t call it diasporic.

    So great to see another soul who professes hatred for the D word that has spread from magazines like Time and Outlook like a nasty pash rash.

    Thanks for your posts Preston, it’s nice to get a look in on localised Indian and African communities. It’s nice to see Africa portrayed in its real, multilayered and thriving nature rather than as an amorphous continent largely forgotten by the west and its press. I think Sharlene’s placement of figures and faces in the strangest places – on fruit, on a child’s dress, on the walls of a street stall- reflects this too.

    Thanks for taking us along on your trip to Kenya

  12. Have to second JOAT’s motion. Sharlene Khan has great collection of beautiful art, as well as being a work of art herself. She’s a cutie.

  13. Love the warm and earthy feel of ‘Two loaves and five fishes’.

    Was wondering what the market for her kind of art is? Of African Art in general? India’s art economy is, like Bollywood, mostly boosted by rich people of Indian descent in the West. Is it rich Africans who buy African art? Or Westerners who have fallen in love with Africa?

  14. I have come across SharleneÂ’s art a lot in Durban; she has been featured in many local TV shows and exhibition. She and many other South Asians are part of a rapid growing bunch of international caliber artist. I wish they all had websites to give you an insight to their work.

    Hope you had a lovely trip Preston, thank you for showing the world our unique beautiful Africa.

  15. These paints and photos are spectacular. Thanks, as always, Preston. I’m bummed to see the Afro-Desi project conclude :(

  16. CinamonRani on February 9, 2007 10:56 AM · Direct link I have come across Sharlene’s art a lot in Durban; she has been featured in many local TV shows and exhibition. She and many other South Asians are part of a rapid growing bunch of international caliber artist. I wish they all had websites to give you an insight to their work.

    and more art from Sharlene

  17. There are plenty of poor in America who lack material things too–like heat or running water–that’s why they call the free rescue squad every night the temperature drops below freezing with some made-up ailment so they can spend the night in the warm ER.

    Absolutely no question. But the magnitude of poverty in India (and Africa) is much worse. I look for charities that provide the most basic of human necessities, viz., food. Some people in India ain’t got jack, and nothing besides, thanks to callous – and corrupt – governance and a hubristic nomenklatura. Generally I give to efficient Hindu (non-Hindutva) charities, like Ramakrishna Mission and ISKCON and some secular charities as well. I avoid Christian missionaries (and crypto-Christian organizations) because I am revolted by their tribal conversion agenda.

    That being said, I have been compelled to donate here during emergency situations, like Katrina. Suffering people are suffering people. And I have volunteered pro bono plenty of times.

    That being said, regarding the current discussion, who cares where you donate your time/money/energy, as long as you do it somewhere? And the reason for doing it locally certainly shouldn’t be to earn acceptance or gratitude.

    I agree. Do what pleases your heart, not what boosts your ego.