Published online by Cambridge University Press: 06 October 2020
IN 2014, I CO-ORGANIZED a conference at the University of Hawai‘i titled “Asia and the Pacific in German Culture.” Along with organizational responsibilities, I also helped design the poster and website for the conference. I clicked the photo that you see here and chose it as our logo. That's my mother and aunt under a tree on a beautiful beach in Hawai‘i. There were aesthetic reasons for choosing this picture: it provided a nonspecific landscape and figures that could fit many regions of Asia and the Pacific, and the sky provided a subtle color scheme and enough negative space for the text. But more important, it represented for me a kind of reversal, a “decolonizing,” if you will, of Caspar David Friedrich's 1818 painting The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. Instead of a nineteenth-century white man standing on top of a mountain in Europe with active Wanderlust in his posture and feet overlooking a mysterious faraway landscape, I chose two brown women at sea level somewhere in the Asia-Pacific, sitting in a lotus position, contemplating the wanderings that brought them there. Caspar David Friedrich was the quintessential representative of Romanticism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when German intellectual Wanderlust fueled exploration in the East, particularly India. German Romantic thinkers established a literary, linguistic, and philosophical kinship with the East, yet exoticized it as the birthplace of ancient mystical wisdom. And now, here I am, born and raised in India, educated in the United States and Germany, and working in Hawai‘i, where I find myself literally and philosophically between East-West currents that rise and flow within me in turbulent and pacific waves.
My reverse conference image was not meant as a counterattack on the colonial gaze; I did not mean that the Eastern perspective was somehow more down-to-earth (sea level) and hence superior to the high-and-mighty (mountaintop) othering Western perspective. To claim that would simply tilt the power to the other side rather than restoring a balance between them or showing a dynamic interplay, which was ultimately my goal in the “decolonizing” effort. My conference image was meant to be deeply self-reflexive, as my approach to cross-cultural German studies is inseparably intertwined with my personal journey.
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