Punjabi Stories: (Non) Traditional and Commercial Digital Storytelling

Digital Storytelling and Cultural Studies

Consciousness-raising starts on an individual level arising from spaces of internal or external discourse that bring-about acknowledgment that personal identity is composed of multifarious identify-factors.  Through experiencing displacement, hovering in places of rupture and instability, agency may be enabled that has the potential to bring about change.  In using the Internet and YouTube, artists (individuals) may use performativity oppositionally, in an attempt to re-articulate Sikh signifiers as “other” and bring about consciousness-raising in mainstream, western society.

See: Puar, Jasbir K. “‘The Turban Is Not A Hat’: Diaspora and Practices of Profiling.”  Sikh Formations, Vol. 4, No. 1 (June 2008):  47-91. At: http://www.jasbirpuar.com/publications/

Digitally Telling Punjabi Stories

When it comes to Digital Storytelling there are two modes: one that is supported by an institutional framework, building on the workshop model initiated by the Center for Digital Storytelling based out of the Bay Area, California and the work of John Lambert and others.  The other, more popular form, consists of delivery mechanisms of social media like YouTube, where users work within a framework designed by the corporation managing the site.  With this later example, corporate interests are always imbued in the product, while with the institutional or academic framework, Digital Stories operate outside of this framework.  However, institutionally-based, workshop-centered facilitation of Digital Stories cannot exist without funding, so the more moving and emotional the narrative (the more effective the Digital Story), the better the chance of being awarded grants and other forms of funding.

For this project, I thought that I would consider the Social Media personality JusReign, and in reviewing his YouTube videos, many of which I have come across on Facebook over the years, I have decided to share His Punjabi Story — Draw My Life.  Unlike many of his other comedic performances on the interplay between Punjabi immigrants to Canada and their children, first-generation Canadians, this video consists of images drawn onto a white board, with his voice-over narration.

Draw My Life: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Po1y_wtcXE4&list=UUJ98xGeWxpuKDAb2-Xs01Ug

Shit White Guys Say to Brown Guys: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hr4Hh34p3LM


I too, created a Digital Story of my Punjabi Story, in two parts: one, a traditional Joe Lambert-style Digital Story, consisting of pictures timed to my voice-over narration, where I drew from very personal experiences.  For the section part, I wanted to express the beauty and energy of Punjabi culture layering images and music, similar to my Visual Essay (see my earlier post).  I added this section to my Story because I felt that it is complementary to the first part and presents the space that I am in now, thereby completing my Story.  Originally, I did not intend to author such a personal Digital Story, but it came out in working on this project — so, I just decided to go with it and needless to say, it was quite emotional.

The song that I used for the second part of my story is “Mundian To Bach Ke” (Beware of the Boys), written by Labh Janjua, and adopted by Panjabi MC in 1998 and re-released as “Beware” featuring Jay Z in 2002.  I selected this song for many reasons, because it is catchy, I like it, it draws from traditional Punjabi music, it is re-mixed and upbeat, and then there is the additional layer added with the introduction of Jay Z — where he comes from, his identity, his style and the lyrics as he reflects on the post 9/11 world.

Beware Music Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wke0-lj2wzw


Digital Storytelling: Variations on Voice

On March 8, 2012, the Digital Story of Wynne Maggi’s experience in rural Pakistan was posted on YouTube.  She completed this approximately 4-minute video in 2011 as part of a workshop facilitated by the Center for Digital Storytelling, Colorado.  To tell her moving, personal experience as both outsider and insider to a community of Kalasha women, she uses voice-over narration and pictures from her trip to Pakistan, where she was conducting field research as an anthropologist.


Alternatively, after my colleague presented a digital story that was visually-based, without voice-over narration, mainly a collection of still and minimally moving images from a Tumblr site, I decided to seek out a Punjabi digital story on Tumblr.




In class, we discussed how different voices may be articulated via a range of formal characteristics. What really appealed to me, from the “My Punjabi History” Tumblr site, was the beauty and range of the pictures and text – I found the vast majority visually stunning.  In terms of capturing the voice of a people, these pictures are very effective.

Mirzoeff’s ‘The Visual Culture Reader,’ Post-coloniality and Documentary

“…visuality is a salutary reminder that visuality was and remains a cutting-edge tactic of coloniality: it is theirs, not ours, and they make better use of it” (Mirzoeff 500).

Part 3 (c) (Post/De/Neo)colonial visualities of the Visual Culture Reader (third edition) starts with a historical survey of colonial exhibition practices at universal expositions (Mitchell), pausing for a moment to consider western fascination and desires associated with representations of harems/harem women (Alloula), considering specific locals and political positionalities, while examining the link between the ‘primitive’ and Modern art and “naturalized conventions of otherness” in contemporary exhibitions (Enwezor).

This section of the Reader, is complementary to the content of my last Blog Post on the ‘Couple in the Cage’ documentary.  In this section, through his selection of articles, Mirzeoff directs us to consider that whether a performance, documentary, photograph, colossal rock-cut sculpture, or organizing and managing space, we are engaged in a process of seeing, and that this process is not without it’s history, and historically the viewer tends to be in a position of power.  How would one/a group subvert and attempt to re-distribute the power of the gaze – blow-up sacred representation of the Buddha?  Although disheartening, Flood presents a study, in his article “Bamiyan, Islamic Iconoclasm and the Museum,” that points to how the west elides the many intricacies and political differences amoungst the Muslim world.  In his article, Flood challenges us to look deeper.

“Documentary Film and Performance Art: Reverse Ethnography and ‘The Couple in the Cage’”

Pablo Picasso, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," 1907.

Pablo Picasso, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” 1907.

In Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Picasso engaged with the “primitive” through his use of formal qualities and subject matter, in a process where the “primitive” “is displaced contextually and historically through its appropriation by the west.”[1]  At this time, objects from Africa, parts of Asia and the Americas were still regarded as objects of curiosity, having only ethnographic value, and were not, according to western standards, objects of fine art.[2]  It would be years later, after the painting was made, that Picasso would admit to the impact African art had on him.  In 1937, he spoke with André Malraux about his first trip to the Musée d’Ethnographie and its significance to his work, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in particular:

‘When I went to the old [Musée d’Ethnographie], it was disgusting…I was all alone.  I wanted to get away.  But I didn’t leave.  I stayed.  I understood that it was very important…The masks weren’t just like any other pieces of sculpture.  Not at all.  They were magic things…They were against everything – against unknown, threatening spirits.  I always looked at fetishes.  I understood; I too am against everything…Spirits, the unconscious (people still weren’t talking about that very much), emotion – they’re all the same thing.  I understood why I was a painter.  All alone in that awful museum, with masks, dolls made by redskins, dusty manikins.  Les Demoiselles d’Avignon must have come to me that very day, but not at all because of the forms; because it was my first exorcism-painting – yes absolutely!’[3]

Although, it is uncommon today, to put people on display as objects of curiosity, this Orientalist ideology still warrants challenge.[1]  Why?  Because, in this age of globalization, power binaries between “us” as superior, to those that are “other” than “us” are still operating, particularly in areas of race, religion and gender.  Post-colonial discourse draws attention to the ineffectiveness of this binary system today, recognizing that cross-cultural exchange has created caveats in the system of “us” as defined in contrast to “other.”  These caveats, breathing-rooms, or spaces “in-between,” according to Homi K. Bhabha, are contentious spaces that subvert universalizing meta-narratives, “genealogies of ‘origin’ that lead to claims for cultural supremacy and historical priority.”[2]  It is in these “in-between” spaces, where consciousness-raising may take place that may start to heal traumas of past injustices, in order to bring-about greater cultural equity.  Art functions as a vehicle for this, fostering dialogue and critique, challenging universal cultural norms, subverting longstanding ideologies, creating “breathing-rooms” where recognition, identification and consciousness-raising may take place – and, although challenging to many involved, this task was accomplished by performance artists Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña, in the 1993 documentary The Couple in a Cage.[3]

In 1992, Fusco and Gómez-Peña took it upon themselves to confront this colonial binary, its historicity and relevance today, by creating performance art, where they staged and performed as newly discovered, never-before-seen, native Amerindians, first at the Edge ‘92 Biennial, and later at art and natural history museums.[4]  They called themselves Guatinauis, authored a native language, and constructed a cage, in which they would be displayed, with objects from their native land (which included things that had washed-up on the shore of their imagined island, like a radio and television).  Additionally, they created a display, with a map and museum entry, explaining that the Guatinauis came from an island located off the east coast of Mexico, and that “these specimens [were] descendants of Wiliwili stock.”[5]  Fusco and Gómez-Peña titled the performance Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit, and conceived the entire performance “as a satirical comment on the past;” but, to their surprise “many of their visitors thought they were real [specimens on display].”[6]  Paula Heredia made the film in collaboration with Coco Fusco, editing footage of the performances, as the Guatinaui couple toured the United States, Spain, Australia (and later Argentina, although this was not included in the documentary), with archival footage and photographs of people of color having been put on display throughout history, interviews of visitors to Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit, commentary by a mock anthropologist and textual narration, all accompanied by music.  It is through the medium of film, in this form, a documentary, that their new audience may view their art performance as contextualized within historical precedents, and that their performance may be viewed as a reverse ethnography, since the film centers on interviews of initial viewer’s responses to their caged performance.[7]

Unlike the experience of the initial viewers of Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit, viewers of the documentary are made aware that what they are viewing is in fact a performance.  Initial viewers provided a range of responses to the art performance, seeing the exhibited Guatinauis, many were unaware that what they were experiencing was performance art.

In the 2006 anthology, F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing, editors Alexandra Juhasz and Jesse Lerner address the role of the fake documentary, what it is, how it is often self-reflexive, and how it innovatively allows for critique of the documentary film-making process, while providing an unique presentation of culture.  In the “Introduction” Jesse Lerner writes, although “Fusco and Heredia’s documentation of the performance/hoax is not a work of fiction, [yet] it is certainly at the very least a close cousin, if not a member, of our ‘fake documentary’ family.”[1]  And, that although The Couple in the Cage centers on the spectacle of the “primitive,” it is a “very real sounding board[s] for the study of deeply felt Western racial hierarchies, fantasies of the tropics, and imperial ambitions,” and functions as a mechanism for cultural critique.[2]

I would argue, what the documentary The Couple in the Cage has to offer, which is so powerful, is that in viewing this exchange one is taken to the space “in-between” the performance and the initial viewer interaction, thereby brought into a space that clearly illustrates how Orientalist practices are still at work today. Likewise, their performance and the documentary The Couple in the Cage is clearly situated in the contemporary context of visual culture and postmodernity; here, the artists as performers, challenge the viewers to consider themselves and internal mechanisms at work in cultural processes, like stereotyping – realizing the impact of western ideology.  Furthermore, Fusco explains that through the performance “even though the idea that America is a colonial system is met with resistance—since it contradicts the dominant ideology’s presentation of our system as a democracy—the audience reactions indicated that colonist roles have been internalized quite effectively.”[1]  Coco Fusco performed “the role of a noble savage behind the bars of a golden cage” with Guillermo Gómez-Peña to call attention to the inaccuracy of/with the notion of “discovery,” that began with Christopher Columbus, and that resulted in formulating a narrative which labeled indigenous peoples by the west as “other.”[2]  With the advent of film, the colonial gaze has transitioned from exhibitions of “primitive” peoples and their representations, to “another commercialized form of voyeurism—the cinema…Founding fathers of the ethnographic film-making practice, such as Robert Flaherty and John Grierson, continued to compel people to stage their supposedly ‘traditional’ ritual, but the tasks were now to be performed for the camera.”[3]

On Picasso:

[1] Hal Foster, “The ‘Primitive’ Unconscious of Modern Art” in Art in Modern Culture: An Anthology of Critical Texts.  New York: Phaidon Press Ltd. and the Open University, 1992: 199-209.  Also, see Gill Perry on the “Primitivism and Modernism,” in Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction: The Early Twentieth Century. Charles Harrison, Francis Frascina, Gill Perry, Eds.  New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1993.

[2] James Clifford .  “On Collecting Culture,” in The Visual Culture Reader edited by Nicholas Mirzoeff.  London: Routledge, 1998: 94-107.  This article deals initially deals with the ways in which “ethnic” or tribal artifacts are collected and displayed as ethnographic artifacts to the western recognition of these objects as works of art.  Clifford questions appropriation and authenticity in considering how these objects contribute to cultural identity.

[3] Patricia Leighton. “The White Peril and L’art nègre: Picasso, Primitivism, and Anticolonialism.” Art Bulletion. Dec. 1990: 625.

On ‘The Couple’:

[1] In “The Other History of Intercultural Performance,” Coco Fusco mentions Tiny Tina, a black woman midget, who, in 1992, exhibited herself at the Minnesota State Fair. Coco Fusco.  “The Other History of Intercultural Performance,” in English is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas.  New York City: The New Press, 1995: 43.

[2] Homi K. Bhabha.  The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994: 225-26.

[3] Coco Fusco and Paula Heredia.  The Couple in the Cage: A Guatianaui Odyssey. Art Institute of Chicago Video Data Bank, 1993.  See the following link to view the entire documentary: http://vimeo.com/79363320.

[4] Amerindian is defined as: “any member of the peoples living in North or South America before the Europeans arrived.” See the following link for this definition: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Amerindians.

[5] Coco Fusco and Paula Heredia.  The Couple in the Cage: A Guatianaui Odyssey. Art Institute of Chicago Video Data Bank, 1993.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Coco Fusco refers to the performance as a “reverse ethnography” as well. See: Coco Fusco.  “The Other History of Intercultural Performance,” in English is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas.  New York City: The New Press, 1995: 57.  Also, in the current practice of documentary film-making, it would be ethnically appropriate to have those interviewed on film sign a release, letting them know that the footage of their interview may appear in the film.  Given the nature of The Couple in a Cage, it is doubtless that this was done and I found no reference to this action in my research.

[1] Jesse Lerner.  “Introduction” in F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing, Alexandra Juhasz and Jesse Lerner editors.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006: 20.  Additionally, Juhasz writes that fake documentaries are “productive and often progressive” in that they tell by “(un)doing” (page 11).  Additionally, questions such as: “What do they contribute to conversations about the permanence and malleability of identity nation, and location, both in and out of representation?  And why is a challenge to, and application of, a representational regime of truth so useful for filmmakers with a social, as well as a formal, agenda?” (page 11) are integral to understanding the role and tool of the fake documentary.

[2] Ibid: 25.

[1] Coco Fusco.  “The Other History of Intercultural Performance,” in English is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas.  New York City: The New Press, 1995: 48.

[2] Ibid: 37-63.

[3] Ibid: 49.


The Successful Story of India

“The history of ethnographic film is rich in examples of film’s unique capacity to record the multileveled nature of events, of its usefulness in teaching new ways of seeing, and of its power to evoke deeply positive feelings about mankind by communicating the essence of a people” (Emilie de Brigard “The History of Ethnographic Film” in Principles of Visual Anthropology, 38).


The PBS-BBC 2009 documentary The Story of India is a historical survey of the subcontinent from prehistory to the present as told in six, one-hour episodes.  The narrator, Michael Wood, attempts, and I would argue is successful, to tell the story of India from the perspective of Indians.  He does so, not with a voice-over narration (typical of an older ethnographic/documentary film style), but by being on camera, interacting with people, interviewing experts and locals, visiting sites and introducing the viewer to the richness of the religious, artistic, scientific and literary culture of India.  He embodies the viewer, giving us the closest to firsthand opportunity, in seeing the plurality of Indian culture.  In this manner, Wood and the filmmakers of this series are far removed from the “colonial gaze.”  The gaze that is employed throughout the entire series is one of wonder and curiosity, not from a position of power, but from a place of appreciation.  Cinematic tools (such as wide-angle and aerials shots, for example) are employed to best present views of sites that are all encompassing, providing the viewer with a range of sight that would otherwise not be physically possible.  Additionally, regular references are made, contextualizing the genealogy of Indian history with that of other ancient cultures, confronting imperialist historiography.  In my opinion, the collaborative effort present here in this series, in telling The Story of India, functions as an example of best practices in the burgeoning field of the Digital Humanities.

The Story of India, episode one, full 55 minutes:

PBS Website with Interviews of Michael Wood explaining the goals and experiences of the project (reviews of the series, summaries of the episodes and further information is also accessible here on the website):