Diasporic Body Double: The Art of the Singh Twins

Article excerpt

The London-born artists Amrit and Rabindra Kaur Singh, the daughters of a Sikh doctor who immigrated to North England from the Punjab, are identical twins: they have the same DNA, they look and sound exactly alike, they wear the same clothing, and they received their training in art together. Often referred to as "The Singh Twins," the sisters have adopted the language of Indian and Persian miniature painting to depict the complex urban and domestic landscapes of the contemporary world. The twins have exhibited their work to international audiences in Britain, Europe, India, and North America: a recent show, titled Past Modern: The Singh Twins, featured more than sixty paintings and was hosted by the University of California, Riverside, in 2003 and the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool in 2005.1 Significantly, Amrit and Rabindra Singh's collaborative practice is not simply an innocent expression of an affectionate bond between sisters, but rather a self-conscious engagement with the notion of singular authorship and the cult of the individual that has pervaded post-Enlightenment art-historical tradition. Not since Diane Arbus's 1967 black-and-white photograph of identical twin girls in New Jersey has such a memorable rendering of sameness and belonging, normativity and exclusion, and identity and difference been sustained so provocatively within the contemporary art world.

Brought up in a conservative Sikh extended family in Liverpool, the twins were instructed by their teachers at Liverpool University Art College to follow their own individualities and to be as dissimilar in their art practices as possible. Their adoption of a singular performance mode-collaborating on most of their paintings, exhibiting together, referring to themselves as a single artist using the pronoun "she," and routinely signing each other's work-is in this sense a playful and explicit rejection of the normative conventions of their disciplinary training. Their turn to the formal vocabulary of the Indo-Perstan miniature is similarly a response to the Eurocentricism they encountered in their art-school education in England. The twins are by no means the first contemporary artists to take up the miniature form, nor are they invested in probing its limits in the manner of the Pakistani-born, New York-based artist Shahzia Sikander, also known for her experimentations with the genre. Sikander, by contrast, has increasingly moved away from the storytelling aspects of miniature painting and toward a more radical dissection of the form through video, sound, and digital technologies, as evidenced by her more recent exhibition in New York in 2005-06.2 However, it is the twins' distinctive blending of the Indo-Persian miniature tradition with the more popular genres of twentieth-century art practice in India-for instance, the mass-produced phenomena of photography, poster art, Hindu calendar art, and the urban kitsch of Bollywood cinema-that blurs the distinction between high and low in their acts of borrowing of South Asian visual forms. In fact, the twins do not merely borrow from India; they raid the mythological menagerie of the subcontinent. The result is a compelling set of "twinnings": between Britain and India, high and low, past and present, modernity and tradition, original and copy, home and diaspora, and collective identity and individual subjectivity, to name only a few of the coordinates that structure their work.

Critics generally agree that the twins' recuperation of the miniature tradition represents a novel encounter between the past and the present, and that it undermines and begins to dismande these binaries.3 However, such a critical consensus overlooks a more powerful dimension of their work, namely, the politics and practices of their performance as twins. In this essay, I approach the phenomenon of "twinness" as a complex prism through which to view their art practice and seek to underscore the figure of the twin, or the double, as a motif through which to map a range of dualities crucial to contemporary subjectivity in the South Asian diaspora. …