Hybridity: its definition and its place in our reading of artwork

The definition of hybrid found in the Encyclopedia Britannica includes subheadings of genetics, mythology, chemistry, cars, and optometry. The concept of hybridity when applied to culture conveys elements of all of these definitions, including positive elements such as diversity, and cooperation, as well as negative elements such as unviable offspring and unnatural monsters. In this way the term hybridity contains conflicting connotations. Hybridity, at the most basic level, implies the mixing of two or more elements to create a third. Beyond this there is some discussion as to what cultural hybridity means.

Nestor García Canclini has written extensively on cultural hybridity. According to Canclini, hybridization represents various interactions including contact between ethnic groups, decolonization, globalization, travel, and artistic appropriation (García Canclini 1989). In this way hybridity is a constant process of negotiation between different cultural groups, a form of intercultural dialogue. This idea of hybridity can be seen as the space where communication happens between cultures.

Canclini uses the example of traditional craftspeople incorporating modern materials or techniques and new icons in their artwork (such as old-fashioned devils riding the bus, executed in clay sculpture), thus adapting their cultural production to reflect their changing environment and opening a dialogue between their work and the modern world as a whole. According to Homi Bhabha, culture is always specific to a time and place (Bhabha 1995). In this way, any modern cultural expression of what is “traditional” is also a reconstruction, a hybrid of past and present. This dialogue can also lead to direct collaborations, such as the songs “Gentle” and “Want” by Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq and Canadian rap artist Buck 65 where both idioms collide and interact to create something entirely new. Thus the hybrid space is used as a forum for discussion whether in art, politics or other spheres of influence in order to negotiate differences of time, place or culture.

Guillermo Gómez-Peña describes hybridity as “border culture” (Fusco 1995), or a site of mutual penetration that is either physical or psychological. For Gómez-Peña, hybridity has been expressed in Latin American art from colonial times in forms such as syncretism, where the invading Spanish culture is in turn invaded by traditional art forms of the “Other” indigenous culture, creating a unique fusion that may persist beyond the culture of origin. Gómez-Peña emphasizes the sense of alienation inherent to hybridity. He sees Tijuana as the ultimate site of North-South hybrid culture, physically in contact and psychologically a borderland, an outsider from both sides of the exchange taking place. The U.S.A. and Mexico, with their fractious history, coexist and are fused in Tijuana but Tijuana exists as a cultural space separated from both factions.

The border is an ambivalent space of contact/rejection which offers up a new hybrid space. The hybrid space is therefore an unstable, fragile state of fusion in between opposing factions. This opposition also exists within the hybrid itself. Angel Rama describes a state of transculturation (two or more cultures coexisting) as “vulnerabilidad cultural” where the culture of origin may fear the adaptation of tradition and suppress “outside” influences or hybrids (Rama 1982). In this way, hybridity is characterized by instability and subject to marginalization. Gómez-Peña also describes Latin American border culture as an “archipelago” throughout the Americas. In this way, the border space is expanding and becoming more inclusive. As communication technology improves small enclaves are able to connect and recognize the similarity of their experiences, creating a new dialogue between marginalized communities.

When explaining the concept of hybridity there is a danger of falling into a utopian discourse that is ahistorical and homogenized, the ideal of multicultural harmony. Homi Bhabha describes hybridity as a “third space” separate from its originating elements, thus an outsider. For this reason it is important to consider the politics of hybridity. Katharyne Mitchell and Luis Camnitzer both use a discourse of Gramscian hegemony in their approach to defining hybridity (Mitchell 1997, Camnitzer 1995). There is a center of power that exercises a certain degree of control over peripheral entities. These peripheral communities communicate with the center, but dynamics of power do not allow the cultural expressions of the peripheral community to be valued in the same way as the expressions of the center regardless of their actual value. Hybrid cultures emerge from the unequal exchange between the periphery and the center. A culture that incorporates elements of the periphery and the hegemonic center is able to exist to some degree in both spaces at once or communicate between the two (periphery to center). In this way the concept of agency (or autonomy) is closely tied to hybridity.

Expressions of culture are personally driven, but we cannot pretend that there is a democracy of expression. Artists may wish to give voice to their experience, but lack the materials or the audience to be recognized in their own right. This is especially true of hybrid cultures, in that their expression does not conform to any one group completely.

There is also the question of balancing authenticity of expression with recognition. For example, when an artist from the periphery moves to live in the center and target their work to those in power, do they lose their status as an artist of the periphery or can they exist as a hybrid of both and remain authentic? Politics of integration and multiculturalism are creating a market for “outsider” art, according to Gómez-Peña (1995), or an unspoken multicultural quota to fill.

Committees of established artists and critics (usually White, heterosexuals) are arranging exhibitions of “Latino artists” or “Queer artists”, … etc., assembling a variety of work based not on the work itself but a supposed kinship with other artists of the same background. This is problematic on several levels. First, in that the artists are unified by circumstance more than similarity of work, or expected to fit neatly into certain categories (such as woman painter, Black painter or queer painter) rather than as hybrids. Take for example the 1939 exposition of Frida Kahlo’s paintings in Paris alongside ancient indigenous Mexican sculpture, a juxtaposition justified only by geography. This policy creates an environment in which hybrids cannot exist unless they can be aligned with an established group. Second, the same dynamic of hegemonic power is being maintained, with power brokers from the center determining what will be imported from the periphery and how it will be presented. In this way hybridity can be misappropriated or marginalized by public policy. Some artists choose to subvert this reality in the art world. For example Brian Jungen’s collection “Prototypes of New Understanding” includes a series of Dunne-Za style masks made out of name brand shoes. In this way Jungen, of mixed Dunne-Za and Swiss heritage, takes articles of modern life to create “traditional” objects for display. His art represents the reality of being a hybrid: existing between times and cultures, influenced by mass media and americanized.

Meredith Richard

Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi, “Cultural Diversity and Cultural Differences”, Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin (eds.), The Post Colonial Studies Reader, New York: Routledge, 1995, pp. 206-209.

Camnitzer, Luis,”Wonder Bread and Spanglish art”, Gerardo Mosquera (ed.), Beyond the Fantastic: Contemporary Art Criticism from Latin America, London: INIVA, 1995, pp.153-164.

Fusco, Coco, “Bilingualism, Biculturalism, and Borders”, English is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas, New York City: The New Press, 1995, pp. 147-158.

García Canclini, Nestor, Culturas híbridas: estrategias para entrar y salir de la modernidad, Buenos Aires: Paidós, 1989.

Gómez-Peña, Guillermo, “The Multicultural Paradigm: An open Letter to the National Arts Community”, Gerardo Mosquera (ed.), Beyond the Fantastic: Contemporary Art Criticism from Latin America, London: INIVA, 1995, pp. 183-193.

Mitchell, Katharyne, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 1997, 15, pp. 533-553, Pion Limited, London.

Rama, Angel, “Los procesos de transculturación en la narrativa latinoamericana”, La novela en América Latina, Bogotá: Instituto Colombiano de Cultura, 1982, pp. 203-229.

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This entry was posted in Angel Rama, authenticity, Bhabha, border, boundaries, Coco Fusco, Frida Kahlo, Homi K. Bhabha, hybrid, hybridity, identity, Luis Camnitzer, mestizaje, Mexico-U.S. border, Mexico-United States border in art, Néstor García Canclini, representation. Bookmark the permalink.

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