Register Tuesday | April 23 | 2024

Jaswant Guzder: The Artist of the Floating World

Jaswant Guzder is an internationally-renowned transcultural psychiatrist, a psychoanalyst, an associate professor at McGill and the head of child psychiatry at Montreal's Jewish General Hospital.  She is also a visual artist. Born in British Columbia, Dr. Guzder is of third-generation South Asian immigrant origin. She moved to Montreal in the late sixties to study medicine and psychiatry at McGill. I first met her in 2008 during the launch of my second book. Her recent exhibition, Exile and Attachment, was motivated by the threat of erosion to human rights presented by the Charter of Values.

Jaspreet Singh: The general feeling in Exile and Attachment is that of inwardness. At the same time there is a strange outwardness and traces of the cosmic. It seems so many space-times, architectures, objects, emotions and trembling landscapes have either been absorbed or rejected by the bodies in your work. Walking through the exhibition one hears a painful hum: “I am vulnerable. No, I am not.” Is this an appointment with unresolved pasts? Interplay of felt and unfelt thought? Misfoldings of memory? Trauma?

Jaswant Guzder: The work is speaking of mental states. Stories of psychic worlds, psychic wounds and the need for survival in attachment are narrated in the work, as best I can transmit them. But memory, whether it is personal or transmitted or absorbed, always seems to come into any work. Felt unthought is Bion’s unique formulation that is so useful in understanding emotional worlds and levels of memory in the body and mind. We know by feelings far before we can mentalize by works “the felt unknown,” and we feel illuminated or renewed when the knowing is available to us in words or art.

Sometimes it seems to me that painting is just a process of energy transmitted by making the created object. It is a meditation experience.

JS: One is especially struck by the face in your work.

JG: This brings up self-representation, gaze and mentalization. Afterwards one sees deadness, aliveness, repetitions, relationship and gaps. It is not so obvious why the blank page is filled with these faces. We are facially oriented from infancy to attract a reciprocal relationship. What if your mother doesn’t want you, or is ill, absent, tired, depressed? Is this face a face that is remembered, doesn’t respond, doesn’t look at you? What if you find yourself in a country that does not want you? What if you lose your country or the place of your initial belonging?

I remember watching people closely as a child and many of my key people, grandparents or parents, were not people who often had conversations with me. My clinical life is all about having conversations. But in my childhood I felt I was intuiting their lives and thoughts. Sometimes I had the privilege of hearing their stories: especially my grandmother’s and my father’s India stories. These stories impressed upon me that felt state, in contrast to the place where I was living; a continuous river of experience. They were, partly, living in a place of exile that was my home; the place where I felt the wind and walked the forests of Vancouver Island. I formulated only later that I suffered an illness of nostalgia as a third generation immigrant. Salman Akhtar’s work [on immigration and trauma] helped me to formulate this reflection.

My mother impressed upon me that she had endured, that she had a traumatic childhood, marked by the war and the Depression, a cultural rift, a psychotic mother and many other things. At least this was what she conveyed to me, a worry and frantic effort to put that past behind her with a great resilience and determination to build a present. Yet as her first daughter I arrived at a difficult moment in her life. These feeling-states were imprinted on me as a past for which I was, in some way, responsible. Undoubtedly these early experiences impinged on shaping my own psychic illnesses, creativity and my journey as healer and painter. I would say it also asked me to address inconsolable grief at a young age. Is that why the face is rather mysterious and fascinating to me?

I am always absorbing, translating and looking at nonverbal in the work I do. So many clues are not in what people are saying with words but where their face and body are positioned. In the clinical space, one has to sort out the essence of these communications. We are accessing the authentic out of all this noise, and this is so much easier with children than adults. That is some kind of quest for meaning I suppose, and endlessly interesting to me.

JS: You are the first one who told me about psychic skin. What is the difference between skin and psychic skin?

JG: The first one is the real and outer layer of a body. Skin is so important for love, touch and feeling. It may even erupt when feelings are stirred up.

The second one is what Esther Bick wrote about, the psychic skin. It is the first sense a baby has of being in relation with the other and held together as an entity. Sometimes a skin develops in relation to a particular mothering or fathering experience, a muscular skin she called the relationship with a very active and intrusive kind of interaction. Soothing, cajoling, holding, tenderness, quiet, abrasiveness or calmness of the parent form the “skin.”

Refugees in exile and migrants are developing a new psychic skin when they change places.

JS: There is an absence of place in your work.

JG: Not true. Only some works are floating, rootless, homeless, incomplete, unsituated, soul destroyed or survivor-focused, all-life focused, as we are in outer space or exile or when we lose a beloved person, country or being. But maybe you are right to say there is no place, but a void in this series. A refugee or a person in exile who has no place, no horizon. A society that excludes them only amplifies the dilemma. Being in exile has also inspired artists and generated humanity in people individually or collectively.

I am very aware of the structural damage of exclusion that is part of the privilege of being a citizen, an insider, belonging vs. exiled, distrusted, outsider. The parallel in my experience is the baby attaching to his family, a journey all of us make. Most of us have a good enough experience and survive or prosper. Some of the babies do not do well. Winnicott would say we do not seek ideal, we seek good-enough conditions, positive possibilities, creative, caring and laughing at our life predicaments.

Place is a secure base, it is a holding harbour, it’s the horizon, the ground, the caretaker or parent’s lap, it is the lover’s arms, it is finding a country that will take you and keep you, if you are a refugee.

JS: Why call your most recent solo exhibition Exile and Attachment?

JG: These are the core issues of relationship, in my life and in the life of many of the families, children and refugees I treat in Montreal.

My father was a refugee in all senses of the word, an unhappy nostalgia and celebration of his lost country, his lost mother, building a marriage in a new world and his finding himself between that old traditional world and actively building a Canadian life, investing in it intensely. Even the letters that would come from India in Urdu took him away to another place and music and language, it was as though he belonged somewhere else when those letters from his mother would come. So who was in exile and who was attached?

So the attachment and exile issues were always deep and present. They are part of living and recreating healthy conditions to live in community. They were evident in how the First Nations and other visible minorities were excluded or ambivalently held in the social space. I was aware of how our community had become a kind of ghetto in places like Paldi on Vancouver Island, it was always part of shaping my gaze and comprehending the gaze upon and from my community. Attachment and belonging are the healer agendas that are the counterpoint—it deals with that which can never come back, that is left behind forever. It can be there in nostalgia or phantasy or imagination but it is not in the real pragmatic present where we live and move towards the future. The journey is about surviving irretrievable lost good things without losing hope and the capacity to invest in now. How does memory shape us, move us forward to make sacrifices for our children, to live as joyously as we can? Not everyone is resilient, not everyone succeeds brilliantly, but all sorts of things help us along the way to cope and move along our time line in a good enough way. 

JS: What has exile and attachment meant in your own life?

JG: Many nodal points of my life are about loss and dislocation. Changes in the theatre of life are about where and when and who. Defining who belongs or my not belonging at all. Or trying to make sense of this from my parents, grandparents or close people, the communities around me: it is an over-determined preoccupation perhaps. A neurotic center maybe, or an endless unfinished internal work.

Alienation, nostalgia and melancholy are realities in my life cycle.

Perhaps the past haunted both my grandparents (largely silent on those worlds) and my parents. I was impressed with those life lessons, somehow implicated in all of it and unable to find meaning just in contemporary or momentary life experience. I realized later that these experiences marked me deeply and have attuned me to the issues of departure and closeness, of migration and belonging, understanding histories and narratives. These became central themes in my life work. I also see that many of my peers did not struggle with these questions in the same way, they had other solutions and made other decisions about these issues. We can all see exactly the same scenario in a community or family and experience differently. This is fortunate and fascinating.

It may be that making meaning and putting pieces together is part of that process for me as an artist: making collages, paintings, irrelevant or constant note-taking, perhaps, is part of the constant need to be drawing. I have recognized that I have also put myself in exile many times without recognizing it, and later come to realize what I had been doing. It is part of the wisdom of seeing or reflecting later patterns I struggle with and there they are in the series.

I felt the absence of mentors in that earlier time in my life, recognizing now important it is to support children and young people. I have learned to shift to seeking connection and building teams. I have held many memories of failures in my own life, rather deeply felt attachments and exiles.

JS: Have you ever destroyed your work?

JG: Often.

My mother threw out all of my work. It took me several years, much later I understood this rage she felt about my hermetic self (reading or drawing). She made it clear that drawing was not a relevant work for a woman, especially not a good Indian daughter … unless it was a practical application like sewing. l learned to love sewing from her. She just didn’t understand this space of making art and in many ways I was a disappointment to her as I had appeared to have left the traditional ways, though I spent more time in India than any of my siblings.

At times I couldn’t bear to look at much of the work, and would give it away or lose it or trash it. Or make it on fragile paper that fell apart. I think when I discovered that Buddhists had prayer papers that would contain the prayers as offering and were meant to be burned, I really appreciated this sentiment of temporary, fragile and gone. Offerings made sense to me. I love working on that paper as it is close to the idea of disappearance.  A dear friend who refused to keep any art would profess to aim for leaving “no traces,” I would say we all leave traces by encountering each other, but art objects are a special kind of left-behind object.

It was much later in my art-making that I thought using good paper was important. And I started to take more care of the work and put it away before I would be tempted to lose it or destroy it. I think the appreciation of some people who were close to me had valued the work and helped me to stop the repetition of my earlier experience of disappearing or destroying that had marked my earlier efforts. Woman have always struggled with this issue of a room of one’s own, as Virginia Woolf called it, or finding acceptance for having real voice and agency as artists. I am fortunate to have met people on the journey who supported me and validated this healing space.

JS: Who has most influenced your work?

JG: So many artists and friends who are artists and friends: those are important people for me. They were people I talked to at length about what I was doing or they were doing. Or they were friends who simply accepted this part of me and encouraged me, tolerated me or embraced me. They let me play and develop this essential space and activity. And often they didn’t understand why I was so divided between healer and artist.

Paul Klee and Ben Shahn were important when I was in Med School and before.

I saw all the modern Quebec painters. I loved Borduas, for example.

I saw a wonderful wide range of work especially in Canada, Europe, Japan, NYC and India that shaped me. There is a great joy in seeing the work of children and adults, artists don’t always hang works in galleries.

JS: Do you feel at home in Montreal?

JG: Yes and no. It is more my home than any other city, I have always come back to it.

It is grande dame, a beautiful city and a familiar place of my formation. So I think I love it in a special way, though I don’t think I ever felt I belonged as a Quebecer. I have always felt Montreal was a home to me…so many friendly associations with this city.

I am really estranged from this Quebecois identity, pure laine, separatist, charter agenda and yet I have lived in and found …[some special spaces]… enclaves within the city, at McGill and at my hospital. I feel the constant historical tensions wear me down, but at the same time they have stimulated my interest in Otherness, in transcultural work, maybe partly even stimulated the need for a hermetic space. The xenophobia that pervades the Quebec identity quest is sometimes distressing and familiar from my childhood, though I realize it is felt as positive shaping and a search to have ownership of votre pays amongst those who identify with the Quebec nation. For me it has echoes of colonial resonances, not postcolonial reality. Lately the support of the Charter renders a kind of latent violence to my sacred rights as a citizen and to minorities in general. In a time of globalization, positive connections are possible across histories and identities, it seems for minorities an undermining of that spirit and the vibrancy of the metropole of Montreal which is not the reality of the rest of Quebec. We have been there before. I was here when the FLQ was blowing up mailboxes and kidnapped key symbolic antagonists to separatist ideals while I was at McGill as a student. These tensions are ever-present and they are now part of a structural exclusion that we accept to promote French nationalism within this province. We are hoping it will satisfy most, if not all, of the angst that is historically embedded as bitter humiliations at the hands of the symbolic British and the Catholic Church. I understand the process but don’t feel any identification with it. It is hard enough to adapt as a visible minority and a South Asian woman and find my way without inviting more tension of ethnic nationalism. At the same time, I have had wonderful friendships here, wonderful colleagues and good working relationships, which I am reluctant to abandon, parts of my family are here and I don’t want to leave.

I am ambivalent about leaving. Being driven out doesn’t appeal to me either.

But it may come to no choice if things are to be so split and divisive for minorities. I have to move in and out of the space to tolerate it so I do global health work in India and Jamaica or other places when invited. What would happen if I did not have the health to move I wonder?

JS: Is Frantz Fanon meaningful to you?

JG: Deeply.

I read him in the 1960s and that was a time when I understood I was identifying with black or outsider Quebecers and a black minority, certainly not with the privilege of a European facing Quebec. Much clearer to me that visible minorities were marked just like Hindu castes are marked in your soul as an immigrant Other. I found it exciting to hear Fanon talk about the internalization of these experiences, the mirroring issues of Others amongst the host society, the sorting out of healer and victim, a calm celebration of being safe is part of feeling fortunate to be in Canada and Quebec.

I had many conversations with the Quebec filmmaker Jean Claude Lauzon about his deep love for a Quebec, nonetheless the strong collective of mon pays, the need to belong, forced him earlier in his life to renounce and hide his Abenaki heritage to be embraced as Quebecois … he would not meet me to talk in public space as he was apprehensive about being seen with a brown woman. This is the tension I always feel in the Quebecois identity dialogue. When the collective mood ambivalently embraces or denigrates bits of us, it has a profound impact on what is collectively forgotten or celebrated, what parts of us are safely shown, what parts of us remain private or hidden in order to wander safely in the public space. Artists don’t conform to those rules when they create even if their work might be censored in the public space or misunderstood. 

These are not resolved issues for me, I see them as dynamic, part of a positive inclusive social space, a real process in Canadian not just Quebec society, not just far away in "primitive" or "third world" spaces.  Fortunately in this democracy we are in healthier circumstances than those my parents or grandparents survived. It’s again about a sense of gratitude. I am so fortunate to have the options I have had, to work with the people I now work with, and have the friendships around me here or there to sustain hopeful and joyous times.

JS: What would he say about this time of this place?

JG: The psychic wounds of history are deep and difficult to treat but people like Mandela have modeled a way forward if we look behind idealizations. Collective denial of racism is still a great challenge to us everywhere, even here in the privilege of Canada we have to struggle with reflection and expanding our discourse.

The recent discussion on the Charter in Quebec has motivated, in part, the offering of these paintings at this time. I would have left them in the cupboard, unbroken as a series—but sometimes provoking discourse is more important that remaining silent.

It is frightening to hear the silence of the Quebec intellectuals, who frame the humiliation of minorities a cost of preservation of their dignity and legacy, and to hear the capitulation of some provincial liberals. I was moved to see recently the bravery of the former Bloc MP Maria Mourani who has shared her view that protection of human rights for minorities is more securely provided in the Canada than in the spirit of a ‘homogenous’ provincial identity. Well it is just a beginning of another identity passage if governments can proposal in all seriousness even as a political strategy that those wearing kippas, turbans and headscarfs are not allowed to serve as physicians, teachers or public servants. We all hope for a civilized dialogue, and I am amongst those who hope for an inclusive society. What would Fanon say about such a privileged group denying racism or exclusion and asserting that this is a form of enlightenment , I don’t know. I am more interested in what will heal the space, what will bring us together and make the space safer. If human rights agendas can’t override the agenda of Quebecois nationalism then the collective space has to process the implications.

Interesting times.

This interview has been edited for length.