In the last post, I talked some more about about Isabel Wilkerson’s statement from Caste when she says, “None of us are ourselves.” I looked at that statement in relation to Long Vahn in Genaro Kỳ Lý Smith’s The Land South of the Clouds. Today, I want to look at Wilkerson’s statement and my own assertion that we can never know our “true” selves in relation to another text I taught this semester, Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Disgraced (2013). At its core, Disgraced deals with the ways that individuals navigate their identities when those identities do not originate from within but originate from outside of the person.
While the play focuses on five different characters, each examining their own selves in relation to the perceptions of others, Amir is at the core of Disgraced. Amir is a Muslim man from Pakistan who, in a post 9/11 America, who changes his own identity when interacting with Americans so they will not view him as a “terrorist” or “extremist.” Amir changes throughout the play, as Akthar points out when speaking with Madani Younis about the London opening of the play in 2013. Akhtar told Younis, “The play begins with a Western consciousness representing a Muslim subject. The play ends with the Muslim subject observing the fruits of that representation.”
From the very beginning of the play, before Emily and Amir even begin the first scene, we Amir navigating that “Western consciousness” that paints him in a specific manner. Describing the couple’s apartment, the stage direction notes there is a painting, “a two-paneled image in luscious whites and blues,” that calls to mind “an Islamic garden” on the wall and “a statue of Siva” on the mantel above the fireplace. From this, we see the tensions on stage before we even see them within Amir. The juxtaposition of Muslim and Hindu items hints at the tensions within Amir between his own cultural upbringing and the ways he presents himself to the world around him in America, specifically his employers.
This pull comes out immediately when the scene starts. Emily, Amir’s white, American wife, sits at the table sketching a portrait of Amir. The portrait is a reproduction of Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja. Amir sits for the portrait “in an Italian suit jacket and a crisp, collared shirt, but only only boxers underneath.” He opens the play, and he speaks in “a perfect American accent.”
With this opening, we already see Emily constructing Amir, literally drawing a portrait of him, taking him into her view. Amir sits there, posing for the moment. However, he pushes back on Emily’s choice of Velázquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja serving as the model for her own portrait of Amir. He tells her, “I think it’s a little weird. That you want to paint me after seeing a painting of a slave.” Juan de Pareja was born into slavery, and Velázquez became his enslaver at some point. Velázquez painted the portrait around 1650 as an exercise in preparation for paining Pope Innocent X. In 1650, Velázquez freed Juan de Pareja, and de Pareja continued to paint till his death in 1670.
Emily responds to Amir’s statement by claiming that de Pareja was Velázquez’s “assistant,” not his “slave.” She tells her husband, “He was Velázquez’s assistant, honey.” To this, Amir simply responds, “His slave.” Coupled with the positioning of the couple at the opening and the action of Emily working on a portrait of Amir, the linguistic aspects of their discussion play into the ways that we construct the identities of others. Emily, here and elsewhere, claims de Pareja was merely Velázquez’s “assistant”; however, that is not the case. We know that Velázquez enslaved de Pareja because his manumission papers are in the Archivio di Stato in Rome.
This discussion is important because Emily’s use of “assistant” to describe de Pareja positions him, in her mind, in a way that does not tell the story of his life. Instead, she places him as a “voluntary” worker for Velázquez. Amir’s insisting that de Pareja was Velázquez’s slave points out that even 350 after his passing others work to create de Pareja’s identity just as Emily does with the portrait.
Emily wanted to do a portrait of Amir because of an encounter with a waiter at a restaurant. We never get the entire story of what happens at the restaurant, but we get that the waiter profiled Amir and projected his stereotypes and preconceived notions onto Amir. Emily tells her husband that the waiter saw only what he wanted to see: “Not seeing you. Not seeing who you really are. Not until you started to deal with him. And the deftness with which you did that. You made him see that gap. Between what he was assuming about you and what you truly are.”
This moment caused Emily to think about Velázquez’s painting, specifically about how people reacted to it initially: “They think they’re looking at a picture of a Moor. An assistant.” Again, Amir corrects her, saying de Pareja is “[a] slave,” and Emily acquiesces. Important here as well is that Emily does not say Juan de Pareja’s name. At this point, she only says, “the Velázquez painting,” or refers to de Pareja as Velázquez’s “assistant.” In this manner, she strips Juan de Pareja of his identity by coupling him with Velázquez, placing Velázquez above de Pareja. She does not say “Juan de Pareja” until Amir asks her his name.
Along with not saying de Pareja’s name, Emily’s use of the portrait as a model for her own says a lot. She claims to Amir that she wants to show the world, and specifically as a response to the waiter, the “true” Amir. However, as we see later, she does not even know the “true” Amir and we can argue that he doesn’t either. She only sees what she wants to see and what Amir presents to her. This is key because Emily becomes, in essence, Velázquez. She does not enslave Amir, but she does construct him in the manner that she wants to construct him, and in doing this, while she works to counter “Western consciousness,” he becomes something “exotic” to her, something that corresponds to her interest in Islamic art and its influence of Western art.
In the next post, I will continue this discussion by looking some more at Disgraced. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
Note: We will be off next week, but come back on December 1 for new posts!
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