Spectres of M.I.A
M.I.A, born Mathangi Arulpragasam, is a British Sri Lankan Tamil artist-activist whose acronymised stage persona refers to the military term Missing in Action. Set against hegemonic readings which privilege postcolonial, feminist, or transnational categories of analyses, my original contribution to knowledge is to locate M.I.A’s work in the political contexts in which they are produced. I thereby foreground the hidden Tamil erasures of the Sri Lankan civil war (1983-2009) that traverse the artist’s productions. The historicisation of M.I.A’s politics of haunting is not only a research gap, but central in understanding the artist’s texts. Using hauntology as a framework and close textual analysis as a method, this thesis constitutes a Tamil-centric reading of M.I.A’s work as well as a nuanced contribution to hauntology studies.
My study identifies the Tamil cemeteries evoked in four songs—“Galang” (2003), “Bucky Done Gun” (2004), “Born Free” (2010), and “Borders” (2015)—inquiring into their visual translations, functions, objectives, and larger political significance. I particularly focus on their visual language that emerge from the collective absence-presences of the war, shared by the Tamil diaspora, of which the artist and I are part. My analyses also extend to probing salient aspects of the lyrics, performance, sound- and sartorial politics.
My textual analyses render the following findings: M.I.A’s productions recirculate histories of Tamil erasure as sites of death. They replicate and extend the funerary work of the cemeteries of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)—a Sri Lankan Tamil nationalist, separatist, and militant organisation that fought for an independent state in the north and north east of Sri Lanka. The artist recartographises Tamil cemeteries into ubiquitous popcultural expressions, in which the aesthetic techniques—animated stencils, flags, murals, photo montages, and performative bodies—visibilise and physicalise the materiality of violence enacted upon Tamils. M.I.A’s topographies of death rematerialise the architecture of cemeteries as inconspicuous yet omnipresent sites of absence, marking a simultaneous obscuration and ubiquitisation of cemeterial landscapes. These memory locales tend to Tamil graves, expose Tamil truth claims, and let the dead speak with and through the depiction of their brutalised bodies. Urging a responsibility for the (living) dead, they challenge the state’s control over ontology and visibility that renders Tamil lives unlivable and absent.