28 Jul 2019


Fame and anonymity are two opposing aspirations, examples of which are found in the long history of creativity. We live in an age of celebrity with photo-ops, paparazzi, the internet, fan mail, brand ambassadors and book signings, creating opportunities for those who seek fame or who have fame ­— or infamy — imposed upon them.

At the other end of the spectrum is what Tom Geue calls the “Technology of Absence” — the desire for anonymity. The identity of protest graffiti artists is hidden as are that of cybercriminals and users of what is called the dark web. Technological innovation is often developed by teams and the product is known by the company they work for rather than the inventors, who remain anonymous to the public.

We rarely know the names of the designers of historical palaces, mosques, temples and churches that inspired many architects. The authorship of some influential literary pieces and artworks have been lost in time, such as The Epic of Gilgamesh or Beowulf, I Ching (or Book of Changes) or One Thousand and One Nights. Some authorships are disputed, such as the controversy about who wrote the plays ascribed to Shakespeare. This was a manner of Chinese whispers originating in 1785 by scholar James Wilmott who could not reconcile the very ordinary life of Shakespeare with the extraordinary works he wrote.

Paintings and sculptures by unknown artists may be known simply by a place, style or subject — Master of Delft, Master of the Embroidered Foliage, etc. While the value of artworks increases when the artists are known, the value of novels by anonymous authors is based on sales.

The real name of the hugely successful contemporary Italian author Elena Ferrante remains a mystery, as does the creator of Bitcoin, known only as Satoshi Nakamoto.

Many creative people enjoyed fame in their lifetime: writers Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemmingway, poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, artists Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Sadequain, as well as movie and pop stars. Others achieved fame posthumously, such as Vincent van Gogh, Franz Kafka, Oscar Wilde, Johann Sebastian Bach, Johannes Vermeer and Anne Frank.

Anonymity is believed to have a healing power. It frees the author from the expectations of his or her readership and allows quiet space for experimentation.

Some authors initially used pseudonyms to hide their true identity — Johnathan Swift, Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen and the Bronte Sisters. Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi used the name Panj-darya and Anga for his columns. Mushfiq Khwaja used Khama Bagosh. Others are known only by their pseudonyms — George Elliot, Lewis Carroll, Henrik Ibsen, Moliere, Tristan Tzara and Voltaire. Closer to home we have Ibn-i-Insha, Munshi Premchand, Shaukat Thanvi and Ibne Safi.

The takhallus or pseudonym used by all poets writing in Urdu, derived from Arabic, meaning ‘to get liberated or become secure’, reflects a creative self-identity, closer to fame than anonymity.

Virginia Woolf believed anonymity allowed creativity to emerge from the core of the being. E.M. Forster writes in Anonymity: An Enquiry that “All literature tends towards a condition of anonymity… The poet wrote the poem no doubt, but he forgot himself while he wrote it, and we forget him while we read.” Anonymity is believed to have a healing power. It frees the author from the expectations of his or her readership and allows quiet space for experimentation.

Anonymity as a cloak of invisibility also protects the dissident from persecution, allowing important aspects of protest to reach the public. Journalists protect their sources, but Forster also asks the questions of newspapers: “Who gives us this information upon which our judgments depend, and which must ultimately influence our characters?”

Ted Gioia in his article “Banksy, Daft Punk, Elena Ferrante: The New Cult of the Anonymous Artist,” claims anonymity is becoming the new status symbol — more hip and more trustworthy as it steps away from the narcissism of fame.

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 28th, 2019