Israeli artist Michal Rovner faces the fear of the 'other' head on
by Hili PerlsonFeb 05, 2023
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Rosalyn D`MelloPublished on : Apr 07, 2023
As I processed my first glance at Which Side Are You On?, Rajkamal Kahlon’s show at Kunsthalle Wien, I recalled the visual artist Vidisha Fadescha’s dictum to ‘Burn All the Books That Call You the Unknown.’ Their rallying imperative drew from anti-caste activist Periyar’s call to burn the Manusmriti, which they expanded into the realm of transfeminist politics. The American artist Kahlon's approach to such ‘othering’ literary material is to actively seek it out and engage with it before dismantling it in an act aimed at contending with the epistemic violence they portend within their spines. For example, sometime in the early 2000s, Kahlon placed a $400 bid at a Sotheby’s auction for a lot. She successfully took home two leather-bound volumes totalling 1200 pages and 600 illustrations, titled Cassell’s Illustrated History of India, c. 1875. Instead of preserving them in her personal library, she followed through on her plan to unbind and dissemble them. The ensuing visual art obscures the original colonialist narrative while the drawings she makes over the undone pages feature her playful and insightful comebacks. In doing so, she navigates the violence of such orientalist literature and its dehumanising impulse, which made the colonised subject an object of study and scrutiny.
Which Side Are You On? features several bodies of contemporary artwork that take similar found or sought books as source material whose innards Kahlon prises open, performing something between a postcolonial autopsy and a forensic critique. The art exhibition, curated by WHW (What, How and for Whom), Kunsthalle Wien's artistic directors, is so tightly wound, it is almost bursting at the seams, on the verge of imploding. The ‘seams’, in fact, seem like the conceptual realm within which Kahlon stages her dialogic interventions with the violating coloniser discourses, the consequence of the ‘white man’s burden.’ She picks apart the nuances embedded within the bibliographic lines, excavating them through a complex process of layering, visibilising the racial subtexts while also frequently performing rehabilitative gestures to re-accommodate the subjects that were studied, restoring the dignity of those historically marginalised and othered. The title derives from a song by Florence Reece written amidst the Harlan County War, a series of strikes, executions and bombings in Kentucky in the 1930s, which was eventually sung in different contexts of large-scale protests, including the Civil Rights Movement. The activist artworks on display invite the viewer to directly confront and contemplate the range and extent of the colonising mission which was perpetuated under the banner of religion, science, and the civilising enterprise and its contemporary iterations.
The various registers through which Kahlon intervenes bibliographically lay bare the racial superiority enshrined within these discursive traditions. This manifests most poignantly in Enter My Burning House, which Kahlon dedicates to her father, Avatar Singh Kahlon, who lived most of his adult life as an immigrant in the United States. The series depicts portraits of Sikh victims of a gun massacre in a Sikh gurudwara in Wisconsin in August 2012, painted upon the pages of a first edition copy of The Passing of The Great Race: Or, The Racial Basis of European History by Madison Grant (1916), a book that influenced a range of people from Adolf Hitler, who regarded it his bible, to the US Immigration Act of 1924.
Through such conscious techniques, Kahlon projects the gaze back onto the coloniser, ‘othering’ him and making him the subject of her explorations. Kahlon shows how, under the guise of scholarship, scientific study and ethnographic inquiries, the white coloniser tried to domesticate his ‘savage’ and ‘uncivilised’ subjects while simultaneously establishing whiteness as the norm and all else as aberrations. You see this most vividly explored in Kahlon’s reinterpretations of Kurt Lampert’s Die Völker der Erde, the 1902 book she came across in an antique collection during her residency at the Weltmuseum Wien in 2017.
Do You Know Our Names is another quietly aggressive comeback against the dehumanising impulse of scientific procedure which, under colonisation, relied on taxonomy as a form of subjugation. It made me think of the botanical pursuits of Europeans within the framework of which colonisers sent to scientists back home plant specimens from the colonies, which were then considered ‘discoveries’. Colonised labour was often enlisted to illustrate these discoveries while the scientists in question ‘named’ them. Do You Know Our Names examines how photography was instrumentalised by European colonisers to study and document foreign people and places. Kahlon revitalises images from the Die Völker der Erde that catalogued various kinds of Indigeneity, hand-colouring each image, thus referring to various strategies that were used in the 19th century to render the photographs more lifelike. These images encompass a similar critique as Pushpamala N and Clare Arni’s The Ethnographic Series; from the project Native Women of South India: Manners & Customs, an embodied critique of photographic studies of native people by colonisers that were part of the ‘othering’ mission. Kahlon seeks to ‘repair’ these wounded depictions, using forms of decoration and patterning, personalising them and offering ways of hinting at the powerful uniqueness of their subjectivities that were never considered, just as their consent to be depicted was never actively elicited. This tendency reaches its apotheosis in the series Did You Kiss the Dead Body? in which her interventions are performed on the autopsy reports and death certificates of US military officials working on bases and in prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Throughout the show are stationed plywood cut-outs of female figures rendered in attractive, alluring colours that tempt your gaze, inviting you to look at them, then trapping you within the aura of their almost explosiveness. They contend with the weight of what has historically been projected onto them. There’s always a form of ammunition tucked into the image, a gun or a grenade or a suicide bomber, which I chose to read as a manifestation of female rage. The cut-outs are both precarious and powerful, offering a visual clue as to how much women risked in order to ensure their survival and that of everyone and everything under their care. Kahlon seems to trick the viewer into asking larger questions about what can be done to rescue, resuscitate and repair intergenerational forms of trauma that relate directly to legacies of colonialism and continuing forms of imperialism.
Rajkamal Kahlon’s ‘Which Side Are You On?’ is on display at Kunsthalle Wien until April 9, 2023.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)
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