Chitra Ganesh, Her Nuclear Waters, 2013.

  Chitra Ganesh, Her Nuclear Waters, 2013.

 
welcome to what we took from is the state. 
there’s hot water in a carafe on the second floor
and the other bottom altar is an ordered pair
with lemon chocolate on the curb. enjoy the
recital and hospitality. come upon surround
recall the project rubble everywhere. come up
on some common operations. drink the open
of the open evening mix. english breakfast and
some curd and light whipping. get up on the
logic board of new opposite steps that come
upon remains arranged by hand like an english
garden. refuse the individual best and the sad
impersonal personal shit that plays off every
other frank but my little irregular frank, his
body shaped like an accordion, his body shaped
like a pair, in the every day feast day, but come up
on. you’re perfectly welcome to what we give away.

— Fred Moten, The Feel Trio

 

The South Asian Women’s Creative Collective (SAWCC) formed in the late 1990s, before 9/11  and the ongoing US-led “Global War on Terror”. Between the organization’s founding and today, the ground of this community has shifted amid the geopolitics of endless war and the carceral politics of the state. Operating in parallel to these wars waged by the state against those it deems terrorists, non-citizens, and anti-nationals are the social, domestic, and commercial spaces of our gathering—resistant “black sites”—that are the subjects of many of the artworks brought together in this exhibition. These other spaces are the resources referred to in the exhibition’s title—sites of nourishment, care, creative kinship, and celebration that come into existence through the entanglements in which they are given away.

Through works that take many forms, including installation, photomontage, video, performance, and social sculpture, artists in the exhibition ask how we might recalibrate our feelings in relation to one another under the pressure of antagonisms that seek to diminish and destroy the social bonds and debts that hold us together. welcome to what we took from is the state highlights multiple modes of artistic practice that engage with what precedes and persists beyond the call to order, just out of view of the state.[1] 

Kuwait, Egypt, India (2016) is a video by Anushya Badrinath that interrogates the relationship between time, memory, and the moving image by way of real and imagined journeys through the three sites in the work’s title. In a densely packed video store in Jackson Heights, a conversation unfolds between two young men, who direct fragments of their conversation to the artist who remains silent behind the camera. The first frame of the video is exquisite, a deep perspectival image of a young man ensconced behind the shop’s counter against a backdrop of CDs and DVDs running wall to wall, interrupted only by leafy plants and fans hanging from the ceiling. Small video stores like this one exist all over the world in various national and linguistic guises—shops that do business in national memory, fantasy, and desire. As the two friends converse, it is not the expected Bollywood film that plays on the flatscreen monitor but footage of a wedding in Egypt, which the shopkeeper watches and rewinds. The video-wala interrupts his friend’s soliloquy on working in Kuwait to comment on the dancing and wonderful dresses of the Egyptian Muslim women in the footage. At one point, he rewinds the footage to rewatch it in an almost devotional gesture that the artist’s own video gets caught up in and repeats over and over as the audio replays. The title of the work is an itinerary of affinities, from Bollywood cinema in Kuwait to the joyous dancing in a courtyard at a wedding, as well as our own entry into a desirous gaze through these screens toward Egypt via Queens. Near the end of the video, the young man says longingly, almost to himself, “Yaar mujhe ek baar jaana hai.” He wants to go to Egypt, just once.

Ayesha Kamal Khan’s installation This May Fall (chairlift) (2015) takes us out of the moving image into sculptural form and the precariousness of motion. A rope is suspended between two surfaces, tethered to the wall at one end from which a rocking chair hangs upside down, playfully balanced by a single potted marigold on the other. Khan’s work recalls Bruce Nauman’s Untitled (Suspended Chair, Vertical) (1987) whose steel cables and chair evoked the cold spaces of interrogation and intimated technologies of torture. Khan’s work appears lighter, evoking domestic instead of institutional spaces; the artist uses quotidian objects and arranges them in a motley and precarious assemblage. Mangoes are wedged between the rungs of the upturned chair, soap is tied to the rope by lengths of twist ties, and the potted flower seems an unstable counterpoint to the weight of the wooden chair, all of which might in fact fall. 

Moving from a form of precarious assemblage to the precarity of the state’s monopolization of its archives are three works by Chitra Ganesh and Mariam Ghani. These works developed from their archival project Index of the Disappeared (2004–ongoing), which the artists began after 9/11. Index is a counter-archive of declassified government documents, first person testimonies, secondary literature, ephemera, and related artistic works.

The first light box, The Index of Democracy Is The Interval Between Inquiry and Info (2013), montages declassified government documents with passages from the Fourth Amendment. Handwritten text in red ink jogs back and forth across a blackened document, drawing attention to governmental techniques of obfuscation, which are juxtaposed against the artists’ own montaged interventions. The redacted documents reveal nothing on the one hand, and everything regarding the government’s monopolization of knowledge on the other.

Special Registration (2004) is a large-scale print of a declassified document from the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) Joint Terrorism Working Group that formed after 2001. The document is a redacted list of arrested “aliens” who were found in violation of immigration law, subject to a “removal” process, and/or “held” until cleared. As we encounter the magnification of this document out of scale, it moves us from older imperial intelligence projects that accumulated information of territories and land masses through cartography, maps, and photography to this logistical, governmental form of human mapping. In these works, Ganesh and Ghani critically intervene in and illuminate the increasing opacity of the state’s tactics and procedures that make it difficult to hold anyone accountable for systemic torture and violations against the US Constitution and international human rights.

Huma Mulji’s Conversations with Karamatullah (2015) moves us from legal exceptionalism in the United States to the bodies that are most vulnerable to law enforcement in Lahore, Pakistan. The installation includes a loosely arranged grid of photographs—of Karamatullah, seated in a chair; his bread pans resting on the ground; a Shezan mixing bucket; and interior shots of his shop—interspersed with typed text fragments from Mulji’s conversations with the baker. In the photographs we see a man’s body mirror the rapid disappearance of his means of production, under the unremitting gaze of the military-run neighborhood. These photographs exist somewhere between evidence and document, between public memory and friendship, witness to the absurd criminalization of Karamatullah, whose uneven slices of bread even are deemed fraudulent by the police. Mulji offers us glimpses into a life lived beyond archival record, in images marked by a powerful sense of quietude, durability, and ghostliness.

Moving from city sites to the ungovernable flight of birds across national boundaries are the sounds of Ayesha Sultana’s installation. Untitled (Birds 1) (2010) perforates the enclosure and interiority of the exhibition space with the alternately quiet and cacophonous songs and calls of birds. The work evokes a site teeming with birds and conjures the habitat or architectural forms that must exist to support them. It also asks us to listen more carefully to hear what we can’t see.

One of the interests of Raja’a Khalid’s research-based art practice is the transnational political economy of oud. Oud is a fragrance extracted from the infected wood of the agarwood tree in South and Southeast Asia; it is burned in homes and used in fragrances throughout the Muslim world. While the raw material is very expensive and in limited supply, cheaper oud synthetics have recently entered global commercial markets. Khalid’s Black Agar, Black Agar (2016) consists of the application of two such synthetics—one from the Swiss company, Givaudin, and the other by Veera, an Indian company. Gallery attendants spray each scent side-by-side directly onto the wall of the exhibition space, in zones delimited by painted gold corners. The scents leave a cumulative visual register as they drip down the exhibition walls and a rich olfactory trace for visitors.  Black Agar, Black Agar is a humorous rejoinder to the artist’s previous works on Givaudin’s oud patents, as the Swiss company now finds itself challenged by its own financial metrics with an even cheaper synthetic oud product from India. The artist’s work blurs the boundaries between commercial and exhibition spaces, walls adorned with art objects and the sillage of surfaces painted with perfumes.

In Still Life (2013), Umber Majeed introduces feminist theories of objectification through an interruption into Western art historical narratives and the still life painting. Majeed’s entire composition consists of color-coded versions of her own image in various poses that tessellate across the surface of the image, vibrating slightly as they come alive through the blink of an eye or a slightly swaying body. One central figure, wearing a light blue and white paisley salwaar kameez, struggles to balance the weight of sprigs of feminine flora that she holds up while balancing atop another horizontal figure. The work embraces the idea of a feminine excess and challenges the hierarchical relationship between form and ornament.

Vacillating between the moving cinematic image and the single frame of the comic strip is the lush, dystopic, sci-fi imagery of Chitra Ganesh’s Her Nuclear Waters (2013). In this print, a cyborg emerges out of a light blue aqueous ground from which trails of smoke rise against a crimson sky. The detritus of a city sinks into the nuclear waters to which the title refers. Ganesh’s work compresses a fragmented sequence of images over time and space into a single temporal frame alongside a textual narrative that evokes both the nascence of the city and its annihilation. The artist’s work lies outside of historical record and teleological time and provides us an anoriginary, feminist image of futures past through the flesh of this woman whose biotic bits and reproductive labor “tattoo her onto this city’s skin.”

Sue Jeong Ka’s ID Shop (2015–ongoing) is a site-specific instantiation of an ongoing project taking place at the Queens Museum during the exhibition. Working within the voids left by federal regulations and state policies, ID Shop assists immigrant and homeless youth in applying for identification cards in New York State, providing a safe space outside the violence of subjection by the state. The project addresses the difficulty of locating the bodies of the youth, either due to homelessness, transience, or gender identity, and challenges the legal concept of personhood and sovereignty within the law. ID Shop operates within the legacy of socially engaged art practice and institutional critique and critically reappraises urban interventions in New York City by redefining the boundaries between artistic practice, service provision, space, and citizenship.

Gelare Khoshgozaran’s performance UNdocumentary (2016) mines the complex relationship between the politics of representation, visibility, and opacity. The artists reads from the extensive narrative documentation she provided in her request for political asylum while standing in front of a backdrop of projected photographs of Tehran. No street views exist of any city in Iran, so these come from an archive of user-generated images uploaded by residents, a city’s self-surveillance that is also its self-admiration. As an applicant for asylum, Khoshgozaran cannot return to Iran and so inhabits the space between what is permitted and what is forbidden, the translatable and untranslatable, performance and nonperformance. Traces of the performance persist afterwards through the silent, looped photographs and the stacks of redacted versions of the artist’s I-485 and I-589 forms for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which visitors are invited to take with them.

Working across social media, photographic, and literary practices, Ayqa KhanFariha Róisín, and Nafisa Kaptownwala have created a Tumblr blog in response to the exhibition call.[2] Working with text and images, this interdisciplinary group explores the wake of 9/11 and the rampant Islamophobia and surveillance of Muslim communities in the West while considering resistant social imaginaries, collectivities, and devotional practices.

welcome to what we took from is the state is interested in the moment when SAWCC began— when those who were refused gathered by word of mouth in other spaces in a refusal of the “art world” and what it could not see and hear, in spaces of study and sociality beyond art professionalization. The works in this exhibition continue the thread of this inquiry through constellations of affinity and the terribly beautiful possibilities of refusal. To borrow once more from Fred Moten, whose work gives this exhibition its title, the works in welcome to what we took from is the state say, “you’re perfectly welcome to what we give away.”[3]

 

Sadia Shirazi

New York, 2016

 

[1] The exhibition takes its title from Fred Moten’s poetry collection The Feel Trio (2014).

[2] The Tumblr can be found at: http://welcome2whatwetookfromisthestate.tumblr.com.

[3] Fred Moten, “Block Chapel,” The Feel Trio, (2014).