The Art of Rajkamal Kahlon

Posted by sepoy on June 15, 2012 · 8 mins read

My friend and Berlin-based American artist, Rajkamal Kahlon's artist book, The Winning of the West, is now available. You can browse through the book here, and if you are near Ludwigshafen who can go to her solo show. In the book, there is a conversation/interview between us, that I am presenting for your enjoyment. The images here were taken by me in her studio while she was completing the show - I include them to show you the scale of these pieces. You should, of course, visit her website.

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[The following is a collage of an interview which took place on Feb 22, 2012 with conversations and emails between Sep 16, 2009 and Feb 21, 2012]

Historians have an un-naturally large number of metaphors relating to agriculture, noted anthropologist Bernard S. Cohn. They work in a “field”, go with or against “the grain”, “plough” the archive, “dig deep” into the sources etc. Yet, the materiality of historical productions, especially in today's digital world, rarely breaks into metaphorical registers. My first encounter with Rajkamal Kahlon's work came via a small notice online - where I read about her dismemberment and construction upon a copy of Cassell's Illustrated History of India. I read the description - her intention to place a “fragmented narrative not found in the pages of the book” and then saw images of painted upon pages, cut and re-arranged, re-captioned. This was disorienting. On the one hand, her description and her intention were completely understandable within the frames of postcolonial scholarship in history - specifically the Subaltern Studies group which had sought to tell the history of the local, the native, the rebel, the rioter, the for-ever-outside-the-arc-of-history. On the other hand, I was witnessing a dismantling of the very edifice of historical production - the one volume, secondary distillation of primary and secondary scholarship. Historians have had a tougher time with metaphors relating to (de)construction.

Kahlon is not a historian. She told me she feels more like a person in the antique shop - sifting through the products trying to recover the meaning based on my perspective. History is important, but it is also incidental. What I am really after is not any claim of truth … what it is … with Cassell's. She fell silent. Simply what is not in the history book … the trauma of undergoing colonization. This is what I am trying to insert into history, which is incomplete and hollow.

I asked her why she was invested in anything that she thinks is “incidental”. Who said incidental? You did. Ha. It's not incidental! I don't really mean that. History is about who has the power to of representation- who get's to tell the stories. I think I don't believe in history as it is done traditionally. I don't regard it well. As a young person I was interested in the kind of history being done by Howard Zinn in a People's History of the United States, a history from underneath, one which is never part of the official record.

This notion - being outside of history - comes perhaps via a childhood in northern California where her parents migrated into one of the oldest Indian immigrant community in United States. As her family moved around a lot, Kahlon shuttled through the public education system whose history or social science textbooks had no space for faces and pasts such as hers. I was often identified as an Ay-rAb by poor or working class people. When I encountered the "liberal" middle class, the questions would be about spirituality, yoga or the Kamasutra. Inserting herself into history was inserting herself into the present.

In her studio, in Berlin, is a old tshirt hanging on a peg. On the front of the tshirt is a portrait of Osama bin Laden with cross-hair of a gun superimposed. Underneath it is printed “Fuck Him”. Kahlon scribbled “I'd” on top.

The trope of September 11, 2001 changing everything rings both hollow and true. Kahlon's work on de-corporating colonial texts predates that moment but it did magnify her engagement. She had joined the Whitney program that same September. The literary debris of British colonialism became journalistic language of America's imperial present. That moment bought to surface all the things bubbling under the surface - the stereotypes, the prejudices, the racism, the zenophopbia … I started the Peoples/Places project a few weeks after 9/11. The language of 19th century textbooks was all around me in the mainstream press- enlightenment ideals of freedom, democracy, and cilivization as part of a western identity and barbarism, savagery, irrationality and primitivism as defining the eastern body and landscape. Kahlon's own language - it lingers in pathos - became that quintessential American voice, always critical, often mocking, refusing to accept that over-explained official drone.

My work isn't about India - India, South Asia is the backdrop -it is about America and Europe and the images and texts they produced about the rest of the world. I have a specific diasporic position, born in California and it's through my knowledge of American history, a history of African slavery and Indigenous genocide that I come to look at the colonial history of India. When I see the 'Ayah in the Peoples/Places, I see the figure of the Mammy from the Slave South. I look at India through America's past and present. For me the images produced depicting Africa and Asian subjects have a many commonalities. I am arguing for a universalism of a colonial experience which follows in the tradition of figures like Aimé Cesaire and Frantz Fanon, where their voices unsettle the metropole.

I wonder if Berlin is also a metropole; or is it a Third Place - a place in-between that allows her to look both East and West and unsettle. Will the audience in Germany see the context? Will they consider that these histories are also their histories? Germany's colonial history is so absent to Germans- and to most Europeans. In Germany, they don't link the Holocaust to their colonial pasts, for example. The first genocide of the 20th Century was committed in Namibia by Germans against the Herero and the Nama. The first concentration camps and human scientific experiementation first became policy in the colonies before it was used domestically in WW11 against Jews, Gypsies, Socialist and homosexeuals. To link them is to make them more complicated, to refuse to put isseus of guilt, shame, and understanding into neat, compartmentalized boxes. Her new art seeks to unsettle Germany just as it places her into a third category - an immigrant like her parents - attempting to find her face among the official histories.

Kahlon's work has unsettled my own deeply held prejudices about text, about interpretation and about the voice that intercedes in the public. In her, we have an artist continuously asking us to look again, to look back and to rethink.