Artist Rajkamal Kahlon was raised to be invisible.
As a child she remembers her father, a Pakistani-born Sikh from India, frequently got pulled over by the California highway patrol on road trips because of the turban he wore. So when Kahlon grew up and moved to Germany, he advised her to wear her “wiry, afro-like” hair in a bun so she wouldn’t be noticed by airport security.
While her father’s counsel was well-intentioned, Kahlon says she has taken the opposite approach, at least with her work. Her art exposes what she calls contemporary abuses of power rooted in colonial-era racism.
“What we cannot cope with as Americans is that our very birth as a nation is rooted in genocide and slavery, and until we can grapple with this, the violence that is at the core of our national identity, we cannot hope to ever stop perpetuating it,” she said over the phone from Berlin, where she lives with her philosopher husband and her four-month-old son.
Her watercolor paintings, digital images, and cut-out figures, like “Ain’t I a Woman,” often place colonial subjects in contemporary contexts, forcing the mind to recognize racism and sexism that is so pervasive, it can be hard to see.
Kahlon’s work will make its way to Mexico City this month for Teoría de Color, or Theory in Color, an exhibit curated by the National Autonomous University of Mexico that runs through February. It’s her latest show after Meeting Points 7, a biannual international arts festival that wound its way through the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe.
Included in the exhibit: Select pieces from Kahlon’s “Did You Kiss the Dead Body? Visualizing Absence in the Archive of War.” A project years in the making, it is both a condemnation of the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a personal awakening that continues to unfold.
Bodies of work
The project’s centerpiece is a series of corpses sketched in black ink on marbled red paper and then superimposed on official autopsy reports of Iraqi and Afghan men who died in U.S. detention.
Having never seen the bodies, Kahlon instead took her cue from nearly 100,000 U.S. government documents recording the treatment of detainees starting in 2002, a year after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan—records obtained via what became known as the American Civil Liberty Union’s “Torture FOIA” request.
The drawings, Kahlon says, are a gesture of empathy toward those who were first dehumanized by their treatment behind bars and, finally, by the few words chosen to record their end.
“They’re disturbing documents and they’re also anonymous,” Kahlon said, suggesting the overwhelming number of pages hides the true crimes. “If someone died in a stress position, they might have died of a heart attack, and the autopsy report would say they ‘died of heart failure,’ and that it was a natural cause of death.”
An independent, non-partisan review by the legal advocacy group The Constitution Project found it was “indisputable” the U.S. used torture to interrogate detainees after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks under the Bush administration. And investigations by the International Committee of the Red Cross found that in 2003, up to 90 percent of detainees held in U.S.-run prisons in Iraq “had been arrested by mistake” since the start of the war a year before.
Personal is political
It took Kahlon nearly five years to begin the autopsy drawings after first reading about the intimate yet clinical details of the men’s bodies. Each time she looked at the death reports, a mixture of nausea and grief forced her to put them down.
“As an American looking at these documents, I’m confronted with this American system that killed and murdered another human being and then created a document to try to rationalize it and obscure the facts of the death,” she said.
A nod to Harold Pinter’s poem “Death”—a scorching critique of U.S. foreign policy the British playwright recited upon receiving his 2005 Nobel Prize—the project, Kahlon says, took a “long period of gestation to arrive at a visual logic that made sense with the documents.”
“[I’m] trying to bring an intimate register to what one comes to think of as a political category so that you actually have to deal with it with your body, with your gut, with your emotion,” she said.
The process is still evolving. Kahlon is planning a series of animated films to capture the push and pull of paint on glass, creating a visual, liquid narrative of how the men died.
Kahlon doesn’t identify herself as an activist, but she does want people to question their social and political histories.
“I think there are a lot of artificial demarcations between the self and the other, between someone else and myself, and I think in fact the boundaries that define us are not what we think they are. And the fact that these men are dying, this affects Americans, whether we realize it or not.”
Kahlon started thinking about the invisible wounds people suffer as she watched her mother return from her factory job each day with an injured body, the battle scars of a woman struggling to pull her family out of poverty.
“The body for me becomes this really universal signifier. Everybody has a body, so regardless of culture, it becomes for me a kind of transhistorical reality,” Kahlon said. “Everyone has this vehicle, so to use this body and to use the body as the carrier of violence makes a lot of sense to me as a way to talk about political and social history.”
The youngest of three girls, Kahlon, 39, was born in the U.S. but grew up experiencing the racism and exclusion of an outsider. In an attempt to assimilate with her white classmates in Pinole, California, “a town covered in racist graffiti,” she teased her sisters who weren’t yet U.S. citizens for being “alien” and begged her Indian mother not to wear colorful Punjabi-style suits to the shopping mall.
The shy young girl developed stress-related eczema and grew increasingly silent as she internalized the racism of classmates who chided her for being different.
“On a daily basis, it didn’t mean physically being assaulted but … there’s like the verbal insults related to being Indian, the assumption of being Arab, the relationship to all of the kinds of stereotypes that part of the world comes with,” Kahlon said.
Years later, that experience shaped her reaction to the September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center Towers.
“I was immediately struck with terror for all of the people that look like my family that I knew were going to be targets now,” she said, recalling the suspicion and discrimination “Arab-looking” people faced after the attacks committed by al-Qaida terrorists.
In New York to begin the prestigious Whitney Independent Study Program on the day of the attack, Kahlon’s prior focus on British colonial repression in South Asia took on a new perspective as a fervent xenophobia took root in pockets of the country as the U.S. prepared to retaliate against an enigmatic new kind of enemy.
No longer the quiet child, Kahlon went public with her sense of injustice. With projects like “People and Places” and “Cassell’s Illustrated History of India,” she transformed 19th century British colonial depictions of India to parallel current global power dynamics.
Kahlon says abuses of power committed under President Barack Obama are different but no less dangerous than those of his predecessors.
“The Obama administration has prosecuted more national security whistleblowers than any other administration in history,” she said. “It’s mythologizing the idea of freedom and standing up for your beliefs, but anyone who’s done that has paid a really, really heavy price.”
Each time she goes through airport security, Kahlon says she’s nervous she’ll be pulled aside because of the way she looks.
Though she could try to blend in the way her father taught her, the way she wished her mother had done before, Kahlon says that wouldn’t be right.
“If you feel scared, I think you have to keep going and do things anyway because you’re going to live a really small life if you don’t.”