For Autograph’s commissioning project Critical Times: Dialogues in Contemporary Photograph, artist Reena Saini Kallat created a new photo-based series of works responding to recent geopolitical events and addressing the ever-shifting politics of access and inequity around international travel authorisations and the crossing of national borders.
In her evocative response, Nisha Ramayya has drawn on the shared connections of cross-border identities, cultural crossing and feminist poetics to expand the notion of partition drawing on the woven visual language in Kallat’s new series. Please note, this text contains strong language.
When the poem asks ‘Who belongs?’, do you feel addressed? A better question might be: ‘Which kinds of artworks make you feel included?’ A better or worse question might be: ‘When were you last made to feel a part?’ followed by ‘How did you get the hell out?’ Silence is one set of stories about the past; silence that masks forgetting, petrifies distance, silence that fidgets, distends its belly to be punctured, inviting history to flow back in. I am my interruptions, could be, sowable to fuck your purity, your-my impunity, fire proved.
An image of women’s and children’s bodies, all higgledy-piggledy; an abstract painting in, say, a sunset wash, orange swept in watery layers and allowed to run down the canvas, pooling and drying to form a line at the bottom. A smattering of dashes and purls in double split complementary colours; you can imagine the artist dipping claw sheaths in red and blue-green ink and flinging them at the canvas – so many little nicks. Do you see writing, I think I can see writing but I can’t make out words. You seem unsettled, what did you read?
Inclusion as a snake pit for the ones who don’t want to belong, won’t macerate in the venom of honour, stamped and separated. An image of workers’ bodies, the floor tiled with aces, one-spot tessellations. Another image of herds, or hordes, or heaps. How is it that an artwork or a poetry anthology can hold so much, can place so many different colours and perspectives side-by-side, can ask all these questions at once, can it? And what do the questions spawn, and what do they forestall?
Self and severance, severance and care, care and unearthing, unearthing and breath. A Venn diagram of lyric-I and universalising-A, put it down, turn it over. I’m trying to think about two things at once – Partition and Covid-19 – and to stave off the why. A Venn diagram of good girls in orderly queues and wild-haired cyclones; daughters of Sita staying put inside the chalk circle, emanations of Sati raining Himalaya to its knees. All kinds of women pulped for symbolism, all kinds of skins. Overturn it, consider the other side; it’s for the poor beast’s own good, the beast can’t know when it’s done, or they did and went anyway, couldn’t not.
When does a cut become a context, a context the place we made, then ended up, and now can’t see to leave? In whose voice did you hear me ask ‘What’s good?’ I can make out a triangle or a pyramid. When the poem answers its own questions about access, if getting it is like getting in, making it, it’s not. A heap of bodies, softer at the top. What do you remember about that time? Standing with our own kind, forgetting what we’d spent our lives learning about life, amnesia as the condition for progress. What progress? Secularism as the condition for zealotry, locked in the columns of better: getting, being, rotting. Kindness denuded. When the poem quotes ‘There is no Hindu consciousness of kind’, do the rats in their holes hear the caterwauling outside?
I’m going after like-mindedness, putting ‘us’ on trial and paying tribute. The daughters’ eyes flash fire. Assiduousness as the condition for inhumanity. They killed us to save us, suicide by kind, faces whitening in the scrape. The painting was abstract to prevent you from seeing what’s depicted, from thinking you might be in a position to see at all; a Venn diagram of disclaimers and rubber stamps, mass distancing, ratified oblivion. No aphorism can declaw the problem, pin it down to be neutralised. An image of artworks and poems releasing spores, aerosols for ideas and impulses that germinate after the gallery or book is closed, moving you, moving you to, sometimes a very long time after.
A greater poet than me envisioned ‘ever-widening thought and action’, whilst you were forensicating nothing. But we were all, for a moment there, facing and feeling the same thing, grieving and writing about the same thing, and what came of it, that time, if something had to, did it? Do you remember? Say nothing’s doing, capsize. Nothing’s nothing to snub, as if paths of migration can be traced in the shape of a nose, no. What do our bodies have to do with history, and how does relation lend legitimacy, if we’re all? Tenebrous bars, spitfiring wells. Soft heaps outside the city walls, forming a lethal periphery, the small rain down can rain, all around the swallowing heart.
Nisha Ramayya grew up in Glasgow and now lives in London. Her poetry collection States of the Body Produced by Love (2019) is published by Ignota Books. Recent projects and publications include: poems in Ludd Gang (https://poetshardshipfunduk.com/about/); a collaboration with sonic dramaturg MJ Harding performed at Wysing Polyphonic 2021: Under Ether (reviewed in Tank); a sequence of poems reflecting on Scotland’s colonial histories in CCA Annex; and an essay-poem in response to the work of mathematician Fernando Zalamea for Sonic Art Research Unit.
She is currently working on a second poetry collection, tentatively called Now Let’s Take a Listening Walk, and teaching Creative Writing at Queen Mary University of London.
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