Water flows in a mesh of currents and spills onto banks and shores of disparate geographies. From this spill, which feels like a reciprocal caressing of the water on the land and vice-versa, a memory is inscribed. A memory of subterranean, flowing interconnectedness that gives birth to new mythologies and which resurfaces the stories of those who perished in its undercurrents. Hence water becomes an ideological metaphor for the political conspirator who sees tides as emissaries of silenced knowledge, and, in their fluidly, they become a tool to touch, affect, hold, and change, while still retaining a certain degree of mystery.
Attempting to emerge from the depths of the abyss of cultural tokenization by means of restless political labor of the imagination, the collective of practitioners named Kal, initiated in 2020 by Aziz Sohail and Suza Husse, of The Many-Headed Hydra collective, together with Fiza Khatri, Pomona Sengupta, Sakina Aliakbar, Sandev Handy, and Zahabia Khozema, made me approach the new spaces of nGbK. A former McDonalds, a shelter for tourists, lost globetrotters, the political homeless, and substance addicts located in the heart of Alexanderplatz, Berlin, it is now an art space, suggesting the deepening relationship between culture and gentrification in the city. It is a relationship of dispossession that in nGbk momentarily supplants the struggle of the social surplus with that of the political activist; transforming the space into an intersectional port to harbor artists, activists, and militant captains from South Asia, the Levant, and Africa, constituting the exhibition House of Kal.
Whether the actions promoting a more just socio-political reality are anchored on the battlefield of society, the practitioners invited to make the Hause of Kal a temporary home know that, for them, and for many citizens of the Global South, the undertow is coming, and in order to keep afloat, discourse needs to be revitalized by the multi-headed body of a community of decolonial non-conforming desires. Here nGbK, is conceptually transformed on the occasion of House of Kal into a khNuti, a water device commonly used in the Bengal delta to tie boats and cattle. In Berlin the metaphor becomes tying ideas of belonging as a fluid process of gathering, recharging, diffusing, and eventually dispersing them again in the fluxes of perennial fugitivity as imposed by racial capitalism to dissident political subjects.
The first installation visible in the space is that of the activist group Women* in Exile which advocates for the rights of refugee women* in Germany. A series of images and textual documentation of the seminal anti-fascist and anti-racist work carried out by the group document three different actions of the Tour on Rafts. Footage is scaled up and fixed on the wall, while little manifestos and reading materials are scattered around the room (and on the softness of pillows) documents the manifestation, started in 2014, when women activists traveled for seven weeks on self-built rafts across various rivers in Germany, connecting with women* in refugee and deportation centers. The action showcases the political creativity needed to find ways of reconnecting using water, beyond the false division imposed by border regimes.
In the combined effort to find a new epistemology of belonging that could address the complexity of the relationship between settlers, the indigenous, class and caste, and to confront the perennial hegemony of white supremacy, Haus of Kal welcomes on the background of the grey-skied Alexanderplatz, in an environment that dissimulates the pain from which it arises. A palette of bright colors, banners, textiles, and archival materials camouflages the trauma of displacement and political oppression borrowing a directness that emerges from slogans and protest codes. The invitation is for viewers to become acquainted with the more digestible aspects of the decolonial struggle: the joys and solidarities between comrades.
Specular in the space to the women* in refugee we find The Many-Headed Hydra (Aziz Sohail, Bryndís Björnsdottír, Emma Wolf Haugh, Suza Husse & Aziza Ahmad, Khalida Hussain, Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, Ni6369. Shell samples, Pia Arke, and Zahra Malkani), who, on this occasion present Harbour Failures. A research-based work focussing on the failed hope of modernity, and the looming consequences of climate change. The multimedia installation tells the story of anthropocentric mirages of two fictional deep-water port settlements in Iceland and Pakistan. The work operates as a prophecy of different futures rooted in indigenous knowledge of the land, where practices do not follow the logic of slavery and capitalist imperatives.
Further, into the fluid structure of the Hause of Kal, the effects of precarization and the marginalization of entire classes of people are manifested by a symbolic object of memory. A light structure made of plastic, wood, and textile is the central pivot around which the exhibition floats. The kiosk teleports the visitor to Colombo, replicating a waterfront structure from the Slave Island/Kompanna Veediya neighborhood, a place where products and refreshments typical of the region could be found, but also a symbolic place of sociality, where members of different communities could meet and support each other. Aside from this central khNuti, the video zine rituals for coastal commons is projected. It is a collaborative work made by inhabitants of the different branches of the Houses of Kal in Karachi, Colombo, and Berlin in 2021, a sensual homage to the relations between bodies of water and the possible future societies that grow around them.
The precarious architecture of the kiosk, which during the exhibition bears food and book offerings for the audience, is given further meaning by Vicky Shahjehan, whose long-standing practice consists of marking the walls of buildings with gigantic portraiture murals. In the amplification of the interstitial resistance of women*, This Land Belongs To Us. We Belong To This Land, a large-scale painting presented in nGbK, portrays seven women of different ethnic backgrounds united by a stream of water against the backdrop of symbols of construction, cranes, and displacement tents. They look at you, they know where they stand in their indissoluble bond of struggle, and fiercely they seem to question the visitor’s complicity in the replacement of groups of people with wealthier, more profitable others.
The submerged issue of international investments benefitting from natural calamities is addressed by Zahabia Khozema. The artist reconstructs the ghostly structure of the working-class neighborhoods that grew around the sewage of Gujjar Nullah during the Karachi flood of 2020 after a violent monsoon. The population living there was evicted after the World Bank saw investment opportunities in the area. It was never relocated to the city. The traces left on the walls of soon-to-be-demolished houses are documented by the installation Is this Progress? Progress for You or for Us? a series of photographs illustrating the marks left on the walls of the houses to announce their impending dismantlement. A layer of three-dimensionality is added through the presence of debris, cement blocks, and metal wires in the nGbK and the work is soundtracked by poems that emerged from protests and the mobilization of the former community of inhabitants reclaiming the area.
Remaining in the space, sitting on the carpets and sipping the tea offered, the visitor recognizes that the relationship to decolonial positionalities presented by the House of Kal is devoid of violence, but is supported by a sense of human divinity that reaches the universe, from where, according to Pomona Sengupta, the captain of the social-fictional spaceship Beben, it is easier to imagine another world and to act upon that vision. The show is infused by a speculative branch of activism, inherited by feminist social sci-fi, where imagination is transformative and speaks about the relationship to space and natural elements as technology to befriend, not to extract and exploit.
A large segment of the space is inhabited by a radio station, where on a weekly basis, Radio Kal and Radio We Are Born Free + Onelove Radio with Spaceship Beben amplify, in sonic landscapes, the voices of those who cannot be physically present in the exhibition. The free frequencies of the radio have been an ally of indigenous and marginalized communities across the globe, and, in the context of the show, fill a gap left by the information ostracized by oppressive regimes with dispatches of queer forms of hope. Broadcasting from spacious intellectual and bodily collectivity geographies, the sonic waves disseminate information about political activism from indigenous and FLINTA perspectives. The sonic objects offered by Bino Byansi Byakuleka and Promona Sengupta, and a roster of international guests familiar with the brutality of states of exile, enlarge not only the sonic spectrum but the formats through which decolonization can happen. From sensing, listening, and subverting the historical and contemporary implications of capitalist state violence can take place.
I imagine House of Kal as a DIY ideological dispositive that can be implanted everywhere and whenever a reconciliation between pessimism and hope is sought. It formulates a radial proposal of togetherness, where the cohabitation between artistic and activist practices is solidified by the wavelength of affection, a connection that reaches vast territories of political sensibility and poetry. The floating archipelago assesses the continuity of time past with the future, bridging lands and water, materiality, and tools. The word “kal” کل means, in many South Asian languages - including Hindi, Urdu, and Bangla - both yesterday and tomorrow, a time-space where the complexity of history needs to be addressed by the continuous labor of community building, not in isolated ponds of solidarity, to sprinkle its wetness on the brutality of regimes of oppression until their aridity is turned into fertile relational languages of justice.
The exhibition House of Kal will be on show at nGbk, Berlin, until November 12. For more info direct here.
- IMAGE CREDITS
Cover: House of Kal, neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst (nGbK), Ausstellungsansicht, 2023, Foto: Jourdan Dorn.
fig. 1, 2: The Many Headed Hydra, Harbour Failures, 2022.
fig. 3, 4: The Many Headed Hydra (Ayesha Chaudhry & Ayesha Alizeh, Emma Wolf Haugh & Suza Husse, Paloma Ayala, Sabeen Omar, Vasi Samundra Devi, Veenandari Lakshika, Promonona Sengupta & Vicky Shahjahan & Zahabia Khuzema), Rituals For Coastal Commons, kal Videozine, 2021.
fig. 5: Vicky Shahjehan with Fearless Collective, This is Our Land, 2023.
fig. 6: Spaceship Beben, a language where yesterday and tomorrow are the same word. Kal, 2021.