Art as a response to U.S. global military detention

Two images from the Rajkamal Kahlon installation, "Did You Kiss the Dead Body." Ink on marbled autopsy report, 2009-2012. Courtesy of Rajkamal Kahlon.



Art as a response to U.S. global military detention

At a recent Center for India and South Asia event, Ronak Kapadia examined visual art that evokes the experience of prisoners of war and detainees who have experienced torture and other physical abuse in U.S. military detention sites around the world.

By Maria Amaya Morfin (UCLA 2019)

UCLA International Institute, May 3, 2019 — In 2014, the U.S. government unsealed documents and autopsy reports of the detention of Afghan and Iraqi war prisoners abroad that show the level of violence inflicted on these prisoners by the U.S. military. Visual and multimedia artists from the South Asian diaspora have created works of visual art in response to these archives and the U.S. “forever” war on terror, said Ronak K. Kapadia at the Center for India and South Asia (CISA) in March 2019.

Kapadia is assistant professor of gender and women’s studies and affiliated faculty in global Asian studies and museum and exhibition studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He spoke at an event cosponsored by CISA and the UCLA departments of art and world arts & cultures/dance, the UCLA Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies Program and UCLA Center for Performance Studies.

Military archives detail CIA enhanced interrogation practices — which Kapadia defined as torture — including waterboarding , mock execution, sexual abuse, confinement of prisoners in coffin-like boxes for days on end, beatings, psychological torture and rectal force feedings. Artwork created in response to these archives, he said, “articulate the connections between the normalized detentions, deportations and disappearances on the domestic front, and the U.S. global military prison archipelago [on the international front].”

Ronak K. Kapadia of the University of Illinois at Chicago. (Photo: Maria Amaya Morfin/UCLA.) The speaker described collaborative work of artists such as Naeem Mohaiemen, Ibrahim Qureshi, Chitra Ganesh, Mariam Ghani and Rajkamal Kahlon as having fashioned “warm data” from “cold” archives. That is, the artists have transformed coroner reports into art that shows the intensity of torture undergone by prisoners of war in U.S. detention centers abroad.

Some of their graphic works, said Kapdia, “conjure warm data by depicting views of the inner and outer body that are often distended, manipulated, radiographed or otherwise grotesquely displayed.” Moreover, he added, “Grotesque and pathological images provide a useful counterpoint for understanding the forever war’s proliferation of biometric surveillance as an aesthetic of transparency.”

In the speaker’s view, Indian visual artist and painter Rajkamal Kahlon, for example, “uses declassified military documents in representations of torture, memory and pain in her installation titled ‘Did You Kiss the Dead Body?’” This project, said Kapadia, “comprises a series of black ink anatomical drawing on red marbled autopsy texts, sculptures that draw on the tradition of medical wax castings of the body which reference medieval-era torture and punishment, and visual histories of phrenology and physiognomy and other pseudoscientific racial projects that are motivated by a popular desire to classify bodies according to visual appearance.”

Kapadia highlighted the curious role played by immigrant and refugee translators in the abuse of prisoners in U.S. detention sites, leaving unanswered the question of whether translators were part of the abuse, witnesses to it, or both.

“The vast majority of translators used by the U.S. military come from the very populations that are under siege,” he said. It is ironic, he continued, that the U.S. military uses immigrant and refugee translators to translate during interrogations because these same people become witness to the inhumane treatment of Middle Eastern and South Asian prisoners. “Afghan and Iraqi immigrants and refugee populations themselves are often centrally enmeshed in the operations and technologies of war that bolster the global security state,” he pointed out, arguing that these populations were part of an imperial project.

The issue of translation is seen, for example, in the “Index of the Disappeared,” an exhibition by Chitra Ganesh and Mariam Ghani in which projectors show many unsealed U.S. military documents accompanied by translations in English, Farsi, Afghan and other languages spoken by the prisoners of war described in the documents. “Ghani questions whether those translators could ever serve as witnesses to what was happening in those rooms (mainly torture), which are often as cold as the gallery space where this artwork was installed,” explained Kapadia, “or whether the ephemeral act of translation necessarily precludes the possibility of witnessing the war’s violence.”

Kapadia concluded that as artists from countries affected by U.S. military imperialism, the collaborative work of these artists rejects imperial rhetoric that erases U.S. accountability for war crimes committed against prisoners in military detention centers around the world. Their works, he remarked, create a form of resistance and bring humanity to a set of post-911 archives that showcase the brutality found at detention sites.

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Published: Tuesday, April 30, 2019

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