Through the physical layering of material and the metaphorical peeling of these layers, Satpreet Kahlon interrogates constructs of displacement, belonging plus rootedness, gaze, memory and “survival in fugitivity” in her latest exhibit, a boundary, a demarcation at Jack Straw Cultural Center. The interview below is an edited transcript of our warm and rich conversation.
Savita Krishnamoorthy (SKM): There is an essence of intimacy and care that permeates through every element in the exhibit. A good place to begin our conversation…about meaning making through material. The seemingly inanimate objects serve as containers of memory where memory is the archive because when you unpack these layers, so many stories emerge. By placing them in this new context you are reinterpreting their meaning. How are you disrupting this idea of the static, to reframe your concern with themes of memory and nostalgia?
Satpreet Kahlon (SK): I really love how you framed that. You said memory, archive, static. I want the first and last impression [of the work] to be that it is living. I want there to be a feeling of aliveness in the gallery that the viewer experiences. I want the viewer to walk away and think that the work is having a conversation with itself whether they witness it or not. There’s so much there that I will spend my whole life learning. Does an archive, a culture, need to be witnessed and archived to be significant? To me, the answer is no. I think there is so much freedom in escaping archive! Katherine McKittrick, a black scholar, does a lot of work with black fugitive geographies. She talks about what does it mean to go under the radar. Especially Black people but I think brown people as well to a lesser degree suffer from hyper visibility, right?
There’s this duality of you’re either invisible or you become hyper visible and in the hyper visibility, there’s so much danger. Even in our communities, there are marginal people who go under the radar. But I think there’s survival in that fugitivity, and I’m really interested in that idea. And for me, it is the aliveness. My favorite word in the Punjabi language is Raunak. I love that word and that’s how I want the work to feel like….celebratory and self-contained.
SKM: You were born in in Punjab, India but you moved to the U.S. with your family?
SK: My parents had moved to Chicago a few years before I was born, but for some extraneous circumstances, my mom got stuck in Punjab [when] she was very pregnant with me. I spent the first six to eight months [there]. I’m the child with the strongest connection to that culture and who is really interested in that archive. I went back the year before COVID. I was in graduate school, and I was able to get my mom as my research assistant in my grant application. We got to do something that was really meaningful to both of us. My main project on the research trip was to go to the border between Pakistani Punjab and Indian Punjab.
SKM: To the Wagah border?
SK: I didn’t want to go to Wagah because that to me is a performance of border. I wanted to go to the undeveloped [part], to see what does it feel for people who live [there]. I wanted to understand the physicality of this thing that is the abstraction. The metaphor of the border is so big in my family history. Both sides of my family are from Lahore and as an artist, you’re always being drawn to what’s the physicality of this thing.
SKM: When you talk about borders and boundaries, are these constructs fluid? Do they intersect?
SK: The way I construct the work is it’s about boundary. There’s a front and there’s the back of the work. The front is the façade. It is like the Wagah border. It’s the performance. The cardboard with the image in the front feels like that performance, and the back feels like the physicality, the actuality, the complicated. It’s where I give myself freedom to explore and permission to do things that maybe are less defined, where all the layers and nuance are. I don’t have to explain, and I don’t need to explain because I’m still figuring that stuff out for myself. But that boundary is permeable. I feel like all border is fluid. I really like the permeability [of] that border space.
SKM: Embedded within these meditations is the narrative quality in your work. I felt like the doorways in the cardboard installations are the leitmotif; the grandmother and the little boy the façade, but any minute now they’re going to turn around and go back into the house.
SK: I love that. That’s beautiful.
SKM: There’s this whisper of fragility and tenderness, an underscoring of quiet that accentuates these multilayered questions you’re interrogating. Is this a stylistic quality that organically emerges in your work?
SK: It’s my natural hand, [where] there’s a sort of delicacy. I’m interested in materials that feel good in my hands, that bring me a sense of comfort and those tend to be more feminine, delicate materials. I like precarity. I like risk. I think it’s that aliveness again, for something to not feel static, to feel that it’s in motion.
SKM: In parallel with your arts practice, you’re also involved in other projects. I would love to hear more about that.
SK: I know a lot of women of color, wearing a lot of hats in the art world, and it’s because we are trying to create a world in which we see more representation for people like us. We are advocates for our communities. New Archives [Kahlon is the co-founder/editor] is on a hiatus right now. I own a small house in Columbia City which is going to be a gallery space/a residency for artists.
We just received a large grant for yəhaw̓ [Kahlon is the co-Founder /Vice-President, Indigenous Creatives Collective,] from the City of Seattle to purchase a parcel land for community programming and we’re looking to hire somebody full time.
In terms of my own personal projects, I’m a Roddenberry fellow this year, and the BAM solo show is coming up in 2023. My Recology residency is ending, and we’ll have a two person show that opens at the end of April at the Oxbow gallery in Georgetown. I also work full-time for the City of Seattle in the Workforce Equity department developing citywide trainings on equity and anti-racism. That’s how I make space to finance everything else.
SKM: Wonderful. Congratulations!! I would like to end with this line from your artist statement:
“What emerges in the liminal space between dream, image, and memory? What can we find when we embrace the possibility of the question instead of continuing to search for the answer?”
You are disrupting this need to always have the answer. Thank you for the conversation and for creating space to reflect on what you are interrogating in your arts practice.
SK: Thank you so much, Savita. I really appreciate how much time you spent with the work and thinking about it. Your interpretations and impressions are really valuable to me. I have so loved this conversation.
This exhibit runs February 11- April 8, 2022 at Jack Straw Cultural Center. Visits by appointment only, M-F, 10 AM – 5:30 PM. Call 206-634-0919 or email [email protected] to schedule a visit.