“The loss of stories sharpens the hunger for them.” Academic and writer, Sadiya Hartman’s piercing words resonate deeply.
I am at Bellevue Arts Museum on an early fall morning for Satpreet Kahlon’s exhibit, the inscrutable shape of longing. I pause at this particular line in the artist’s statement, and I find myself compelled to read it multiple times. It also reminds me of internationally acclaimed director, Mira Nair who said, “If we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will.”
the inscrutable shape of longing is an immersive, site-specific, multisensory exhibit comprising video, music, mixed media installations, photographs, and hand-written poems. Kahlon navigates and manipulates her personal inquiries on longtime themes of memory, geographic displacement, and the larger historical and sociopolitical struggles/traumas of diasporic peoples, personal family histories and relationships, and indigenous wisdom. How telling these stories offer a space for comfort, where the body becomes a site of healing.
Our entry into the exhibit is the eponymous installation, “the inscrutable shape of longing” (2023). The work is a careful and complex web, constructed out of found/excavated materials that are at the core of Kahlon’s artistic practice. The delicately assembled nets excavated from the Duwamish River are draped over substrate cardboard, where scanned archival photographs, stories, and memories dwell in the labyrinth of the intertwining threads.
We see pipe cleaners, shiny beads that perhaps once lovingly adorned a neck, weaving yarn, tiny mirror scraps, and digital video projections that dance and shimmer, refracting fragmented images on the pristine white gallery walls. Nothing is static. We witness Kahlon’s trademark detailed, skilled hand in the care with which she creates, honoring the object as a container for memory, a remembrance of the past, and the ancestral ties to the land and its indigenous peoples.
It is urgent to underscore here that Kahlon does not subscribe to the increasingly populist artistic trends of reusing and repurposing found and readily available objects into beautiful art because she believes that these discarded objects always had value. We have created this abundance of waste and devalued them with our insatiable appetite for consumption. Kahlon’s artistic practice forces us to re/think and re/imagine materials that represent global capitalism seen as just waste, and how we can honor and value their place in our world, something that indigenous peoples across the world embody.
I remain here for a long time before allowing my gaze and my body to slowly transition to the shifting spotlights of video vignettes projected on the walls. Reflective mirrors refract and distort these digital images into sparkling shards. Projection as a tool for showing video interests Kahlon because “it interacts with space and time, and the air around it. So, what you’re seeing and how you are interpreting it is influenced by the space you’re in, the mood you’re in.”
The videos are hyper-sensory. My foot is unable to resist tapping — albeit completely out of rhythm — to the frenetic beats of the Dhol that infuse the space with an infectious and exuberant energy along with songs of celebration, children’s laughter in a park as they swing in abandon, and close-ups of embroidery. These quotidian moments are juxtaposed with TV news clips of men fighting (also quotidian?), and brawls in gurudwaras, the holy Sikh temples. The ticker tape beneath the TV news anchor’s report on the brawl is a mirror image, reversed, just like the projections.
These are Kahlon’s long-time interrogations of legibility/illegibility. How much can you see and understand? What should be shared? Who deserves access? Whose voices are allowed to be heard? Who is visible and who is erased?
I pay careful attention to the video clip of the nimble hands meticulously weaving the skeins of jewel-toned threads in the art of traditional phulkari embroidery (literal translation — floral work) of Punjab, India.
It occurs to me that the projections are like a phulkari dupatta, or a shawl/veil, mirrors embedded into the fabric and intertwined with the yarn, splintering the colors into shapeshifters, that can hide or reveal. It is interesting to imagine these two intersections as a metaphoric idiom and observe how they conflate and overlap. I internalize this as Kahlon’s honoring of gendered labor as well as honoring her own labor in the painstaking detail of assembling every single component of the exhibit. It also reveals Kahlon’s concerns with censorship, what is veiled/unveiled.
How does concealing the truth of one’s existence impact their sense of self?
Two mixed media assemblages, “from all of us” (2023) and “the juxtaposition of two unlikely formal inclinations” (2023) hang in proximity on the shared wall space they inhabit. These are perhaps the most personal of Kahlon’s work in the entire exhibit.
We are allowed a voyeuristic peek into the archive of family photos where we see Kahlon’s partially obscured face at her birthday party along with her extended family as they pose for a picture. There is a page from the artist’s journal, skewed sideways so my neck must do some gymnastic maneuvering to read it. The words are ciphered and circle back to Kahlon’s interventions with legibility and access, of (de)prioritization of self and the centering of others.
I am so moved by these works that are shrouded with vulnerability but are also incredibly brave and poignant. When memory is embedded into an object, it forces us to confront what we allow ourselves to remember, and what it means for a body to hold that memory and excavate from it stories that transcend space and time.
“Putting that journal and the images in there was really a way for me to reckon with my own narrative, that my stories deserve to be told outside of the lens of whiteness, outside of the lens of a family mythos that doesn’t feel true to me anymore.”
Satpreet Kahlon’s art is profound. It is tender. It moves the spirit. It invites us for a transitory moment into slivers of her experiences and cultural histories, opening space for us to contemplate on our own experiences of loss – individual or collective, of longing, but also on our memories of familial bonds and the joy of community. And how the body can transform into a site of renewal, rejuvenation, and healing. This is a show that urges the viewer to look within and reclaim our memories, the stories mapped on our skin, in our bones, the ones that move fluidly through our veins.
As I turn to leave the exhibit, a beam of sunlight from the windows gently rests on the words from an orbit, an echo, a spiral (2023) spilling over the white walls.
it is a landscape
whose contours reveal themselves
in moments of silence,
a hushed voice heard in the glowing orange and
deep blue of a fading sunset
The mellow honeyed autumn light reflected on the walls manifests a stillness, a mindful pause that blocks out the outside world, the sounds of the video, and the music. The only thing that matters in the specificity of this moment is the words, the carefully handwritten words, their graphite gray now bathed in a luminous golden glow.
The perfect ending to my visit.
‘the inscrutable shape of longing’ runs until December 31st, 2023, at Bellevue Arts Museum. Learn more about Satpreet Kahlon’s work at: https://www.satpreetkahlon.com/