A truly global artist, Nadia Kaabi-Linke weaves together narratives of migration and displacement, drawing out the seeming arbitrariness that characterizes our borders and divisions.
In one of her best-known works, ‘No!’ (first presented at the 2012 Liverpool Biennial), a faceless mouth sings lines from the UK Border Patrol Agency’s questionnaire, such as “Have you ever been charged in any country with a criminal offense, for which you have been not yet tried in court, including traffic offenses?”, while on a screen opposite a choir filling the pews of a church sings back the word ‘No’ in unison. Kaabi-Linke is adept at expressing the farce, the clumsiness of our bureaucratic process, intoned like sacred script.
Her performance piece ‘Walk the Line’, presented in 2015 at Dallas Contemporary, would involve volunteers each day walking around two columns in the middle of the gallery, wrapping them with coloured threads the length of the border between Texas and Mexico. By the end of the performance an opaque wall of string had been formed. The artist’s acute awareness of tension and division runs through all her work, often hinting at a violence just off-stage.
Following her recent show at Experimenter in Kolkata, I asked Kaabi-Linke more about her work and how current debates around immigration informed her practice:
How does migration and the act of the journey come into your work?
Migration and immigration are very recurrent themes in my work, I would even say they are almost “natural” for me since I grew up in the mode of migration, from birth. My father is Tunisian and my mother is Russian/Ukrainian. They met each other in Kyiv and I was born shortly after they moved to Tunis. We have traveled a lot to visit family members spread between North Africa and Europe, and my father worked in many different countries. Later I started to travel for my studies and my work. My son was born in Berlin and he has ties to three different cultures and origins. I was used to living “between” the cultures and “between” the languages, and I used to mix the tongues with typical expressions that I know from one language and not from another. My three year old son can cope with it.
Yes, migration has some grip on me, and probably it’s because of my background of coming and going from places other people are used to calling home. I am very sensitive to the contradictions, dilemmas, and catch-22s that occur when migrants meet authorities that define subjects by country codes and/or other geographic and ethnic labels, while urging everybody to get a proper membership of their very own exclusive “country club”. I consider these bureaucratic rituals of clarifying whether one fits in – or does not – instead of paying attention to processes of change and diversification to be its own kind of border that is built on mental habits and political structures. These microphysical borders lay behind the territorial borders and they even precede the construction of the latter. Before building a physical wall, a wall is already erected in one’s mind.
Could you tell me a little more about the process behind ‘Walk the Line’, at Dallas Contemporary in Texas, USA? With the current political climate in the States does this work mean even more to you now?
The production of ‘Walk the Line’ kicked off before the current debate about the US election—or to put it precisely: the Trump debate. When Justine Ludwig (senior curator at Dallas Contemporary) invited me for a solo exhibition, I had never visited Texas before. I thought about the Tex/Mex metissage, one of the most established hybrid cultures on this planet, backbone of the North American textile industry and a huge low-wage labour market. My first impression was probably the same as anybody’s: it’s a huge fence, a scar in the landscape. Later I found that the Tex/Mex community actually depends on and benefits from this border in different, but somehow symbiotic ways. Low labour costs through undocumented and temporary migrant workers are probably the main benefit on the US side, while the Mexican consumer markets prosper due to foreign currency transfers from migrant workers who support their families at home. From one perspective it’s a win-win situation resting on the backs of people who left their homes where they could not find work to feed their families. However, from another angle it’s also a cross-cultural habitat with an economic spin on both sides of the border. The separation line is also a seam that ties the Tex/Mex community together and makes both side mutually depend on each other. This border brings two societies and cultural spaces together for the bad, but also for the good.
I am interested to work with these kind of phenomena which are not clearly black or white. They are difficult and in most cases a pain in the ass to understand, but at the same time they feel real to me. Yes, I agree, on one hand this national border is awful and its existence is questionable. However it also leaves the door open for optimism if one thinks for example about the story of Ron Woodroof, the founder of the Dallas Buyer’s Club, who smuggled drugs that were unapproved by the US Food and Drug Administration and not available in the US over the border and prolonged the lives of many people infected by HIV.
Your work ‘Flying Carpets’ at the Venice Biennale forced the viewers to confront the presence and hardships of the handbag sellers who they would have walked past, and most probably ignored, on their way to the exhibition. Could you tell me about what the work meant to you and the conversations that inspired it?
The work was meant as a tribute to the undocumented immigrants and street hawkers in Venice. When I went to the Venice Biennale in 2010 I got inspired for this work by a particular event. While I was crossing one of the bridges between the San Marco area and the Giardini, I witnessed police officers hunting street peddlers who quickly wrapped their goods in white blankets to fly the coop. The scene stayed in my mind for a long time and I understood that the blankets on which they displayed their counterfeit goods had a double function: they did not only protect the sunglasses, handbags and mini-tripods from dirt and scratches; they also protected their undocumented state of being, since they allowed the street hawkers to quickly wrap up their stuff and leave the spot without a trace.
The scene and the double function of the blankets reminded me of the magic carpets, the mystical vehicles known from Oriental fairy tales such as The Thief of Baghdad. Those flying carpets are magic and unbound from space and time. You can get everywhere you want within a moment. On the other hand they have passengers but no pilots. You can’t control a flying carpet, it can take you to your destination or not, or it can even drop you.
I associated this magic carpet ride with the situation of undocumented immigrants in Europe. They depend on the will and favour of bureaucratic authorities.
Many of your pieces respond to their surroundings. Do you prefer to work in-situ and seek inspiration from the environment in which you exhibit?
Yes, I do. Many of the works arise from a particular context related to places and their history. I am very sensitive to traces of the past that are still present and threatened with disappearing. This is why I choose to work with prints that I apply as a kind of aesthetic and conceptual strategy that links my work and the exhibition space to the outside world, and especially to the urban space.
‘Impunities London Originals’ is a beautifully rendered response to the suffering of victims of domestic violence. Whilst social norms might compel a passerby to overlook a stranger’s bruise, here each mark is removed from its original context and framed so that we must observe and consider it. What is the story behind the work?
There is no particular story. I am sensitive to the invisible traces of violence in modern societies. By their invisibility they become accepted and the crimes that they document remain unpunished, thus the title ‘Impunities’. The crimes of domestic violence are invisible, since they are often covered by shame, clothing, social norms, and further oppression and threats; ‘Do not speak to anybody or I will hurt you even more.’
With ‘No!’ (2012) you draw out the absurdity and the bureaucratic ritualism that surrounds border control, what compelled you to make the work?
My personal experience when I had to apply to the UK border agency. I was invited to an artist talk in London that I missed because the UK border agency kept my documents and German residence permit for over a month. I couldn’t travel and started to think about the absurdity of all this.
Could you tell me about your current projects? What does the future hold for you?
I don’t know and if I did life would probably be less exciting. Together with my partner Timo Kaabi-Linke I am always drafting and planning new projects and thinking about new materials and media. However, looking back all I can say is that the future is unpredictable.