Curatorial Assistant Hannah Marynissen
Which Side Are You On? brings together a selection of works from over twenty years of Rajkamal Kahlon’s practice, as well as several new commissions created for the exhibition at Kunsthalle Wien.
In her work, Kahlon explores the interrelatedness of power and visual regimes by looking into narratives that are seen as scientific and objective, and at the same time are deeply influential in forming the collective imagination and the way we see and interpret things around us.
There is a story within each of her works—whether from a book, a series of documents, or archival research. The books that Kahlon uses are not beloved, nor does she feel attached to the documents used—on the contrary, the books are often from the heyday of colonialism full of patronizing clichés, using the dubious scientific methods of nineteenth-century anthropology and ethnology to create an image of inferiority and otherness, justifying colonial and imperialistic expansion.
Kahlon radically alters the colonial images so that her subjects, made into curios by the books’ photographers and authors, reassert their individuality and dignity. Painting is central to this process and, in opposition to the history of Western painting, she sees it, in her own words, as “a form of care work—done in the service and from a sense of responsibility and care toward others.” Her practice aims at complicating and resisting the ways in which painting is often reduced to a luxury good. Instead, she opens a space of potentiality and offers a form of radical care for the protagonists of her works. Drawing and painting become sites of political and aesthetic resistance, and the violence inherent in colonial and ethnographic images is confronted with beauty, humor, sensuality, and seduction.
As the title of the show, the phrase Which Side Are You On? invites visitors to examine their consent to, even reiteration of, the violent process of “Othering”, through which the superiority of an imagined “we” is created by attributing traits of inferiority to people constructed as “others”. Through the defiant gaze of their protagonists, Kahlon’s paintings address the viewer directly: how are you implicated in this violence and injustice surrounding you?
Rajkamal Kahlon created a playlist for the exhibition, she explains:
Music plays a strong role in the making of my work and in this exhibition. Music is always present when I paint. Many of the titles of my individual projects are based on lyrics found in this playlist. Even the title of this exhibition is based on a famous American labor and protest song, “Which Side Are You On?” written by Florence Reece in 1931. I wanted to add this sonic layer to the exhibition and share the music that gives me strength and inspiration.