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On Governors Island, artist residencies relate stories of displacements. Sa’dia Rehman brings theirs in an installation called Desire Lines

Sa'dia Rehman, There isn’t a stone I don’t remember, 2022 (video still). 2 channel video, 9:58. Support provided by the Film/Video Studio at the Wexner Center for the Arts. Image courtesy the artist and KODA.

Sa’dia Rehman: Desire Lines
KODA residency at Governors Island
On view until June 25, 2023 
By COCO DOLLE, May 2023

Governors Island opened their art residency season on the beautiful day of Cinco de Mayo. The outdoors gathering on Nolan Park began with a memorable speech by George Stonefish of the Lenape people. Relating the history of this land, Stonefish reminded the audience of the generous spirit of the natives as they welcomed new colonial settlers from Europe, teaching them about the land, helping them survive. He mentions: « Our history is the beginning of your history. Without us you wouldn’t be here, you wouldn’t have survived ». He further explains how religion was a way of control to take away their land, and that what they got in return for their generosity was destruction and war. Systems of law enforcement were put in place and the natives were forced to move to further inlands, chased all the way to northern territories.  

Sa'dia Rehman, There isn’t a stone I don’t remember, 2022 (video still). 2 channel video, 9:58. Support provided by the Film/Video Studio at the Wexner Center for the Arts. Image courtesy the artist and KODA.

In the elderly tradition, the way of the natives is premised on respect to what they do, they will fight but they will not instigate war and become terrorists for revenge. In an effort to pursue continuous healing practices and bringing back traditional ceremonies alive, Stonefish ended with a group prayer following in a gigantic round dance with the audience hand in hand, dancing on the drums of the SilverCloud Singers. 

Of the many houses hosting this summer artist residencies, one in particular illustrated well on the themes of the memory of space and trauma community. Desire Lines is the installation of Queens-born multimedia artist Sa’dia Rehman. Curated by Klaudia Ofwona Draber, founder of KODA, a non-profit organization focused on topics of social justice, the solo exhibition highlights the history of displacements of 184 Pakistani villages in the 1970s due to the construction of the Tarbela Dam on the Indus River.

Sa'dia Rehman, Alphabet of Grief, Monotype on velin BFK Rives, 2022-3.

The installation comprises works on paper and a two channel video where Sa’dia’s relate the remembering of their father’s villages being displaced. “There isn’t a stone I don’t remember” is the ten minute video accompanying this project. Surviving through the disastrous reality of 100.000 people’s homes being wiped out by means of the World Bank has created waves of generational trauma. The Tarbela dam, one of the biggest hydroelectric dams in the world, was a political incentive to provide electricity for a large part of Pakistan. In the 70s, the government would communicate to large populations via paper flyers thrown over planes. Thus major floods occurred while entire villages were asleep, changing the ecosystems and peoples' ancestral histories. Places like mosques and shrines were flooded. In their mission to recollect forgotten stories, the artist brings back the memory of these remains through their practice of tracings and drawings. 

An installation of 30 monoprints rendered in oil on paper are displayed on the walls and on the floor of the residency. The drawings depict boats, mountains, remnants of homes and cemeteries, using blues, browns and greens. The ensemble is minimal and translates well as mirroring the reflection of ghost villages. Using traditional art materials such as a stylus point, the artist creates these drawings through the process of scratching and rubbing, transcribing from a place of absence.  

They started digging into this theme about four years ago, upon a conference they held at Santa Barbara with Natalie Diaz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Mojave American poet known for her book Postcolonial Love Poem. Working from these broken memories was fundamental to restore intergenerational loss. Going back to Pakistan to meet their family and conducting research, Sa’dia created an experimental video that documents the journey of what looks like a family trip to the Indus River. 

Sa'dia Rehman, There isn’t a stone I don’t remember, video installation on Governors Island building #404B, 2023.

Filmed in march in the winter season, the video starts as they’re driving through crops planted on the riverbend by locals, reaching a dry drought land expanding over miles at the horizon. Children walk through the mud to board a wooden commercial motor boat. Navigating the river for about two hours in search of forgotten villages, one gets the overall feeling of grief on this deserted land. Illustrated with words like “We returned to a place we wanted to forget”, the video flips from one to two channel frames, ending with a focus on fractured cemetery stones, and construction areas as the dam is being maintained.  

During the residency, Sa’dia’s installation will evolve and feature a cotton tent from where they will give a walk through early this June. Thus further building upon the history of the villagers being displaced as they were given tents by the government as an option to their homes being taken away. Stranded, nomadic lifestyles were the fate of communities throughout the vast history of colonialism. The exhibition Desire Lines translates this history well, in a curated environment leaving visitors with a subtle feeling of healing from a place of collective trauma.  WM

Coco Dolle

Coco Dolle is a French-American artist, writer, and independent curator based in New York since the late 90s. Former dancer and fashion muse for acclaimed artists including Alex Katz, her performances appeared in Vogue and The NY Times. Over the past decade, she has organized numerous exhibitions acclaimed in high-end publications including Forbes, ArtNet, VICE, and W Magazine. She is a contributing writer for L’Officiel Art and Whitehot Magazine. As an artist, her work focuses on body politics and feminist issues as seen at the Oregon Contemporary (OR) and Mary Ryan Gallery (NYC).


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