Artist Uses War On Terror Documents As Her Canvas

January 8, 2015 | Rhett Jones

Using autopsy reports and death certificates from U.S. military bases and prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan as her starting point, Rajkamal Kahlon makes Goya-esque drawings that illustrate the dark actions that still arise from our ongoing adventures in the War On Terror.

“We are all in those reports,” Kahlon tells Hyperallergic, explaining:

“We as Americans are linked to those deaths and to those individuals who were killed. By not understanding the ways they are us and we are them, a far too convenient barrier goes up between us, and their deaths start to not matter as much as our own.”

The specific documents Kahlon used for the series, which is titled “Did You Kiss the Dead Body?”, come from a 2004 release of papers obtained by the ACLU. That was eleven years ago, and Kahlon makes no secret of her belief that America has literally buried its head in the sand over the last decade when it comes to recognizing the human toll our actions often inflict.

On the topic of the recently released report on CIA torture she says, “On the one hand I feel the report is very little, very late. But on the other hand, it brings this topic back into the forefront of public debate. You would think that this topic would have exploded when the Abu Ghraib images came out, but it kind of hit the surface and then went away very quickly in the news outlets. What I think is good about this report is that torture is being talked about again.”

Though the artist certainly has specific political opinions, she says that the horrific anatomical renderings and phantasmagoric details aren’t necessarily coming from a motive to sway someone’s voting habits. She set out to directly react to the content of the documents. She explains her approach, “I’m beginning from a visceral response, from an emotional response … The reason ‘Did You Kiss The Dead Body?’ took five years is that when I looked at the autopsy reports, I felt both rage and nausea … What I really would like to have happen in my work is that if you’re forced to react with an emotional and visceral response, that then perhaps makes you rethink what you think you know.”

The title of the series comes from the final line of Harold Pinter’s poem Deathwhich is comprised of questions about a dead body. It begins with:

Where was the body found?
Who found the dead body?
Was the dead body dead when found?

The implication of the work related to the poem seems to allude to all of the unanswered questions that these documents leave behind. Even in an un-redacted state we would still not know all of the background involved for each of the victims described in these reports. But also the selection of the final line seems to go back to what Kahlon said about her approach from an emotional perspective. While most of the poem focuses on pseudo-investigative questions, its final lines turn more towards human concern and respect for the fallen:

Did you wash the dead body
Did you close both its eyes
Did you bury the body
Did you leave it abandoned
Did you kiss the dead body

(Photos: Rajkamal Kahon)