Sa’dia Rehman walks you through memories of displacement on the colonized lands of Governors Island

Installation view Desire Lines, photo Argenis, courtesy of KODA

Sa’dia Rehman: Desire Lines is a solo exhibition as part of artist’s residency with KODA on Governors Island, New York. Rehman’s exhibition focuses on the building of the Tarbela dam in Pakistan in 1968-1976 – a hydroelectric dam responsible for the displacement and forced migration of 184 villages and the climate devastation following the completion of this project.

Rehman is a New York Native. They were born in Queens and are a child of immigrant parents from the consequences of the Tarbela Dam. However, Rehman’s passion has a foot in Pakistan. While they themselves were not displaced by this feat of engineering, their care and passion about this human tragedy is sincere as an artist from South Asian diaspora. During my visit to Governors Island for this exhibition, Rehman was careful to note that like their family’s home, this land too was once a site of displacement.

Governors Island itself is a small dot of green, peppered with repurposed manors, fortifications and trails, and approximately 800 yards from Lower Manhattan in the New York Harbor. Many, many moons ago, this was a place used by the native Lenape people for foraging and hunting. The grounds which they walked and used have since changed hands multiple times, passing from Dutch to English to the U.S. Military, to New York hands. For many, Governors Island is a footnote in their lives outside of the Governors Ball here in New York. A sad note to the legacy of an island that once helped people subsist and thrive thanks to its natural bounty of food.

Upon arriving on Governors Island, I was led to KODA/RU House, Building 404B, on Colonels Row. Here is one of the spaces used by Klaudia Ofwona Draber’s KODA residency program. KODA is a nonprofit arts organization dedicated to mid-career artists from diverse backgrounds, granting residencies to them to allow for experimentation and to facilitate creative projects through strategic partnerships. Ofwona Draber greeted myself and my guide, Coco Dolle, an artist and curator, around the space as we waited to meet Rehman and the others who would be touring the exhibition that day.

Installation view Desire Lines, photo Argenis, courtesy of KODA

Rehman’s work is hosted on the second floor of KODA/RU House in three rooms. The main room houses a series of striking blue monoprints featuring bits of white structures, landforms, and even the bow of a local fishing boat. These are part of Rehman’s Alphabet of Grief (2022-2023) monotypes. Thanks to Rehman’s use of a stylus to draw these images, they are incomplete and broken up – giving the user the idea that these were sketched from memory. The rich blue colors kept the fact that the landscape from which these structures come from has been forever altered by this massive project.

On the walls, we can see a series of oil and rust drawings (Desire Lines, 2022), also from memory, depicting shrines, mosques, and cemeteries. Rehman then wetted steel wire directly on the drawing for a month, creating rusty desire lines across the papers, evoking the pathways that track the movement of people and commerce. The observant viewer will also notice a number of squares drawn close to each other on some of Rehman’s prints and sketches. At first, I wondered if these were an abstraction of plots of land, or grave sites. Rather, these are meant to depict the flyers the Pakistani government airdropped across the soon to be flooded land to encourage people to leave behind their homes and livelihoods.

The connecting hallway between two rooms is broken up by Rehman’s series, Tracings Again (2022-2023). Limited by what they can hang on the walls, Rehman takes advantage of this and forces us to reckon with our natural attempts to make Desire Lines on our own. A series of framed drawings divide one room, and block the pathway between two rooms. It makes viewing the work cumbersome, and it deters visitors from taking the easiest way through the room. We have to stop ourselves because someone else is in control of the space. We are forced to reckon with, and navigate, around the vision of the artist. While some might believe that this is unfair or makes the work challenging to appreciate, the thrust behind Rehman’s narrative is enhanced by this unique gallery layout.

Installation view Desire Lines, photo Argenis, courtesy of KODA

Lastly, we come to the third room, home to There Isn’t a stone I don’t remember (2022), a 10 minute video following Rehman’s visit to Pakistan in 2022, specifically where their family left behind everything. It is a fabulous video full of breathtaking imagery. We see a space devastated by colonial powers who helped build and fund this massive dam with no concern about the value this land has held for generations. However, despite the tragic life and fate of the displaced, we see beauty and human resilience thrive here. Despite the displacement, we hear the excitement of young children and family members who came with Rehman on this trip as they run their hands through the clay alongside the swollen river.

A bushel of old Qurans resurfaces from the river, a reminder of a time when this was a living village, and has to be returned to the flowing waters of the Indus. The local boats used to navigate this waterway have an almost whimsical, fantastically vibrant color to them. In the dark waters beneath lay the graves, homes, and spaces of the people whose families occupied this land for generations. It is a series of beautiful contrasts, and it is as moving as it is well shot.

Installation view Desire Lines, photo Argenis, courtesy of KODA

Rehman’s work will be accompanied by a fifth piece in July, Tent-like (2023). However, the current installation is worth a visit now. On view at KODA through August 3, 2023

About the artist: Sa’dia Rehman (they/them) is a multidisciplinary artist and educator. Their work explores structures of the family, the nation, the border. They centerfamilial history to expand on harm and survival. Rehman has shared their work at the Columbus Museum of Art, Queens Museum, The Kitchen, KentlerInternational Drawing Space, Center for Book Arts, Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU and Pakistan National Council of the Arts. Rehman was awarded residencies at the Film/Video Studio at the Wexner Centerforthe Arts, Art Omi, Abrons Art Center, Asian American Arts Alliance, Edward Albee Foundation and AIM Bronx Museum. Their work was featured in the Brooklyn Rail, The Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts, Asian Diasporic Visual Cultures and the Americas, Colonize This! Young Women of Color On Today’s Feminism, Breakthru Radio and HyperAllergic. Rehman’s solo show is on view at the Wexner Center for the Arts until July 9, 2023.

About the writer: Elaine Rita Mendus is a writer and photographer based in Brooklyn. As an alumna of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Elaine studied cultural geography, European history, and Latin American studies. As a former writer and copy editor for NewsTaco, MásWired, Politic365, and Plus Magazine, her academic studies allowed her to provide a unique perspective to national, and international geopolitics. Elaine is an active member of the LGBTQ+ community. Elaine’s career has transitioned away from writing and into the world of photography so that she can pursue artistic endeavors full-time. Her artistic photography focuses on the urban landscape and the geographic concepts of space and place. In addition, she is a paleo artist, using photography to recreate interpretations of the Mesozoic era.