My work usually begins from a wound,” says Nadia Kaabi-Linke, whose artistic practice involves archiving the body in pain. Born 34 years ago to a Tunisian father and Ukranian mother, she was always sensitive to “the pain of others”. After art school in Tunis and the Sorbonne University in Paris, where she met her husband, she moved to Berlin after her marriage.
Kaabi-Linke’s art, on show at the exhibition No One Harms Me Unpunished, has been called “documentary sculpture”, though it crosses over into other realms as well. One detects in it the frenzy of gestural painting, the unyielding mystery of abstract art, even the textured elegance of printmaking.
In Torn, human hair, inked and imprinted on paper, becomes a repository of meanings that are at once tender and terrifying. Mortal tresses of the dead used to be preserved as memento mori. Locks of hair were also exchanged between lovers as tokens of trust and fidelity. But Kaabi-Linke’s chosen title brings in its wake a suggestion of violence, a sinking feeling, and takes us to a scene far less romantic.
In Ripped, Kaabi-Linke, once again, uses hair to create delicate impressions on paper, almost invisible from afar and barely discernable up close. In both Torn and Ripped, we are mesmerized by lines of beauty, swishing patterns, gentle curves and stark minimalism, until we take stock of the titles—and the spell is rudely interrupted.
“My work is deeply linked to social and political situations,” Kaabi-Linke explains. “But I never approach these themes in a direct way.” Having lived in Tunis, Dubai, Paris and Berlin, she speaks, and thinks, in six languages. “My identity is not related to any specific geographical region or language,” she says, “I belong to all these cultures and to none of them.”
But even when it grows out of prolonged contact with a particular place, her work refuses to stay rooted. In The Short Story of Salt And Sun, Kaabi-Linke captures on canvas impressions taken from a wall exposed to the sea in Tunisia. These frenzied swirls seem to reflect the anarchy that recently seized the country, ushering in the Arab Spring in 2010. Then again, it could equally inspire other associations of trouble and turmoil, closer home or afar.
Injustice, fear, trauma are the great levellers. Parkverbot (Looted Art), a simple park bench, innocuous from a distance but riddled with spikes on closer inspection, touches a primal chord. It gently warns us not to be fooled by the familiar, but to brace ourselves for nasty surprises. Bodily traces of people become fused with art to create unique maps of suffering in Impunities, a set of 26 laser- engraved glass panes.
Kaabi-Linke takes impressions of scars and wounds of victims of domestic abuse using forensic tenchiques and captures these marks of injury on glass sheets. These slides, with their clinical evidence, are then interspersed with haunting one-liners. “I look at her and see a rapist,” says one.
The fragility of conjugal relationships comes under scrutiny again in No One Harms Me Unpunished, in which a naked double mattress is layered with dry thistles and left suspended in mid-air. The title, an allusion to the insignia of the Order of the Thistle, echoes an earnest war cry, though not untouched by irony. For the monster it threatens with retribution has already invaded that most private of spaces, the bedroom.
No One Harms Me Unpunished is on till 3 May, 11am-7pm (Sundays closed), at Experimenter, Hindusthan Road, Kolkata (24630465).