Indira A. Abiskaroon
Art by Richard Barnes
In this vital commemorative portfolio “The Muse: Dictee at 40,” edited by Porochista Khakpour and Jee Leong Koh, 12 writers, scholars, and artists respond to the continuing influence of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s groundbreaking work. Read Porochista Khakpour’s introduction here. For the full portfolio, click here.
ταῦτ᾽ ἄρα Μοῦσαι ἄειδον, Ὀλύμπια δώματ᾽ ἔχουσαι,
ἐννέα θυγατέρες μεγάλου Διὸς ἐκγεγαυῖαι,
Κλειώ τ᾽ Εὐτέρπη τε Θάλειά τε Μελπομένη τε
Τερψιχόρη τ᾽ Ἐρατώ τε Πολύμνιά τ᾽ Οὐρανίη τε
Καλλιόπη θ᾽: ἣ δὲ προφερεστάτη ἐστὶν ἁπασέων.
ἣ γὰρ καὶ βασιλεῦσιν ἅμ᾽ αἰδοίοισιν ὀπηδεῖ.
ὅν τινα τιμήσωσι Διὸς κοῦραι μεγάλοιο
γεινόμενόν τε ἴδωσι διοτρεφέων βασιλήων,
τῷ μὲν ἐπὶ γλώσσῃ γλυκερὴν χείουσιν ἐέρσην,
τοῦ δ᾽ ἔπε᾽ ἐκ στόματος ῥεῖ μείλιχα
When I enter the Whitney Museum, I’m stuck in a thought loop.
Where am I going? It’s so hot. My shirt is stuck to my back. Is my forehead sweating? My face feels wet. I hate double-masking. Did COVID make me agoraphobic? [φόβος; panic fear] Unclench your jaw. There are so many people here. Did COVID make me claustrophobic? [φόβος; panic flight] Unclench your jaw. Why are there always so many people? The pandemic isn’t over. It’s so hot. Which floor is it on? Where am I going?
“Which floor is it on?” Unclench your jaw. I’m here with my partner to see the Biennial, titled Quiet as It’s Kept. The building carries the conversations of the mid-Saturday crowd, and I’m grateful that he’s here to center my focus. “Let’s start on the sixth floor,” I direct.
What I’m looking for is on the fifth. Forty-five minutes into our visit, we part ways and I exhale. He knows this is why I’m here today: in front of the elevators hangs a sequence of off-white curtains. At the entrance of this transient gallery, there is a bilingual placard suspended from two thin, silvery wires. Above each column of text, one in English and another in Spanish, reads in bold: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha.
Within is a haven, fortified against the stream of passerby conversations and the dissonant audio overlap of neighboring artworks. I almost forget that I’m here during peak weekend hours. Cha’s presence here is all-encompassing. Cha as a sister. A daughter. A filmmaker and writer. A polyglot. [πολλή; many]. Throughout, there is also Cha the symbol and the artist. From the text at the front, I know that this space was constructed through collaboration with the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Berkeley, Cha’s alma mater, is now home to her archive, from which this selection—film and video, photographs, artist’s books, typewritten text on textile—traveled to New York for this exhibition. I have never seen Cha’s artworks in person, and doing so became all-consuming when, around the time I first purchased a copy of Dictee, I learned they would be on view. I gulped through the book, reading and rereading each line in search of all the multitudes of herself Cha embedded in every word and when I finished, I sought more.
I didn’t know Dictee would remain with me as it does. In this work of autobiography by someone I did not know, with whom I share few lived experiences, I found echoes of home. They reverberate in her art: family, language. Dictee is dedicated “TO MY MOTHER TO MY FATHER” [μήτηρ; mother] and in her section CALLIOPE I encounter my own matriarchs. I think of them when I approach a portrait of Cha’s mother. It is small, easy to miss within a case in a far corner of the gallery. Most who walk through this area watch a nearby video showing a flickering sequence of portraits of Cha’s sister, whose face pervades exhibition reviews and Instagram posts. I wonder, for a moment, how many who have seen these images believe this to be the artist herself. Looking back to the wallet-sized, blue photograph, I recall that the image is reproduced in Dictee, opposite the first page of Cha’s chapter on her mother.
“Mother, you are eighteen years old. You were born in Yong Jung, Manchuria and this is where you now live. You are not Chinese. You are Korean.”
Unclench your jaw. With shame I recall: “You are not Indian.” Misdirected anger I too-often-for-forgiveness heaved at my mother before I understood that the displacement of our indentured ancestors to Guyana did not untether our roots from the subcontinent. It was an accusation doubly biting to one twice displaced. She arrived in New York City when she was twenty-one. She was not the first of her family to leave Guyana, nor was she the last. Her parents [nani and nana; mother’s mother and mother’s father] would live with us for much of my childhood. Her nani, whose true name I have never known, lived her whole life in Guyana. Her parents’ homeland was unknown to her, and to me. I don’t know their names either; as I call to mind an image of my mother’s nani in her loose blue dress with fine white hair beneath a whiter orhni, I imagine what they might have looked like, and what languages they taught her.
“You are Bi-lingual. You are Tri-lingual.”
My entire life I have heard my mother slip Creolese on and off like a fleece robe. Improper English, she called it. Broken. Something to conceal when in mixed company, as if she were inferior for knowing something they didn’t. Yet, it was clear that it brought her comfort. My mother speaking Creolese meant that she was in conversation with kin; family, friends, strangers with mutual contacts and shared myths. It meant she was scooping rice mixed with chicken curry with her fingers and cracking bones with her teeth to suck the marrow from the shards. It meant she was laughing. Unclench your jaw. Stale taunts of a fourth-grade classmate when I speak like my mother: “It’s ‘comf-ter-bull,’ not ‘com-for-ta-ble’; don’t you know English?” I practice, practice, practice, practice [ad nauseam; to sickness], curling and pulling my tongue until I yank the letters apart, extract a syllable, adjust the dental consonant, and meet the word where it should be: missing something, but no longer broken. I say it standing in the museum and once more as I write this sentence, to make sure I remember how.
“Mother tongue is your refuge.”
My grandmother [aji; father’s mother] spoke Arabic. I have heard that my father once yelled at her for refusing to speak English in my mother’s presence. She knew how and spoke to me only in English, but in those early days she held her mother tongue close. Maybe that’s where she found her comfort, conversing as if she never left Egypt. The comfort of what she understood and missed, when her firstborn brought home a tiny woman with dark skin and a foreign accent. Foreign to her: recognizably English in vocabulary and tenor, yet something all its own, with an origin far from all that she was.
Her husband [aja; father’s father] was the first of them to travel to New Jersey. Aji came later with her sons, my father and two younger brothers. When I hear the story of her reluctance to speak English, I imagine she sought refuge in language during those early years. I resent that nobody asked, and that it’s now too late. She was already practiced in assimilation, having given each of her Coptic sons Arabic names with the hope her homeland would love them as much as she loved it. How could she know that protection did not extend to the United States, with its promise of more and better, where the names she had so carefully chosen and the language in which she found solace brought her sons such harm that they wrenched their language from their mouths and replaced it with another. I dare to consider how much more she might have loved them if they had continued to speak to her in Arabic. Would she have loved me enough to remember my name if I called her teta instead of aji?
Across the gallery is another vitrine, this one upright and hanging from wires at my eye-level. A label to its side identifies the work as Tongue Tied, produced in 1976 using typewritten text on cloth. At work, where I usually write about objects like this, I would describe this as text-based art, “in the tradition of…”, and seek to capture the rhythm of the s p a c i n g of the words, the way they undulate, overlap, intersect; the subtle, but notable texture of the woven substrate and the striking visual impact of Cha’s chosen typeface. In this moment, all I see are the words
BE T W EEN
I LL IMITABLE
Unlike my mother and aji, I have only known here.
Unlike my mother and aji, I have never known home.
I have always lived in New York City, moving only once after graduate school, from Queens to Manhattan. I have visited Guyana twice, Egypt never. I made up for the latter, maybe, by going to church on Sundays, then some Sundays, now not at all. But I did, once, and I could recite some of the Coptic liturgy, since I had attended a Greek parochial school for whatever reason and learned all twenty-four letters of the Greek alphabet. There are thirty-two letters in the Coptic alphabet, but I fill in the blanks through phonetic mimicry. At a whisper, I blend in with the congregation. After mass, I hope my friends speak mostly-English with only sometimes-Arabic so I can laugh with them.
I lost count of the number of times I convinced myself to learn Arabic at some point during college. I had seen my dad slowly relearn his first language from its barest foundations around the time that aja died and if he could do it then, why couldn’t I do it now? I never made it past the first quarter of the alphabet. Each time I reach خ it sticks to the back of my throat. If this letter sounds so wrong, my words will undoubtedly be broken, and the shame of shattering a parent’s language is a powerful demotivator.
I preferred the feel of my mother’s slippers, though they did not fit. Unclench your jaw. How was it possible that the melodic Creolese that flowed from her with such ease could sound so cacophonic from her daughter [κακή; unskilled]? Still, it offered amusement to others, so I kept trying. Misquoted proverbs, approximations of the harmonious phrases that swirled around me during my mother’s conversations with her parents and siblings, they all tumbled out of me without rhythm or tune, in hindsight too close to minstrelsy to permit comfort, and my audience would laugh with sincere joy that their mixed, lighter-skinned relative [half-scald; not completely burnt] would make the effort to meet them at the fractures.
A third case houses ten photographs documenting a 1975 performance by Cha [Aveugle Voix; Blind Voice]. The first shows thick, black, stenciled letters on a wrinkled white cloth. To the left are the date and time of the performance and Cha’s full name. Front and center, in larger type:
The remaining nine images focus on Cha. She ties a strip of cloth that reads VOIX around her eyes; the other, AVEUGLE, wraps around her mouth as she unravels a large white banner
She crouches down in a deep squat, feet flat against the fabric, over ME and over FAIL knees to her shoulders, head bowed, hands clasped. In prayer? Maybe in reverence.
“You are here I raise the voice.”
How much did aji understand when my father and his brothers spoke English at home? I think she learned English in Egypt—it might have been French. How much did she understand when I approximated my way through songs by Amr Diab and Dalida? Helwa ya baladi might have sounded too ingenuine from her half-scald American granddaughter to quell her interminable homesickness. There was, however, fleeting warmth in the delight of my mother’s relatives when I’d labor over Bollywood and Chutney songs syllable-by-syllable alongside my brother and our cousins. I don’t know that any of us singing or those watching knew that we were speaking some estimation of Hindi and Bhojpuri, let alone what these lyrics meant. These sounds were, nonetheless, intimately familiar to each of us, and in those moments of mutual unknowing we were as close as we could be.
Being without words feels natural to me, a second nature that belies years of language study. Never spoken; my resume reads Foreign Languages (Reading: Ancient Greek, French, Italian, Latin, Spanish). Guilt weighs heavy, spending years of my life learning European languages, dead languages, living languages that I can’t speak and even if I did wouldn’t grant me comprehension of the numerous soundtracks of my childhood. Am I xenoglossophobic? [ξένη; stranger]. Unclench your jaw. I turn the pages of Dictee and know of Sappho and the nine Muses, have translated invocations by ancient poets, am well versed in the tales of Persephone and her mother Demeter. I also find much that is unfamiliar and, about a third of my way through the book, take a photo
Handwritten calligraphy by Cha’s father, two large characters that demand an entire page each. I text a photo to two friends who confirm their meaning.
“Dad and mom! I think.”
“Right! Dad and mom if you look at the characters separately. Together it means parents.”
I am reminded that I don’t fear foreign language and contemplate instead the fear I hold of language betraying my foreignness.
“You return and you are not one of them, they treat you with indifference.”
Language, which can both comfort and confound the tongue.
“All the time you understand what they are saying.”
Language, with its power to conceal ancestry.
“They comment upon your inability or ability to speak.”
SANS MOT SANS ME I walk through this space on the fifth floor of the Whitney Museum enclosed in walls of white curtain searching for something implausible. I look to Cha’s relatives and stand BE T W EEN my own, dislocated but firm in their knowledge of home. Unlike my mother and aji, I have never known home.
“You say who you are but you begin to doubt.”
I spend more time with Cha than any other artist that afternoon. I forgive myself and plan to come back before the exhibition closes. Unclench your jaw. It’s less easy to forgive myself for projecting so much on Cha, whose absence has enabled her audience to demand so much, too much.
“Near tears, nearly saying”
ME FAIL WORDS I leave the museum with gratitude and unease both
I LL IMITABLE and unspeakable, and I wonder if I’ll ever realize the comfort of the languages of my mother, her nani, my aji, our ancestors, or if I’ll instead find contentment in community with those around me who have.
“I know you I know you”
Indira A. Abiskaroon
Indira A. Abiskaroon is an art historian based in New York City, where she works as the Curatorial Assistant of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Brooklyn Museum. She is a first-generation American born to a Coptic-Egyptian father and an Indo-Guyanese mother. Abiskaroon lives in Manhattan with her partner and their dog.
Richard Barnes is a New York–based artist and photographer. For his series “Murmur,” which he produced over the course of two years, he photographed hundreds of thousands of migrating starlings in the skies above Rome as they coalesced in formations known as murmurations. Barnes’s work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at institutions that include the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego; the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh; Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, MI; and the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University. His photographs are held in numerous public and private collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, and the Whitney Museum in New York; SFMOMA; LACMA; and the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. Barnes was the recipient of the Rome Prize in 2005, and in 2006 his work was featured in the Whitney Biennial and awarded the Alfred Eisenstadt Award for Photography. His monograph, Animal Logic, was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2009.