Welcome to Confluences, a weekly column on art, kinship and life. Each week we approach one of the themes of the magazine’s current print issue by looking at a creative event, endeavour, or body of work that links to that theme and taps into a larger conversation with the world around us.
It’s a scorching midsummer afternoon when I visit artist Zayaan Khan’s solo exhibition, A Practice in Light and Death, at POOL in Cape Town’s urban Green Point Park. True to POOL’s name, walking into this exhibition is a bracing plunge into unexpected depths. As the exhibition text states, “Khan engages death as a space of imagination, connection and conjuring, and grieving as a transformative trauma and an act of bearing witness to history's injustices: losses of land through colonial invasion, forced removals, death, genocide, land grabbing, ecocide, gentrification, and epistemicide.” I, for one, have found it difficult to celebrate the dawn of a new year as the world roils with compounding humanitarian and ecological crises. Cycles of loss, death and rebirth feel immensely, acutely present - and Khan’s exhibition offers a practice-led navigation of these concepts on an embodied and microcosmic level.
Throughout the exhibition is a keen awareness of the porous veils between worlds: the human and non-human world, life and death, grief and rebirth. Hanging suspended in the space are billowing fabrics with a kaffang, a Muslim burial shroud, at the centre, covered with camphor and rose petals. In a placard beside the installation, Khan draws reference to images emerging from Gaza. Amid vast devastation, there are so many funeral shrouds and, especially horrifying, so many of them are child-sized. Khan has cyanotyped bluebottle jellyfish on some of these cloths, imbuing them with a rich hue against which the deceased, collected animals are outlined in relief. “Our depth and capacity to love is expanded beyond our knowledge and experience when death happens to us; imagine how much space that creates for those of us in life. The ultimate potentiality of love and to love,” she writes.
— Zayaan Khan
From the windowsill, jars of vibrant fermented foods - cabbage, oranges, carrots, apples - cast saturation on the room. Peering into the jars, each one contains its own ecosystem of strange floating materials. Visually, I’m reminded of the first time I went freediving: how wondrous and bizarre it was to glide through mystical kelp forests, experiencing a wholly other landscape that had always (incredibly) existed concurrently to my known world on land.
Like the kaffang, these fermentations evoke questions: How do we make sense of immense grief? What does it mean to experience loss, to sense these thin veils between life and death, between our own realities and the world around us? “Fermentation is a move of taking life into a death that is more alive with trillions of bacteria than it ever was in life,” the artist explains in a placard. “Fermentation as a biological process is affected by heat and light, viscerally metabolising at a faster rate. I am interested in this relationship of what the light does to this spectrum of death and life… Thinking through fermentation in relation to light allows for further illumination into the potential spiritual or political practices fermentation teaches us.” Elsewhere in the room lies a massive pile of salt: drawn from underground brine aquifers in salt pans not far from the city. “Salt has the capacity to hold our memories and reminds us of our freedoms,” a placard states. “Here salt is a tangible making, to play, to work, to heal.” It’s an offering; visitors are urged to take a shovelful home. Khan hands me a brown paper bag and explains to me how to rinse and strain impurities from the unrefined salt before cooking or bathing with it.
— Zayaan Khan
Khan’s practice - featured in Issue 7 - is a multidisciplinary one. As a cultural practitioner, food activist and artist, she “collaborates with organisations working in land reform, agrarian transformation and food justice, looking to understand the socio-political contexts of present day crises and unhinge our dependency on neoliberalism, with Indigenous food reclamation at the heart of her activities.” I learn that this exhibition is made possible by POOL - a not-for-profit art organisation supporting experimental, interdisciplinary and research-based exhibitions and programming - in collaboration with Field Station, a pop-up initiative “enabling transdisciplinary arts-based programming at Green Point Park in dialogue with the urban/nature surroundings, and in partnership with collaborators working at the intersection of art, design, environment, community and critical urbanism.” Situated in an outbuilding of a public park in the middle of the city with transit links nearby, Field Station is both accessible and free to visit - a rarity in a spatially stratified metropolis - and Khan and I commiserate about the need for more funding toward equitable arts spaces. It’s refreshing to experience one such place - particularly when showcasing a body of work as sensory and immersive as this one, which demands physical space for its tactile elements to breathe.
Leaving the quietude and shade of the exhibition, I step out into bright sunlight. I’m already sweating by the time I’ve walked the five minutes back to my car. Though I’ve planned to go home, instead I spontaneously decide to detour to the beach, where I dunk myself in icy Atlantic water. Swimming amongst kelp ribbons in the briny sea, I have the sense of being preserved, fermented. I lay myself out to dry on the sand. Hours later, I come home - paper bag of salt still in hand - feeling both wrung out and revitalised. That night, I dream of jellyfish.
Confluences: On Zayaan Khan