An Overwriting Consideration in Art

I’ve been enthralled by the work of the contemporary visual artist Kaya since I first encountered it three years ago. The radicality of her subject matter and her bold use of media historically excluded from the traditional art canon drive an empathetic, largely — but not exclusively — feminist perspective that expresses the need for social justice and fresh aesthetic strategies without requiring knowledge of critical theory to be legible.

This couldn’t be more propitious. In an era when art museums around the world, but particularly in the west, are precipitately revising their didactics to prove their bona fides about historical sensitivity, Kaya’s innovative yet direct and readily-understood installations come as welcome respite in that they require little by way of labels, panels, or docent time. Take, for instance, You Left Me Alone #4 (yarn on oriental rug, 2021):

The inclusion of torn paper recalls collage technique of the early twentieth century without making concessions to it.

One hardly needs a course in aesthetics, much less world history, to recognize the legacy of colonialism and exploitation implicit in the invocation of an oriental rug, which here quite literally underlies a skein of complicated entanglements that, while spatially discrete, are nonetheless connected by a common thread (common, it’s implied, in the sense of both ordinary and united), thus assuring that despite the Asian referent, the message is as universal as it is unflinchingly grim, the more so for the superficially pleasing patterns in the rug that in a lesser artist’s vision would mitigate rather than authenticate the work’s vertiginously imbalanced relationship of forces and fail, even when combined with the open wound represented by the yarn, to evoke the all but literal howl that historically, contemporarily, and futurally I have been immersively wronged and am very, very angry, plus I have no food. At once minimal and maximal, material and immaterial, Kaya’s composition dares us to acknowledge humanity’s inhumanity to humanity — and everything else.

And what to make of the knitted pattern crafted from the yarn in the lower left? Is it a resolution to that series of chaotic entanglements which, taken as a whole, reveals the nature of our persistently frustrated lives — and souls? Could it be a signifier from the artist that in the end, everything kind of works out? Or is she suggesting something darker: that this is the submission cultural imperialism demands, and more often than not gets, from us? Or — another possibility from this mercurial yet ever-curious artist — is she purposely interrogating a paradoxical effect as a way of pulling her punch, relieving viewers of the undiluted anxiety implicit in the meta-message? Kaya herself has been elusive on the question, at one point telling an interviewer, “I’m bored now.”

It should come as no surprise that Kaya’s greatest challenge is gaining attention for herself. People are flocking to the Beyond Van Gogh tour, and he’s been dead for 130 years. With the pandemic coming under control (at least for now), staid old European museums like the Louvre and the Prado should soon be wall-to-wall again with gawkers. But until you read this, you probably had no idea Kaya even existed, much less produced masterpieces. She has yet to have her work displayed at so much as a middlebrow gallery, to say nothing of modern art museums avowedly committed to championing distinctive voices who relentlessly unpack society’s conversations about power and representation in ever-evolving liminal spaces. From my perspective this is a mockery of what passes for modern artistic sensibility.

The artist, posing here with You Left Me Alone #3.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.