Afrah Shafiq, Nobody Knows For Certain (2023), video installation (still). Courtesy the artist
As Though We Hid the Sun in a Sea of Stories
Oct 21, 2023 – Jan 14, 2024
Haus der Kulturen der Welt / HKW
Berlin, Germany

As Though We Hid the Sun in a Sea of Stories is an exhibition and research project that foregrounds an ever-incomplete weaving of narratives of artists, curators, writers, and customary knowledge holders. It traces the many worlds that have existed in parallel, often in spite of or against the oppressive visions imagined by successive regimes – the Russian Empire, the USSR, and contemporary Russia – that have controlled areas across Eastern Europe and Central and North Asia. Contributors work from different lineages and spheres, which overlap and are enriched by their very multiplicity. Together new cultural and political frameworks are imagined for a geographical area still marked by the infrastructural reality of a 1,520-mm gauge railway. Known as the ‘Russian gauge’, such tracks cross the territory of over a dozen countries that were once part of or in the sphere of influence of the Russian Empire and the USSR.

Seemingly eccentric in relation to the exhibition’s geographies, the title is enkindled by The Blesséd Word: A Prologue on Kashmir, a poem written by the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali in 1990 and dedicated to his violence-ridden homeland. Written while the Soviet Union was disintegrating, it features a line by the Polish-Jewish Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam as one of its epigraphs. The title of the exhibition is a grafting of verses from Ali’s and Mandelstam’s poems. Ali strived to articulate the tragedy of his people and yearnings for a lost homeland; in so doing, he invokes another loss in another time and country (accentuated by a further betrayal of revolutionary ideals) in Mandelstam’s poem, written in Stalinist Russia. Ali chants his country, conjuring its name in eighteen different phonetic and graphic variants. This rhyming of times and spaces, and the polyphony of meanings, is the sign under which the exhibition marks a site for itself – particularly during these times of renewed Russian imperialist aggression.

From one world with many names to many worlds that have existed under one, in the space that was until recently referred to as ‘post-Soviet’, As Though We Hid the Sun in a Sea of Stories proposes fragments of a new geopoetics liberated from official versions of territorial control and the mechanical replication of existing attitudes. It invites processes of collective memory, the revival of cosmologies and vanished knowledges, the consideration of networks of those who defy imperially drawn borders, as well as forms of collective resistance and imagination of futures that can be lived, survived, and rejoiced in.

This project is co-conceptualized with curator Iaroslav Volovod, who has conducted original research focused on the colonial history of the Russian Empire and the USSR; artists and curators Nikolay Karabinovych and Saodat Ismailova; and historian and researcher of the former Soviet space, Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon.

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