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Sreshta Rit Premnath: Those Who Wait at CAG

Keimi Nakashima-Ochoa

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Memories held in place 

Sreshta Rit Premnath, installation view from Those Who Wait, Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, 2019. Photo: SITE Photography.

In the fall of 2019, I was working my second exhibition cycle as a volunteer at the Contemporary Art Gallery. Olivia Whetung’s exhibition Sugarbush Shrapnel and Sreshta Rit Premnath’s Those Who Wait inhabited the gallery spaces on either side of the volunteer desk.

I’d be at the desk from noon to 3 PM before my afternoon classes during the course of the shows, a shift I’d continue until March 2020, when I stopped going to the gallery for over a year. One afternoon, a person around my age came into the gallery. Funnily enough, while my interaction with this person is probably the one that I refer back to the most when thinking about my time as a volunteer at CAG, there are many details that I actually cannot remember.

I recall pretty well what they looked like—they had long dark hair pulled back in a ponytail or a bun, glasses, brown skin, and a full figure. They had on small white earphones, a grey sweater, and a large grey backpack. I remember their shy and friendly greeting as they came quietly into the gallery. I’m a bit fuzzy on the rest of the interaction, but it could have gone one of two ways:

  1. They responded to my customary “Hi there! Welcome,” with a silent wave and a sheepish smile. Because this was an exhibition with some large objects to navigate, we’d been asking visitors to remove large bags or backpacks and leave them at the front desk. I asked this visitor to set their bag down beside me, and they complied and went into the exhibitions. They went through both exhibitions, but spent a long time in Those Who Wait. After soaking up the show, they came to grab their backpack, and I offered them the tissues we usually had available at the desk. It was clear they had been crying—their cheeks were tear-stained and their eyes were red. We had a very brief conversation, the gist of which was that “art can be such an emotional thing.”
  2. After our greeting, they walked directly into the gallery. It was quiet in the gallery and they had earphones on, so I figured it would be okay to just let them head in since there was no risk of bumping into anyone else. They went in, keeping their headphones in as they walked silently through the exhibition. They spent the most time with Premnath’s exhibition, and while they were doing so, I got up for a walk around the desk like I often did when it was quiet in the gallery. While walking around, I peeked into the gallery, and saw this visitor walking around silently, with tears flowing down their face as they looked at the reflective surfaces and the drooping concrete figures. At some point before leaving the gallery, they wiped their face with some tissues they pulled from their backpack. As they were leaving the gallery, still without an exchange of words, we exchanged a look that was vulnerable and familiar.

Both of these interactions feel equally real and possible to me. I’m leaning towards the second scenario being the closest to the truth, because I don’t remember the sound of their voice. That being said, it feels so unlikely that we didn’t talk at all—this interaction was so impactful; I felt like I knew something about this person’s story. I innately understood their strong emotional reaction to this show: seeing the lifeless grey forms of Premnath’s work slumped over in a cold concrete room, seemingly held in place indefinitely, elicits a visceral response in so many of us who are racialized, who are migrants, who have or had incarcerated or detained loved ones. I think seeing this unfold in front of me in real time, when I was in a position to greet people and represent an institution I was brand new to, was jarring and disorienting, and it has contributed to my weird (and uncharacteristically) foggy memory.

To be honest, writing this reflection has been exceptionally difficult. From the moment I had the opportunity to respond to CAG’s archive, I knew this was a show I wanted to reflect on. Synthesizing a piece of writing from this early idea has felt like untying knots in a piece of thread—difficult beyond reason—but I was determined to get it done. There have been many branches of my experience with the show, and the themes it covers, that I’ve been wanting to delve into. I wanted to talk about this memory I describe, and about my lovely experience listening to and meeting Rit (the name the artist introduced himself by) at the launch of the publication that accompanied his show. I wanted to write about the year(s) of involuntary waiting that followed the conclusion of the show. I even wanted to talk about “prison art,” and about my own experiences with migration and borders, along with my familial connections to carceral and detention facilities.1 All of it felt simultaneously too much and not enough for the piece of writing I wanted to make.

However, as I was diving into the materials that were a part of this exhibition, I came across the transcript of the artist talk that Premnath gave shortly after the opening of the exhibition. In this talk, while answering a question from the audience, he cited a term coined by Toni Morrison in her novel Beloved: “rememory.”2

While there are many definitions and attachments to this word, essentially, it means to re-inhabit a memory, particularly one with significant trauma attached to it. Bringing in this language that is ignited and backed by Black Feminist theory allowed me to gather my thoughts in a more logical way. I realized that these abstracted spaces of waiting and imposed criminality or morality onto bodies, which Premnath constructs so carefully and beautifully, were creating sites of rememory. For the people who have connections to carceral spaces, Those Who Wait placed them back in these space and held them while they reflected on experiences that are heavy and bleak. For those that were privileged enough to have more of a degree of separation, who have spent more time on the outside of the fences than in, this exhibition forced them to quite literally look in the mirror and place themselves in the systems they benefit from and are complicit in.

The embodied, living nature of these manufactured spaces—sites of human caging—is confrontational, and captured so well through the crestfallen concrete forms with limbs, and the ongoing reflection of live movement with the use of reflective emergency blankets. The aliveness of detention spaces is similarly captured in a quote by Gloria Anzaldúa: “The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abíerta where the third world grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country—a border culture.”3 Premnath encapsulates this border culture, and through the absence of suffering human faces and the use of more open “gates,” he creates a layer of abstraction and safety, prioritizing compassion for affected viewers over the need for the recollection of a specific event.

My memory around this exhibition and my interaction with the visitor, which I do not remember the particulars of, seems to have mimicked this degree of separation or abstraction. Maybe this is part of the connection that needed to happen in my brain in order to be able to share some thoughts about this exhibition.

For a show that was so grey and industrial in its materiality, Those Who Wait was so perfectly human; it felt crucial for me to revisit and reconsider this recent piece of CAG’s history. In a time where border crises and the consequences of carceral systems seem only to be escalating (particularly amidst the climate crisis and the ongoing pandemic), it was really lovely to reflect on an artist whose work aims to address these issues in a thoughtful manner, with care.

Keimi Nakashima-Ochoa

Keimi Nakashima-Ochoa (all pronouns) is a racialized immigrant settler of mixed heritage. They live and work on the stolen ancestral territories of xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and səlilwətaɬ families and nations. They are a Disabled bilingual worker, learner and artist whose practice incorporates reading, writing, weaving, printmaking, and more. Keimi’s work holds central their learnings from Black Feminism and practices of Disability Justice. They are interested in anti-colonial research and learning, accessible spaces, and liberated futures. Keimi was the Timelines artist-in-residence at CAG in 2022.


1 On “prison art,” see Nicole R. Fleetwood, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2020, p. 12.

2 Toni Morrison, Beloved, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1987, p. 36.

3 Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Aunt Lute Books, San Francisco, 1987, p. 25.