Columbus Artist Sa’dia Rehman Exhibits New Work at the Wexner Center

Open family secrets and a trip to Pakistan inspired their new multimedia solo show, which debuts Feb. 11.

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Monthly
Sa’dia Rehman, in their studio at the Fort, discusses how family history and a trip to Pakistan inspired an upcoming solo show, which opens Feb. 11 at the Wexner Center for the Arts.

Growing up in Queens, Sa’dia Rehman would often hear their father talk about the family’s history in Pakistan in vague terms. “It was always, ‘We got displaced,’ and that’s it,” Rehman says. “We’ve known about this displacement for years, but I had not tapped into it. … I wanted to see this place that my family continues to talk about but doesn’t really talk about.”

So in March of last year, before the summer monsoon season, Rehman visited an area near the Indus River in Pakistan where, between 1968 and 1976, villages were displaced during construction of the Tarbela Dam, the largest earth-filled dam in the world. Packed into a Suzuki with family members, Rehman went to a reservoir near the dam, taking video and photos along the way.

Artist Sa’dia Rehman uses materials that change over time, like cracked clay and burnt wood.

After boarding a boat, Rehman found several Qurans bound together and tied to a rock—one method for respectful, underwater disposal of a damaged copy of the holy text. Receding waters had left the weathered, bundled pages resting at the shoreline, where arid land met the shallow, clay-filled waters. “I felt like it was a metaphor for many things,” Rehman says. “This stack was like a sculptural object containing all of these stories and histories that are passed down, but it was thrown in the water to be erased. And now it’s miraculously emerged from the water.”

The experience inspired Rehman, a local multidisciplinary artist, to create a sculptural object that will be submerged in water and on display with a new body of work at the Wexner Center for the Arts beginning Feb. 11. Over the course of the exhibition, which runs through early July, the object will change—fading, disintegrating, perhaps muddying the water around it. “It’s an evolving kind of show. It changes as you go through space and time,” Rehman says.

In addition to multiple sculptures, the Wex exhibition will include prints, textiles, wall drawings and a 10-minute video that both documents and interprets Rehman’s time in Pakistan. Titled The River Runs Slow and Deep and All the Bones of My Ancestors Have Risen to the Surface to Knock and Click Like the Sounds of Trees in the Air, the show takes its name from a poem by Rehman’s sister, Bushra Rehman. Sa’dia spent two years in residence with the Wexner Center’s Learning and Public Practice team, headed by Dionne Custer Edwards, curator of this show.

Using dampened pieces of leftover rebar from a sculpture, Sa’dia Rehman creates rust patterns on watercolor paper.

This new body of work explores ideas of memory, grief, migration and the way a single event can trigger multigenerational trauma. While in Pakistan, Rehman researched the displacement of their family by interviewing community members who lived through it. “[The government] threw fliers out of helicopters telling people, ‘You got to get out of here, because you’re going to be flooded,’” Rehman says. “My father’s village, all of them shifted to this one area 50 miles away. So that whole community is just swimming in PTSD and trauma.”

Rehman learned their grandfather refused to evacuate until their father and uncles dragged him away. Others told stories of villagers who chose to stay and drowned in their sleep. These histories added layers of meaning to graveyards near the Indus River that stay underwater nine months out of the year. When Rehman visited, white tombs poked through the water, inspiring the artist to make similarly shaped sculptures out of rebar—“the bones of a cement structure.”

In Pakistan, Rehman also saw a sign near a dam that had been painted with blue lettering on a white background. For the Wex show, Rehman copied the color scheme on wooden boards that resemble mounted protest signs, but with text taken from the artist’s own writings. “When you put Khar Kot into Google Maps/It shows up in blue,” one sign reads. “So soft that your feet could sink to mid-calf,” reads another.

“I see these as stanzas in a poem,” Rehman says. “I see the whole show, actually, as a poem. … The takeaway that I would hope for the show is just a feeling—the feeling of grief and loss and emptiness that could be filled.”

This story is from the February 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.