Deep Focus

Exodus and Arrival in “Pre-Image: Blind as the Mother Tongue”

May 11, 2018

Hiwa K. Pre-Image (Blind as the Mother Tongue), 2017. Still from HD video, color, sound, 17’40”. Courtesy of the artist and KOW, Berlin.

Editor’s note: This text originated in Hiwa K’s video work, Pre-Image: Blind as the Mother Tongue, which debuted at documenta 14 in Athens. The work is currently on view in the exhibition Hiwa K: Blind as the Mother Tongue, in the New Museum’s ground floor south galleries through August 19, 2018.

Last time I saw my mom before my farewell, I said: “Mom, I am leaving for good. I don’t know… maybe I will not make it, like the other 28 people who got shot last week.”

She said: “Son, if death comes, don’t panic. It is just death.”

I wasn’t surprised by her relentlessness. After all, I survived her attempt to abort me three times.

The last time she tried to have an abortion, she got some pills from her sister-in-law who was who was also pregnant and was suffering from a very nasty illness. The doctors gave her the pills and said:

“If you don’t take them, you or the baby or both of you will die.”

Her husband didn’t allow her to take them, though. It was “against Allah’s will,” he said. My mom was so desperate that she convinced her brother to give them to her.

To keep the story short, her last attempt didn’t succeed either, and she ended up in the hospital. After a few months, I was born, and her sister-in-law gave birth to a son, too, and he didn’t die either.

In the same year that I crossed the river between Turkey and Greece – 1997 – he, my cousin, drowned in the river. No one found his body. He is buried, probably, in the “nameless” cemetery in Komotini.


Hiwa K. Pre-Image (Blind as the Mother Tongue), 2017. Still from HD video, color, sound, 17’40”. Courtesy of the artist and KOW, Berlin.

We are a group of 53 people, preparing ourselves to walk 180 km deep into Greece.

You should walk by night through the hills and tuneless – completely quiet – so that you are not ambushed by the Greek police.

In the daytime, you can sleep…

Unlike the rest of the group, I had no food in my backpack but another burden: Western art history (with which I was quite unfamiliar). During my journey to Turkey I made these, a few abstract paintings.

We were supposed to arrive in Kaval on February 9. Then take the bus to Thessaloniki and then onto Athens.

The third night I forgot about food. I was more into walking, without a map. My feet were my point of arrival.

Walking is a nice habit… sometimes. But sometimes I had the feeling that I was the burden upon my own feet. The upper parts of my body were enslaving the lower parts – riding them as if they were external beings.

The way is Stretching… when you are walking. Or when you are playing a melody, you are never pilling tones on top of each other or accumulating them, not dwelling on any of these tones but slipping away into another one. To avoid the verticality of chords.

Everyone I encounter along my journey asks: “Where are you based?”
“On my feet,” I answer.
“Where are your feet based then?”
“Feet are never based,” I say.

Hiwa K. Pre-Image (Blind as the Mother Tongue), 2017. Still from HD video, color, sound, 17’40”. Courtesy of the artist and KOW, Berlin.

I might recover from this state of amnesia. I walked this path already. Centuries ago.

I almost remember even though I can’t see any traces (of my journey). But this path is… almost familiar to me.

To remember, sometimes, you need different archeological tools. Tools with which you dig upwards. To see… your scattered parts…. fragments.

Or other tools, with which you can excavate silence. Once it was the only witness to your presence here. Mirrors that reflect your voice rather that your appearance.

You must take Narcissus by surprise. When he is a sleep. You must walk up to the hill, to see the original Ishtar Gate. Gilgamesh… He also fell asleep when the snake ate the plant that he got for eternity.

Helplessly, he wanted to defeat death… but he was defeated by death’s younger brother… sleep.

Probably I will not arrive.
My foot is not articulate enough.
Or maybe I need toes under my heels.
On the ninth night we stole a sheep from one of the villages near Kavala.

We butchered it on this hill. It was the first time I ate something after so many nights of walking. The next day we walked down of the hill toward the city, where we took a bus to Thessaloniki, then onto Athens.

In Athens I saw my brother-in-law, who told me: “I have a bad news for you.” He said: “I am sorry! You father died five months ago when you were on your way here.”

I was quite apathetic. I was still numb from my journey.

He said: “You don’t seem to be shocked?”

I said: “Well, I don’t know… it is the first time that my father has died.”


Hiwa K. Pre-Image (Blind as the Mother Tongue), 2017. Still from HD video, color, sound, 17’40”. Courtesy of the artist and KOW, Berlin.

After spending three weeks in Patra, in this old forsaken train station, where we slept in pipes, where we tried every possibility of escaping to the other side, Italy – I remember that I was once climbed up one of the ships, up into the lifeboat on the very top of the ship, and was hiding there all the night long, until early morning, when they caught me just before the ship was about to depart.

In my last attempt, I hid in one of the trucks, hoping that it would go into the ship.

On that first day, I finished a piece of cake and a bottle of water but the truck didn’t move. I had to be patient.

Waiting… and waiting… three days of lying on the same position.

Maybe something will happen.

On the third day I heard the truck engine start and I didn’t move at all. I felt it when the truck drove into the ship. After a few hours I heard the ship departing. But it was dark. I was blind… blind as the mother tongue.

No food again and on top of that no watch to measure time.

It might take me an hour or two… or a month. I don’t even know where this ship is taking me. It can take me anywhere: Turkey, Basra, South Africa.

What if this journey takes ages? The only clock is my stomach. I even ate the package of the cake I had three days ago.

As long as I am not arriving, let there be darkness.

Maybe vision is the final touch we got from the nature. When you are blind, you are gehorsam but also gehörsam. Ear becomes the medium of slavery. You surrender to your master. Your half-brother who is dependent on you. Your void, where he can resonate his appearance.

This journey took quite long. What if this ship never arrives… or maybe it never departed in the first place?

I must get out before the joy of hearing becomes the pleasure of listening.

After a while sounds become silence itself. Like love… when you become fear itself and it disappears for good. You just surrender… Who am I to revolt against it, anyway?

After I don’t know how long, the ship arrived somewhere – I didn’t know where. But I saw a cross from faraway.

I didn’t know that I was in Ancona. I took the train to Rome.

I arrived even though arrival was not one of my habits.

But why are they so still?
Why don’t they run anymore?

Or maybe they just froze in their velocity.
Overdosed on their beauty.
Or they ran faster than their memories?

Hiwa K: Blind as the Mother Tongue, 2018. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio.