Ronak K. Kapadia: On the Skin: Drone Warfare, Collateral Damage, and the Human Terrain

Wednesday, November 10, 2021 | 4:30 PM (PST) | FREE | Zoom

Moderated by Claudette Lauzon.

Zoom link

This talk will explore Kapadia's research into the contemporary multimedia art works by Iraqi American artist Wafaa Bilal and American artist elin o’Hara slavick, as a meditation on how the violence of US imperial and aerial warfare across the long twentieth century has devastated humans, animals, and social ecologies in the Greater Middle East.

Bilal is best known for a performance in which he lived in a gallery for a month and was shot with paintballs by remote internet users watching through a webcam. His other works include a twenty-four-hour endurance performance in which the artist tattooed a borderless map of Iraq onto his back and another in which he surgically implanted a surveillance camera onto his skull for a year. Kapadia's reading of Bilal’s performances highlights the critical role of touch, embodiment, and the senses in forging what Kapadia terms a “queer calculus” to analyze the effects of US counterterrorism and their toxic afterlives. elin o’Hara slavick’s drawing and painting series Protesting Cartography or Places the United States Has Bombed offers an important intertext to Bilal’s corporeal mappings by confronting our collective failure of imagination about what bombs do to populations, bodies, and topographies. Working from an eclectic archive of military surveillance imagery, aerial photographs, battle plans, and maps, slavick reimagines these landscapes in watercolor paintings to compose a shadow atlas of largely uninterrupted US aerial bombing campaigns since the 1940s.

Together, these artists powerfully attest to the violent expanse of postwar US geopolitical power around the globe and make palpable the “sensorial life of empire.” Through close readings of their insurgent aesthetic projects, Kapadia traces an alternative affective map of the social worlds and populations disappeared by contemporary US drone strikes in Iraq and by extension in “Af-Pak,” Yemen, Somalia, Niger, and related sites of US forever warfare.


Ronak K. Kapadia (he/him) is Associate Professor and Director of the Interdepartmental Graduate Concentration in the Gender and Women’s Studies Program and affiliated faculty in Art History, Global Asian Studies, and Museum & Exhibition Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

An interdisciplinary queer studies scholar of race, culture, war, and empire in the late 20th and early 21st century United States, Kapadia is author of Insurgent Aesthetics: Security and the Queer Life of the Forever War (Duke University Press, 2019) which won the 2020 Surveillance Studies Network Best Book Prize. Kapadia’s writing appears in Journal of Popular Music StudiesFeminist FormationsVerge: Studies in Global AsiasAsian American Literary ReviewPost45 Contemporaries, and edited volumes that include: Shifting Borders: America and the Middle East/North AfricaCritical Ethnic Studies: A Reader, and With Stones in Our Hands: Racism, Muslims and US Empire. A co-editor of the special issue of Surveillance and Society on race and surveillance, Kapadia has begun several new collaborative projects with colleagues in Chicago, including a virtual seminar series on the reciprocal politics of bed space activism across contemporary social movements for disability justice, migrant justice, and abolition feminisms funded by the Mellon Humanities Without Walls Program and a new curatorial project with the emerging Veteran Art Movement funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Dialogues on the Experiences of War Program under the relational framework of the two “forever wars” in United States history — the American Indian Wars and the “Global War on Terror.” Finally, Kapadia is also at work on a new book-length project, entitled “Breathing in the Brown Queer Commons,” which examines race-radical queer and trans migrant futurisms and visual cultures to develop a critical theory of healing justice and pleasure across transnational sites of security, terror, and war and in the wilds of ecological chaos and US imperial decline.

November 10, 2021