Imagine Otherwise: Ronak Kapadia on Resisting Imperial Visuality

Imagine Otherwise: Ronak Kapadia on Resisting Imperial Visuality

October 5, 2016

Ronak Kapadia wearing a black button-down shirt, in front of bright green leaves


How is war felt through the body? Why are so many long-time antiwar and anticolonial activists turning to healing and body-based practices like acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine, and somatics? And how can academics integrate decolonial feminist healing justice lessons into our classrooms and work spaces?

In episode 21 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach talks with guest Ronak Kapadia about how Middle East, Arab, and South Asian artists are using visual culture to critique US empire and the global war on terror, the relationship between social justice activism and ethnic studies/women’s studies scholarship, and self-care and community care as disability/healing justice ways to imagine otherwise.

Guest: Ronak Kapadia

Ronak is an assistant professor of gender and women’s studies and affiliated faculty in global Asian studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Ronak is a cultural theorist of race, sex, and empire in the late 20th and early 21st century United States, and his forthcoming book Insurgent Aesthetics: Security and the Queer Life of the Forever War (which Ideas on Fire edited!) analyzes the interface between contemporary visual art and aesthetics and US global counterinsurgency warfare in South Asia and the Middle East.

He is co-editor of the forthcoming special issue of Surveillance and Society on race and surveillance with Katherine McKittrick and Simone Browne. His work also appears in the Asian American Literary ReviewSouth Asian DiasporaJournal of Popular Music Studies, and edited volumes including Shifting Borders: America and the Middle East/North AfricaCritical Ethnic Studies: A Reader, and With Stones in Our Hands: Reflections on Racism, Muslims and US Empire.

Outside of academia, Ronak is a former board member of FIERCE, a member-led community organization working to build the leadership and power of queer and trans youth of color in New York City and Sage Community Health Collective, a worker-owned health and healing justice collective in Chicago.

We chatted about

  • Ronak’s forthcoming book Insurgent Aesthetics, which traces “how contemporary visual artists have contested the violent projects of US empire and the global war on terror” (02:20)
  • Why it is useful to examine visual culture through other senses such as touch and hearing (04:45)
  • How war is felt through the body, and thus queer feminist criticism is vital to analyzing and critiquing it (09:23)
  • How social justice activism has shaped Ronak’s interdisciplinary scholarship in ethnic studies and women and gender studies (10:00)
  • Body-positive healing justice practices (13:06)
  • Self-care and community care as vital disability justice projects (16:22)
  • Ronak’s next book, The Art of Self-Care: Reimagining Collective Survival and Healing Justice in Imperial Decline (19:40)
  • Imagining otherwise (24:49)

Ronak Kapadia wearing a black button-down shirt, in front of bright green leaves. Text reads: Our job is to identify and animate already-existing kernals of political possibility that exist in the here-and-now, to nourish them, to grow them, to expand them, to share them with others.


Why Arab, South Asian, and Middle Eastern artists are at the forefront of critiquing US empire

Our political imaginations have been impoverished by the prevailing ways in which we are forced to think about security, terrorism, militarism, and political violence in South Asia and the Middle East…And turning to these kinds of aesthetic and political practices of artists and cultural producers allows us to reimagine collective social lives otherwise.

Insurgent aesthetics

I think of this broader sense of insurgent aesthetic as making available new ways of knowing, sensing, feeling that were once thought to be unintelligible or unimaginable…I’m hoping that my analysis of these insurgent aesthetics from these immigrant and diasporic artists offers a moment of refreshment an opportunity to rethink anti-racist, anti-imperialist, queer feminist politics anew.

The role of the body in war

Queer feminist criticism is so crucial for studies of war and empire because it’s in the language of queer of color, transnational women of color feminist criticism that we start to think about the affective, the felt, the embodied.

Promiscuous interdisciplinarity

Many of the artists that I feature in the project are themselves activists, archivists, scholars—people who think promiscuously across those somewhat artificial boundaries between the realms of academia, art, and activism.

The activist return to the body

So many direct organizers, community activists, people who were on the front lines of political work in the early 2000’s have folded on that work and instead decided to go into traditional Chinese medicine, or somatics, or go back to acupuncture school, or are opening Cross Fit gyms [healing/ body work].

Freedom dreams

Freedom dreams of a more just and sustainable future are actually tied to a materialist critique of the present and the inequitable distribution of power, resources and life chances.

Imagining otherwise

I want that queer feminist anti-colonial, anti-racist anti-capitalist revolution. And the kinds of utopias that can be imagined from those worlds. A world devoid of systems of power and violence that destroy the life chances of the most vulnerable. A world without prisons and war. A world without poverty and ecological plunder where everyone has access to social wage because governments actually invest in people rather than profits. A world that fosters restorative and transformative modes of justice to deal with interpersonal conflict rather than policing and cages. A world where educators, artists, and activists are rewarded and heralded for their work.

More from Ronak

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

Sign up for our newsletter

Podcast episodes, articles, and offers right to your inbox to help you rock your interdisciplinary career

Our Privacy Policy

Related Stories