Essay: Image/Text/Object & the BODY

Image/Text/Object & the BODY: Ritualistic states of proximity, intimacy, contiguity, kinship, propinquity… 

When I arrived in the U.K. from living abroad in Saudi Arabia and Nigeria in 1990, I continued my studies – medical, pharmacological, botanical, chemical, physical, physiological. In 2010, I decided to study a Master’s degree, in art history and theory. I constantly wrangled with the terms text, image, representation, sign, symbol, visual, and object. I was fed an idea of experience that was not  mine, indigestible concepts. Culturally and bodily. I rejected these stand-ins, these hard-edged,  smooth, detached, impermeable terms. I do not believe in ‘images’ ‘texts’ ‘objects’ as discrete beings. I do not have faith in them as categories for our living embodied experiences, nor as ‘representative’ of human ways of forming concepts, understanding and feeling, and transmitting  knowledge. They create a serious mis-representation of our bodies, of how our comprehending  bodies work, and are terms soaked in layers of historical prejudices, cultural hierarchies and  supremacies. Blades slicing us apart, creating remoteness and distanciation, rearranging us and our  experiences into tiers and disembodied zones. For me, the word ‘image’ conjures a Victorian body less apparition. The word ‘object’ is a lie, pretending that things can exist alone or be perceived  ‘objectively’. The word ‘text’ is an iconoclastic tool prising words away from life.

Another problematic word/category/container/hold-all/prison/boundary-setter/hierarchy inequality creator is ‘ornament’. A strange bewildering term for all sorts that we mustn’t, supposedly, respect too much. Bric-a-brac, kitsch postcards, other cultures heritage slung into the ‘decorative arts’ bin, indigenous body markings, the glossy theatricalised black skin of Josephine Baker (as described by Anne Anlin Cheng in Second Skin: Josephine Baker & The Modern Surface). Cheng is dealing with a sleek architectural ‘Modernist’s dream of a second skin’, desired by those who ‘abhor ornamentation, tattoos, and other erotic markings’. For me, the words image, text and object are part of this problem. They are second skins. Cheng describes this ‘skin’ as bearing notions of ‘purity, cleanliness, simplicity, anonymity, masculinity, civilisation, technology, intellectual abstractism …’. Once-removed ocular fetishisation, where no real body can ever be found. The body can only ever be referred to. But the skin of the body is not a surface, it is filled with thousands of receptors/ sensors, feeling deep sensations, with nerves, connective tissues, blood vessels. Merkel discs (high tactile acuity for things), Meissner corpuscles (transmit fine discriminative touch sensations), Pacinian corpuscles (vibration and deep pressure), Ruffini endings (detect skin stretch, warmth,  finger position)… Ripples and sensations on/in the skin create vital regulatory changes inside the body. How our bodies are, affects how we feel and what we can think. Are we safe? Not safe? If we can think of words and images like real skin, then maybe we can get to somewhere else. 

Salma Ahmad Caller, ‘Feathershell’, photography and writing featured in Forms of Migration (2022), edited by Stefan Maneval and Jennifer A. Reimer, designed by Eps51 and published by Falschrum Books, Berlin. 

But in the mean time, what other words can we use to say what we mean? These are concepts/ descriptors we have all inherited, regardless of our backgrounds. As an artist and writer from a non mainstream background in the U.K., I soon learnt that images were never enough. Explanations,  bios, statements, contexts, labels, definitions, descriptions … an endless list of words was needed.  

Constance Classen, cultural historian of the senses, in Worlds of Sense: exploring the senses in history and across cultures, states that the written word ‘creates a state of alienation by separating  the writer from the written and the reader from the writer’, and that the whole process of  colonisation and subjugation of others is a process ‘pervaded’ by writing, quoting Levi-Strauss, ‘the primary function of writing is to facilitate the enslavement of human beings’ and to order reality according to the dominant power’. Classen reveals the many ways in which other cultures have used  different senses to order their worlds conceptually – using touch, smell, temperature, sound. So why  do ‘we’ only have the binary ‘text’ and ‘image’ to order our worlds of experiences? She goes on to  speak about the Andean people’s dilemma on whether to participate in the world of writing. To  loose some of their cultural identity, or remain marginalised? To be described as ‘illiterate’.  

Did I start writing and mixing words with images in my art to be heard? If you are not part of the dominant culture, then can your ‘images’ even be understood? So much knowledge and  understanding lies in the vast chasm between words/images and our bodies. Our bodies know so much. So-called oral culture, has been misrepresented, denuded and degraded. No one seems to  really remember anymore, how the body holds and carries archaeologies of knowledge across time and generations. Worlds can be held in a single word, each word an ancient memory stone, whose  carved patterns and coils release realms of knowledge into the body through the touch of the seeing  hand or feeling eye. Brought to life through the memory of the body speaking, moving, singing,  sighing. Can we make our words/word~images work like that anymore? 

A book on my shelf on leading French artist Annette Messager, Word for Word, tells us that ‘for her, “words are images”’. And also for me, and everyone. For that is how the body works. It is too short  a space here to write fully about her vast practice, suffice to say, she blurs all the boundaries,  between her body, things, images, texts, her memories, ideas, the social, cultural and political, the different forms or registers interacting together. In her text piece The Human Body, her words  convey the visceral reality of body. My Trophies (1986) is a hand painted and inscribed with zones, little tiny things and tiny words written on the creases. A hand alive with mysteries of touch and  knowing. My Handiworks (1988) is a kind of image/word flow diagram of black and white  photographs of body parts – nostrils, ear, nipple, collar bone, finger tips, knee, lips, teeth, foot, and  so forth. Connected to each other by thin lines of handwriting, now stitched, onto the cloth. Words  like chance, hesitation, protection, certitude. There are no boundaries in the body, only transitions and transformations. She seems to be trying to recreate how we experience. Hers are sewn words, words made out of all sorts of ‘lowly’ stuff of life, bric-a-brac, and drawn words. Physicalised words. The ‘word’ is entangled with how it looks and feels. Visceral words crying out to be touched. Words not pretending to exist in an abstract disembodied realm of reason.  

Salma Ahmad Caller, ‘Tear in the Gap’, photography and writing featured in Forms of Migration (2022), edited by Stefan Maneval and Jennifer A. Reimer, designed by Eps51 and published by Falschrum Books, Berlin. 

All images also come holding a living body, or multiple bodies. Be that the body of the substrate  they are upon, like a painting, a drawing, a photograph, or the body of the person holding that image inside them, with all the visceral viscera of senses. Regardless of theorising, the incontrovertible  body remains. The flattest of images hold schemata of pressures, textures, sensations, volumes, that  the body is responding to physiologically, regardless of the ‘content’ of the image. 

The body is a place/time where magical metamorphic transformations take place, from one mode to  another. The body cares not for precision and accuracy, of the demarcations of categories, terms and  classifications. 

I was recently reading/looking/feeling my way through To The Realization of Perfect Helplessness  by Robin Coste Lewis. She is working with an archive of memory, of old photographs, and multiple  generations of experiences, traumas and geographies, as I have tried to do with my own archive of  things. Here in this so-called image/text piece, we experience the profound alchemical  transmutations of her body, between the archive of her living body and memory, and the living body  and memory of a community, held within the people still found living inside the found photographs  of her family. Transmutation is actual change of state of being. Words/images/things can be  talismans, relics and fetishes that can have the effect of altering the molecular structure of our  being. Changing us forever.  

We are not allowed to call things relics anymore. Where relic used to mean something still holding  the power. Anthropologists have used the word fetish as a weapon, to categorise the things that  other cultures comprehend as still inhabited by presences. Coste Lewis says she is trying to make  the dead clap and shout. But indeed they are, and she has. We need to reclaim our fetishes and relics  in our words and images. The Reformation created radical changes in the idea of an ‘image’ in  Western culture. It could no longer hold the sacred within it, only point to it, at a distance and  through textual references. Analogy with all its contiguities, connectivities, on various deeper levels  of materiality than just ‘similarity’, was replaced with allegory, systems of symbols – a forest of  fingers pointing at signs, everything now pointing at a text somewhere. 

A great iconoclasm has taken place, where the icon destroyed was the living presence in our words,  things and images.  

Salma Ahmad Caller, ‘The Pink Slipper’, photography and writing featured in Forms of Migration (2022), edited by Stefan Maneval and Jennifer A. Reimer, designed by Eps51 and published by Falschrum Books, Berlin. 

Texts, images and objects – are all made up of animate and inanimate ‘beings’ that live inside of us  as well as outside, and inside of each other like nested dolls. I was told my synaesthesia is an ‘artist’  thing, an imbalance. But it is simply how the body works. Music causes me to see/feel textures, of  wire, lace or velvet. Words have sounds, feelings and meanings often unrelated to what they are  meant to be a sign for. My creative process of making art always starts with words and writing. So called images arise in my imaginative body. I use the sound of my voice reading, in short films and  installations. When we read a written word, we are also listening, to another body speaking it’s  experience. Feeling another body. A text is also an image, even when it pretends not to be. Say a  word and what do you see, hear, feel? Aurality, orality, words in the mouth reverberate in the body.  

We are told metaphors and metonymy are ‘figures of speech’. When in fact, as cognitive science  has shown, they are the materials that structure our understanding. They are the ‘body’ living in our  words. She was simmering. He was on fire. I felt empty. Flames, hot liquids and empty vessels. I  feel unstable. Everything was spinning. I feel blue. The carpet was pulled out from under me. The  sky fell down. Metaphor carries meaning over, from the body into language and back again.  Metaphor in language is the ONLY way written language can carry our bodies’ experiences.  

Metaphor and metonymy. The embodiment of language.The body does not just leave traces, marks,  residues in our words/images. My mother’s silver thimble is my mother, her hand, her presence.  The thimble is metonymic of her. It carries her, and so many feelings of loss, sadness, joyful times, the things she stitched. All at once. It does not ‘stand-in’ for her like a cardboard cut out, more  equation: thimble = mother’s hand/mother.  

In my most recent performative text/image work Crossing Formations, created for the book Forms  of Migration, I wanted to create a ritual for the reader, a ritual in a book. A ritual involves  movement, repetitions, gestures, sequences, words, actions, sounds, smells, rhythms, embodied  imaginary transformations. Importantly ritual is about exchanges/transformations/transmutations of  the body, with others/other bodies, to gain insight, understanding. 

I did not want to just contribute a chapter of ‘text’ and ‘images’. The reader/feeler/viewer has to  ‘move’ around in an interactive metaphorical space, generated around an inventory of 61 things,  curated out of grief whilst clearing my parents home in 2020.  

Salma Ahmad Caller, ‘Wheel of Becoming’, photography and writing featured in Forms of Migration (2022), edited by Stefan Maneval and Jennifer A. Reimer, designed by Eps51 and published by Falschrum Books, Berlin. 

In a quasi anthropological/colonial way I numbered each thing, photographed it and wrote a text label for it. Documenting it. Nothing can ever really convey the universe held within each ‘object’. The texts combined personal memory, historical/political elements, and imaginary or mythical  threads, creating multiple pathways leading out and away, to show how each thing was a site of  dreaming and myth-making. Sited yet unseated. I photographed the things in a non-objective way,  using blurring, strangeness, other materials, and arranged them in composite ‘image tales’, beneath  each tale a title and a text equation to show how everything is made up of things added together, but  nothing really adds up. People have to track down things, messages, hidden inside texts, or images,  or images of images, and match them to numbered texts or hunt for them in the ‘key’, which was a  jumble of everything on my carpet. My prose text ‘explaining’ in long form, was rearranged in the  space on the page, magically, by poet Jennifer A. Reimer, whom I had asked to ‘break it up’, as a  kind of poetry, where words could interact across and down, right to left, not just be read from side  to side, left to right. In creating this ritualistic dance of referencing back and forth across modes, I  wanted to show that it was in a space in between all this, in the invisible connective tissue of the  memory-body, that the real body of who I am, a mixed-race Egyptian English person, lives.

Perhaps chemistry or physics can help describe what we do as artist~writers when we combine  multiple modes in a work or installation? There are many states in which matter can exist, with  names like quasicrystal, plastic crystal, crystalline solid, liquid crystal, plasma, supercritical fluid, degenerate matter, strange matter. There are superfluids, supersolids, quantum spin liquid, string-net  liquid and time crystals. Could it be that we need a physicochemical vocabulary of states of  interactions, of image/text/object with the body? States of proximity, intimacy, contiguity, kinship,  propinquity… degrees of involvement in/of the body with other ‘bodies’ found living after all, set  free from the sterile categories ‘text’ ‘image’ ‘object’?  

We might get lost in another colonial-style system of labelling and typologies. Iain McGhilchrist  talks about the ‘flight of language from the enchantment of the body’ in the last hundred years in the  West. ‘Naming things gives us power over them’, and makes things more stable. As an artist who  writes I keep asking myself – how can we re-enchant TEXT IMAGE OBJECT with our bodies and  destabilise the hegemony? 


Bernadac, Marie-Laure, ed., Annette Messager Word for Word (New York & London: Distributed  Art Publishers 2006) 
Cheng, Anne Anlin, Second Skin: Josephine Baker & The Modern Surface (Oxford: Oxford  University Press 2011) 
Classen, Constance, Worlds of Sense: exploring the senses in history and across cultures (London &  New York: Routledge 1993) 
Coste Lewis, Robin, To The Realization of Perfect Helplessness (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 2022) Johnson, Mark, The Body In The Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason  (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press 1990) 
Maneval, Stefan, Reimer, A. Jennifer, eds., Forms of Migration: Global Perspectives on Im/migrant  Art and Literature (Berlin: Faslchrum Books 2022) 
McGhilchrist, Iain, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern  World, (New Haven & London: Yale University Press 2009) 
Paterson, Mark, The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies (Oxford: Berg 2007) Stafford, Barbara Maria, Visual Analogy: Consciousness As The Art of Connecting (Cambridge,  Massachusetts & London, England: The MIT Press 2001) 

Words and images: Salma Ahmad Caller

Bio: Salma Ahmad Caller is an artist, art historian and writer, born in Iraq to an Egyptian father and a British mother, she grew up in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, and now lives in the U.K. The focus of her work is on cross-cultural exchange, and particularly mixed-race identities, experiences and embodiment, with an art practice that embraces collage, drawing, watercolour, photography, projection, installation and film. Salma also writes art theory, poetry and creative non-fiction, drawing on her theoretical background in research on the meanings of ornament in non-Western cultures through frameworks of anthropology of art and cognitive science. Her aim is to contribute to the decolonisation of art history and theory, and to break down hegemonic colonial and patriarchal formations in ideas and language.With a Masters in art history and art theory, and a background in medicine and pharmacology, and several years teaching cross-cultural ways of seeing through non-Western artefacts at Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, she now works as an independent artist, writer and filmmaker.