Book Review: N.O.K. - Next of Kin by Inbal Abergil
By Frances Molina
The immense power of N.O.K. - Next of Kin is realized before one even opens the book. In their inconspicuous covers of muted red and blue, the two volumes from visual artist Inbal Abergil evoke a sober and serious patriotism absolutely void of any commercial flash. The titles, centered on the cover and embossed with a dim shine, are almost invisible to the reader, as if intentionally camouflaged. As such, the reader is compelled to reach out and touch. In this way, and in so many others, Abergil’s work is meant not only to be viewed, but to be felt.
Set to launch on November 9, 2017, N.O.K – Next of Kin is the debut monograph from Inbal Abergil. The two-part work explores familiar themes of her previous work – loss, trauma, conflict. However, as Abergil zeroes in on the private lives of military families, N.O.K. allows the space needed for hope, comfort, and healing to flourish in the face of tragedy.
Spanning the course of three years, from 2014 to 2017, the project delivers a strikingly intimate look into the homes of America’s Gold Star families, those left behind by soldiers who have died in service to their country. The plates and their complementary essays are certainly haunting, startling in their bleak honesty. But Abergil skillfully (and respectfully) steers her subjects away from any unnecessary melancholy and the theatrical pageantry that so often characterizes the memorials of fallen soldiers.
In Volume I, the photographs, collected from 18 families across the country, document the personal altars built to commemorate loved ones lost in World War II, Vietnam, and the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some are elaborate: entire mantles decorated with photographs and memorabilia, shoeboxes full of carefully kept letters, decorated uniforms hung up with pride. Other “altars” – a room of ominous grey bins pushed into the corner, a storage unit hastily stuffed with reminders of a lost child - offer a glimpse at family wounds still fresh with pain.
Abergil allows the families to speak for themselves in Volume II with a collection of short essays. Here, the next of kin reflect on the mementos presented in Volume I and revisit their memories of love and loss. Their stories not only reveal the incredible diversity of our country’s military families, but also explore the similarities that unify them: their devotion to one another, to their country, and to a more hopeful and determined future.
It is an interesting choice on the part of the artist to divide her work into two volumes and their pair them together in a series since, by themselves, each book has the potential stand alone. Volume I presents anonymous images and symbols stripped of their personal meaning, otherwise unremarkable and yet eerily familiar. Volume II is a disjointed anthology of stories about death, lingering grief, and personal memory. On their own, each volume represents an impressive collection of candid, emotional art. But together the two volumes work in harmony, with the stories translating the hidden history of their corresponding pictures.
N.O.K. captures only a fraction of the incredible loss that our country has endured as a result of war and international conflict. As comforting as it might be to find solidarity in our moments of pain, one can’t help but think of all the voices still unheard, so many loved ones - and so many memories still unearthed. As America continues to escalate its involvement in Afghanistan, N.O.K. brings humanity and perspective to the subject of our country’s longest war, asking the viewer to examine how we understand the lasting trauma of grief and the ever-elusive potential for healing.