When we think of the word ‘archive’, we inevitably conjure up a sort of reverence for history, preserving and collecting. This notion is sometimes romanticised or fetishised because piles of dusty papers or endless rows of boxes exude a certain kind of mystery: they carry the promise of discovery.
Even museum displays that exhibit old artefacts invite our curiosity for the same reason. In both cases, the information contained within these spaces is organised and constructed in a certain way.
Perhaps this unquestioned acceptance of all knowledge as wondrous, untainted and absolute truth is precisely what is bothersome to and entices artists who choose to work with archives. Artists like to question everything, but they also enjoy discovering/imagining its alternates and possibilities.
In An Archival Impulse, Hal Forester writes that archival artists are “often drawn to unfulfilled beginnings or incomplete projects — in art and history alike — that might offer points of departure again.”
Some artists have begun exploring these vexing points of departure and they examine how archiving can reveal untold stories and narrate a different view of history. These installations and displays may not talk about ideas commonly associated with art, such as the pleasure of beautiful landscapes, colour, abstraction or a skillfully drawn portrait, but they reveal some poignant truths about history and memory.
Many artists have created installations where their works carry the air of neutrality that we associate with the act of faithful recording of documentation. For instance, Lebanese Nada Sehnaoui’s works take a cue from the layout and arrangement of data within archives. Repetition, grids, text and collation of information and objects characterise many of her installations.
Sehnaoui makes the tumultuous history of Lebanon and its national/historical narratives her locus; she uses collective memory to comment on society, politics and even trauma. Her work ‘Fractions Of Memory’ is a public installation which took place in what used to be Martyrs’ Square in downtown Beirut.
The Square was destroyed twice, first by the war, then by reconstruction. Sehnaoui appealed to the public in newspapers to write their memories of daily life before the start of the war in 1975. The final work consists of 360 piles of paper constructed using 20 tonnes of newspaper, and arranged in a grid in Martyr’s Square.
Some piles carry blank pages for missing texts and lost memories. By challenging official/national narratives of war, the artist literally and metaphorically constructs a public narrative that can be read as an archive of loss. Or is it a subjective rewriting of history?
Karachi-based artist Affan Baghpatti also looks at collective memory but catalogues old objects that one is likely to find in antique shops in local markets. In his show titled, Alternative Imaginary, he displays this archive of objects saying, “They’re sort of formulating a shared history of our material culture which is lost in many capacities.”
Baghpatti likes to combine two unlikely objects from his archive so we can recontextualise their meaning and function as we reflect upon larger questions, such as the complexity of origin, provenance and history.
Lebanese artist Walid Raad subverts and discards the authenticity of an archive altogether and instead creates a fictional archive under the name of Atlas Group, which contains fictional notebooks, photographs and videos about the Lebanese war.
He adds performance as an element by conducting a detailed lecture with audiences around the world, which offers absurd explanations about the contents of the archive in painstaking detail. Is he lying? Is this really true? The viewer is left unsettled and ultimately begins to question the veracity of this “archive” and of history in general.
Pakistani artist Mohsin Shafi poses the same question but we are lulled into believing the romanticism of his personal archive. In ‘Confessions Of A Secret Lover, 2016 Collection Of Ten Stolen Items From 2006 to 2016’, he presents a display of objects as one would find in a museum: a pocket knife, a pebble, a dried flower amongst many others. Is this mere nostalgia or is it meant to challenge the provenance of many objects we encounter in museums that were often stolen?
Even Pakistan’s first entry in the Venice Biennale, with its inaugural Pakistan Pavilion, featured a body of work produced by Naiza Khan that delved into colonial archives and drew inspiration from collecting, collating and presenting sound, video and images of Manora Island.
The archive often enables critique of issues such as colonisation, war, marginalisation, racism, etc. It remains to be seen whether more Pakistani artists decide to consider its potential.
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 24th, 2021