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Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Human Sites of Memory: The Story isn't Simple

image from Enghelab Street 

Hannah Darabi, Dragana Jurisic and Maria Kapajeva spoke at a symposium I chaired in Bristol the other week. 

Hannah spoke on her book Enghelab Street (which won the Best Catalogue prize in Paris Photo the other week - even though it's not a catalogue) and the ways in which conflicting narratives have been squeezed out from the 1979 Iranian Revolution by the idea of an over-arching Islamic Revolution.

Except it wasn't an Islamic Revolution - in the same way the American Civil War wasn't a war to free the slaves and Britain didn't stand alone against the Nazis. Myths are there to be made.

It's a false narrative where images, typography and design are used to claim and counter claim individual, national and symbolic histories in the name of a post-memory Islamic Revolution. She told stories of counter-memories and micro-memories that are stored in books, in bodies, in minds, that have a latent energy that can potentially shift histories and maybe even ways of thinking.

Image copyright Dragana Jurisic

Dragana talked about the history of Yugoslavia, the wars, the death, the ordinariness of it all, and the way that nationalisms creep into our lives, seep into our every pore, there right in front of our eyes but somehow invisible. 

Maria Kapajeva talked about how personal narratives cut through and intersect with dominant political and economic storylines, and in particular how women's experiences of family, work and space overlap in her project  Dream is Wonderful, Yet Unclear.

These came in her project on a former textile mill where her mother used to work. It closed down after being bought by a Swedish company. They bought it to close it down because it was a competitor. That narrative is repeated across many former Communist countries and maybe a little closer to home as well.

The commonly held notion that Soviet Bloc economies collapsed solely because of inefficiencies and incompetence and corruption is appealing because it indicates our western superiority and the power of capitalism to bulldoze over any belief or value system that runs counter to its destructive force.

The narratives that Kapajeva unearthed in the textile mill are simple, they are filled with life, they are embedded in personal histories that we can all understand and relate to, and are also complicated with nostalgia and an over compensating post-memory. Nothing is clear.. The narratives come from more micro-narratives, from altenative sites of memory that were lived rather than conceived, from the diary of workers who wrote of how to avoid pregnancy, how to lose weight, how to cope with a punishing workload - and a family - and domestic work - and still have a life. 

They come from the memories of the women who worked in the mill, memories that are laced with a nostalgia that is at times candy-coated. They come from idealised visions of textile mills in Soviet cinema, visions that overlap with concrete memories of community, achievement, and sense of belonging. 

On one level moving from a single  nationalist economic narrative to fragmented personal narratives is moving from the simple to the complex, from the single over reaching story arc to something that is more nuanced.

On another level it's moving from the  complex to the simple. The narratives of national identity are abstract and metaphysical in nature. They lack a voice, a grounding, they seek to find their place in ever more fanciful conjectures. They are made up. They lack substance. They are smoke and mirrors. 

The narratives Harabi, Jurisic and Kapajeva are interested in  are personal and  link people, place and economics. They are not simple, they are not moral, they are black and white, they don't make sweeping generalisations, they don't even fit into one simple story arc. But they are sited in human bodies, in human flesh, in places that have a life beyond abstractions of ideology and economics.

They don't necessarily make some grand conclusion. They simply are. 

The same idea in a slightly different way comes from Riffae Tammas  who talks about the difficulty of being a refugee who is expected to fit into some preformed story package.

How many stories do we hear about the challenges of young people adapting to a completely new education system? The difficulty of finding employment? The joy of discovery in a new country? If we are genuinely interested in supporting refugees, then we should focus on stories about their present and future, not just their past.

Which again is about human sites of memory that don't fit into pre-conceived narratives or story arcs however well meaning. 

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