Autonomy of Self: Remembering injustices

Friday 09/10/2015
Armenoui Kasparian Saraidari shows how a family archive can serve as both a personal and a collective source of memory.

London - In addition to being an art, pho­tography is a means for docu­menting events and keeping memories alive. Photographs can raise awareness about long-protracted conflicts and past issues that otherwise could fall into oblivion.
Autonomy of Self: rejecting vio­lence with the lens in former Otto­man territories is a small exhibition with a long name in which photos and short films are employed to reassert identity, make statements and express feelings about past and present conflicts and how they could be interlinked.
On display are photographs from the family album of Armenoui Kas­parian Saraidari, a fourth-genera­tion survivor of the Armenian Medz Yeghern, and images from the “Arab spring” by Egyptian photographer Nadia Mounier and Tunisian pho­tographer Moufida Fedhila.
Exhibition curator Joy Stacey ex­plores Palestinian identity through her video The Tourist. Artists and filmmakers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige draw attention to Is­rael’s notorious Khiam detention camp in south Lebanon.
Liam Devlin, senior lecturer in photography at the University of Huddersfield, argued that “when the Ottoman Empire eventually collapsed at the end of the first world war, many of the nations that emerged in the interwar pe­riod never fully stabilised and this helped fuel conflicts across the re­gion ever since.”
The exhibition explores how con­flicts in the former Ottoman territo­ries are remembered — or if they are remembered at all, from the mass slaughter of Armenians in 1914-15, to the Palestin­ian conflict, the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon and the uprisings of the “Arab spring”.
Saraidari tries to compensate for the almost non-existent photographic documenta­tion of the deaths of 800,000-1.5 million Ar­menians dur­ing and after World War I by turning to her family’s photo al­bums to challenge the Turkish state’s attempt to eradicate the Armenian popula­tion within its borders. She uses the personal tragedy of her family to draw attention to a shocking massacre that is only re­membered through the efforts of the victims’ families.
In a strategy reminiscent of Tur­key’s denial of the Armenian mass killings, Israel did its best to eradi­cate the memory of Khiam deten­tion camp, which was run by its proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army, during its 1978-2000 occupa­tion of southern Lebanon.
In the films, Khiam and Khiam second part, former detainees, seat­ed on a chair, speak straight to the camera to compensate for the ab­sence of camp images. Until south Lebanon was liberated in May 2000, it was impossible to go to Khiam camp. The former detain­ees narrate how they managed to survive and assert their identity by producing a needle, a pencil, a string of beads, a chess game.
The camp was turned into a mu­seum but was destroyed during the 2006 war between Israel and Hez­bollah. In the second film, for­mer detainees react to the destruction of the camp. “How can one preserve the traces, the memo­ry?” they ask.
Stacey places a camera on a tri­pod in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and lets it run for 12 minutes, taking photos of tour­ists visiting the church where they encounter two for­lorn figures, who have stepped out of the past, dressed in the Palestinian na­tional costume.
“The Palestinian Au­thority promotes cultural tourism and heritage as a form of resistance to the Israeli occupation. Visitors have the po­tential to witness the occupation and leave with an understanding of Palestinian identity,” she said.
“My work questions the relation­ship between staged visual identi­ties, used where there is a deficit in political representation and the role and responsibility of the audi­ence to the resulting imagery.”
Egyptian women hoped the “Arab spring” would give them a chance to assert their identity and aspire for a better future. In her project Sawtak (Your Voice), Mou­nier expressed anger at the oppres­sion of Egyptian women through a series of self-portraits. The por­traits were reproduced to look like campaign posters that she posted across Cairo’s city centre. Most were defaced.
“The destruction of the posters became an eloquent metaphor for the destruction of the hopes and belief in a more open, democratic society that revolution sought to achieve,” Devlin said.
Fedhila invited Tunisians to pose with the “Super Tunisian” placard. “Isn’t civil society in its plurality the true heroic force in a country in the process of rebuilding?” she asked.
The photos and films expose harsh realities. It is not a thought-provoking exhibition, however, the visitor is challenged to remember injustices and to reflect on their consequences.
“We encounter each piece as an invitation to interpret through our own experiences, an invitation that encourages further questioning, discussions and debates,” Devlin contended.
The exhibition runs through Oc­tober 31st at the P21 Gallery in Lon­don.