Panel 1A

Chronicles and Curation:  Documenting Cultural Transitions in the Wider Middle East (Part 1)


Chair: Sharon C. Smith, Aga Khan Documentation Center at MIT

An Ethnographic Approach to a Curatorial Experience: The Multiple Stories within Personal Archives from Yemeni Visual Artists (2008-2017)

Anahi Alviso-Marino, Centre Européen de Sociologie et de Science Politique

Currently Yemen has no museums dedicated to modern or contemporary art and virtually no archival sources pertaining to visual arts. While I conducted fieldwork on the political sociology of visual artists in Yemen (May 2008-March 2011), the artists who participated in my research entrusted me with a variety of original materials. I collected photocopies of documents such as membership cards to the first Syndicate of Yemeni artists, handwritten papers telling of artists reconstructions of the genealogies of their movement, and also original newspapers, invitations to gallery and exhibition openings since the 1980s, and other objects. I was able to “take pictures of pictures,” which enabled me to record archival images that never made it to a catalogue or book, some of them containing politically sensitive materials. Since then, I have commenced photographing this material while questioning how I could archive and make them accessible to different audiences. Recently, I undertook an exhibition project based on these personal archives. In this project, I intersect my roles as a researcher and a curator in an exhibition where I will display many of these objects and materials. From a curatorial perspective, this exhibition reconstructs multiple histories, artistic and political, in a country currently at war. As a researcher, it represents an opportunity to critically engage with questions related to provenance, ownership and possession in the study of personal archives from Yemeni visual artists. My contribution to this panel will focus on objectifying this experience and its outcomes. Methodologically, my contribution will treat this exhibition experience as a site for ethnographic observation.

Documenting the Un- and Under-Documented: The Kurdish Collection and the Oral History Project at Binghamton University

Aynur de Rouen, Binghamton University

Much has been said in the last four decades about the new trend in archives to look beyond official records and collect materials that document a richer fabric of the human experience, not just the powerful, elite, wealthy, or privileged, but to record the undocumented, under-documented, and historically oppressed groups in society.  Drawing on contemporary efforts in archives, memory, trauma, and Kurdish Studies, this paper explores efforts to document narratives of Kurds who have been on the periphery of society with no agency or voice during and after repressive regimes, as well as their diasporic experiences and how they formulated their individual and collective identities post conflict.  While investigating methods, which allow for the voices of the marginalized to be heard, shared, and opened to the public, challenges such as the lack of available material, lack of trust from the creators, protecting privacy while providing access, fear of voicing their stories, and other precautions of turmoil are also examined.  Lastly, this paper opens up an opportunity to discuss and evaluate archival activities: how we currently undertake creating, preserving, and documenting events and our levels of partnership with other institutes, and how we can create more opportunities for partnership.

Iran Files: Transnational Curation of Digital Art

Sandra Skurvida, FIT-SUNY

This paper considers the curation, documentation, and preservation of digital art exchanges between Iran and the U.S. since 2009. There are two levels of restrictions of these exchanges—ideologically motivated internal censorship in Iran, and politically framed external restrictions via sanctions in the U.S. As an artwork passes between these two political economies, it highlights, as well as subtends, cultural and political differences. The paper begins with a consideration of object-based contemporary art sourced almost exclusively from diaspora artists and collectors, demonstrating that predigital curatorial strategies devised for object-based art haven continued to be applied to digital formats. The paper then turns to the forceful conflation of art as material and art as information in the setting of restricted material and/or informational exchanges that exists between Iran and the U.S. The U.S. Department of the Treasury classifies art as “information.” Since exchanges of information are exempt from the OFAC sanctions, presentation of art in digital formats should be more viable in the U.S. than transfers of art objects, which require supplementary services that fall under sanctions (crating, shipping, insurance, etc.). Yet curatorial research since 2009 demonstrates that the opposite is true. It questions what is designated cultural heritage, and considers what can be done to influence the predetermined flows of information that is also art.

Constructing the Narrative: The Importance of Multi-Medium Source Material in Examining Contemporary Iran

Lucy Flamm, University of Texas at Austin

Historians are taught to look to the archive as the foremost site for constructing events of the past. However, in examining Iran in the 20th century such an approach will only bring about an incomplete depiction of the social and political landscape. Tracing documentation practices from the fall of the Qajar family to the rise of Khomeini, this research argues that untraditional mediums for historians — such as poetry, fictional literature, and oral histories — are necessary to chronicling political, social, and ideological developments otherwise absent from the written court histories and archives of Iran.   Works by Zeyn al-Abedin Maraghei, Ahmad Shamlu, and their contemporaries illustrate how literature has consistently served as a mode of expression for the unwritten voices of activists, women, and racial and religious minorities. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s state-sponsored military police and intelligence network suppressed all oppositional narratives. Consequently, oral histories become essential to reconstructing the history of Iran under the Shah. Oral histories allow insight to events otherwise undocumented in formal Iranian archives, including the 1963 national pro-Khomeini demonstrations, vast persecution of the Bahai’s, and omnipresent instances of disappearance, torture, and murder by forces of the regime. Such testimonies are pivotal to reshaping the historical discourse of cultural trends and transformations, and enhancing global understanding of the norms, concerns, and constraints that shaped Iran in the 20th century.  It is only through embracing mediums of historical documentation outside the formal archive that the scholar and inquisitive individual alike can best understand the Iranian domestic landscape.