The Archive and Memory / Memory as Archive

Posted on September 7, 2014

'the transformation of archivistic activity is the beginning of a new history'. Michel de Certeau, quoted by Premesh Lalu 2008

I have often wondered, enviously, at the seamless ways in which wordsmiths use linking words. The near perfection in their efforts at joining one thought, one image to the other. Much like some of the most exquisite basket weavers I have observed around the African continent and beyond, joining intricate patterns with designs - steady and certain in their exacting strands - always drawing the eye of the viewer to that which lies in between, the story or stories, figures or objects but always messages of some kind. (Some of these messages, just enough to elicit a sigh of contentment at being witness to some beauty or flourish of human innovation). I am no wordsmith. That I guess is the challenge and so spend endless hours, days, weeks, sometimes months writing one piece, which may appear simple or obvious on the face of it, but clearly not as simple in its weave or sense making as it would seem.

I guess, it's my orality. My supposed excellence and inherited skill of the spoken word. My dad, his dad and who knows who beyond that (perhaps the elusive ancestor, the Lithuanian Jew who sold trinkets and fabric or my great grandmother at times described as an incredibly large, powerfully voiced and very, very dark woman from Pondoland and at others from the West Indies? The latter would explain my irascible nature. Thank gods and goddesses, there is someone or some thread in my ancestry I can ascribe that quality to.)

And so it is, or was, with this piece. My attempts at joining, finding linking words which would seamlessly explore memory and archive, archive and memory, led me to dance quite a mean Dvorak tune between poetry, visual art, public expressions of culture (though I admit to finding that rather tepid now - this thing called public culture vs institutional culture and its framing), memory and the archive. And to complicate things much in the same way which an exceptional composer, such as Dvorak or Theolonious Monk would, memory is just as complex in the making and writing.

Existing on two levels, individual and collective, memory is at once elusive and very present it has been pondered on, examined by every discipline imaginable and across hemispheres. Historians, sociologists, psychologists, scientists, storytellers, sangomas, philosophers, poets, novelists, visual artists, social workers, care workers, caregivers/parents. The list is endless. It has been at times been described as noun, 'ghost', or as verb, 'memorialisation' imbued with terrible heady power it has been called to account for attempts at 'nation building' or 'nationalisation'and even more so, its uses as reconciliatory tool or mechanism. The latter, operating of course, at both an individual and collective level. Reconciling with one's past, an often painful past fraught with trauma or traumatising conditions and a 'nation' in need of 'coming to terms' with its remembered past. And in some ways, this is one of the places where 'joining words' slip or elude me, the concern with the remembered past, hidden past, silenced (or not silenced) past, the ghosts in our landscapes geographical, social, psychological or even genetic.

I was asked by a wonderful writer, friend, Keguro Macharia not too long ago; 'how are you?' The question was posed to me deliberately. He leaning forward in keen anticipation and listening with his whole heart. He, wanting to understand the condition of my heart. He explained, in the beautiful word weaving which he does effortlessly, that the work which I do, 'healing through memory and objects' in particular, has me play the role of an archive. The body and mind, the storyteller as witness, entrusted with the stories of others, not just the documented words, but the flow of emotion, the physical manifestation of anger, bitterness, immense sadness, the viciousness of gender based violence. The weaves of storytelling with its variances of tautness, tension and looseness. One which sometimes retreats at will, at others uncontrollably independent of any strong willed personality. Ill- disciplined in character this archive and not that easy in its retrieval options.

I am not an archivist. Perhaps, I have dabbled and may call myself a 'memory maker' (1) which I have done on occasion. So there are two images playing in loop as I think through and begin to write this piece titled 'the Archive and Memory'. The first image is that of the 'Reconstruction of the portrait of Pablo Miguez' on the Rio de la Plata by Claudia Fontes."My proposal for Parque de la Memoria was based then in an attempt to reconstruct one of the multiple possible portraits of Pablo Mä­guez, one of approximately 500 children kidnapped with his/her parents during the military dictatorship.

This attempt at reconstructing an image became an exercise in collective memory building, in which Pablo's relatives, friends and 13 year old children took part. In exercising the right to memory, we tried all together to dismantle said perverse semantics and give evidence to a fact, which unfortunately is still widely denied.
" Claudia Fontes

This sculpture, an artistic and poetic piece was created to insert into the marine landscape of the Rio de la Plata narratives about the disappeared, the tortured and the un-missing. It evokes memory, creates memory and calls into the present a past and a future which could easily be dismissed under state and societal pressure. The 'ghost' in the archive, a term or concept I tripped over many years ago when writing a piece titled; 'the art of memory making'. And one I find quite fitting when I imagine myself, or others trolling through archives. It illustrates, beautifully and visually the spaces in between words, files, documents and photographs, materials found in archives. And that which is NOT found, or absent in archives. I quite like the openings which such an imaginative memorial elicits on the nature of the archive, it calls for a viewing into the landscape of memory a sometimes complimentary, subjugation or contestation of the archive. Connecting words.

Healing Through Memory and Objects participant, Sam.The second image is that of a match box chosen by a participant at one of our 'Healing through Memory and Objects' (2) workshops in the Western Cape, South Africa. Whilst the match box had its own story or biography; its' production and its' purpose, the participant selected the object for its symbolic value. It reminded him of his dad and a lesson that he was taught and has taken to heart; “to always be the light, no matter how dark the times may be'.

This image illustrates the wisdom shared by Iris Marion Young; “dwelling in the world means we are located among artefacts, rituals and practices that configure who we are in our particularity'. The healing through memory and objects process contradicts or contests the global tendencies to conflate the misery, horrors, sacrifices and resilience of individuals and communities in the face of the pandemic of HIV/AIDS in its citing of statistics, models and frameworks. In the identification of objects of significance and moving through the curatorial process of storytelling for new knowledge, emotional exploration and transformational action, the storyteller becomes the curator capturing and sharing information that possibly would not be held in any hospital record of patient adherence and treatment program. Connecting words.

The first image echoes conversations about the landscape as archive; untidy places or patterned systems of storing and retrieving, perhaps even eco-systems with rhythms of life, growth and death. Absences or silences profoundly felt or understood by those who “know'. The second image, the inevitable loss and retrieval of data as meanings and attachments change. And in between them, the seamless ways in which memory and archive, archive and memory connect.

'if I want to forget ... I recall
I become filled with my presence, I choose the day
I was born...
To arrange forgetfulness...
If I want to forget...I recall
I select a beginning, I become born as I desire
Not as a hero...nor as an offering

Memory branches out and plays. Right here
Are two ancient olive trees in the northeast
In the first I found my song's seeds
And in the other I found a letter...'

Two Olive Trees by Mahmoud Darwish in the Butterfly's Burden 2007


1) See, the 'Art of memory making' Deirdre Prins, 2005 Trentham Books
2) Museum of AIDS in Africa,

Deirdre Prins-Solani is an independent heritage activist who explores the relationships between disciplines and sectors so as to create through action research, a better understanding of the weave between safeguarding heritage and creating sustainable livelihoods for all.