Trail: Roots/Routes/Rhizomes by Taous Dahmani

In April 2020, a few weeks after the start of the first lockdown in England, where I was then based, the Washington Post published an article entitled "Coronavirus teaches Americans what life in exile is like". I was struck by the analogy and reading it in those terms vetted a hypothesis that had been in my mind for a while. Back in the spring, we were still getting used to the new rules: distance, remoteness and separation became key words. In most cases, in our everyday life, it is only about the regulated 6 feet, sometimes it's a little more and for many others it's seas and oceans that separate us from our loved ones. For some this situation is ancient, for others it is a brand new discovery, but 2020 may have crossed life experiences. In his article, Ariel Dorfman challenged the reader with this question:

"Is it possible, then, that these uprooted men, women and children who left their homes behind for a new land [...] have some lessons to teach us now that the pandemic has, in some sense, made exiles of us all?"

In the context of the US presidential campaign and the continued hardening of the Global North’s public opinion on migration, the idea seems eminently radical: could, those who are constantly denied humanity by so many people, politicians and media outlets, have valuable life experiences worthy of being shared? Ariel Dorfman then stated: "I trust that there is much to learn from the experience of extreme dislocation suffered by humanity’s expatriate multitudes."

It is therefore with this article in mind and this continual questioning of the trivialisation of the intimate experience of exile or migration that I discovered Photo Fringe’s 2020 exhibitions. As such, this trail tries to propose a dynamic interplay between roots and routes, between identity, place and displacement as a rhizomic entanglement.

I first strongly engaged with Quetzal Maucci’s instruction-based performance-like film While Searching for Each Other. Maucci started her project during the first lockdown because she "yearned for her community, for a world outside of these four walls". The venture was developed around an envelope marked "Route of Isolation" and then follows a parade of letters and photographs signaling multivocal qualities. One of her collaborators confesses that he is "longing for family who are oceans away", another explains her attempts to "keep (her)self afloat". Anchored or displaced, most have grounded in London: the multiple accents of the voice-overs betray different migratory and linguistic paths. One voice states that her "home has roots in many parts of the world", probably like Maucci who was born in San Francisco, who is Argentinian and Peruvian-American and who is today based in London. Does Maucci's work confirm Dorfman's thesis?

This dialogue between locality and globality can be found in other compelling projects presented by Photo Fringe — proposing to examine how to materialize the entanglement of being "in between". Tommy Kha’s long-term project At Home, I’m a Tourist plays with the potentiality of physical and cultural hybridity. Kha seems to be on a journey through family archives and digital montages connecting him to reflection on his heritage and life in the US Asian community. At Home, I’m a Tourist appears as a creative floundering within the photographic image, torturing the format to grasp, at last, who he is. The oscillation is between the idea of the physical home, the four walls of family space, and home as a space for crafting identities. While we are currently denied physical transnational experiences, stuck at home, in its broadest definitions: what kind of communities are we left with?

Hussina Raja’s 16mm short film Roots was shot in the Bangladeshi neighbourhood of Poplar in Tower Hamlets, East London. Raja recounts the ever-evolving and fluctuating experience of immigrants: she too plays between the adjustments of the inner, the personal, the intimate and vulnerable against the outer, the public and the communal. What is most fascinating is the detailed work on gestures and gazes. The transformation of attitudes from one space to another and the variation of body-language between inside and outside.

Roots explores what it means to be Other and British like Richard Mark Rawlins' series Conversations over Tea.

Rawlins’ photographs are close-ups focusing on the sitter’s eyes and the blurred porcelain teacup — a continuation to his 2018 I am Sugar series — which pays tribute to Stuart Hall and his famous statement “I am the sugar in the bottom of the English cup of tea”. Here the traditional gesture of tea-drinking — some would say part of the quintessentially British lifestyle — is reappropriated, repoliticized and the gaze of the subject challenges the viewer. One of Rawlins’ subjects is artist Hew Locke who also addressed the story of the enrichment of Great Britain through its colonies — via the metonymy of sugar — in 2005 with Tate.

The work of Xiaoli O. Chang recurrently mobilises the statement "We Are Different" as a chorus to their performance-based film Generality: "What's the Difference?" With the help of a voice-over made up of testimonies and an almost clinical visual universe, Chang explores the porosity between the group and the individual. In the midst of the multitude, individuality is erased behind its difference. Of Asian heritage, Chang uses choreography, sound and film as a celebration of multiplicity which constitutes a call to order in the face of violent banal stereotypes.

The sentence "You choose to see us as one" punctuating Chang’s film, could also have been found in Zula Rabikowska’s animation Citizens of Nowhere, which addresses, among other things, the anti-Polish rhetoric that emerged at the time of the referendum in 2016. Rabikowska’s work also comments on the refusal of individuality in favour of a vague conception of an "invading foreign mass". In order to address the erosion of immigrant identity Rabikowska experiments with the materiality of the photographic image: her film has been soaked in English Channel saltwater and photographs are torn apart. Rabikowska superimposes substance and form and gives a tangible account of the fluidity imposed on the migratory experience. She addresses the difficulty of belonging and the constant work it takes to fit in. The equivalent use of one language over another — here Polish and English — typical of the multicultural experience, here goes against the neutralization demanded by naturalization.

Two other works in my selection use the artistic process and creation as a route back to their roots. Hadzhiyska's work consists of a series of photographs and two very short films, through which she investigates Bulgaria’s state-enforced renaming its Muslim population policies during the “Revival Process” — also known as the “Process of Rebirth” — that took place in the late 1980s. Those who refused to turn their names into Slavic ones were subjected to persecution, including imprisonment, expulsion and internment. Her work in an unearthing, an excavation of her relatives’ old Muslim names. Hadzhiyska addresses the weight of state apparatus on its population, the pressure of the nation-state on identity, the burden of policies on personal matters. Hadzhiyska also offers an exploration of the national archives that hold the re-naming forms in question.

The archive, this time unattainable and inaccessible, is also key in Rehab Eldalil's work since it is "withholding the history of the land, its people and possibly my family’s." Eldalil’s The Longing Of The Stranger Whose Path Has Been Broken is a journey into her past and addresses the uniqueness of nomadic life. Based in Cairo, Eldalil undertook a physical journey to the South Sinai in search of an unknown origin story. The physicality of travel is found in her work of embroidery on her photographic images and in the immersion offered by poetry and sound.

These works work here as reminders that the Other is either legally, or ideologically considered as second-class citizen, and as such, a reminder of the Other’s knowledge about fractures created by laws or pandemics and suppression of freedom. This trail tries to highlight the visual potentiality of merging subaltern narratives and our lockdown world. Now, I’ll let you explore the exhibitions with this last invitation made by Dorfman in his article:

"When you resurface [author's note: after the lockdowns], do not forget to look back on the dark night of the soul and the body you have gone through."

About Taous Dahmani

Taous R. Dahmani is a photography historian, working between France and England. She is a PhD fellow at the Panthéon-Sorbonne University (Paris), where she taught 20th century photography history for three years. In 2019-20, Taous was based in Oxford. She is content advisor and editor of The Eyes, an annual bilingual photography magazine. Her writings and her talks always tackle politics and its relations to the photographic medium.