Prerana Kumar

Project Spotlight– Writing The Archive

A conversation with Fahad Al-Amoudi, Lydia Hounat and Prerana Kumar

‘Writing the Archive’ is a creative project that interrogates the nature of the archive as a problematic space of procurement, violence and misinformation, emblematic of a colonial legacy. In partnership with the British Museum, Squad writers will create work that blurs historical fiction with the poetics of Ethiopian, Indian and Algerian literary traditions.

This is the first year of the project that will hopefully continue to run in future years in partnership with various archive centres.

The text was taken from our collective research notes, and it’s overlaid on an exposed image Lydia took in Algeria as part of her own archiving project.

I sat down with my fellow creatives to facilitate a conversation about the ethos of the project and our personal motivations. Often as creatives, we focus on the final creative piece or the end-product as the only product. We hope that through this conversation, we could document our research processes in a transparent manner, including the personal challenged we face(d), the pitfalls and some of our writing concerns. We want to emphasize that the research process behind the writing is also a creative-critical product, and its own archive. 

This blog post is accompanied with a recording of a conversation between the three of us that expands on the ideas we’ve talked about here.

How did the project come to be? 

Fahad – We were directly influenced by a previous project we had all done last year in participation with the Writing Squad, Barbican Young Poets and English Heritage. We were all commissioned to write a poem in response to one of Heritage’s sites and paired up with a writer of the opposite collective to discuss ideas. It was an intense couple of weeks at the height of the second lockdown and although the research and writing were hugely rewarding, we were left wanting when the project ended. We realised that the concept of historical research-based poetry was something we were all keenly interested in, but we wanted the time and autonomy to be able to explore our areas of interest without any external competing interests. That was when I called Steve, the director of the Writing Squad. I told him that I wanted to lead a project, hopefully a recurring one, where Squad writers would gain access to archive institutions and have the freedom to explore and write research-based work in their fields of interest. 

Indirectly, I think it’s fair to say that all three of us have always been interested in the idea of archiving, whether that is the deeply personal task of family history or deconstructing how groups of people are remembered, memorialised etc. The English Heritage Project was really the catalyst, bringing together three writers who have an intense fascination with history and memory, and I think it gave us the confidence as emerging writers to believe that with our own direction we could do this project.

Prerana – I think creative autonomy was the main reason I immediately said yes. With the English Heritage project, it was limited in that we had to choose from a list of sites to write from. The freedom of choosing what resonated most with our individual cultures, histories and identities ensured that we weren’t shoehorning ourselves into a fixed mould but excavating erased histories of our choice.

Lydia – The only thing I could add to this is that following on from our collaboration with English Heritage we wanted to continue the work of exploring displaced narratives concerning our own roots within artefacts held elsewhere. Part of expanding this work was to really work with organisations on our own terms and have a say in the artefacts we chose, the places we picked, where we wrote the work and to be our own leaders in that sense. I guess that collaboration with English Heritage facilitated a continuation! 

What were our individual inspirations for the artefacts we chose from the archive?

Fahad – I wanted to find out as much as I could about the Maqdala archive scattered across variations institutions throughout the UK. In 1868, a British Military Expedition set out to Ethiopia (then referred to as Abyssinia) to secure the release of various emissaries that Emperor Tewodros had taken prisoner. The Expedition came back with the prisoners as well as countless priceless artefacts looted from churches and the fort at Maqdala. In Ethiopia, The Battle of Maqdala is seen as a tragic chapter of miscommunication, national embarrassment, and loss but it is also seen as a symbol of defiance with Tewodros committing suicide rather than letting himself be taken prisoner by General Napier. In Britain, contemporaries also saw it as a national embarrassment, a diplomatic failure, and the beginning of a more aggressive colonial policy. What has always interested me most has been the story of Tewodros’ son, Prince Alemayehu. 

After the conflict, the seven-year-old Prince was kidnapped by Captain Speedy of the British Expedition and taken to live in the UK where he spent the rest of his life until he died of pleurisy at eighteen years old in Leeds. I felt that I could connect to Alemayehu as a person who suffered violent upheaval at a young age and felt increasingly isolated and surveyed in the UK. We have very few historical accounts of Alemayehu. There are passages in Queen Victoria’s diaries where she occasionally reports extracts of conversation between the two where Alemayehu admits to feeling as if he is constantly observed. I think it’s no coincidence that collectors in the British Museum came on the Maqdala Expedition– the intention was to build an archive, one that contained the revered ancient liturgical texts of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, clothes and artefacts from a part of the world surrounded by myth and legend, and what was the crowning centrepiece? Alemayehu– the walking artefact for all of the UK to gaze at. This was my connection to the archive. I felt Alemayehu’s dislocation, I felt the eyes constantly on him as a person of African descent living in Britain and I wanted to imagine what he might have said about his life.

Lydia– I chose a ‘necklace’ held by the British Museum belonging to the Kabyle community in northeast Algeria. North Africa is home to the Imazighen, an indigenous community that spans across the whole of the Maghreb. My family on my father’s side are Kabylie. This necklace is called an ‘azrar’ and much of its craftsmanship is synonymous with Amazigh values and beliefs. The colours for example, red, yellow, green and blue represent the natural elements — and it’s these colours for which Kabyle jewellery is so renowned for. The shapes of charms on the necklace are symbols for abundance, such as the circular pendant, a ‘tikeffsit’ which is a large plate on which meals for whole families were served on, and people would collectively eat from. Eating from separate plates isn’t really a thing in Kabyle culture and part of that ‘eating from the same plate’, reinforces values of familial generosity, collectivity, kindness. Nature and art are symbiotic and Kabyle women especially reflect that symbiosis in their artistry. A lot of the contextual information and symbolism of the azrar was missing or misunderstood; for example the object is categorised under the origin ‘Berber’. ‘Berber’ is a derogatory word for the Imazighen, coming from the Greek work ‘barbaros’ meaning ‘savage’, and this name is widely rejected by Imazighens across the Maghreb. So part of the reason I chose this piece was to ameliorate the archive by raising awareness of its vernacular, and transferring my own knowledge to the necklace in question in order to renew people’s understanding of its meaning within my own community. 

Prerana – I was drawn to a lot of the Mughal portraits in the Archive. Specifically, Mughal portraits depicting intimacy or tenderness between women. The pictures were all labelled as ‘Woman with companion or ‘A female musician and another are seated by a stream’. Portraiture has always been a way of legitimising regal narratives, but also the heteronormative gaze. I began to question how the women in these portraits would express their relationships – otherwise generalised as ‘companion’ – if they had the chance to do so. I wanted to explore queer intimacy that might have been erased through the preservation of these portraits in a colonial, heteronormative archive. A lot of these paintings were acquired pre-independence (pre-1947) so during the colonial period, when colonial laws implemented in the penal code criminalised homosexuality. This is not to say Indian society was entirely unproblematic before, but through leaving legal precedent, colonial legacy legitimised and cemented the erasure of queerness.

I was most drawn to portrait of Jahan Aara Begum titled ‘Jahan Aara Begum with Attendant’. Jahan Aara Begum was Begum Padshah after her mother, Mumtaz Mahal passed away. She was one of the most powerful and important women of her time and remained unmarried. She was also the child of one of the most widely recognised and celebrated heteronormative relationships – Shah Jahan’s eternal love for Mumtaz Mahal, living on in the Taj Mahal. What does it mean to be a child of such a publicised, proclaimed, and revered love? I also stumbled upon a story of how she suffered severe burns in her thirties, and almost died, (and here the accounts vary) either being saved or trying to save her favourite ‘dance-woman’. This stuck with me, because such an act could only be borne out of a deep desperation, but the story is never honoured with the recognition of the passion (whether romantic or otherwise) behind it. I wondered how many more accounts of such tenderness, love, and companionship get erased over time. Even today, South Asian identity and queerness are considered mutually exclusive, and I want to honour the intersection.

What were some of the challenges with research?

Prerana Often in queer communities, there is a lot of erasure of identity for people-of-colour. I will focus on South Asian identity, as it’s my own experience. Often, it feels like to fit into either identity category, you need to erase or hide the other. I wanted to foreground this intersection, but I’m also acutely aware of my own privileged positionality. I come from an upper-caste Hindu family. I started writing from Jahan Aara’s perspective, but that was also another privileged perspective – that of a royal Mughal princess. My issues stemmed around accessing or writing from other marginalised perspectives. If I’m considering intersectionality, I didn’t want to efface further intersections of caste, class, and religion. South Asian identity is often homogenised, and these intersections are erased. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t perpetrating any erasure while responding to the artefacts. Also, queer bodies are subjected to violence daily. As someone who is physically safe, and who is privileged to be a body that is alive and able to speak, I am constantly aware of these ethical tensions. 

Fahad – For me, not recreating the same colonial violence. It sounds obvious but it’s something that I have actively made myself aware of at every point in the process so far. There have been other interrogations, one being the question of privilege– should I really be writing about a Prince? Surely there are other erased voices that I should be turning my attention to? But the one question I asked myself a lot during the research and early draft process was ‘how can I problematise the archive without objectifying Alemayehu just as the British had done to him?’ My solution so far has been to focus solely on creating an empathic connection between the speaker and Alemayehu and the reader and Alemayehu with the hope that all wider commentary on the archive will resonate in the work.

Lydia – Most research on Kabyle culture is lost to vaults and archives across the world, and much of the documentation itself is written by French anthropologists throughout the late 19th century; many of whom were protecting interests of the government at the time, perpetuating French patriotism and white supremacy. Thus, sifting through this pre-existing research to uncover authentic representation and research directly from Imazighen is particularly difficult. It’s a lifetime’s work. 

How did we approach the archival institution? What were some of our setbacks?

Fahad – The first emails were sent in February after we’d all spent about a month deciding which institution we wanted to work with, which ended up being the British Museum. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting them to agree to work with us. We were asking for access to archive materials as well as conversations with collection managers about the work they do, and the history of the artefacts. I wasn’t sure that they would be willing to do that with a group of ‘emerging artists’. We got our first response on the 1st April. And for a while there was a continuous email exchange where representatives from the Africa and Asia departments told us to wait until the Covid situation died down before we could organise anything. Finally, we managed to organise an online meeting at the end of August where the museum confirmed that they would like to work with us and would be willing to provide the access we requested. London was beginning to open up again and we were excited to finally get started. Then three months went by, and we didn’t hear back until late November. I guess that’s where we are now. We’ve taken the decision to continue the work without them except for Prerana who will be going into the museum. 

Prerana – Dr. Imma Ramos, who worked as the curator of the South Asia collection, was very enthusiastic and helpful, and met with me in her own time to discuss the project. With her help, I’ve been able to gain access to the material I need and will be going into the Museum shortly to work with it. At the end of the day, even though this splintered our approach, it’s important we keep persevering with work like this. It doesn’t revolve around the institutions, but the legacies of the artefacts housed in them.

What is the future of this project?

Fahad – I hope that the archive project will continue to provide an opportunity for Squad writers to go into archive centres and explore their creative practice through research-based work.

Prerana – I want this project to highlight how creative responses to historical archives and artefacts are as legitimate as any academic undertaking. For too long, there has been a separation between ‘creative’ and ‘critical’ work, with creative work being considered less objective, and therefore less historically accurate. I think it’s important that projects like this highlight how the past is not monolithic and is in flux. ‘History’ is not an impartial and objective institution. 

Lydia – Our hope I think is to continue encouraging other practitioners in our field to work with organisations in future who are willing to listen and collaborate to heal some of these very painful wounds. It would be wonderful to open up this work to other audiences beyond the confines of the poetry world; connecting with journalism, radio, activist circles to refresh and renew this discourse in other contexts. That’s the long-term longevity of the work but in the meantime, we are working to showcase what we produce in response to the experience we’ve had and the objects we’re looking at to a wider audience through an event launch and potentially a publication. 

About The Creatives:

Fahad Al-Amoudi

Fahad Al-Amoudi is a poet and editor of Ethiopian and Yemeni heritage based in London. His work is published in Poetry London, bath magg and Ink Sweat & Tears. He is a Roundhouse Slam 2019 finalist, an Obsidian alumnus, graduate of the Writing Squad and proud member of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen. 

Lydia Hounat

Lydia Hounat is a British-Algerian writer and photographer. Her work has appeared in HOBART, MAI Journal: Feminism & Visual Culture, and The Babel Tower Notice Board. She edits interdisciplinary art zine, SOBER. and is currently curating the French and Amazigh collections at Manchester Poetry Library.

Prerana Kumar

Prerana Kumar is an Indian writer who has recently completed her MA in Creative Writing at UEA. She has recently been shortlisted for Nine Arches Press’ Primers scheme and has been published in Magma, Barren, Ink Sweat & Tears amongst others. She writes about how one’s sense of identity hinges on home, memory, desire, and the tenuousness of intergenerational inheritance.

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