A past unknown / not mine / related

Tara Fatehi Irani performing at Toynbee Studio. This and all other images here by Jemima Yong

A response to Tara Fatehi Irani’s Mishandled Archive at Toynbee Studios, March 2019, by Maddy Costa


The past, it’s said, is a foreign country. But what if a foreign country is your past?

In a wood-panelled room softly lit, photographs flutter from the ceiling in a silent yet garrulous murmuration. People move between them as though passing along the line of a folk dance, weaving here and there, looming close, drawing back. Each photograph contains within it another: a black-and-white image drawn from Tara Fatehi Irani’s family archive, inserted into a new land or a disconnected landscape. Aunts, uncles, cousins, nestling on pavements, weed-strewn walls, dusty building sites. On the back of the new photograph, within the white space of the trimmed and reshaped archive photo, is the date and place it was taken, and a description of the movements Tara executed there. Spidery writing curlicued and elongated, performing its own kind of dance.

The places Tara has carried her archive to carry out this work are mostly unfamiliar to me; the idea of performing any kind of dance there, in public, is alien too. But something about the expression of the faces, the heaviness of the eyebrows, the lustrous bulk of the hair, feels not only familiar but acutely nostalgic, as though these could be my own distant cousins, uncles, aunts, the extended family I’ve intermittently encountered but never known.

Tara is from Iran while I, born in London, am in my bone marrow from Cyprus: a country divided, one half Greek/Christian/Western, the other Turkish/Muslim/Eastern, but united still in occasional phrases, old songs, shared foods, oddments of an overlapping cultural history. I look at Cyprus on the map and see it cupped in the palm of the Middle East, or perhaps whispering into its ear. Proximity suggests possibility, something other than the truth: that colonialism and religious supremacy and nationalism wrenched its people asunder. What cross-currents of identity, collaboration, friendship, might have been possible without these intrusions? Or is such a line of questioning just hopelessly naive?

It’s funny feeling spirit-connection to a place I rarely visit and feel uncomfortable whenever I do. The Mishandled Archive brings every grain of soft-focus romance to the surface, mists my eyes as I gaze at Tara’s home videos of family members at what I suppose is a birthday party, dancing together, shimmying hips and rippling stomachs, nothing like the way my aunties dance except in the raise of the arms, the poise of the back, and so everything like each other. They dance and Tara speaks of semi-fictionalised strangers whose personalities approach through the adjectives of their names: Rapture, Desirable, Glamour, Avalanche. They take a car journey together and I think of driving through Cyprus in the back seat of a open-roof jeep: I’m still startled that the sky contains so many stars.

The stories Tara tells at Toynbee Studios enact another dance again, rapture and desire shimmering then stiffening their backs against an avalanche of violence. Words brush past like shredded telegrams: what it is to live in times of instability, coup, combat, resistance, execution. My mind fills with whispers of what happened in the competition over Cyprus: so many dead bodies whose whereabouts are unknown. What is this common sympathy I’m reaching for? What do I gain from it? What is mine to claim? Tara gives me a text to read, and another to my friend Mary; we stand on either side of her, whispering simultaneously into her ears, and she attempts to tell the rest of the audience what these warring stories communicate. Sentences fragment into shards, scattering shrapnel. Mary finishes before me and so the final words are ones of togetherness: “I believe, I believe, I believe in us, you, me and you. And if I can make his killer dance with the power of my eyes, then nothing is impossible.”

I want to meet where possibility eclipses naive dream.

To move from one country to another: nothing is impossible. To uproot, to graft, to grow in hostile climate, to seek nourishment in concrete, to set root and seed: nothing is impossible. To withstand the insidious assault of racism, to hold tight to language, to custom, to self-belief, in the face of all adversity, nothing must feel impossible. I wonder which of the faces in the black and white photographs left Iran for themselves, or whether the journey Tara takes them on is the furthest they ever travelled. I think of the black and white photographs in the album my auntie unearthed at my granny’s house last summer: the great uncle in military uniform who gave this auntie her name, the great aunt who housed my father in his years of abandonment before joining his parents in London, the friends and relations no more or less familiar to me than the faces in Tara’s family archive. Do I mishandle mine by ignoring it? By refusing the bonds of ancestry?

I never learned my parents’ language but still it holds tight to my childhood core. So when a woman speaks a few lines in Greek towards the end of Tara’s performance, I beam in recognition, following the language like the roll of surf, words I know quickly submerged by those I don’t understand. The same text, about a woman who is the daughter of immigration and of violence, is repeated by several people, in Finnish, Japanese, Arabic, and when a man delivers it in Italian I realise I know just as many of those words, from holidaying in the country, from similarity to Spanish, another language I don’t speak. The western (southern) side of Cyprus, pulling towards the Mediterranean. The eastern (northern) side, bolted to Turkey, magnet-drawn to Lebanon and Syria. I wonder where each side’s allegiances lay during the Iraq-Iran war. I wonder how many of the faces I see in the photographs Tara has suspended throughout the room were caught in the crossfire of conflict. I think about the man in military uniform who gave my aunt her name: what violence did he encounter, what – or who – execute? What was his relationship with his Muslim neighbours? In paying so little attention to my family archive, what am I trying to not know?

Another of the strangers in Tara’s stories carries the name Hypothetical. Tara slips beside me bearing a woven basket. I pull out a passport photo of a woman with glasses and sleek upcurled black hair. She looks nothing like my favourite aunt and everything like her. I claim her as my own.


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