Documented objects, undocumented people

Documented objects, undocumented people

Tue, 17/12/2019 - 14:22


Awareness. Writer and photographic researcher Ariella Aïsha Azoulay offered a workshop and a guided visit to her exhibition at the Fundació Tàpies: ‘Errata’.

The Fundació Tàpies, in collaboration with the ‘Barcelona, Refuge City’ plan, organised a workshop and guided visit to the exhibition ‘Errata’, with the author of the exhibition, Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, and the curator Carles Guerra. The author was in Barcelona to give a lecture last year and this collaboration stems from her interest in discovering how shelter was being organised in a city offering itself as a ‘Refuge City’. The topic of refuge and displaced people runs through all of Azoulay’s work as a writer and photographic researcher, serving as a tool for the construction of history.

The exhibition, on at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies until 12 January, consists of eight projects which try to reveal the way imperialism intervenes in historical accounts. In the words of the curator Carles Guerra, “these are eight visual installations which challenge the hegemony of narratives”. They do this by showing us photographs and texts which, when questioned, open up new interpretations and repair the errors, or ‘errata’, transmitted by the images.

“The display cases of imperialist museums are full of works plundered by colonial powers”

Traffic of objects vs. traffic of people

One of the projects in display, the film Un-Documented – Undoing Imperial Plunder, seeks to show the asymmetry between the information we can get from objects plundered from other cultures and the information we have, or want to have, about people arriving from those cultures, in the shoes of migrants and refugees.

Ariella Aïsha Azoulay says she’s not discovering anything when she explains that “the display cases of imperialist museums are full of works plundered by colonial powers which, at the same time, are well studied, documented and displayed”. She contrasts the image of this ‘documenting’ of objects with that of people arriving from the same places those objects on display originally came from. These people end up undocumented because of migration laws which keep them in a legal situation on the limit, very often ‘without papers’.

The film Un-Documented – Undoing Imperial Plunder defends the idea that these people’s rights are inscribed in those objects which at some point in time had belonged to them or their ancestors.

“Imperial powers declared themselves authorised to devise the Declaration of Human Rights”

Questioning the Declaration of Human Rights

‘Enough!’ is the second project in the exhibition that we could describe as radical, as it questions the basis for human rights, challenging what few have dared to: the legitimacy, and consequently universal validity attributed to them, that we attribute to them.

Azoulay again chooses to contrast the official discourse, drawing on an exhibition on human rights from in the 1950s, with photographs and ‘correct’ texts and the reality of popular protests and demands from the time which were regarded as violence. The first images are abstract and take no responsibility for the colonial destruction that was actually going on at that time. In contrast, the photographs chosen by Azoulay show how popular aspirations were more about affirming power as a group and as participants in their own rights.

According to Azoulay, “imperial powers declared themselves authorised to devise the Declaration of Human Rights, also for peoples they continued to oppress. A declaration that also protects the materiality of life, in front of a social system and a model of life based on heterogeneous customs for sharing and self-organisation”.

The photograph as an imperialist tool

Photography provides the material for Azoulay to offer these juxtapositions, as well as weaving together a discourse about photography itself: the relationship between photographers and subjects, about what is hidden (details left out and contexts not explained) in the image, or about the inexistence of certain issues for the simple reason that there were no images to document them.

As an example of photographs not taken, Azoulay exposes a proven fact: the rape of thousands of German women that took place in Berlin following the end of World War II, while the photos from the time only documented buildings that had been destroyed, rather than women’s lives. Our photographic imaginary from that time is actually populated by images of buildings, while very few people are aware of the brutal episode of rapes.

Ultimately, the exhibition ‘Errata’ takes us through accounts of real events as constructed from the perspective of imperial powers, revealing them and questioning them one by one, even making a case for them to be reversed. Because, as Ariella Aïsha Azoulay says about her work: “We can dream about reversibility”. Clearly this is a necessary exhibition for reflection.