An archive for modern times

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When a chance encounter in 2010 saw an archive of several thousand prints and negatives come into Ania Dabrowska’s possession, little did the Polish-born artist know she would have her hands full for the best of part of the next four years.

Dabrowska had been running an artist residency programme in north London with Space Studios at Arlington House, a London hostel for homeless men and women, when Diab Alkarssifi – a resident at the hostel – came to her with an archive spanning 100 years of Middle Eastern cultural and political history.

Alkarssifi – a former photojournalist from Lebanon – had immigrated to the UK with his family in 1993, and brought with him as much of his 27,000-photograph strong archive as he could carry. The collection, which dates from 1889 to 1993, features photographs taken by Alkarssifi documenting family and public life in his home city of Baalbeck, the Lebanese Civil Wars, and his student days in 1970s Moscow and Budapest, as well as family albums of his extended family, friends and neighbours, among others. It lay hidden for 17 years until Alkarssifi brought it to Dabrowska’s attention. The encounter marked the beginning of a friendship, which would see Dabrowska work closely with Alkarssifi to preserve the archive, and then respond to it creatively. 


“The project began with an invitation to get involved with the archive – me, as an artist, but also as a migrant myself,” explains Dabrowska. “When the material arrived in my studio, my initial plan was to get to know it. The first stage was to understand how the material fitted together, how much was shot by Diab, and how much was from family albums. I quickly realised there were disparities between how the material in the archive represents history and how it was remembered by Diab; in other words, I knew that the stories he was telling me needed to be researched. But I realised this was exactly where my interests lay – in the fabrications we make when looking at an archive. I decided I wanted to make a contemporary piece of work around the selectiveness of individual memory, and about Diab as an individual who symbolises how we can use photography to negotiate stories about who we are and where we come from.”

The early stages of the project saw Dabrowska work with Alkarssifi to piece together the archive, which involved a trip to Lebanon in 2013 to locate its missing parts. But to the dismay of both, only one photograph remained in the garage where Alkarssifi had left the remainder of his collection; the rest had been lost or stolen. Despite this, upon returning to London Dabrowska remained focused on her mission to help preserve and spread the word about the collection. She embarked on a series of events including talks about the critical and creative appeal of archives and their contemporary cultural and political importance. “A big part of the project is public engagement – creating conversations about the archive,” she says. “So in this way, I’m quite consciously putting myself in the role of catalyst – enabling contact and interest in the project, and encouraging people to create their own responses.”

From the outset, Dabrowska was keen to focus on the contemporary relevance of Alkarssifi’s archive, rather than it being seen as something that is outdated and obselete. “Part of my background as an artist is in creating projects based on archival materials, [but] I didn’t want to make a historical study of what the archive might have meant in the 1970s,” says Dabrowska. “Instead, I wanted to investigate what the archive means now – how we understand or maybe misunderstand Lebanese culture as Westerners/Europeans. My mission is to preserve and disseminate the collection – to provide access for other researchers, artists, organisations – but also to create contemporary work inspired by it – work that questions what’s going on [now]. It was important for the archive to be constructed just as it is, and with the responses as satellite works,” she adds. “If I had only made responses to the archive I would feel I had let down some kind of expectation to preserve its history. ”

Working closely with both Alkarssifi and the Arab Image Foundation, Dabrowska has spent months involved with the careful and time-consuming process of digitising the archive, which will be housed on the AIF’s website. Simultaneously, she has been working on her own responses to the images, and in May this year spent a month in Beirut with arts organisation, Ashkal Alwan.

During her residency, (“an intense, but exciting and humbling experience”), Dabrowska tried and tested a number of project ideas, from creating visual mock-ups of projections, which she hopes to project onto buildings in Beirut and on to the sea – part of her plan to bring the archive directly back to its roots – and taking portraits of the people she encountered during her time there. Part of her process involved “mapping out the city”, she says, which involved taking in the urban landscape around her, and looking for characters “who are changing the city, taking their portraits, and collecting their stories.”

“I made the city my studio,” she says. “Everyday I walked around, exploring and photographing the city and its people. Beirut has this incredible personality and there is also the obvious, overwhelming aesthetics of the city, not to mention its politics, cultural traditions and history. There are hardly any buildings that aren’t covered in bullet holes; those that are not are usually newly developed. Questions such as who owns the land? Who abandoned it? Who’s selling or developing it? Who’s in control? Who is preserving the modern heritage of Lebanon? abound. For the projections I hope to create, it’s a case of not just thinking about what will look good; I also have to think about the context – where the building is, (and the politics involved in projecting an image onto it), how I might do this logistically, and so on. But I don’t want to overplan. Besides, anyone could be in power by [the time I come to make the projections]. I don’t even know if some of the buildings will still be there.”

While in Beirut, Dabrowska worked with a fixer who drove her around the city and could explain to residents what the project was about. The reception was nearly always positive. “What the city lacks in organised infrastructure and stability it makes up for by the people,” she says. “I experienced nothing but boundless kindness and interest in the project. Nine times out of ten, as soon as people heard what I was doing they would share their own stories, or would say, ‘you need to meet so and so.’ When the time came to come back to London, I felt the work had only just begun. I could have easily spent three months there.”

Part of the project has also involved working with some of Alkarssifi’s images at a microscopic level, looking at their materiality, and “how the archive has been penetrated in ways it was not meant to be; embracing the marks, scratches, traces of blood, insect eggs, mildew, water damage – a whole inventory of incredible textures – on the photographs’ surfaces; and shining light through some of the damaged images, before rephotographing them, for example. As soon as I started looking at the photographs in this way, there was an immediate visual analogy between those observations and the bullet holes in the city;” she adds. “But it would be too easy to start thinking about bullet holes as forming pretty patterns, and I wouldn’t want to exoticise or fetishise the war damage. What interests me far more is the analogy of the archive as something that [encompasses] both traces of history and is also a living [entity]. It’s almost like being a detective – tracing life that is hidden in the photographs. As long as there is a mystery, there is a question; and if there is a question, we try to find an answer.”

Since the project’s inception, Dabrowska has endeavoured to “keep in mind what took me to Beirut in the first place,” she says – namely the story that Alkarssifi inspired, and the impact he had on the project’s trajectory. “If Diab wasn’t an obsessive photographic collector, I would never have gone to Beirut and started this project.”

A book, co-produced by Book Works, is planned for later this year (funded by a Kickstarter campaign), and in spring 2015 Dabrowska hopes to hold an exhibition of her work at Art Factum gallery in Beirut, (curated with the AIF), that she hopes will tour to the UK and her home country of Poland. She is ready “for the long haul”, describing the project as, “like an onion with lots of layers – political, historical, artistic, and photographic – layers that I hope will grow in time and space.”

At the heart of the project is the website – Lebanese Archive – a place, Dabrowska says, where people can learn about what she’s been doing, and read about the role of archives in a contemporary context – a much larger topic of debate, she stresses. “In the last three or four years I’ve noticed more and more people looking into, and working with archives. There is this whole idea of looking back in order to look forward, as a way to ask questions about where we’ve come from. But this is a much longer conversation. Ultimately, Lebanese Archive is a European’s view of the Middle East – an outsider looking in.”

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