Archival Pulse

Featured Artist: Rajee Paña Jeji Shergill

Curator's Response

Dear Rajee,

Should I be embarrassed to tell you that I am glad you are coming last into the archival pulse? I am not, but let me explain myself.

When you first asked me to respond to your work, you were showing Mom and Her Music at Xpace Cultural Centre in late 2017. Your request followed on the heels of us connecting through Facebook after I had scoured through recent dissertations linking the Partition of India to contemporary visual art in diaspora and found your name, alongside your MA dissertation at Concordia University. After a few messages between us, we discovered that our familial lines had brushed up against each other in Patiala, India (our ancestral home after the move from Pakistan) and then again, more intimately, in Winnipeg (a home of other sorts). You had known my uncles, my aunts, my cousins during the happy years of immigration, you know, when hope and love had spread like pure white makhan across the dancefloor. I remember the first time I saw Mom and Her Music and saw my now-deceased uncle dancing in jubilant proximity to his found kin. I arrived in a colder climate, only to miss his jubilance and your departure.

Tapes from My Mother’s Answering Machine is not a clean break from your previous work. Visual fragments of your familial and near-familial characters intermingle with your ghost reflection, your mother’s voice, and that strange/warm aural static you picked up in cutting and pasting these fragments together. No, at first glance there is very little that distinguishes Tapes from Mom and Her Music. And it is their resemblance that creates a kind of intimacy and insistency, which gathers topics that are still sensitive to the touch, namely the unhappy migrant archive.

In her Promise of Happiness, Sara Ahmed reflects on migrant melancholia among other expectations of un/happiness. She reminds: “To arrive into the world is to inherit what you arrive into.”[1] That is to say, as children of migrants, and migrants ourselves, we inherit an unhappy archive that includes narratives of displacement and a sticky relationship to hoarding that follows. Like, in our interview, when you mentioned your parents’ relationship to objects they acquired in their travels back to India and the Philippines – bringing back bursting suitcases, which collected dust until hitting the dusty road again. Even my parents had brought so little in their initial transition from homeland to adopted land that each following trip became a bandaid gesture to an open wound that will go on festering, till it doesn’t.

Watching our parents, have we not, then, inherited a tick that brings up our hands to scratch an identical wound? And, is it not an inheritance we share with each other and the other artists in this exhibition – a “shared inheritance” as Ahmed put it – that makes the community-centric, pan-Asian reach of this project so compelling?[2] First, it was Paras Memon and her mango-sceneted saudade. Second was Zinnia Naqvi, capturing the distance between ourselves, our parents, and the environments that had the potential to open up to each other. Next was Mahdi Chowdhury, whose project, more collective in scope, indexed the breadth of Bengali art. Fourth was Gabi Dao, who shared with us the cutting weight of inheriting a visual history (both familial and Hollywood-sponsored). And prior to you, Maleeha Paracha and her work in perforating the silo of colonial history by way of scratching and GIF-making. For you, it is the ongoing return to the comfort of your mother’s voice that in its sincerity ventriloquizes – breathes air into – all our lost relatives, lost memories, lost objects floating in the web of our inherited suitcases. To Jack Halberstom’s comforting murmur, “no one gets left behind,” I add: no feeling and no object of feeling gets left behind.[3]

Always in feeling,

[1] Sara Ahmed. Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. p. 95.

[2] Ibid., 90.

[3] Judith Halberstam. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. p. 25.

About the Artist

Rajee Paña Jeji Shergill is an Indo-Filipina-Canadian artist born in Winnipeg and currently based in Cherry Hill, Nova Scotia. Through textiles, sound, and still and moving images, Rajee explores memory, familial inheritance and diasporic subjectivity.

Featured Artist updates every Wednesday, between January 16th and February 20th

You can also catch a live curatorial conversation between exhibition curator Noor Bhangu and producer Jasmine Gui on Feb 13th at 187 Augusta, 7 PM – 8:30PM!

Curatorial Statement

Though the title of this exhibition, Archival Pulse, might call to attention “the archival impulse,” theorized by Hal Foster to indicate the desire for contemporary artists to borrow and relate to historical material, I would like to remind that, here, it is more about locating and feeling a pulse through archival material that ties us in feeling to subjects of the past and the present. And so, this project removes the guise of critical thinking around issues of archival practices and retrieval to then feel around the contours of archives – be they familial, official, or present vernacular – to understand what their accessibility might mean to young artists coming out of Asian-immigrant contexts. In this, I am also thinking about Medievalist Carolyn Dinshaw’s work on “touching the past,” which she indicates as a “process of touching, of making partial connections between incommensurable entities,” that can lead to relations between subjects of the past and present that are both affective and socially generative.[1]

In light of recent debates against fixed readings of diaspora, race, multiculturalism, and new Canadian citizenship, it is my hope that this project – and these gestures of touching across time and across different bodies – can affirm new desires of relating to one another, which rest on open-ended dialogues rather than ways of knowing. Archival Pulse brings together six artists, who in their various attempts to revisit, revive, and/or reorganize the past, take part in these processes of touching the past. They include Mahdi Chowdhury, Gabi Dao, Paras Memon, Zinnia Naqvi, Maleeha Paracha, and Rajee Paña Jeji Shergill. In the following weeks, the work of one artist will be featured alongside a curatorial letter to mediate another form of touching between myself, the artist, and characters of the past.

[1] Carolyn Dinshaw. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999. p. 54.

Noor Bhangu is an emerging curator and scholar of South Asian descent, whose practice employs cross-cultural encounters to interrogate issues of diaspora and indigeneity in post- and settler-colonial contexts. She completed her BA in the History of Art and her MA in Cultural Studies: Curatorial Practices from the University of Winnipeg. Her written work has appeared in academic and public journals, including Black Flash, gal-dem, Moveable Type: The University College London English Journal, Public Parking, Uncommon Sense, and C Magazine. Her curatorial practice includes projects: Overlapping Violent Histories: A Curatorial Investigation into Difficult Knowledge (2018), womenofcolour@soagallery (2018), and Not the Camera, But the Filing Cabinet: Performative Body Archives in Contemporary Art (2018).
Instagram: @norqueque

This curatorial series is supported by the Ontario Arts Council.

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