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What role can the archive play in developing and sustaining a critical and culturally located art history?

Mounir Fatmi
6 November 2013



006 Question 1: What is the historical role of archives and how are they being utilized by artists and institutions across the region?


Working with archives is a relatively new development, only recently have artists and institutions had access to archives. In the Middle East in general, the idea of the archive and of history is very vague. Even the idea of archiving, of having an institution that holds an archive, is new.


006 Question 2: What forms of knowledge are being produced by archives both in terms of artistic and institutional practices?


Archival documents always help us to understand contemporary experience, not to mention the past, which in turn informs the future ahead. Archives can serve as material to demystify and make sense of history.


006 Question 3: Why have archives become a dominant aesthetic strategy in the work of artists?


It's a risky strategy to use archives because it's often hard to know where the archive ends and the artwork begins, but it can be very interesting as well. In 100 years, that artwork itself will also become an archive. There is a return to the idea and research practices of the documentary and the status of the archive, which became accessible to the artists of my generation. As I have been working on the project with the Black Panthers, I was able to have access to archives and documents from the FBI, even though most of the information was redacted. Yet this missing information creates an aesthetic shape.


006 Question 4: Specifically, how are archives used in the recollection of trauma, the negotiation of conflict, the reconstruction of individual and collective memories, the reimagining of the future, and the problematization of the document in art practices across the region? 


It depends on who or what is using the archive. There is no general way to present or access an archive. Using archival material that reflects the recollection of trauma, conflict, etc. is a direct engagement with that past, often a murky and ugly past, and serves as an important resource and reminder that will serve to inform ideas for future decisions and actions.


Archives cannot always solve a trauma. There are always archives missing which makes for an interesting result in terms of what has been kept and what has not been archived. The archive is always a fragment. If you look at some political events such as the assassination of JFK or Mehdi Ben Barka, or the meeting between the Pope Jean-Paul II and Mehmet Ali Ağca, the most important information remains missing.


Until now, generally speaking, we considered the idea of the archive as an archive because it was a rarity. Our relationship to pictures has changed so much since we disseminate our everyday life on numerous online social networks. The sheer quantity of information and imagery is being rendered a useless form of knowledge but that is becoming an archive too.


006 Question 5: What, in cultural and political terms, is the importance of archiving art in the region, and its practical and intellectual challenges?


It's an important development for a region that has often denied its history or erased history in the past that it is now starting to access and utilize archives. In the Arab world, archives began to be produced during the colonial period. How do these archives relate to the truth? What would the colonized people have written? How are they rebuilding their history?


A region that is under total reconstruction and renewal needs to know and understand the past, its mistakes, and success to make better and informed choices for lasting political and social structures.


006 Question 6: If we assume that there is a lack of a definitive archive of contemporary art in the region, does it follow that significant gaps have emerged in the art historical knowledge of local practitioners and does that, in turn, complicate aspects of localized art history?


Yes and no. What's important is to keep moving forward in order to create modes and institutions that will document and present what is happening now in all of the arts so that future generations will possess that knowledge and history.


006 Question 7: What forms of knowledge are lost in the absence of a critically deployed and culturally located archiving system?


Before understanding what knowledge is lost we have to step back and question this archive itself and when a document or image is considered to be an archive. The idea of an archive is always in flux. It's never a whole and finished dossier, things are discovered and understood throughout time, so it's a fragment of knowledge as well. It's these holes in the archive that often make the archive interesting.


006 Question 8: What role can art criticism and art publishing play in producing a more rigorous discursive system for analyzing, critiquing and archiving cultural production across the region and what, if any, have been its failings thus far?


It can play an important role, but it needs to develop and be supported not only by individual artists but by cultural institutions and the cultural department of the governments in order to create a lasting contribution and archive. In the past, it's mainly been artists who have taken that initiative and it's time for independent and collective voices to participate in the larger context of this discourse.






Interview Mounir Fatmi w/ David Hilliard from the Black Panthers

Out of history

History of history


Suprematism for self-defense


Mounir Fatmi's Save Manhattan 01 (2004), is part of the Kamel Lazaar Foundation Collection. View the work here.

Mounir Fatmi

is an artist. He lives and works in Paris and Tangier.

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