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

Joy Garnett
6 November 2013

Alone in the Archive

The author's maternal grandfather, Dr. Ahmed Zaky Abushady, in the backyard of his home and research laboratory 'Rameses Villa', London, September 1917.
The author's maternal grandfather, Dr. Ahmed Zaky Abushady, in the backyard of his home and research laboratory 'Rameses Villa', London, September 1917.

When family members die they take their memories, facts and figures with them. Their stories, as well as their lies and omissions, become harder to track after they've gone. They leave behind mountains of material, with few entry points. If you dare to enter, you will find yourself alone in the archive.


Someone close to you dies. A generation apart, you are busy with your own life. You may choose to ignore all the stuff they leave behind. If you hired someone to cart it away, no one would blame you. But perhaps you value these leavings for personal reasons, or even 'historical' ones. So instead, you make the choice to plunge in. At first this is cathartic. You start blindly, picking away at the monolith, peeling back a transparent corner until you see something. You think you know the general shape and size of it, you think you can get away with a few weeks' work and be done with it. You figure you've seen all the pretty hairpins, grease crayons, love notes on creased napkins, all the dusty books. But then again, if you are like me, the whole situation will gnaw at you.


This happened: tired and covered in dirt and sweat after a day of digging through my mother's storage, I found a strange box, which contained many envelopes and another, smaller box. I felt a jagged sensation in my gut that I mistook for a symptom of mourning. Wiping the sweat from my face, I knelt before the box to read the label: an adhesive tag with my mother's hand in red Sharpie: 'Papers to Sort'. The archive, it seems, had finally gotten away from her. Inside, a smaller box was labelled 'More Egypt'. Inside this box was the first crop of what was to become a legion of things that had been secreted away. My first find, large-format negatives that had been resting for seventy-five years, were perfectly preserved in little glassine envelopes. Yet more images, I thought; more than I was prepared for. But also amulets, perfume bottles, pins, ID cards, feathers, kites, love letters, poems, diaries, birth certificates, death notices. Items that document events I never knew about, showing the people I thought I knew all about, in attitudes and places that demonstrate the absolute inadequacy of my imaginative faculties. There was more to the story than the neat one that was drawn for me. My family, with its famous poet patriarch, had kept secrets.


This scenario was to be repeated at least three dozen times over the next two years, in apartments and storage units, at institutions in faraway towns and cities, and, eventually, in other countries. Following the trail, I would buy plane and train tickets I couldn't afford, and stay with friends or at B&B's in close proximity to certain libraries. By then I would have learned which special collections housed the things that I had to see and hold. I laughed when, at one state-of-the-art vault, a surly staffer handed me a pair of white cotton gloves and took away my laptop so I could safely examine my aunt's letters regarding her donation of my grandfather's papers. They were, of course, the same grumbly letters written in the same minute hand as the ones she sent me regularly since I was a child. But here, in the context of my grandfather's personal papers and so many other things that had almost escaped me, her grumbling meant something different. Docile, I donned the white gloves.


Once humbled by the archive, my commitment to it became steely. My early tentative pokes into its hidden folds were marked by a combination of trepidation and overexcitement. I felt at once stupid and grateful, like a gangly puppy who gets to gnaw on an oversized bone. There were reasons for my sense of inadequacy, such as my half-baked Arabic. Plus, I still had no idea of the extent of the archive. I thought I was dealing with something finite, the contained leftovers of a generation, rudely abridged by decades of packing and unpacking, voyages by ship and train, seizures by customs at home and abroad – all the brutal inconveniences of repatriation, dispersal, accident and loss. I had yet to learn of the existence of so many remaining books, objects, photographs, keepsakes and letters. And I had yet to consider the archive's ingeniousness, its unlikely survival through conventions of redundancy (duplicate prints!), the many rhizomatic outposts in rare book cages, filing cabinets, safe deposit boxes and basements scattered across the globe. And now it has me with my camera, my scanner and the Internet. Daily, I dig through the archive, holding the things I never knew in my hands, seeing them for myself.


Abushady’s student ID card, from Medical School in Cairo.
Abushady’s student ID card, from Medical School in Cairo.
Joy Garnett

is an artist and writer living in Brooklyn, New York. She is writing a book about her influential Egyptian grandfather, poet, publisher and bee scientist, Ahmed Zaky Abushady (1892-1955). She hopes to further realize the Abushady archive as an open-access portable museum as part of her post-doctoral research at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton. Garnett currently serves as Arts Editor for the journal Cultural Politics, published by Duke University Press. Her writings have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. Her work has been included in exhibitions at the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, the Museum of Contemporary Craft Portland (Oregon), MoMA P.S.1, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Wellcome Trust, London, and Kettle's Yard, Cambridge. She is represented in New York by Winkleman Gallery.

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