The Failure of the Archive: Allan deSouza’s The Lost Pictures
Allan DeSouza’s 2004 photographic series, The Lost Pictures, created in the aftermath of his mother’s death, grapples with similar questions of historical memory, genealogy, and diasporic loss and longing that haunt Hartman’s text. In deSouza’s photoworks, the queer diasporic body itself becomes an archive of multiple displacements and colonial histories. The Lost Pictures are digitally manipulated prints made from the slides taken by the artist’s father of deSouza and his siblings during his childhood in post-independence Kenya. After making the slides into prints, deSouza allowed them to be overlaid with the detritus of daily life as he left them in the intimate spaces of his apartment in Los Angeles: the bathroom floor, the kitchen counter, next to the sink, and the shower stall. In their final version, the past—in the form of the original slide images—is rendered ghostly, fading into white yet barely visible nevertheless, while the diasporic present asserts itself through the detritus of the artist’s own body: semen, blood, hair, food, sloughed-off skin. As in Hartman’s text, the personal and the autobiographical function as a mode of theorising the archive and the relation of diasporic subjects to an elusive past. Situating deSouza’s photoworks in relation to Hartman’s memoir allows us to reflect on the limits and uses of these two different genres in the project of excavating the past and reimagining the present and future. Indeed deSouza’s work is a profound meditation on visuality, and specifically on the genre of photography itself: the contradiction between its promise of rendering a transparent reality, and its inevitable opacities and occlusions. In his essay, “My Mother, My Sight,” which accompanies the catalogue for The Lost Pictures, deSouza beautifully details the deterioration of his own sight as he is diagnosed with cataracts at the age of thirty-eight. deSouza writes of how he obsessively takes photographs of the minutiae of his childhood sites/sights in Nairobi to show to his mother, who lies dying of cancer in a hospital in Portugal; the photographs are an attempt to “see for” his mother, who is also losing her eyesight, and to heal her own “dis-ease of dislocation.” The visual functions as the primary arena through which his identification with his mother is solidified; yet he is always aware of the failure of the photo to capture what he terms an “inner vision – that complex amalgam of memory, imagination, and projection.” As his own sight falters and transforms, he finds himself relying more on what he terms this “internal vision” rather than the “externally visual” captured by photography. Echoing the poetry of Agha Shahid Ali in his recognition of the gap between memory and representation, deSouza reflects on the notion of the photo as evidence of the past “as it really was”:
“I remember photographs even as other memories fail. It is the photograph – and my enduring faith in its veracity—that I have held onto as proof. And for many years I have had the proof, the many photographs taken by my father, the tangible evidence of our life in Kenya… And yet the recent return of memories in such physical, bodily ways has accumulated and layered meaning beyond the simply visual. As a result, my faith in the photograph as the ultimate repository of memory is, if not shattered, at least shaken. Now, when I look at the two-dimensionality of photographs, I wonder how much else is lost along with that third dimension. Or perhaps I’m merely re-experiencing my earlier disenchantment: the failure of the photograph to match the vividness I have ascribed to it within my memory and imagination.”
If Hartman turns to memoir and her own imagination to respond to the gaps of the official archive, deSouza turns to the materiality of his own body, to the tactile and the affective, in order to conjure into the present precisely that which is lost within the two-dimensionality of the photo. The Lost Pictures that deSouza produces from his father’s originals are indeed the pictures of what is lost within an official archive of both familial and national formation. They are deSouza’s attempt to mediate and perhaps close the distance between an “internal vision” and the external, apparently indexical and fixed image of the past exemplified by the original photos. DeSouza’s transformation of the original images can also be read as a rejection of “looking (seeing) like his father,” and an embrace of “looking (seeing) like his mother.” As such, deSouza repudiates a narrative of patrilineal oedipality that subtends many conventional framings of both nationalist and diasporic subjectivity. The practice of looking that deSouza enacts in The Lost Pictures resonates with what Christopher Pinney terms “looking past”: Pinney uses this phrase to describe a reading practice through which subaltern subjects challenge dominant visual representation, and photography in particular. He writes, ‘“Looking past’ suggests a complexity of perspectival positions or a multiplicity of layers that endow photographs with an enormously greater complexity than that which they are usually credited. The photograph ceases to be a univocal, flat, and uncontestable indexical trace of what was, and becomes instead a complexly textured artifact (concealing many different depths) inviting the viewer to assume many possible different standpoints –both spatial and temporal – in respect to it.”
Allan deSouza, Arbor. From the series, The Lost Pictures. 1962-65/2004- 05. Digital C-print. Courtesy of the artist.
As with Hartman’s memoir, deSouza’s refashioned images “look (to the) past” not with utopian nostalgia (in Boym’s sense of the term) but rather with nostalghia as Seremetakis understands it, enacting a palimpsestic, dialectical relation between past and present. He in effect “looks past” the past to foreground the contradictions of postcolonial nationalism and the complicities of the heteronormative family form within this project.
Many of the final images in The Lost Pictures are deliberately opaque, and appear to the viewer to be almost completely bleached out, veiled, or obscured by fog. The human figures are barely distinguishable, existing as simply darker or lighter blotches against obscure backgrounds that are blurred, mottled by white watermarks, delicate black squiggles, stains, and shards. As with Chitra Ganesh’s family photos in13 Photos, deSouza’s images frustrate the “will to see” on the part of the viewer; however long and hard a viewer gazes at the images, the fog refuses to lift and the figures remain ghostly, indistinct, unknowable, and ungraspable. In his essay, deSouza speaks of the fear with which his mother, as she dies, feels a “fog” descending on her; deSouza understands this “fog” as “an internal blindness,” one that obscures her “inner vision.” In rendering the images so impenetrable, deSouza invites us as viewers into a shared identification with his mother—we too look (and see) like his mother—and thus into the site of memory’s failure.
That deSouza uses the dead matter of his own body as the artistic medium through which he obscures the original images is particularly striking. In his earlier work, such as the Terrain series (1999-2003), he photographs landscapes that he creates entirely out of street trash as well as his own ear wax, fingernails, eyelashes, and hair. deSouza’s use of bodily remains powerfully engages with notions of abjection, filth, and disgust. There is a double-edged valence of deSouza’s use of bodily detritus: while the images speak to the horror of death, obliteration, and bodily disintegration, they also perhaps offer a way of understanding such bodily waste as potentially productive. William Cohen’s formulation of filth underscoresthe ways in which “contradictory ideas—about filth as both polluting and valuable—can be held at once.” He writes:
Allan deSouza, Harambee! From the series, The Lost Pictures. 1962-65/2004- 05. Digital C-print. Courtesy of the artist.
“While filthy objects initially seem utterly repulsive and alien… they also paradoxically bear potential value. But are there conditions under which filth might actually provide an appealing point of identification for subjects? When people who understand themselves to be degraded, dispossessed, or abjected by a dominant order adopt and appropriate… What is otherwise castigated as filth, there is a possibility of revaluing filth while partially preserving its aversiveness. Not merely owning up to, but taking comfort in, one’s supposed dirtiness can serve powerful purposes of self-formation and group identification. In these senses, filth is put to important use, both psychologically and politically.”
I quote Cohen at some length here because I find his formulation of filth as both polluting and reusable as naming precisely the ambivalent meanings and effects of deSouza’s use of bodily remains. In deSouza’s images, filth is indeed put to use: the abjected remains of the dispossessed (signified by the dead matter of his own body), in fact become the medium through which deSouza re-visions a personal and collective relation to colonial and anticolonial nationalist pasts, and to multiple diasporic locations in the present. In Fountain, for instance, the artist and his siblings stand with their backs to the viewer, facing an indeterminate, vaguely apocalyptic future. They appear to be gazing at what could be a fountain, or a mushroom cloud, or some kind of ominous sun, but that is, in fact, a spot of blood that stains the print’s surface. For a viewer there is something deeply unsettling about the image: parts of the children’s bodies seem to be quite literally under erasure, mottled by white, black, and brown stains, while the entire surface of the image is covered with a delicate filigree of black etchings, created by the artist’s hair. Indeed, the image is the antithesis of the optimistic forward looking gaze of the newly independent nation; it refuses to consolidate into a comforting narrative of what Boym would term the utopian or reconstructive nostalgia of nationalist projects.
Allan deSouza, Fountain. From the series, The Lost Pictures. 1962-65/2004- 05. Digital C-print. Courtesy of the artist.
The title of deSouza’s image, Fountain, can be read as an oblique reference to Marcel Duchamp’s infamous 1917 installation piece, also entitled Fountain, where he mounted a mass-produced urinal on a pedestal, signed it with a pseudonym, and sought to exhibit it as a work of art. Svetlana Boym finds intertextual echoes between Duchamp’s Fountain and the work of contemporary Russian conceptual artist Ilya Kabakov, who recreated Soviet-era toilets for the 1992 Kassel documenta show. Boym reads Kabakov’s installation, like Duchamp’s work, as “trespassing the boundaries between the aesthetic and everyday life.” I would argue that deSouza’s image references Duchamp (and by extension, Kabakov) to suggest the elevation and memorialisation of precisely that which is conventionally expunged and discarded. In doing so, deSouza disturbs the boundaries between the mundane and the everyday (which falls outside of history), and the monumental and the spectacular (which constitutes official history).
deSouza’s particular mobilisation of ideas of abjection and filth must be situated in relation to the specific historical moment out of which the original images emerge—the early years of Kenyan independence from British colonial rule—and the fraught location of Kenyan Indians within that nation building project. Under British colonial rule, Indian indentured labourers were brought in mass numbers to East Africa from the 1860s to 1917 to work primarily on building the British East African Railroad, “a key element in Britain’s imperial strategy during the scramble.” The British imperial project was dependent not only upon Indian indentured labour but also upon Indians making up the management and bureaucracy of the railways at all levels. In Savita Nair’s research on Indians in colonial Kenya, she points to the heterogeneity of the Indian population and argues that Indians in Kenya were just as likely to be traders, merchants, and professionals as they were to be indentured labour or descendents of the indentured. East African Indians inhabited a “dubious status,” situated as they were “in a precariously liminal category between colonised and coloniser.” This liminality meant that, as historian Thomas Metcalf notes, “Indian Africans remained vulnerable to a politics of hostility, exclusion and even, in the case of Idi Amin’s Uganda, expulsion.”
For Hartman the slogan from the anticolonial nationalist era, “Africa for Africans abroad and at home,” conjures forth the seductive promise of diasporic belonging in the new nation that, forty years after independence, rings hollow; it highlights her own sense of estrangement as a black diasporic subject in postcolonial Africa. For Indian Africans such as deSouza, however, this slogan from its very inception is no seduction, but rather an ominous sign of what is to come, as it names a collective history of expulsion as “authentic Africanness” came to be defined in strictly racial terms. DeSouza’s work thus necessarily speaks back to the feelings of alienation that saturate Hartman’s text: I would suggest that in her emphasis on her own strangeness, Hartman may in fact grant a fictional stability of identification to the postcolonial Africans she encounters. When read through the prism of deSouza’s work, it becomes clear that Hartman may elide the ways in which the postcolonial others that she encounters also have deeply vexed, complicated, and unfixed relations to both time and place. It is precisely the ambiguity and ambivalence of racialised Indian African subjectivity that deSouza’s images reference, through their deployment of notions of dirt, filth, and abjection. The “borderline feelings” that his images evoke—between disgust and fascination—speak not only to the borderline positionality of the artist himself as a multiplied diasporic subject but also to the borderline status of Indian Africans as both inside and outside the national project.
deSouza’s engagement with both the promises and the failures of decolonisation movements is particularly apparent in an image entitled Harambee! The original slide was taken by deSouza’s father during Kenya’s 1963 Independence Day celebrations. Here the ghostly outlines of the artist and his siblings are seen on either side of a man dressed, oddly enough, in a gorilla costume—a representation, according to deSouza, of something “generically African… [even though] there are no gorillas in Kenya!” In the background is the barely visible exterior of a parade float, draped with the black, red, and green stripes of the Kenyan flag. deSouza’s reworking of the original image comments directly on the contradictions of the anticolonial nationalist project. “Harambee,” a Swahili word literally meaning everyone working together for a common cause, was adopted as the official motto of the newly independent nation, and was used by Jomo Kenyatta as a nationalist rallying cry that called for national unity and collective endeavor. Ironically, this term is thought to have originated with Indian indentured labourers toiling on the British East African Railroad in the nineteenth century, and is imagined to have come from their evocation of Durga, a Hindu goddess (“Hare, Ambi”) as they pulled heavy loads together. deSouza’s photo thus directly confronts the legacies of overlapping systems of colonial, capitalist labour extraction upon differently racialized populations in the postcolony. The image speaks to the fragility and fissures of this post- Independence nationalist vision of unity, given the vexed position of “the Asian African” within Black African nationalist discourse.
Finally, in the image Tomorrow, we can barely make out the outlines of the artist and his brother as they obediently stand to attention, flanking what appears to be a Black African train conductor; behind them a huge billboard carries an image of a train seemingly speeding forward, while the words “… for to-morrow” in bold red lettering are partially visible across the top of the billboard. Both the image of the train, a symbol of nationalist pride and the technological prowess of the new nation, as well as the slogan “for to-morrow,” promise a new beginning, a utopian future that lies just beyond the frame of the image. Ironically, as I have suggested, the train is also a potent symbol of the British imperial project and the various systems of labour extraction upon which it depended. Thus deSouza’s image lays bare the continuities between imperial and postcolonial nationalist projects in their adherence to a developmentalist narrative of progress and modernity, and in the inevitable violences upon which this modernity depends. Referring to both Harambee! And Tomorrow, deSouza writes, “People often ask me if the train conductor is my father, but I’m tempted to think of both, the conductor [in Tomorrow] and the gorilla [in Harambee!] as father substitutes, as well as stand-ins for the new nation.”deSouza’s suggestive comment underscores the ways in which both imperial and nationalist projects invariably rest upon conventional gendered and sexual hierarchies. Savita Nair documents how in colonial East Africa, the railway as an institution, and the railway station in particular, were key sites of contestation where assertions of racial and class power and privilege between white British, Indian and African men were played out. Similarly in deSouza’s image, the railway becomes the backdrop against which differently racialised masculinities come into contact and conflict in the moment of national liberation. In the original slides it is the patriarchal gaze of deSouza’s Indian father that orchestrates, frames, and organises the family photo.
Allan deSouza, Tomorrow. From the series, The Lost Pictures. 1962-65/2004- 05. Digital C print. Courtesy of the artist.
In this sense, The Lost Pictures implicitly reference the centrality of the heteronormative family unit to the making of the modern nation. Yet this is a gaze that is always under threat of its own dispossession: in Tomorrow the father’s ownership of the gaze is contested by the figure of the Black African train conductor who seems to claim the mantle of nationalist patriarchal authority. And ultimately, in the final images that become The Lost Pictures, the organising patriarchal gaze of the camera utterly loses both its centrality and authority. The camera’s eye is blocked, mediated, and rendered barely functional: the images do not connote scopic mastery but rather the failure of vision, the impossibility of a transparent access to the past, and to laying claim to what exists inside the frame.
The Lost Pictures “queer” Bandung in the sense that they enact a disidentificatory relation to an early moment of postcolonial nationalism: its promises of third world solidarity and radical social transformation are neither monumentalised nor totally rejected. Rather the images prompt an ironically nostalgic gaze upon this project, one that brings to the fore its inherent instabilities, particularly in its management of heterogeneous racial, gendered, and sexual others within the newly decolonised nation. There is now a significant body of work in queer studies on how the postcolonial nation defines its boundaries over and against the bodies of those subjects deemed “perverse” within a nationalist imaginary. Jacqui Alexander, for instance, wrote over two decades ago, of the particular sense of anger and betrayal that attends to the realisation that “flag independence” for the newly liberated nation simply enacts another form of radical disenfranchisement for queer and feminist subjects who are outside the “charmed circle” of criteria for national and communal belonging. But rather than responding to unbelonging with simple resignation and a rejection of the past, deSouza’s work allows us to imagine history as “a weave of possibilities,” as he puts it; histories of dislocation and expulsion may in fact open new ways of imagining collectivity, beyond the horizon of decolonisation and civil rights.
Gayatri Gopinath is Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at New York University. She works at the intersection of queer, postcolonial, and transnational feminist studies, and is the author of Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures (2005) and Unruly Visions: The Aesthetic Practices of Queer Diaspora (2018).
Excerpt from Gayatri Gopinath, Unruly Visions: The Aesthetic Practices of Queer Diaspora (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018)