Potential Worlds: Interacting with Prof. Ariella Aïsha Azoulay

Introduction: Rahaab Allana

Ariella Aïsha Azoulay. The Potential History of Palestine, 2013 © Photograph: Leevetamar, 2019.

Anti-colonial work should not be restricted to time and place, but is on going process that needs to be conducted in virtually every field. Such was the tenor of relay in a recent, albeit brief interaction with Prof. Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, whose work has had an immense impact even in the subcontinent, on readings of histories and images, wherein she suggests that the challenges that imperialism and racial capitalism pose today are the same as the last century. They require scrutiny and untethering in order to actualise change.

Born in Tel Aviv, in ruined Palestine as she relates to it, and educated in France and Israel, her in-depth publications include the Civil Contract of Photography (Zone Books, 2008), first published in Hebrew in 2007, and translated into English by Rela Mazali and Ruvik Danieli; and then The Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography (Verso, 2012), which address interpretive shifts around situated histories and how often photography enacts a political action. There are considerations here, pertinent to us in South Asia – the very place of revolution, accountability and questions of visibility surrounding migrations, exile and indeed the very notion of liberal democracy. In this respect, another edited volume by Azoulay, titled Death’s Showcase: The Power of Image in Contemporary Democracy (MIT Press, 2013), and perhaps more significantly, with regard to Partition in is her text, From Palestine to Israel – Destruction and State Formation, 1947-1950 (Pluto Press, 2011). They present incisive positions on the place of images in contemporary culture and disciplinary perspectives around art history, cultural studies, and photographic theory.

Coming to her most recent book, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (Verso, 2019), there are several questions which are posed around the place of the archive and the museum. While focusing on archives which highlight the transformation of Palestine into Israel, a well as the treatment of women in Germany by the Allies, Azoulay suggests the need for inversions in our very thinking of constructing histories, and how we must abolish the principles on which existing cultural powers are built and operate. It is a call to how institutions must transform from classic sites in order to activate dynamic histories in which we recalibrate the workings of imperial cultures and change the course of our thinking around material remains. In the context of India one may well also ask these questions given how histories of Partition and displacement live on till this day. Her writings may well provoke us to think again about revisionist, counter structures of dominance, both by the state and majoritarian communities. Can the conventional role of the documentary be taken at face value, or do we need to consider a more comparative, inclusive and viable image discourse in order to unlearn, and indeed, re-imagine our past.

On Citizenship and Image-Making

As a citizen of imperial states, like Israel, you are exposed to images of people with whom you are governed,caught daily in unjust situations, coerced under different types of violence. The normalization of this violence is partially achieved through the visual literacy of citizen-spectators who are required to make sense of what they see. Under such regimes that I call regime-made disaster, being born for example an “Israeli Jew”—is being born to inhabit a violent category, that is, exist against non-Jews but also against non-white Jews. This kind of citizenship in a place like Israel, is premised on the recognition of the exceptionality of the violence toward Ashkenazi European Jews and as the primary definition of violence. It also relates the violence perpetrated by those identified as “Israeli Jews” as a matter of policy, one that is tolerable or perhaps not even “violent” at all. In my book Potential History – Unlearning Imperialism, I describe my rejection of the adjective “Israeli” as part of my identity, acknowledging that the name of “Israel” legitimates a campaign of violence that omits the destruction of Palestine. Writing this book is part of attempting to right this wrong. I refuse to be enlisted in ontological violence. I insist on actualizing other lineages that the state renders unimaginable, such as me being an Arab Jew and a Palestinian Jew of African origins.

Ariella Azoulay’s presentation from the Digital Democracies Conference, 2019 | Online Source: SFU Digital Democracies Group | youtube

Violence exercised as part of regime-made disaster is premised on citizens’ compliance with its normalization. Imperial states elaborate a repertoire of positions of spectators promoted as ethical positions and citizens are invited to act as denunciators of wrong or as those who reveal the truth in front of their peer-citizens, and in the structural absence of those who are targeted by this regime that secure that they will not be part of this debate. This is a trap, since this position is being normalized as part of this regime of violence. I felt that something is wrong with this position, and I did not want to inhabit those imperially scripted positions in which we are made spectators of the plight of others designed by the state.

When I started to think around photography in the early 90s, I was a curator of a public space in Tel Aviv. What I felt about photography and curatorial work was not unrelated. Both positions are intertwined with critical discourse, while they are also implicated in institutional work that is implicated in the reproduction of violence. The question of how to untangle this became a priority. My engagement with photography departed from this tension– between the impossibility not to address images of violence, produced by the political regime under which I lived, and from the understanding that the institutionalized positions of spectator ought to be rejected.

Flyer of the exhibition From Palestine to Israel: A Photographic Record of Destruction and State Formation 1947-50, exhibited at The Mosaic Rooms, London, 2011
Speaking back to power is also a privileged position, part of one’s citizenship, and if citizenship in itself is part of the regime-made disaster that exercises violence, a citizen has to question this privilege. Those who are forced to become un-documented or non-citizens do not speak truth to power, they act differently to expose the truth of power. Thus, from the very start my study of photography was inextricable from my study of citizenship. I developed the term and practice of Potential History much later, but in retrospect I can say that the Civil Contract of Photography was my first systematic attempt to provide potential histories of both photography and citizenship.

I wanted to study and recognize what this imperial regime was doing to me, to other citizens when it lures us to “look at the pain of others” – to use Susan Sontag’s book title. This position should be refused since it normalizes the fact that others are made the object of this spectator’s gaze. It felt wrong and it is wrong. It normalizes the distribution of violence along ethnic, racial, gender, and national lines. The question instead became how to think the position of spectator as accountable to those with whom one is governed, i. e., those excluded from citizenship, or those still under the condition of coloniality.

 Exhibition view: From Palestine to Israel: A Photographic Record of Destruction and State Formation 1947-50, The Mosaic Rooms, London, 2011.

On the Documentary

The invention of photography didn’t start with the invention of the device but with the political regime that enabled photography to rob people of what they had and could have had, and to depict this robbery as a documentary practice that records from the outside who they are and the state in which they live. Documentary photography… Yes, like many others, I also started as a client of this ideology. Even today, I still have to tell my students that they no longer have to pay this tribute to documentary, and they can start elsewhere – with imagination, fabulation, abolition, if they want to withdraw from positions scripted and administered by imperial regimes. Unlearning photography, like many other discourses – for example political theory – means changing the anchor of ones commitment and prioritizing the commitment to abolition of imperial and racial capitalist formations over what disciplines and institutions expect us to respect.

Decolonizing sovereign conceptions of photography and political theory in the Civil Contract meant re-configuring each term that I was using out of what people were actually doing, rather than confirming existing scholarly assumptions about what photography is. Once we cease seeing photography only with productive terms, we can start to see how photography operates – it generates wounds, violence, wealth, or hopes. What it generates is not owned by nor can be explained only from the perspective of the producer, who claims ownership over what could not be produced without the participation of the photographed person.

Ariella Aïsha Azoulay. The Potential History of Palestine,2013 © Photograph: Roberto Ruiz, 2019.

When I’m thinking about the eventual collapse of imperialism I cannot avoid the metaphor of a nuclear facility that should be decommissioned carefully. This collapse should be instant, it should just end, but dealing with the damage and wounds it leaves in people’s mind and bodies and their capacity to trust each other and the world they shared requires directing all resources from production to recovery. Imperialism cannot just be dumped and people move on. It created infinite material remains that we now have to ask how it should be decommissioned. It is not enough to expose these crimes – the question is what to do with all that was already exposed and perpetrated in the open and how to attend to people’s aspiration as to how to redress and heal those wounds.

In a non-imperial understanding of photography, the photograph is only one possible outcome of a complex encounter. The encounter involves not only the one who holds the camera and those in front of it, but also other participants, including imaginary spectators. These spectators are not necessarily the same from the point of view of the photographed person as they are from that of the photographer. We should not let the photograph – a contingent product of an encounter, overshadow the complex nature of this encounter out of which it was taken, nor to blur the inequalities, the patterns of exploitation, and the incommensurable expectations, aspirations, and modalities of participation inherent in a photographic event.

On the Exhibition: Errata

I am interested in photography as it gives us access to a shared time and space and it is up to us, spectators, to claim what is – or ought to be in the photograph.

My exhibition Errata co-curated with the former Director of the Tàpies Foundation, Carles Guerra, in Barcelona, is the outcome of a long dialogue. We currently exchange letters in the website of http://correspondencias.fotocolectania.org/en/

[The exhibition was in Barcelona from 11-10-2019 to 12-01-2020].

A short clip, Ariella Aïsha Azoulay explains her exhibition Errata. Online Source:  Fundació Tàpies | youtube

I produced a series of cropped images like this one, foregrounding the extraction of objects. I’m interested in the gestures involved in the practice of expropriation and the transfer of these objects to museums. My assumption is that as scholars, artists, photographers, and curators, we have inherited these gestures, and we have to recognise them in our bodies in order to unlearn them. Rather than engaging with such photographs as documents that, as a scholar, I’m expected to study and interpret, I approach photographs with pens, scissors, and tape in order to break the spell of the photographic document.

Drawings based on ‘Unshowable Photographs’, taken in Palestine between 1947-1950. Photographs are in the collection of ICRC archive in Geneva.

The original caption describes a collector specialising in African art. For me, he is not a collector, nor an ethnographer, but an actor in an orchestrated campaign of plunder. Rather than studying him in comparison to other collectors and affirming the collector as a neutral category, I’m looking at the materiality of the act of extraction. This what guides me when I decide how to crop the image. The one who extracts holds the object in his hand—in a way common to curators or other experts who manifest, through this gesture, the embodiment of their knowledge. But there is another hand nearby, a non-white one. This is the hand of the person from whom information is being extracted and used to empower the experts and enrich the institutions for which he works. Extraction is never only about objects, it is also extraction of knowledge.

Exhibition view, Errata, Fundació Antoni Tàpies Museum, Barcelona, 2019.

This is an image of one of twelve tables on which I spread the project. It consists of interventions in approximately sixty books. I never just read a book; I annotate it, I write against its arguments, I juxtapose it with images and objects, I erase what is written in it. This kind of work is usually invisible, part of the process called research, out of which a coherent paper is to be published in an academic journal. In Errata, I push this behind-the-scenes work to the foreground. Using tapes to erase or emphasise elements is not about aesthetics, but about what should not be kept as is. For example, in this book titled “Promised Land” I could barely leave one sentence intact. In others, I cannot let the separation between objects and people persist.

Exhibition view, Errata, Fundació Antoni Tàpies Museum, Barcelona, 2019.

The gallery for me is an opportunity to engage with different items—images, objects, or texts —to have the physical items interact with people in a shared space, rather than withholding the items from the public and granting limited access to the “outcome” through the format of a publication. When I unfold such archives in a gallery space, I try to spend as much time as possible in the gallery to generate this type of conversation with people. [Click here to view article on Azoulay’s concept of the show published in A-Line Journal. The exhibition will be travelling to Germany soon, to the HKW. Click here for more details.]

On Cultural Powers

Without a primitive accumulation of photographic wealth, the majority of Western-type museums and archives could not exist. Scholars are trained to see archives and museums as benign sites of research where they can find their objects, forgetting that they themselves take part in the conflation of violence and scholarship. In the book Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, I reject the centrality of the camera in the story of photography’s invention and foreground instead “the infrastructure of extractions”: that is, what enabled the camera’s access to people as free raw material for the production of photographs, which then became “primary sources” for other experts to consult and interpret. My book questions the naturalization of this category of “sources” (“primary” or “secondary”) and reconstructs the production, accumulation, and naturalization of the photographic “raw material” under imperial power. What is free raw material, to whom is it free, and what do we forget?

The looting of objects, archives and photographs is central to the book. After many years of distancing myself from the world of art, through unlearning my initial training as art lover and curator, in Potential History I was able to engage with art again, but differently. These looted objects cannot just be studied – they have to be restituted in order to open up possibilities to participate partially in their modes of being in the world. This requires undermining the foundations of museums and the related professions.

It is not possible to decolonize the museum without decolonizing the world. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t engage with this important work, but we have to do so with the full awareness that decolonization cannot be limited to discrete objects, museums, or archives, and cannot be substantial as long as the people from whom all this wealth was expropriated are not allowed to lead the process.

Rather than thinking of decolonizing the museum as a discrete institution, as if the museum exists in a world apart, I study the correlation between the migration of people and objects, out of which I configured this non-imperial right—the right to live near your objects. With this right, it is not hard to imagine what it would mean to live in a world free of imperial borders, a world in which people whose culture had been destroyed are recognized as those whose rights are inscribed in the objects preserved in Western-type museums. Rather than calling these people “undocumented,” I offer a shift that enables us to see their “documentation”—that is, their rights—in their objects.

When I look at this map of migration, I see patterns of counter-expeditions, a belated movement of people to join the objects that were forcibly migrated away from them decades or centuries earlier. We should think about those people who are deemed “undocumented” alongside this massive forced migration of objects that started in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, objects that are still held in imperial archives, museums, and libraries.

Ariella Aïsha Azoulay at the seminar, Modalities and Initiatives of Repair, Restitution and Reparation, Fundació Antoni Tàpies museum, Barcelona, 2019 | Online Source: Fundació Tàpies | youtube

On Researching Archives

Between the writing of The Civil Contract of Photography and the Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography, I created two photographic archives. These archives that I created were a kind of laboratory in which I experimented with photography to attend, so to say, political ontology in action and to see what is the world that we – people in and outside of the frame are sharing. With these archives I started to generate something that seemed like history but at the same time refused to be history, and was actually what I started to call “potential history.” The first photographic archive was engaged with forty years of Israeli occupation – 1967 to 2007.

In preparation of my one semester as visiting professor in 2010 at the University of Connecticut, I returned to an old copy of the Family of Man that I had when I was in high school.The Family of Man was first shown in 1955 (also travelling to India the following year), but its curator, Edward Steichen worked on it as a post WWII project. Through this proximity between ‘45 and ‘48 I started to understand the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 – part of which was conducted under post WWII’s terms such as “repatriation” – as part of the legitimization of mass deportation by the Allies. In Europe only, twelve million people were transferred from one place to another because “they did not fit.” Germans, Polish, Ukrainians, many of them were forced to move. In the colonies millions were constantly forced to move. And in India, partitioned with a similar cruel plan schemed by the Allies for Palestine, millions were also forcibly migrated.

1945 and 1948 ceased to exist as two separate events. This work on the archive led me also to study what was manifestly not in it. I studied the violence exercised by the Allies, as part of their self-fashioning as liberators, and I was struck that the mass rape of German women at the end of WWII was not included in the imagination of the end of the war. This opened a new question – how can the political ontology of photography help us engaging differently with existing (and non-existing) photographs to account for a large-scale campaign of rape? Given that there is no polemic around the fact that one million German women were raped, how to address the fact that the numerous images taken during the same time do not mention or refer to the rape?

Prior to my study of the rape of German women, I studied the rape of Palestinian women by Jewish soldiers and its role in the establishment of a racial patriarchy in Israel.  Other scholars studied the rape of women during the Partition of India and Pakistan, and that of enslaved Africans and African Americans. When these rapes are considered together, it is hard not to see that without the violence of rape, democracy could not gain its status as the only viable political regime. That is, the mass rape of women is both central to western democracy and has been occluded by it.

On Potential Change

Folded photograph of the expulsion of Palestinians from Ramle, 1948. From Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s exhibition Potential History, 2012.

The idea of the book (Potential History), of working in this 500-year temporal framework from 1492 onward, is to foreground the amount of imperial violence that was and is required to destroy different cultures and enable the imperial fantasy of universality to exist. The allegedly universal ethical code about looking at pain and death doesn’t make sense when we broaden the scope out to 1492. It is not about whether future corpses should be shown or not; what do you do with all the corpses that have already been shown, let alone produced? Reminding ourselves that billions of people have been killed by imperial actors in the last 500 years is also a reminder that there is nothing progressive about the idea of not showing bodies.

Cover of the publication, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, London: Verso Books, 2019.

I propose in the book the category of worldly sovereignty and, instead of relating to art making as a practice that produced discrete and isolated objects, I reconstruct it as constitutive of people’s rights and mode of being in the world. Thus a potential history of a worldly sovereignty in Palestine which existed prior to its destruction in 1948, implied in the ongoing struggles against the institutions of imperial sovereignty (Israel, in this case), enables us to approach phenomena like the Palestinian Great March of Return, not merely as an act of protest against the conditions of the concentration camp that Gaza is, but as an attempt to reverse imperial history that transformed Palestine into Israel.

Though Palestine—and the return—plays an important role in my new book, it is not a book about Palestine. The same is true for photography—it plays an important role but is not the subject of the book. The book is an attempt to provide a potential history of five hundred years in which Palestine, but also photography and modern art, are late reiterations of imperialism’s major enterprise—the impairment of worlds and their replacement with standardized political structures that facilitate the implementation of disastrous political regimes

Potential History is the anti-imperial proposition for which I was searching a long time before I found myself writing it. Inspired by so many great books that offer counter histories while shaking the ground on which history—the discipline and the genre of research and writing—is premised, this book is an attempt to re-configure this shaken ground and argue that what these authors are doing is not “counter history,” which would be an affirmation of history, but rather a “counter to history,” it’s abolition.

NOTE: This interaction is drawn from correspondence and has also edited and amended from:

– Ariella Azoulay – Unlearning, An interview with Ariella Azoulay, by Filipa Lowndes Vicent, 2020

– Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: “It is not possible to decolonize the museum without decolonizing the world.” by Sabrina Ali, March 2020

– Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Potential History – Unlearning Imperialism (New Texts Out Now). Nov. 2019. Jadaliyya