If you, like me, are lucky enough to have an ornamental humanities degree under your belt, you probably have a vague sense that archives are important. I, for one, enjoy wandering the elaborate mind palace of the humanities, but I am still not always sure what to make of this thing called the archive. (The “Is the archive in the room with us right now?” jokes write themselves.) So I have tried to suspend some of my undergraduate assumptions as I make my way through the Archive of Forgetfulness (AoF) publication that Jacana Media recently put out. At face value, there is a lot going on here and it is easy to get swept up by the breadth and richness of the project. In fact, getting swept along might be the best approach to reading this book, but I will rather take a step back, outside of the historicist doxa that this project takes for granted, in order to get a better grip of what these archivists are actually doing.
The book form that the AoF has recently taken is only the most recent manifestation of a project that has shapeshifted numerous times over the past three years. Since Bongani Kona and Huda Tayob first launched it in September 2020, the AoF project has had three distinct phases. The first was an eight-part podcast series called Conversations with Neighbours, which spanned the first five months. The second was an online exhibition of twenty-two creative projects and five essays, selected from an open call. The third and final phase consisted of six regional projects that honed in on select geographical nodes across the continent. The publication does a decent job of charting the development of the AoF, but its scope is hard to contain in book form. I still recommend visiting the online exhibition site to get a sense of how it was presented there. However, the book does allow for a certain quality of engagement that can perhaps only be accessed “through the slowness of a turned page,” as the editors put it.
To give you an idea of how this diverse collection of media actually hangs together, let me start with some key concepts. In the introduction, the project is described as “an archive of mobility and infrastructure.” In other words, Kona and Tayob are not only dealing with concerns of time and memory, but also with how archives might inform our imagination of space. The image of a neighbourhood comes up repeatedly and can serve as a conceptual frame of sorts for the reader. It might help to think of the AoF as a neighbourhood of ideas, objects and practices that loosely coexist and interact within a virtual environment. The map-like diagrams used throughout the text serve a similar heuristic function.
Before we get further into the thick of things, it is worth asking what the political stakes are of a project like this. The book does frame its intervention as a matter of “political urgency,” but it is not always clear how the unusual creative practices on display here hook into the infrastructural problems they are addressing. How can an archive of minor histories, poetry and experimental video art meaningfully impact spatial politics and colonial geography? It is a question that readers are likely to ask, though I suspect that it perhaps too hastily assumes a fixed scale to this project, which Kona and Tayob are careful to avoid. It would seem that they are more interested in engaging politics at a number of different levels, instead of committing to a single political register.
Moreover, the AoF is reacting against the colonial sense of scale embedded within the geopolitical reality of the pandemic. During COVID, the concentric circles that ring out from the individual to the global suddenly calcified. This set of geopolitical dimensions, structured by architectural parameters, national borders and racial distinctions, among other things, determine the way politics is done and how we relate to one another. It is not a natural or arbitrary configuration, but one that was designed to serve colonial administrations in the past and continues to determine the flows of capital today. One modest way that the AoF responds to this reality is by trying out a radically different set of dimensions. What if Africa included the Mediterranean, for example? The project itself might then be seen as something akin to what Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar of The Otolith Group have called an “interscalar vehicle.” This simply means that it is able to readily move, or shift focus, between different scales.
This interscalar approach demands a kind of mental agility from the reader. One moment you will be pondering the lack of pontoons on Ibo Island and the next you will be absorbed in the global implications of Free Trade Zones like Bagamayo in Tanzania. Elsewhere, Michael Salu’s Red Earth sits alongside Moad Musbahi’s Arriving at the Corner. The former explores the metaphysical dissonance of being stretched across hemispheres, while the latter “privileges the geometry of the corner, the anatomy of the joint.” In podcast episode six, the lyricism of A Tribe Called Quest is considered alongside the Apartheid nuclear programme, and so on. The book involves a lot of zooming in and out, scaling up and down, squinting and reading back over. To put it simply, engaging with this archive requires you to assume some very unusual orientations towards the world.
It remains to be seen how useful of a political exercise this is, but it does make for a compelling reading experience. It is also interesting to note what of this diverse archive actually sticks with you. I was intrigued to find out about Nkrumah and Nasser’s friendship around the time of the Bandung Conference, which could easily have forged a very different post-independence Africa. Kuukuwa Manful’s myth about the twelve architects that came out of a hole in the ground to build the Asante Empire has been knocking around my mind as well. So too, the vague after-image of Shayna Rosendorff’s Google Earth collages, which layer satellite pictures of mines across Africa, lingers like a stain. However, I think Sonya Mwambu’s playful 16mm film experiment, titled Banange!, remains my favourite stand-alone artwork. I would have loved to have attended some of the regional projects, especially Ali Al-Adawy’s in Alexandria, but the book has at least left a trace of them somewhere in my memory, or my imagination.
Then there is the spectre of forgetfulness. Remembrance is, ironically, a far more prominent theme in this book, while forgetting is referenced only here and there, often quite enigmatically. “Forgetting is an active part of remembering,” we are reminded at the very start. “[It] defines the contours of what is recalled and preserved.” In the end note, Tayob quotes Mahmoud Darwish when he speaks about “searching for a place or a time on which to put a signature and untie the knot of the name facing the long caravans of oblivion.” These moments, when the failure of memory was made present within the archive itself, felt most truthful to me. The desire to archive and plug the gaps in history with more and more culture will persist for as long as we remain forgetful. The absence that haunts the archive is also its condition of possibility.