Exposing invisibilities: Tactics for a transnational archive at Sinema Transtopia
by Tecla Trupia
We are often led to believe that cultural institutions hold, reproduce, and disseminate information in a neutral way. But, what happens when racist, colonialist, sexist, and homophobic biases actively obstruct archives? The way knowledge and resources are kept is political. There is nothing neutral about carefully and skillfully tracing a cultural map missing critical pieces of information, highlighting handpicked shards of narratives, and subtly hiding stories, people, and events.
The workshop Tactics for a transnational archive organized by Sinema Transtopia on February 4th and 5th, 2023 aimed to question archival practices and to map the holes of institutional archives through the work of four artists centering archival strategies in their work. Tactics for a transnational archive was organized in the frame of KIRAATHANE, a collection of books, films, magazines, and ephemera hosted in the foyer of Sinema Transtopia. The archive was built over the years by bi’bak (Turkish: have a look), a project space based in Berlin, with a focus on transnational narratives, migration, global mobility, and their aesthetic dimensions. Sinema Transtopia is a cinema experiment by bi’bak that understands cinema as a space of social discourse, exchange, and solidarity.
After a brief introduction of the project and framework for the two days of discussion ahead of us, on February 4th we were introduced to Nnenna Onuoha and Dominique Hurth.
The Ghanaian-Nigerian moving image artist and researcher Nnenna Onuoha focuses her study on investigating Blackness throughout history, from the gaps surrounding colonialism across West Africa, Europe, and the US to archiving the contemporary Black experience with a focus on care practices. She was very open about the frustration that emerges from encountering huge voids of information in institutional archives, often chasing something not actually there. Frustration arises from encountering different versions of history in Europe, where a tale of seemingly ancient and long-gone colonialism has been carefully crafted for centuries. European archives miss critical information on their colonial practices and have created strategically inaccurate and harmful narratives. Through her work, Nnenna sheds light on the processes behind memory recollection and shared experiences, mending the cracks left by racism and colonialism.
In her recent project Baby Picture, she centers the experience of Biafran War survivors when reunited with pictures of them as kids taken during the war. While the pictures are omnipresent in humanitarian archives and familiar to Europeans, the people pictured had never seen them before.
Thanks to a different kind of research and practice, the visual artist Dominique Hurth also explores how historical narratives are told and framed, reading objects and events and how they unfold into history. Through archival research in institutional and private collections, journalistic investigation, writing, and material experimentation, she develops her artistic practices with installations, editions, readings, sculptures, and exhibitions. Her latest work orbits around investigating female Nazi perpetrators and in particular the figure of the female concentration camp guard. Her current focus of research revolves around the uniforms of the female Nazi guards of Ravensbrück and specifically the materials they were made of. While extensive analysis has been carried out on male uniforms, there is little knowledge about their female counterparts. In the exhibition Guilty Guilty Guilty, the artist developed an installation centering on the trials of the female guards and how often they were deemed incapable of understanding the harm they were inflicting on concentration camps victims. As women, they were framed as mentally inferior, exploiting gender biases to let them get away with the crimes they perpetrated.
On the second day of the workshop, Şirin Fulya Erensoy and Mohammad Shawky Hassan presented their work.
Şirin Fulya Erensoy’s artistic practice focuses on building intentional archives, keeping memories for people and places that no longer exist. She contributed to the birth of bak’ma (Turkish: don’t look), an activist open-source archive, intending to challenge the official records and authority’s control of distorted narratives. The artist questions the accessibility and truthfulness of official and institutional documents and portrayals of specific events, highlighting the organized and intentional efforts to foster forgetfulness and keep information inaccessible. Counter archiving as a community practice becomes a stand against oppression, safeguarding information, putting the record straight, and filling in the gaps. Questioning what is archived and by whom is a crucial part of Şirin’s practice, centering self-determination and community as a form of resistance. She contributed to WAWA, a reality where community-building practices and archiving ones coexist and are explored daily. WAWA is an online database and network centering the work of women* artists living in Berlin from Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Turkey, and Palestine who have experienced displacement, and forced or willing relocation.
A similar sense of community and sharing can also be found in Mohammad Shawky Hassan’s practice, which is based on shared culture, specifically arab pop culture, repurposed and filtered through a queer lens. Analyzing his movie Shall I compare you to a summer’s day?, the artist talked about the inspiration he got from the serial narrative technique of One Thousand and One Nights — a problematic tale with misogynistic, sexist, and classist premises where a woman uses storytelling as a survival technique. Through pop culture clichès and Egyptian pop music references, the director created a queer universe where elements — music, visual effects, costumes, cinematography — never directly reveal their source, but repurpose what lead the artist to them in the first place. There is a strong sense of awareness around the controversy and problematic mindset of the references used and instead of going against them, Mohammad reconciles with them. He avoids erasing the attached memories while owning problematic cultural outlets, speaking volumes about the counter-culture and survival techniques queer people have always put in motion.
Working with archives means facing deliberate amnesia, intentional silences, strategic gaps, and deliberate obstacles in accessibility. Archives don’t just happen, they are made. What kind of knowledge is fostered and protected and which histories are highlighted matters. Creating alternate archives or bringing light to the dark spots in culture is a politically necessary practice. Amplifying marginalized voices means setting the stage for more accessibility, awareness, and accountability, and creating solid foundations for community building and networks of comprehensive and accessible understanding of history and culture.
Tecla Trupia (she/they) is a Berlin-based writer and editor, passionate about arts and culture.
She earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Cultural Heritage in Milan. Their curiosity makes them eager to learn and explore the world through their writing. She is pleased to contribute to KiCulture with her creativity as part of the Communications Team.