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Jamelie Hassan

Not Laura Secord

From So, To Speak, J-P. Gilbert, Sylvie Gilbert and Lesley Johnston eds.,
Artextes Editions, Montréal, 1999.
[ 991 words ]


For it is certainly easier to create without answering for life, and easier to live without any consideration for art. Art and life are not one but they must become united in myself — in the unity of my answerability.

 — M.M. Bakhtin

A few years ago, a videotape arrived from Lebanon. My mother's family had decided to modernize the family house that had been built by my grandfather in the 1920s. The house contained some unusual features, so it was with a certain anxiety that I watched the video footage unfold. My mother had called me, asking me to look at it, and her voice communicated her distress. The opening sequence led us through the house, the camera almost lovingly moving across the walls and ceilings, revealing images and details that had long been buried in my memory. I began to understand my mother's anguish as the video suddenly shifted to demolition scenes. The interior of the house was destroyed, leaving only a minimum of the original structure. The contractor had sent us this video, a document of his progress, with hours of footage showing the labour involved.

Understandably, the experience of viewing this video stayed with me, even as I tried to focus on related, but what I believed to be more immediate, projects. I began plans for a trip to Lebanon to research the post-war reconstruction of the National Museum of Beirut, an equally difficult undertaking for completely different reasons. The museum project was high profile, metropolitan, and international, quite removed from the everyday fate of the family house in a mountain village.

In November 1995 I flew to Beirut via Aberdeen to participate in Fotofeis and Istanbul for the Biennial. While these destinations seemed incongruous at the time, I now realize that this itinerary was in fact a prelude to the future work I would produce, resulting from the lingering effects of viewing the strange video letter that my family had received.

I remember:

In Scotland, being compelled to talk of my Scottish 'grandmother', Jessie. I bought a book on Glencoe, Jessie's family was from Glencoe. They settled in North America, where she met and married my grandfather, then died an early death from tuberculosis. Her name resonates in our family: both my aunt and my sister carry her name, so that we would always remember my grandfather's first love.

In Istanbul, I had a 'conversation' with artists who were startled when I referred to the Ottoman Empire and recounted Turkey's military control of the region during my father's youth. The mocking disbelief that this history could be so personally immediate seemed to defy comprehension.

In Lebanon, I visited the villages of my parents, walking around Karoun, hastily photographing the newly modernized house from the outside, with no desire to go inside.

My recent work, Boutros Al Armenian / Mediterranean Modern (1997), waited another year before the elements came together and the chronicle could be told. Unexpectedly, I found, while fully in the midst of producing this installation, that I was no longer speaking from the position of family history but that the work had taken a turn of its own. Boutros, the Armenian artist, an itinerant painter who had embellished the interior walls and ceilings of this family home, increasingly dominated my dialogues with my mother, her sister, and her brothers. I asked them to search their memories for details so that I could come to understand Boutros. Who was he? How long did he stay with my family? Where did he end up? This refugee of the Armenian catastrophe fully occupied my mind and I continued my dialogue through our common labour, the act of painting, which eventually gave voice and life to this fellow artist. I repeatedly played back the scant video images, searching for meaning behind Boutros and his experiences. What was he doing, painting his faux marble finishes, columns, and elaborate drapes on the ceiling and walls of the village houses? In repainting Boutros's paintings I believe I came to understand him, his generosity and his pain, his patient endurance in the face of his tragedy, his alliance with others and their mutual reciprocity.

Something about storytelling and history, the everyday and momentous events, journeys and chance encounters, the medium of photography and the act of painting; somewhere in that space are 'the loopholes of existence,' which so appealed to M.M. Bakhtin. He wrote in one of his first published texts, Art and Answerability:

I have to answer with my own life for what I have experienced and understood in art, so that everything I have experienced and understood would not remain ineffectual in my life. But answerability entails guilt, or liability to blame. It is not only mutual answerability that art and life must assume, but also mutual liability to blame.

This guilt or blame became the real obstacle in my producing Boutros; all feared that I blamed them for the loss of Boutros's paintings. That I pointed my paintbrushes at them and blamed my mother and her family's zealous modernization project. What they failed to understand was that answerability is mutual and that Boutros too had his answerability to deal with, which he painted in his medallion of upsidedown Istanbul. Oceans crossed and landscapes visited. But perhaps most of all, in the perplexed and doubting expression he gave to the face of the woman gracing the central medallion of his ceiling painting in the salon of my grandfather's house. Not just your regular Laura Secord candy-box face, but perhaps Jessie or Ayshia, and possibly Archo, Fatima, Tina, Arsinée, Roula, Margaret, Helen, Amina, Freida, Jackie, Calise, Taleha, Zahra, Ismahen, Robia, Farouz, Elizabeth, Tara, Judy, Susan, Yasmine, Marium, Najet, Jenna, Samia, Dena, Catherine, Layla, Sharon, Jen, Neva, Natasha, Shelia, Maura, Zinab, Jean, Baalqis, Reem, Azizi, Mary, Jamelie...


From So, To Speak, J-P. Gilbert, Sylvie Gilbert and Lesley Johnston eds.,
Artextes Editions, Montréal, 1999.

Text: © Jamelie Hassan. All rights reserved.

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