by Fahad Al-Almoudi, Lydia Hounat & Prerana Kumar
In January of 2021, the three of us had just completed a project in partnership with the Writing Squad and Barbican Young Poets, commissioned by English Heritage. The brief was to write a poem in response to a historical site from a list English Heritage provided. Though the project was a little rushed and the barriers of time and the pandemic made it hard for us to deeply engage with the sites, it gave us enough of a taste of what it might be like to creatively respond to historical source material when partnered with an institution. ‘Writing the Archive’ is a successor to that experience and to many other high-profile archive-based poetry projects in the past few years.
It didn’t take long to find the collections that inspired us to write. Throughout the English Heritage project, we had been talking about ideas of hidden narratives and erased histories from the archive, often centred along the axes of race, gender and class. As relics of a colonial legacy, the archive was a space where violence, misinformation and erasure reflected its colonial origins. We were keen to understand this dynamic more deeply. As writers, I think it would be fair to say that all three of us are engaged in some way with personal archiving, writing about our identities and how they relate to colonialism, whether in a historical or present context. This project became an extension of that work.
When you read the poetry that has come from the project, you will hopefully see each of our historical niches and obsessions. These range from Mughal Paintings that show evidence of female intimacy and same sex relationships, even if the archive silences the discussion of that narrative; to Amazigh crafted jewellery found in Algeria, telling a story of a peoples much maligned throughout North Africa by a legacy of colonial language, taxonomy and archival misinformation; to the story of Prince Alemayehu, a child whose life stands as a living archive to the destruction and looting that the British Army and British Museum enacted on his home of Maqdala in Ethiopia. This work creatively reimagines marginalised narratives and problematises the language of the archive to bring to life figures from history.
Unfortunately, not everything went to plan. Having found what we were looking for in the British Museum, we invited them to participate in the project, and give us the space to work and physically see the artefacts we were writing about. Although they initially agreed to grant us access, they proceeded to ignore us for the next few months and we chose to press on with our writing without them. In many ways it was emblematic of the kind of work we were doing. This was our history, and yet we were ignored and denied access to it and a chance to be involved in its telling to the public. It wasn’t surprising but we were disappointed that the museum chose to shut its doors when it could have facilitated more productive conversation about archiving, colonialism and erasure. The only exception to this was Dr Imma Ramos. After leaving her role in the British Museum, Dr Ramos helped Prerana gain access to the Mughal paintings. We are grateful to her for going out her way to support the project.
Collated in this PUSH issue are a selection of the pieces that we have worked on over the past few months.
Fahad, Lydia and Prerana.