Body Precedes Inscription

On the work of Gita Hashemi

Heather Hermant


I am watching a single channel video that documents Gita Hashemi’s durational performance, Ephemeral Monument. [1] Hashemi walks up to a clean blackboard, slowly, deliberately, calmly. She chalks words in Farsi. She walks off-screen. She returns, and chalks again. I understand none of these words. She leaves. She returns. Momentarily, her hand strokes with force. Pulls down. I follow the school-board rhythms of white chalk on black, the punctuating patterns of suddenly forceful strokes. I watch as her body in gesture accents the text. Leans in, then retreats. She looks for space, she adds, she walks away, she returns, she erases. Just enough so that the evidence of inscription remains, but the inscriptions themselves are barely decipherable. She re-enters. She overwrites. She leaves. I breathe in her departure, wait. She returns. She writes. She writes more. She erases parts. The mundane ordinariness of erasure. She writes in the spaces she has freed. She looks at what she has written. She leaves. So much black and white. I never know if she will return to the frame. She returns. She writes in black, which is to say with a wet cloth. I hear myself sigh in this moment. Erasure writes. A kind of camouflage, perhaps. Black on grey. Erasure as record. She leaves. She returns. She erases everything with a wet cloth. No surface is ever empty, however blank. She leaves. She returns, the wet still drying, evidence. She writes again. She does this for well over an hour in the video, much longer in live performance. Slowly, deliberately, calmly, momentarily forcefully. The labour of repetition opens to meditative immersion. I lose track of the moment at which I enter this immersion. Hashemi’s departures from the frame suspend me in the affective afterlife of those fleeting moments of forcefulness that puncture the calm, and of her vanishings out of the frame which she, and so many more, haunt. [2] She is anchor. She never arrives. I am suspended in anticipatory witness. I follow. I read gesture, rhythm, pause.

In the documentary evidence, which is the video, there is a frame. Every material document contains its frame. Live, she is always there.

I am struck by Hashemi’s body, always out ahead of the trace that follows her. Right to left. Body precedes inscription. What follows her is an archive of materials from Iranian dissident movements from the time of Mossadegh’s ouster in 1953 to the revolution that overthrew the Pahlavi regime in 1979. To save herself and those around her from arrest and certainly worse, in the eighties Hashemi burned her own archive in the intensifying persecution of leftists pursued by the Islamic government following the overthrow of the Shah. Precious materials, documentation of the activisms in which she was immersed. In Ephemeral Monument, the disappeared archive re-emerges from Hashemi’s body, the body that precedes it, that remembers it, that embodies archive as well as its erasure, through their re-inscription. Paradoxical, that she inscribes erasure? Rather, she recalls the erasure that we know archival inscription can perform, while she strives to re-assemble a missing archive through body. This body, in its solitary act of durational performance, performs the dialogue of a social body in resistance fractured by forced dispersion and disappearance. She is, and she occupies, that archive in diaspora, its own kind of slow labour: erasure, re-inscription. But this is not nostalgia, even as it may be, partly, longing, nor is it only ever a catching up to the present. It is also, in diaspora, a holding to account of the social body that receives it, that keeps forcing its (re-)arrival. (Do these words—my own that can’t read the words they write of—force (re-) arrival? I wonder.)

This “embodied writing,” as Hashemi calls it—body as archive, body remembering through writing—is at its essence a labour of healing. The ritual of writing generates a transtemporal proximity to the moments of the recalled texts’ initial inscriptions, moments of possibility, moments of defiance, moments of poetry, moments of record that point from a past to a future that, to borrow from performance theorist José Muñoz, is not yet here. [3]

Hashemi’s practice was once grounded firmly in what used to be called “new media”—see for example the award-winning and widely toured Of Shifting Shadows (2000), an interactive CD-ROM featuring four non-linear narratives of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which features dozens of segments in a multitude of forms, and which draws on original and reconstructed Farsi and English language archival sources. Hashemi has more recently redirected to social practice and performance without losing intermedia inclinations. She remains grounded in propaganda strategies conversant with activist communities she has worked with over the past three decades, using her creative work as space for building new communities and alliances. [4] Hashemi brings both propagandist and hypermedia sensibilities to her latest work, the Passages series, a trio of works realized in Toronto between October 2014 and May 2015, of which some documentary traces are mounted in YYZ Gallery as part of voz-à-voz. Multiple forms, story lines, intentions, rhythms, sensory experiences, and gestures comprise a sometimes dizzying multitude of points of entry into the Passages works.


Passages

Reflection on Ephemeral Monument allows me to situate Passages thematically with the connections between body, writing, dissidence, and healing. The Passages works differ drastically from one another, and move progressively away from the centrality of the physical act of writing and of Farsi calligraphy as a visual art form and mode of intervention, yet they reiterate themes that are clearly evident in Monument.

The Passages series looks to the autobiographical writings of travellers from the so-called East who went to the so-called West in the days of expansion and entrenchment of European imperial power globally. Hashemi flips the gaze through complicated historical figures whose autonomies and allegiances simultaneously critique the Europe they encounter while expressing the nuances and contradictions that characterized their encounters with Europe, and which reflect the complexities of movement and exchange globally that ran prior to and concurrent with European expansion. In so doing, Hashemi dwells in a lacuna in historiographies of modernity, colonialism, and of the Atlantic, or rather Atlantics, extending the encounters beyond the contours of those territories framing this fraught body of water. Modernity, she affirms, should be pluralized. Hashemi selects the memoirs and travelogues of three travellers to Europe from Persianate [5] and other “Eastern” worlds, and ultimately seeks a transtemporal gesture that can engage with Indigenous struggle on Turtle Island. Amongst the many documented visits from the so-called East to Europe, Hashemi sought to skirt the thick fog of colonial bias through figures who left behind their own memoirs or travelogues, available in either English or Farsi.

Passages I: Wonders of the Sea [6] enlivens the autobiographical travelogue of Mirza I’tesam al-Din, an Indian Farsi-speaking munshi (scholar and secretary) of Persian descent who travelled from Bengal to London via Nantes, epicentre of the French slave trade, in 1765. His is the earliest known Farsi travelogue of Europe. Mirza [7] witnesses the ruses of a British East India Company commander to secure a grip on India by stealing from the Mughal emperor and lying to the British King, moves that would prove critical to British colonial entrenchment in India and which Mirza would write about only decades later. Mirza’s comparative ethnographic analyses of the French and the British constitute a (deliciously, satisfyingly) provincializing ethnographic gaze upon Europe dating back centuries, even as Mirza himself was not a problem-free figure—nor were the other figures voiced in Passages.

Wonders was staged as a multilingual gallery installation/performance hosted by Toronto francophone media arts organization Le Labo at Triangle Gallery in October 2014, as part of “Rendez-vous Français-Farsi.” Hashemi invited me to be the live voice animating Mirza’s travelogue for the performance. [8] The event was live-streamed and featured a post-performance trilingual conversation. [9] The performance’s video as archive is in post-production.

Passages II: Inhabiting the North [10] was a community event held at Spring Equinox in 2015, the Persian New Year, at Beit Zatoun Palestinian House in Toronto. Its backbone is the story of Sayyida Salme bint Said (aka Emily Said Ruete), a rare female memoirist who published her memoirs in German in 1886. [11] Salme’s Circassian mother was orphaned during the Ottoman war of expansion and brought to Zanzibar by a soldier, who sold her to the king, where she became a secondary wife. Salme thus grew up far from her mother’s Circassia at the crossroads between what is now Eastern Europe and Western Asia and became, in her new context of Zanzibar, an Arab princess. As a young woman Salme followed a German expat to Hamburg to marry and raise her family. Far from telling the story of a rescued Oriental woman, Salme’s memoirs simultaneously contest European perceptions of her and her cultures, and gaze upon the strangeness of German culture, affirming a resistance to assimilation despite her choice to be there, not unlike Mirza’s provincialization of Europe.

For Inhabiting the North, Hashemi staged Salme’s memoir as a reading performed by Zainab Amadahy and Sarah Abu-Sharar, who interjected their contemporary remarks from across their generational and cultural positions into Salme’s text, thereby troubling through it as a site of productive contemplation. Amadahy and Abu-Sharar read intermittently throughout a four-hour dinner party for cis and Trans women catered by culinary artists, and featuring video interviews with some of them about the relationship between food, memory, diasporic experience, and gender. The evening gestured toward the empowering qualities of the domestic and homosocial spaces of so-called Oriental women. Hashemi also notes a nod to Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979) in her conceiving of Inhabiting the North. [12] Video performances of Hashemi’s travels across a snowy Turtle Island landscape accompanied the reading, and structured discussion facilitated by Diane Roberts ensued between “acts” read and “courses” consumed. The event culminated with Hashemi’s documentary video of Toronto’s annual Strawberry Ceremony for missing and murdered Indigenous women. [13]

Passages III: Like Flesh and Blood [14] was staged for Mayworks Festival as a counter-clockwise walking tour of Toronto’s Queen’s Park that ignored its grandiose statues, [15] and moved instead between natural elements like towering oak trees, the edges of the now-paved Taddle Creek, and a cedar tree. [16] Two narrations were juxtaposed; the first by John Croutch of the Wikewemikong First Nation, who gave an Indigenous history of Toronto and the region with particular attention to the neighbourhood we were in. Croutch has been a historian with the Native Canadian History Project and co-conductor of First Story Tours of Toronto (formerly known as The Great Indian Bus Tour). His telling of the Indigenous history of Toronto, in the latter part of the tour, gave particular attention to the deceptions around the Toronto Purchase, and to the life of Mississauga Reverend Peter Jones (Kahkewaquonaby aka Sacred Feather) and his negotiations as a mediator between Indigenous and settler people in Ontario. Croutch’s narration was delivered in tandem with Naomi Binder Wall’s voicing of the autobiography of Joseph Emin, an Armenian exile in Bengal who travelled to England in 1751 in the hopes of garnering European support for Armenian independence. [17] Unlike Mirza, whose experience was so shaped by his ties to merchant and political classes, Emin was a solo traveller and freedom-fighter who experienced the London of the working poor, himself something of a refugee. He was also a voice from the East who was not Muslim, a deliberate selection by Hashemi affirming the diversity of religious and other orientations from the so-called East.

Experiencing all three works, one feels as a single hyper-chronicle the distinct stories of Emin, Mirza, and Salme, and of Kahkewaquonaby, all of whom navigated between their home communities, states, the merchant class, and/or religious powers in search of a means of education, of responsibility to community, of co-existence, of experience, and/or of justice. Aspects of the tales sediment into memory through action: moving as an audience around the separation wall in Triangle Gallery; imbibing a spring tonic of barberry, dandelion, nutmeg, and orange blossom at Beit Zatoun House; [18] serendipitously crossing paths with Scottish pipers and Polish drummers each in their commemorative regalia as we arrive to a cedar tree in Queen’s Park.

Hashemi’s methods shift from Wonders, inwhich her own body is directly in the frame, to a feminist community event of shared cooking, feasting, laughter, and discussion in Inhabiting the North, in which old school feminist and solidarity organizing is medium and message, to walking an alternate map, transtemporally, in Like Flesh and Blood. In the latter two works, Hashemi moves away from creator-performer to conceiver, director, script-writer, dramaturge, and producer. The works move across artistic or non-artistic labelling, dodging entrapment as Hashemi always has. I see the works as gestured/gesturing events, intervening structures for the dissemination of and reflection on critical content, “performances” beyond conventional definition. Hashemi embraces my suggestion that she is a propaganda artist. The multitude of go-pros and other cameras that feed post-event outcomes as educational propaganda, the informational double-sided postcards, and the Artist Notes booklets Hashemi gifts as part of her events are testament to her propagandist designer’s skill.

Common to the varying platforms of Passages is a desire to hover in the complicated intersections of histories as a strategy for building new relations, and ultimately, for unsettling the settler colonial state. Common to the gestures that infuse Hashemi’s events is a central concern for the body as both site of trauma and of decolonization. Aesthetically she works with the body—where it stands, how it moves in relation, what and how it ingests, how it inscribes through gesture, how it resists, in order to perform ways of moving toward those futures that are not yet. In Passages Hashemi pairs a compulsion to share the stories with a pressing question not explicitly stated: How to share such stories, from “East” to “West”, here on Turtle Island as a practice of decolonial healing? She finds those answers, I think, in an accumulation of carefully thought relational gestures, with text as pivot-point.


Blood dries last in its centre

Wonders of the Sea does far more than simply present us with a traveller’s story, as is the case with all three works that make up Passages. Wonders is exemplary of how Hashemi immerses us in traffic between worlds, between inscription and the live, between voice and gesture, in the impossibilities between languages, in layers of translation. In Wonders we are asked, if subtly, to bear witness to untranslatability, to the erasures scripted into inscription, to the sheer labour of memory. We bear witness to a body as it gives in to the immersive transit of language, to the ephemeral residue of transit across vast distances, and across eras. I find myself thinking of my own incorporative practice of ingesting colonial text through memorization, taking it in through body, translating its sounds into gesture, reciting text and its gestural translation simultaneously, the language’s violence—what is not explicitly said in a colonial bureaucrat’s text—transmitted in body. [19] Body as the most fundamental of archives. Body as the most obvious evidence of the presence of the past, the fallacy that time is purely linear, that eras are containable.

In Wonders, Hashemi writes the untranslatable of Mirza’s travelogue against his voice, staged in translation like an audio-play. The meditative and choreographic effects of her live writing in Ephemeral Monument become immersive in Wonders, an hour-long piece performed four times back to back in one evening. Calligraphy is a contrapuntal that generates an enveloping sensory environment. Hashemi produces a moving picture-book landscape floating under drying ink. In Triangle Gallery, she is between the brown paper she inks beneath her, the Papal Bull of 1454 on the wall behind her (which clearly delineates the ideological underpinnings of what would become European imperial expansion), and the digital projection of her live inscription above the Bull on the gallery’s dividing wall. The projections are delivered from a spy camera mounted on her brush. The brush’s actions in projection are like a bird’s eye view above a sea, here of ink. The camera also feeds a live-capture program, producing an archive, so close to the inscription as it appears on paper that the body that inscribes appears only through the motion of the text as it is painted. Text and body breathe as brush moves and ink dries.

Live in the gallery, I read Mirza I’tesam al-Din’s autobiographical travelogue like a children’s fairytale, as Hashemi paints all those turns of phrase from Mirza’s ancient Farsi—a language he himself learned as an adult—that could neither be easily understood by contemporary Farsi speakers nor translated to English. On one side of the wall partitioning the gallery, Hashemi etches with ink the colour of earth or blood. We see the process of ink drying. Sometimes we watch disappearance as Hashemi paints in water, inscription disappearing as it dries, its traces left in the feeling of their once having been there, the fact of their disappearance witnessed. She overwrites. Red on red. Water on red. Black over these. Water becomes earth, the colour of blood becomes thick black wash as she changes brushes and inks. The sound of the voice telling Mirza’s tale is overlaid with the clink of brushes against glass mixing jars and sounds of brushes moving across thick paper. Rogue drops of red ink splatter off-text from time to time, later to be painted over. I watch them dry inwards, the core drying last.

Watching the video performance in post-production—a video poem, really—I note the way in which the rhythm of voice and moving trace of brush—autonomous actions—sometimes synchronize, sometimes seem to punctuate or sway with each other. And sometimes motion stills as the voice continues, or the voice stills, leaving the physicality of inscription to craft the silence. Sometimes the ink is catching up, lagging behind the voice that recalls. Sometimes it seems the ink is out ahead of the teller. And then there is the sound of audience reaction, different content and confluences causing different clusters of laughter or sighs or shifts in body language, such is the linguistic and cultural specificity of humour, of loss, of recognition. This sometimes detectable dis/con/junction is, to my mind, a subtle but crucial part of the performancescape.

It was youthful enthusiasm in conjunction with the pull of fate that had filled me with such desire to see the Velayat [England]. Embarking upon the long voyage with Captain Swinton, I boarded the ship with this poem in mind.

Hashemi scores Mirza’s most imaginative and emotional moments as silence. Mirza refers to a poem in recollection as a teaching, but Hashemi withholds that poem from voicing, and certainly from those of us who do not read Farsi, as she paints the poem on the brown paper, immerses us in its projection overhead.

Later, Mirza recounts the wise words of his elders, but Hashemi lets the silence resonate with multiple, divergent longings.

I was struck so deeply by the pain of separation from my family and home that the pay was nothing to me. As the wise have said...

Her writing writes through these suspensions as Hashemi scripts parts of what is not voiced. In scripting and scribing through these silences, Hashemi simultaneously underscores lack of access across language and culture; resistance to the voyeuristic gaze that would consume; and rupture across generations that transoceanic movement bequeaths. The poem, not uttered, marks the moment when performer, narrator and audience cross to the other side of the gallery wall, as Mirza boards the ship. Crossing over with the audience to the other side of the divided space, Hashemi mixes new colours, leaving the blood of earth behind. Through greens and blues, soon to be overwritten by white, Mirza encounters the marvels of an open sea that will carry him to the bewilderment of strange lands. In these sea colours, it is harder to see the ink dry. Ocean, water diffuses. Earth, blood dries last in the centre.

The wise words of the elders, not uttered, are left in sea blues and whites in the moment just before Hashemi puts down her brushes and leaves. Mirza’s telling continues to its conclusion. Hashemi, departed, is the body ahead of the voice that is to conclude the tale recounted. The body always ahead of the trace that follows. Like the moment when she first writes black onto blackboard with a wet cloth in Ephemeral Monument, in Wonders we, as collective witness, are lulled through a meditative repetition toward subtle but potent impacts.


Notes

[1] Gita Hashemi, Ephemeral Monument (2008, 2013), video documentation of performance at MAI (Montréal Arts Interculturels, Montreal), November 13, 2013. Ephemeral Monument was created in 2008 and re-staged at A Space Gallery (Toronto) and MAI in 2013.

[2] I borrow from Carla Freccero, who writes, “Thinking historicity through haunting thus combines both the seeming objectivity of events and the subjectivity of their affective afterlife.” Carla Freccero, Queer/Early/Modern (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006), unpaginated, ch. 5 para. 15.

[3] José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009).

[4] For instance, Hashemi is invested in foregrounding the centrality of Iran in the history of extraction capitalism to give a more global understanding of imperial histories entwining settler colonial and extractivist states, Canada included. For decades, she has also been at the forefront of efforts to place Palestinian struggle in conversation with Indigenous struggle through feminist networks, helping to coordinate Negotiations: From a Piece of Land to a Land of Peace (2003) at A Space and various other venues in Toronto, which fostered through artistic production space for activist alliance-building.

[5] Persianate signifies “ethno-culturally diverse societies in south, west and central Asia and parts of north and southeast Africa, where, for several centuries, Farsi was the shared language of communication and/or cultural production” Gita Hashemi, Passages I: Wonder of the Sea, Artist Notes (Toronto: Subversive Press, 2014), 3. In the eighteenth and ninetennth centuries, contact between the so-called West and the Persianate world increased exponentially (ibid.). “Persianate” is a fraught term, however, because it often occludes colonialisms and subsumes, for example, the subject of Passages III, Joseph Emin’s, Armenian identity, or the subject of Passages II, Sayyida Salme’s, mother’s Circassian identification. Hashemi elaborates on such intricacies, and the intention of understanding “Persianate” as a field of study rather than as an identity, on the detailed blog she has kept about the research process of Passages.

[6] See Gita Hashemi, Artist Notes, Passage, I: Wonders of the Sea, A work in progress by Gita Hashemi with guest artist Heather Hermant, Artscape Triangle Gallery, Toronto (Toronto: Subversive Press, October 9, 2014).

[7] Hashemi explains that Mirza is a title of respect which indicates an official status or position of responsibility. In his own context he would have been referred to as Mirza I’tesam al-Din, or Mirza for short, a convention I use through the rest of this text. Personal correspondence with the author, 2015.

[8] Choosing a Euro (French, British, Jewish, even a bit German) descended, queer cis-female narrator for an eighteenth century male Persianate scholar who Hashemi tells me was a man of his time, both patriarchal and anti-Semitic, is just one symbolic gesture among many Hashemi weaves into the work.

[9] The event also featured a video screening of work by Maryam Taghavi. The conversation with the audience included Hashemi, myself, Taghavi, moderator Maggie Flynn and French-Farsi interpreter Nima Nikjou, each speaking in French or Farsi, with English when necessary.

[10] See Gita Hashemi, Artist Notes, Passages, II: Inhabiting the North, A work by Gita Hashemi with Sarah Abu-Sharar and Zainab Amadahy, Beit Zatoun, Toronto (Toronto: Subversive Press, March 27, 2015).

[11] Salme’s is one of two works accessible in English or Farsi that Hashemi has found written by women from the Persianate fold who travelled and wrote about it. Hashemi works from an English translation of Salme’s memoirs. Other women also travelled to Europe, including Sampsonia aka Theresa Shirley in the seventeenth century, considerably earlier that any of Hashemi’s selected figures, but she comes to us merely in a footnote to her British husband in an academic text. Taj al-Sultana, daughter of the Qajar king, wrote a memoir as well, but she never travelled. Hashemi addresses these figures on her Passages blog.

[12] Personal communication with the author, 2015.

[13] The event raised funds for It Starts With Us.

[14] See Gita Hashemi, Artist Notes, Passages, III: Like Flesh and Blood, A work by Gita Hashemi with Naomi Binder Wall and John Croutch, Queen’s Park, Toronto, Set of Eight Postcards (Toronto: Subversive Press, May 3, 2015).

[15] Tales of some statues were included on double-sided postcards gifted throughout the walk, revealing unexpected links. The statue of Queen Victoria—which Hashemi refers to as Super Sized Queen—is an exact replica of one made in 1887 and installed in Hong Kong in 1896. The statue of Edward VII, dated to 1922—which Hashemi refers to as The Reusable King—made its way from a graveyard for all symbols colonial post-independence in India, to Toronto, donated by the founder of Empire Life Insurance in 1969. See Hashemi, Passages, III.

[16] Like Flesh and Blood resonates with other walking (and riding) tours of Toronto produced as counter-narratives to the city's history, among them Camille Turner’s Hush Harbour (2013), an Afro-futuristic intervention sited at an 1812 soldier’s memorial in condo land south of King Street; Mohawk/Tuscarora theatre artist Falen Johnson’s Invisible Stories walking tour on and around Queen Street for Summerworks (2010); and the Native Canadian Centre’s Great Indian Bus Tour of Toronto, now called First Story Tours of Toronto.

[17] Hashemi’s blog elaborates the contradictions between Emin’s experiences in England and his enduring admiration of the English. After his return to India, Emin was frustrated that his English friends, who had committed to supporting the publication of his memoirs, never delivered.

[18] Drinks at the Inhabiting the North feast were created by Salma Al Atassi of Booma’s Teas.

[19] See Heather Hermant, “Performing Archives of Passing, Moving Bodies across Language,” Tusaaji: A Translation Review, 2:2 (2013): 26–41. I do so with the interrogation record of an eighteenth-century figure deported from what is now Canada in three works: the theatre piece ribcage: this wide passage (thorax: une cage en éclats), dir. Diane Roberts; the one-to-one performance Aujourd’hui / This Day, 1738; and in the one-to-one social practice work with Alvis Parsley and Kaija Siirala, queer slow dance with radical thought.

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Heather Hermant is a poet, performer, facilitator, and scholar. Her work explores the interface between archive, land, body, and performance. She has followed across several works an eighteenth century figure who passed across gender and more to become the first Jewish almost-settler arrived to and deported from Canada. This includes the theatre work ribcage: this wide passage, performed in French as thorax : une cage en éclats (dir. Diane Roberts) presented by Le MAI (Montréal Arts Interculturels) and Vancouver's Firehall Arts Centre; her one-to-one performance Aujourdhuy / This Day, 1738, at Rhubarb Festival; and a PhD in Gender Studies in progress at Utrecht University, The Netherlands. Recent work includes O W N, an ecopoetics collection with angela rawlings and Chris Turnbull, and queer slow dance with radical thought, which combines social practice and performance to build critical embodied archives through one-to-one performance experiences. Its first edition, co-created with Alvis Parsley, was at Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives for Rhubarb Festival. Its second, The Water Edition, co-created with Alvis Parsley and Kaija Siirala was presented at Pantopia Telematic Encounters, Faroe Islands. Heather was Associate Artist at Vancouver's urban ink productions 2006-2014. She teaches Community Arts at York University.