dreaming our futures out of our past

Making the Postcard Women’s Imaginarium

That personal adornment is heritage, will come as no surprise if you have been following this blog for a while. But what does that heritage mean to the communities that it belongs to, that produced it, that lived with it? The publication Making the Postcard Women’s Imaginarium. Dreaming our futures out of our past is a brilliant volume that questions, reverses, challenges and above all, deeply loves. It accompanied the exhibition held in London in the autumn of 2022, curated by Salma Ahmad Caller, which showed a variety of artists’ responses to the way in which their communities have been represented in the West.

 

First off, what is an Imaginarium? The explanation on the back cover reads: ‘A place devoted to the imagination. An imaginarium is richly coloured by those who are doing the imagining.’ So, is all of this imagined? Yes and no. The heart of this project is formed by the many colonial postcards that have been produced of women in North Africa and Southwest Asia. These are images of women as Western photographers imagined them to be, part of an imaginary ‘Orient’ that mainly existed as counterpart to the West. But these women, however much they have been made to pose and dress (or undress) in a certain way, were real. They were someone’s mother, sister or daughter. Who were they? What did they want, believe, hope? The project centers around these women from three angles: throwing light, casting doubt, telling tales.

The Imaginarium-book is edited by Salma Ahmad Caller, who is also the curator of the exhibition and the creator of the project. She has worked with artists, researchers, writers, scholars and consultants, who each have their own relation to the postcard women, the past and the cultures that they come from. How we look at these images is shaped by our own lives, histories and cultural context, and so this book contains a caleidoscopic ensemble of personal interpretations and views. I will share a few of these next.

The essay and art by Hala Ghellali, Colonial Postcards from Libya. Reclaiming the songs of our heritage, is a very personal account of how research into postcards turned into a way of honouring and reclaiming heritage, and personal adornment in particular. She reconnects the silver jewellery items to their world of poetry, songs, experiences among women and shares with us how she feels about these postcards and how her art interacts with both these images, her personal experiences and her heritage. Hala has a book coming out on Libyan silver jewellery soon, and having read this powerful essay, I can only be grateful she will be sharing more of her research with us.

Ariella Aisha Azoulay contributes an essay in the form of a letter to one of the postcard women: a personal, intimate account of her own life and experiences blend in with imagined aspects of the life of the addressee, Mme Cohen. Enaya Hammad Othman writes about the representation of Palestinian women both by colonizers and nationalists: her observation that after a century of representation, women themselves are increasingly expanding their control over the meanings of cultural clothing (p. 100) reminded me of the work of Wafa Ghnaim of Tatreez and Tea. Alia Derouiche Cherif places the well-known photographs of Tunisian women by Lehnert & Landrock in a new context by juxtaposing it with the experiences of a descendant of the Ouled Nail in today’s Tunisia (p. 92). Afsoon, in her essay Somewhere between here and home, reflects on how these women have never consented to their image being shared so widely as they are now. In her art, she ‘nests’ them in things they might find familiar, such as jewellery, henna, beads, patterns and colours, in order to bring a little of ‘home’ to them. (p.33)

Reading this book has introduced me to many realities that exist besides the images that we are so used to seeing because they are shared over and over again. It caused me to question the realities that I am familiar with, and urged me to keep trying and imagine these in another light. The book addresses the effects and the pain of colonialism, racism and oppression, but what you will notice in every page, every artwork, every word, is love. This book and this project have created a space where the postcard women finally can feel safe and protected, where they are surrounded by gazes not looking for what might be gained from them, but what can be done for them: cover them, shield them, enhance them, adorn them.

If you want to start grasping how personal appearance matters personally, culturally, socially, historically, artistically, and how it is most definitely relevant for our world today, I highly recommend you to peruse this book: not just to read, but to take in the many layers of meaning in the artworks presented as well. A beautifully designed book that will get you thinking, questioning, and hoping.

Making the Postcard Women’s Imaginarium. Dreaming our Futures out of our Past. Curated and edited by Salma Ahmad Caller, 2022.

Full colour, 118 pages, in English. Published by Peculiarity Press

The book was a much loved gift from Salma Ahmad Caller.