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Archiving Iran in/of the Diaspora

RoundTable X-5, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 5:30 pm

RoundTable Description
This session will discuss the possibilities and challenges of working on, with, and through archival practices related to Iran and its diaspora through a multidisciplinary approach. The roundtable brings together scholars, artists, and cultural workers who work with the archive (archeological, material, and ephemeral records) in the global Iranian diaspora as well as folks who conceive of their practices as archiving/archival and center critical approaches to archival research methodologies. Returning to archives makes possible discoveries of source material for production of knowledge as well as artistic creation. But beyond the colonial and extractive logic that under-girds historical inquiry into the records of People of the Global Majority (Black, Asian, Brown, mixed race, Indigenous to the global south who have been racialized as 'ethnic minorities’), the archive appears as an autonomous subject in some of the key political discourses and cultural productions both inside Iran and in the Global Iranian Diaspora, and is central to the social and political urgencies of both local and diasporic conditions. In this session, we will focus on how considering archival engagements across generations and borders can expand our understanding of Iranian history, society and politics, as well as the diasporic condition, while also thinking through some of the affective possibilities of archival encounters. Some of the central questions that will animate the roundtable will be: What does it mean to have communities of practice that break open difficult pasts by exposing collective historical amnesia and highlighting erasure and absence in the nationalist records? What desires propel new media practices that (mis)use the existing media for their own creative purposes? Beyond conjuring ghosts and licking our historical wounds, can the archive become a condition of possibility for Iranian and diasporic futurities? And if so, what might these futures look like?
Art/Art History
Media Arts
  • Amy Malek -- Presenter
  • Dr. Leila Pourtavaf -- Organizer, Chair
  • Dr. Nazli Akhtari -- Presenter
  • Shabnam Golkhandan -- Presenter
  • Farzaneh Hemmasi -- Presenter
  • Dr. Nazli Akhtari
    Title: “The Family Album and the Performance of Dislocation” Historical ephemera and memory-based practices contribute to the makings of everyday and aesthetic media practices in the Global Iranian Diaspora. Tracing technological environments as sites of memory, performance, and meaning making, in this presentation I turn specifically to circulations of the archive. I ask: how does the archive, despite being one of History’s most contested technologies, become a condition of possibility for diasporic media futurities? What does it mean to have performance and media practices that misuse and queer-use the cultural ephemera outside their intended use/context? And how do media circulations of (collective and personal) histories perform beyond reemphasizing the central role media play in connecting multiple geographies within Iran and its Global Diaspora? I focus on archive-based examples in the Iranian and Afghan diasporas that specifically turn to the Family Album as a site to fumble historiography. Taking up diasporic accounts of the Family Album which are varied and plentiful, this presentation considers the work of artists that misuse the album to do the queer-feminist task of historical repair. I begin with Firouzeh Khosrovani’s autobiographical film Radiograph Of A Family (2020) which uses discarded and mishandled photographs of her parents who grew apart by their conflicting political views of the 1979 Revolution. Khosravani reconstructs a counter history of 1960-80’s Iran. I weave in two additional examples that similarly tell counter-histories of Afghanistan within the same two decades: Wazhmah Osman’s Postcards from Tora Bora (2007) and Shaista Latif’s The Archivist (2020). Wazhmah returns to Afghanistan in search of tangible traces of her past family life. Wazhmah’s family’s only suitcase filled with their family photos was stolen during their departure. In her solo performance Latif similarly creates a live archive of found objects including family photos. The artist makes a brazen gesture against historiography. Bringing these archive-based examples into conversation, I considers how circulations of family photographs in particular respond to historical erasure while in their misuse of the family album these artworks perform beyond historicity. I contend that these memory-based practices offer possibilities that can reframe our colonial relationship to History and its contested technologies as well as our understanding of Euro-American history of Empire and Diaspora. I conclude that for diasporic artists and memory workers these archival engagements rather become sources of feminist speculation, queer historiography, and anticipating diasporic futurities over that of historical accuracy which is bound to the notions of archive.
  • Farzaneh Hemmasi
    My contribution considers several examples of Iranian diasporic musical performers and video directors’ engagements with the archive of 1960s and 70s Iranian popular music. I focus on impersonators of two deceased Pahlavi-era musical stars – Vigen and Aghassi – and their reanimating performances on stage, on screen, and at the gravesites of those they impersonate. Through the paper, I explore relationships between death, resurrection, and eternal life via performance and recording technologies and the creative, commercial activity that perpetually resuscitates Pahlavi pop. Both recorded media and performance can be seen as interventions in the inexorable passage of time. At their earliest origins, sound recordings were understood to have the capability to simultaneously arrest life and hold death and decay at bay. Recording’s development was coterminous with preserving techniques of canning and embalming; sound recording was a way of staving off the inevitability of loss. Not only could recorded sound hold the voices of the dead, it could make them return again and again, since through its very nature a recording “offers a little piece of repeatable time within a carefully bounded frame” (Jonathan Sterne 2003:301). This repeatability affords an alternative to the notion of time as linear progression where each new moment is predicated on the loss of the one that preceded it. Performances also bear a relationship to the past: they always index and emerge from prior actions, utterances, sounds, gestures, and traces: “[p]erformances function as vital acts of transfer, transmitting social knowledge, memory, and a sense of identity through reiterated, or what Richard Schechner has called ‘twice-behaved behavior’” (Diana Taylor 2003:2-3). Combined, endlessly repeatable media and celebrity impersonation are tools of resurrection and synchronization through which past, presents, and futures, heres and theres, and the dead and living can be comingled. Diasporic imaginings of the pre-revolutionary past become accessible through creativity, commerce, and collective and individual memory.
  • Shabnam Golkhandan
    This presentation offers an account of the Tavakoli Archive, a Toronto-based, soon to be publicly accessible archive, composed of over two hundred thousand documents from Professor Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi’s personal archival holdings of 19th and 20th century Iran, and a developing online digitized selection from them. We will discuss the history of the collection, the various ways in which it was accumulated over the course of the last four decades and from across vast geographical, political, and historical \contexts, and its contemporary state. We will discuss the current possibilities that the archive offers researchers—from inside and outside Iran alike—as well as some of the challenges we have faced in establishing an extensive, publicly accessible, mindfully digitized archive of modern Iran in diaspora. The goal is to offer some insight into the guiding themes and principles of the archives and its holdings, which we hope will enable new avenues for telling the history of modern Iran through a transnational approach, relying on counter-narratives, untold histories, and marginalized materials. As a continuously expanding endeavour, we are also hoping to present a future vision for this archive that is both inclusive and expandable, able to accommodate and preserve comparable collections that might otherwise remain homeless and forgotten.
  • Amy Malek
    Drawing on previous research into the notion of the digital diasporic archive as a digital "anti-collection" of the dispersed originals of a dispersed population, in this roundtable I seek to offer thoughts on my ongoing project of analyzing how remediated materials of Iranian family archives, e.g, family snapshots, home movies, and collected ephemera, have circulated in particularly "viral" ways in response to political events and shifting geopolitical circumstances. Iranians in diaspora on social media post family photos, photo collages from old magazines, and videos that combine the two with nostalgic claims about the loss of an Iranian past as well as of a future that never unfolded, a phenomenon I describe elsewhere as subjunctive nostalgia. Once digitized and in circulation, these images can be used by a variety of actors for a variety of other purposes, including to make political claims. These personal images, especially from the “pre-Revolutionary” Iran of the 1970s, and especially when depicting unveiled Iranian women in western clothing, have circulated especially frequently and well-beyond Iranian diaspora spaces in response to nuclear negotiations (e.g, 2014-5), military confrontations (e.g, January 2020), and protests in Iran, whether in 2018, 2019 or, most recently, in Fall/Winter 2022-3. In doing so, these users draw on viewers perceptions about Iran, Iranian women, Islam, and “the West” in line with notions of (neo)-Orientalism. Here I seek to unpack how images of Iranian women in the 1970s circulating in late 2022 in response to the Women-Life-Freeom movement can be seen as both in line with previous circulations of this type, but also as distinct: in my observations, rather than the usual reactions ranging from shock to nostalgia, far more users in 2022 were willing to challenge and debate the assumptions made in these posts and what they meant for the present moment and for a future in Iran. In this case, family archives, once remediated, are circulating in ways that have led not just to nostalgic reminiscences nor even politicized nostalgia, but also meta-discourses and contestations over that very circulation.