27 October 2010
The season of mists and fruitful mellowness is upon us, who wants to go out in that? Untold London searches out some nourishing books to feed your brain in the forthcoming period of enforced hibernation.
First up, Martha Mingay reports back on Landscape, Race and Memory: Material Ecologies of Citizenship by Divya Praful Tolia-Kelly, Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Durham.
Landscape, Race and Memory documents a project exploring the importance of place to identity and the memories of first generation migrant British Asian women now living in Harlesden and Harrow, North West London. The monograph presents an analysis of group discussions and exercises focussed on biography and landscape, as transported, remembered, invented and shared by the small group.
This geographical focus allows Tolia-Kelly to map biographies of these women, going beyond familiar paradigms of ‘the typical British Asian’ experience to reveal diverse and fascinating journeys from pasts in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the former British East African Territories. Using oral history, group landscape painting and ‘show and tell’ sessions, Tolia-Kelly allows these ‘twice migrant’, women to tell their personal histories on their own terms. Testimonies shared within the group reveal intimate, individual memories of cinema-going and picnics at African lakes that complement the individuals’ life narratives with remembered scenes both real and symbolised that find resonance, excitement and nostalgia within the wider group, ‘serving to map the group’s commonalities through the experience of migration’. It is the ‘commonalities’ the group remembering documents that allows the memories to reveal a valuable yet untold social history of British Imperial life in the everyday experiences of the Asian community, ‘whose routes signify the effect of policies of the colonial administrators’ in East Africa.
Testimony is complemented by an examination of the material as a site of cultural nationalism and memories of migration in the group’s sharing of photos, purchased paintings of African, English and South Asian idylls and even the apparently inanimate site of a lampshade, a treasured souvenir. However, the greatest reward of the trust evident among the group is the subtle and nuanced analysis of the authors’ visits to Mandirs, (domestic shrines of the ‘significant and sacred’ often found in British Asian homes) to unlock further layers of highly personal, hidden rituals and meanings that are dynamic, elevated alongside religious iconographies and yet embedded in the ‘everyday environments of home’.
The interviewees also imagined and sketched idealised landscapes of ‘home’ that were then painted by the artist Melanie Carvalhos. The inclusion of both these sketches and the resultant paintings vividly illustrate of the spirit of mutual exchange in this project. The researcher’s care to document the reactions of the women to the work in exhibition confirms them as the individual owners of these memories with wider significance as markers of identity. This research and methodology unusually combines academic rigour with the emotional intelligence more commonly prized amongst voluntary sector practitioners exploring memory, national identity, place and conceptions of home with immigrant communities.
Landscape, Race and Memory captures a shifting English identity, redefined by these new Londoners whose lives have constantly encountered an imperial Englishness to which they were constructed as ‘other’. The focus on objects reveals surprising alternative ‘sites’ of memory within a diaspora, from a distantly-familiar bucket rediscovered in Harlesden and used for washing to a Bollywood migration tale. All is built around the importance of ‘placing’ memories, and throughout the wider potential of landscape and human geography to memory work and social research is demonstrated.
But while Landscape Race and Memory provides an innovative methodology and new insights, it is its tenderness which sets it apart. The researcher and artist shared their own experiences and heritage with the group and a high degree of trust and sense of belonging is palpable throughout. Tolia-Kelly’s findings provide a warm, charming and privileged insight.