Safiya Al Maskari, project coordinator of Lest We Forget, archiving Mohamed Al Khoori’s collection.
At first sight, the scene that plays out in the small back room of a warehouse in Mina Zayed comes as a complete surprise.
As a hushed group of young, abaya-clad women remove a series of unlikely objects from a ragtag collection of boxes, their workspace is transformed from something resembling a cluttered photographic studio into a treasure trove filled with rare and antique delights.
Before long, century-old silver hair ornaments are sitting alongside daggers in fine scabbards and men’s belts finished with silver thread. In another corner are engraved brass jewellery boxes, which look to the uneducated eye like so many Victorian jelly moulds – that appear to multiply across the room like a swarm of heavy jellyfish.
As a young woman photographs a traditional Emirati coffee pot, or dallah, in the centre of the room, her collaborator and the project’s co-ordinator, Safiya Al Maskari, processes the images and enters each into the archive of photographs, recordings and contemporary artworks.
The scene becomes less surprising when the context is taken into consideration. We are in Warehouse421, the Mina Zayed home of the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, and the women are working towards the latest iteration of the UAE’s continuing memory project, Lest We Forget.
“This is a new direction for us. Instead of using photographs, we’re really working with material culture this time," says Michele Bambling, the creative director of Lest We Forget, the archival initiative the academic first launched in 2012, when she was teaching at Zayed University.
“We are still working with family photographs and we’re continuing to build an extensive archive, but now we are working with people’s personal effects – it can be jewellery, it can be attire, it can be things that people collected in their homes," she says.
“We’re archiving them, photographing them, labelling them and capturing empirical information about them but what also interests us is the other side of their story – their context.
“Why did people collect these objects and hold onto them, care about them, give them as presents? The stories around those objects tell us a lot about life here and a lot about memories of the past."
Bambling’s latest attempt to map the UAE’s memory of its passage through modernity follows the success of the first generation – eponymously titled – the Lest We Forget project.
The initiative resulted in Lest We Forget: Emirati Family Photographs 1950-1999, an exhibition, book and archive of Emirati family photographs currently on display at Warehouse421. This also led to the creation of the Lest We Forget: Structures of Memory, which formed the UAE’s national pavilion at the 2014 Venice Architectural Biennale.
“I find that it’s very hard for people to be able to simply recount something from the past without a physical, tangible link to the intangible so we’re bringing in these objects as a catalyst and a stimulus that will allow us to talk about and explore memory," says Bambling.
“And so even though we’re cataloguing these objects we’re also being very careful about capturing the oral histories that go with them," she says. “We’re not just interested in, say, photographing a burqa. We’re also interested in the story of the woman who wore it, the story of the granddaughter who preserved it and we’re also interested in the response of young women working together to explore the burqa and its role in tradition."
By working with interns on the project and asking them to respond creatively to the archived items, Bambling hopes the initiative will connect the past with the present in ways that have a contemporary relevance.
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