‘It turns into a new language’: Saaro Umar in conversation with Elyas Alavi

By and | 1 September 2023

And once you’ve gone, you can’t come back anymore. The almost-end of an exchange that comes close to passages between James Baldwin’s David and Giovanni; here between the voice of Magaye Niang and Marène Niang, as she glides naked across thick Alaskan snow, breasts upwards, the foreground close to the colour of the sky, she replies, I think I’ve already heard this song. She is shadowy, ghostlike, whereas he, head to toe in light denim blue, melts into the landscape, and seems four beats behind; they never meet; their voices, have the sense of travelling a long distance to be heard, like an echo.

Earlier in Dakar, filmmaker Mati Diop films a special screening of Magaye and Marène’s early roles in Touki Bouki (1973), a film made famous by her late uncle, Djibril Diop Mambéty. It’s been forty years since its premiere. Diop revisits the actors, what has become of their lives, whilst tracing inheritances – familial and otherwise, towards those who leave, and left and those who stay, and stayed – as threads troubling a coherent past and presentness to coloniality and displacement, and its subsequent entanglement in cinematic production for the filmmaker and her actors. Marène, like her role as Anta, has left Senegal and Magaye, like his character Mory, has stayed, a curious case of convergence, or destiny, or, this is, just as Diop has made it apparent. We see Magaye now, post-screening in front of the light of the projector, saturated in electric blue. Other men on stage with him, facilitate questions, their shadows forming silhouettes – tall against the sheet. The host turns to him; blue, everything blue and asks him, what has happened since then?

A close up on his face, it turns to sea. Total hesitation, anguish across his brow, then the camera moves to focus on the shadows directly behind the figures.

About this blue. Magaye’s anguished blue. I was in a gallery, a few years ago, and entered a room that glowed this exact colour. I walked in and took a seat on a white bench against a wall hugging the hallway. Tight across from where I sat was a blue wall. In the top right-hand corner a circular neon poem; blue. At the ground, and to the left, a tomb-like box, and within it, another neon-poem. Blue again, but red too; the ground shone with it. The way the light worked, I felt under a spotlight, I felt something pour. Dense with feeling, my own pain palpable and inarticulate. The artist, Elyas Alavi, a poet working across painting, installation, performance and moving image. I happened upon his work the day after seeing this short film, Milles Soleils (2013) for the first time; a film I now return to, as I do his practice. Both trace the materiality of crossing and not crossing a threshold. And sitting amidst his work, I remember seeing Mory turn away from the departing ship in Touki Bouki, I remembered Magaye, and his answer to Marène’s half-question. About what she heard.

And you will hear it again. There will always be someone somewhere to sing you this song. After spending time with Alavi, our talk drifting towards his grandmother’s garments, the life of neon and Hafiz as guide; I remember this dialogue as akin to a line he might gesture to, in a poem.

Saaro Umar: I first encountered your work at Hyphenated Biennial (Substation, 2019). I remember, you had two paintings showing, and also poetry-text in neon lights, and what I remember is being overwhelmed by colour. There was this blue. Blue of the walls, and too, a blue, and a deep red, from these light-poems that read: ‘Memory is a Dagger’. I sat for a long time, taking in this exchange of light and shadow and colour and metaphor. And, since following your work, I’ve noticed these colours – blue and red, repeat in your work and exhibition practice. I’m also thinking about the blueish and red thread that you make visible in the Ordugah/Detention Camp work. Where you unravel thread from a childhood jumper around the borders of a neighbourhood in Iran, where many Afghan refugees live, to make present the enclosure that the residents experience. To start, I wondered if you could speak to repetition and return as methods for your practice? And, what images, ideas or gestures do you find yourself revisiting and returning to?

Elyas Alavi: It’s beautiful to know these similarities. It’s not like forgetting, but once you look back, you see those connections through the eyes of the viewers; you re-find those connections. And, you’re right. In the work, Ordugah or Detention Camp, I used different threads that were undone by my mother’s hand from these old jumpers. Because, I find that mothers, especially mothers, are so creative in their way. My mother being a mother of eight children, she had to be resourceful. How creative she was, how she turned old jumpers into new things. Some of them were left in Iran, and on a visit, I saw them and I got permission to use some of them, especially those blue and red in colour. Ordugah means Detention Camp and I have always felt the suburbs that many Afghan migrants live in are lookalikes to Ordugah with invisible walls. In these suburbs, only certain people can live. People who are pushed out of society. There are Afghan refugees, people who are from sub-religions, gypsies, outcasted musicians, and people from Balochi and Kurdish ethnic backgrounds who are also pushed out. I feel we are a collective of many minorities living in one place. We are there as cheap labour, whenever there is work needed on difficult jobs, like construction or digging well. It’s a camp, but the walls are invisible, so I used those threads, trying to make those walls visible at least for a few seconds, a few minutes, a few hours.

That is a thread throughout all my works, through the works you mentioned, at Hyphenated Biennial and to a current work, now showing at the TarraWarra Biennial; that thread is there, wanting to make visible those walls. For the Hyphenated Biennial, the conversation was about the history of the cameleers, who were brought to Australia as cheap labour between 1860 to 1920, and how they were kept in certain conditions, in discrimination. Through my poetry and my art, I have this medium to try to show these walls. There’s so many beautiful things happening within our bonded community, through this shared pain, through discrimination, and also showing a mirror to the other side, that there is still so much force.

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