Exile and memory from East Africa to the United Kingdom and back again.
- Interview by
- Liz Timbs
Zuhair Mehrali is an East African artist of Indian descent living in Birmingham in the United Kingdom during the Brexit era. His project, Sketches, is an award-winning and groundbreaking multimodal digital experience exploring fascism, identity, and transnationalism. Sketches combines charcoal sketches, interviews, media clips, and film. In an effort to understand this project and Mehrali’s goals in creating it, I interviewed him and include his responses in full below.
The first shot in your film is of a Victor Hugo quote:
Exile is not a material thing, it is a spiritual thing. All the corners of the earth are exactly the same. And anywhere one can dream is good, providing the place is obscure, and the horizon is vast.
How does Sketches build from/build on these reflections on place and identity?
Hugo’s quote brought me great comfort during a time of feeling alienated. I discovered it as the prelude to Czech photographer Josef Koudelka’s Exiles, a powerful collection of photographs documenting physical and spiritual detachment. Being born and raised in England’s multicultural second city, Birmingham, living in the Cornish South-West during university left me feeling “away from the culture.” It was there that I began recognizing the inextricable link between place and identity. This self-interrogation was exacerbated in my final year [of university] by the knowledge that after graduating I’d be returning home to my parents with a fractured, unresolved sense of the cultural and religious values they’d instilled in me growing up. And it was in this period that I chanced upon Hugo and Koudelka, before deciding at my tutor’s suggestion to explore ancestry in my final project. (I recognize that my experience was not of any physical injustice or economic insecurity, but more of a psychological sense of dislocation—probably something hard to avoid when entering an institutional bubble.)
I began [this] inquiry by interviewing my parents—Indians born in Uganda and Tanzania in the second half of the twentieth century—while scouring several archives pertaining to East Africa, such as the Uganda Collection held by Carleton University [in Canada] and the Watson Kintner Film Collection at Penn Museum [in the United States]. At this point, I hadn’t considered the project’s form or narrative, until an almost unconscious moment during a break back home in Birmingham, I sat in front of the TV in a kind of slumber. Images of bright shirts and sharp ties, Donald Trump’s quackeries, and refugees at sea cross-faded with each other, as if my eyes were stuck in a DSLR auto-focus loop, interrupted by my parents behind me jokingly referring to one another as “refugee” and “immigrant.” I’d never properly confronted the realities behind these labels; there was a disparity between what I know of my parents’ experiences and those “other” subjectives being shown on the news.
An abstract of the project was essentially delivered to me in that moment: a dream-like film construction of displaced identity, collaging the places before me with the voices behind me.
One of my favorite parts of the film is when you are sketching a drawing of Trump while video footage of Idi Amin plays in the background. How does this film help understand the present in terms of fascism in past contexts? How do your parents’ memories of living under dictatorial regimes in Uganda and Tanzania help you understand current politics?
That scene in the film presents a sort of triangle of connections between a) Idi Amin, b) Trump, and c) my parents (voice-over). To understand any one of these subjectives and surrounding contexts, I seem to refer to the other two. For example, to construct a meaning of East African politics and regimes in the 1900s, I draw from my parents’ oral history accounts and whatever media and current events I’m experiencing at the time. Or: “a” from “b” and “c.” During the making of the film, “b” was American politics, but that vertex in the triangle can be replaced with other contemporary examples, such as the Brexit fiasco on my doorstep (though it remains true that I find it easier from the thick of my host locale to observe “external” over “internal” politics, looking from the outside in, through other people rather than myself). Or the vertex can be switched to [Narendra] Modi’s authoritarian populism in India, another geography to which I am ancestrally linked. All this also works vice versa; “the personal is political.”
What does art mean to you? Is it criticism, nostalgia, memory, or something else?
I’m not naturally articulate and have always found it difficult to synthesize what’s in my head with—to borrow from Stuart Hall—the “confusing fabric” presented by “the real.” Art weaves these together, demystifies them, and is more truthful than either. It is for me a way to live consciously and engaged, to feel less alone, and in continuing with the clichés I would say it allows us all to carve out spaces in which we are at liberty to be entirely ourselves. Within the accumulative, dehumanizing effects of integrated world capitalism, this space is both refuge and vantage point, especially when held by collectives. And I intend to uphold it, inspired by John Berger’s compulsion to re-render a Rembrandt of Simeon and the infant Jesus: “My wanting to try to do a drawing of the painting had nothing however to do with words. I simply wanted to look closer at the way the swaddled child was lying like a fish across the old man’s outstretched forearms, with the thumbs and eight fingers of the two hands almost but not quite touching.”
Do you think that the multiple media presented to the viewer simultaneously provides a commentary on identity? Or was there another intent with that?
It does, although it wasn’t intentional at the time of making. My intention was only to arrange multiple media by layering and juxtaposing them, which I learnt is known as “montage.” My tutor brought this form to my attention as the philosophy behind the inspiring work of John Akomfrah, who describes its outcome as the production of a “third meaning.” This is dialectical, and in the context of Sketches, it was borne from the collision of focused archive and oral history, current news and HD digital video, and a (subtle) fiction narrative. The interactive version of the film, Sketches Studio, offers a real-time deconstruction of the montage, in which these elements can be interrogated.
In retrospect, I believe that creating such discourse was in pursuit of what constitutes my own identity, perhaps in seeking an antidote to this question. But multiple possibilities continue to arise in the discussion and I’m learning that identity, or the concept I am interested in, doesn’t pertain so much to my nature as it does to the realities I’m connected to.
Combining multimodal stories from different perspectives creates a beauty in its output of new meaning(s), which can be shared and embodied by people to encourage deeper understanding of each other and themselves. I suggest that identity resembles montage.
Where/what is home?
Anywhere one can dream.
Do you think the digital media experience you created through this project—with simultaneous video, audio, text, images, etc.—mirrors the refugee experience?
Probably not, but if it does, it does so reductively; I’m not sure to what extent the experiences are symmetrical. Sketches presents a particular, fragmented refugee experience by using unedited/unverified oral histories and aesthetic transitions between HD video and archival film to suggest the bilateral impact of past and present, retaining an honesty of uncertainty. I think it’s important to remain conscious of fallibility—of narratives, of personal prism—and so Sketches Studio was built to serve as the tool for interrogating the veracity of exact details and references for oneself. So it’s probably more appropriate to say the project mirrors the non-refugee’s perception of the refugee experience.
This was embedded in the film in traces left on environments and objects to which people were once associated, but who are not present within the frame’s timeline, in a sense of erasure. For the majority of the film we see large landscapes of the present, focusing at times on features suspended in inertia, such as barren trees, derelict aircrafts and satellite dishes. Until the final act, the lack of life and motion in these scenes is filled in by the voices of my parents recollecting the past of another geography, and by archive film of that geography, all visibly synthesized by the main character in charcoal sketches. As this is a montage, the project expects the output of new (or “third”) meanings, which will inevitably differ between people, and this is why it can only be a conscious perception of the refugee experience, rather than its mirror.
How do the recollections/memories of your parents challenge the dialogue on identity politics in Africa in particular?
My parents’ recollections for this film challenged my early picture of the politics they came from—a picture painted with a child’s excitable binary mode of thought. One as simple and singular as what I’d tell friends in the school playground, that “Idi Amin was bad because he kicked my dad out of Uganda along with all the other Indians,” before thinking: “My dad is good, so all Indians must’ve been good.”
One night, when I was 11, he and I started watching The Last King of Scotland (after much pleading on my part.) The film dramatizes Idi Amin’s quicksilver temperament and post-coup activities from the eyes of his fictional Scottish confidant. At that age, its overt political set-pieces went over my head, and I only really registered the more shocking scenes, the most memorable being that of Amin’s ex-wife’s decapitated-then-reassembled body (supposedly by his hand). I asked whether this actually happened, and dad said yes, and that Amin did far more and worse than what’s depicted throughout the film. Then he turned it off. In later months, mum would tell me of the disturbing atmosphere during the Uganda-Tanzania War, when she was fourteen growing up in Dar es Salaam, some six years after the expulsion. In my early teenage years, such anecdotal contributions from family and media meshed in my mind to depict Idi Amin as a Macbethian dictator (he also claimed God spoke to him through dreams), enforcing my bias towards my parents (and Ugandan Indians, by extension), and probably subconsciously suggesting some insubstantial Indian vs. African narrative. This was long before I came to read an article published in 2003 by Ugandan-Asian expellee Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, while Amin was on his deathbed. In it, she confirmed my picture of the dictator’s monstrousness, wishing peace on “the relatives of all those Amin killed, buried alive, raped, even ate.” She also enforced that it was the Africans who suffered most during his reign: “It was the blood of black people which flowed. They paid for our misguided foreign policies and post-colonial games.”
I hardly gave any thought whatsoever to the indigenous East-African populace before these events. Coming of age and making Sketches led me to understand that the Indians controlled most of the businesses and economy in East Africa, and that their racism against black Africans is deeply embedded since early colonial regimes when the British Empire pitted them against each other by way of “divide and conquer.” My general understanding is of the British as Master, the Indian as Servant, and the African as Slave. (This archived news footage is revealing, reported by Jonathon Dimbleby in Uganda just before the ’72 Asian expulsion.) There was a clear class system of economics and power, and James Baldwin would clarify that “power is the arena in which racism is acted out.” Of course, to attempt an understanding of the indigenous populace’s concerns is not to say I agree or sympathize with Amin’s methods of addressing them—he leeched off local contentions to establish his own brutal regime—but generally to warn myself against being so convinced of the certainty of my own solutions (as he was with his, and many authoritarians are with theirs).
In short, I think my parents’ recollections proved that my dialogue on Africa’s identity politics was a sketch-in-progress. And for me it probably always will be, as I carry a double-barreled ethnicity, and have never visited its origins. Vik Sohonie has previously written an honest, articulate piece on African-Indian relations for Africa is a Country.
What’s next for you? Do you foresee creating a full-length project based on this short film/digital experiment? Do you have other digital projects in mind for the future?
The Sketches project is ongoing. With the short film and interactive component (Sketches Studio, available online in public beta) complete, the next part is a hip-hop mixtape called Charcoal, which extends the meaning of the film from first-generation immigration (my parents) to second-generation immigration (me and my peers), hinging on the notion that my character in the film was silent and is now expressing himself. The music and lyrics have been written, and I am rehearsing and recording the songs this summer. After this, the final artefact in the series should be an assemblage/installation piece based on a specific anecdote from my mum’s life in Tanzania. The completed Sketches project would be a “proof-of-concept” or demonstration of my practice as a transmedia artist, in which I will also make less conceptual films (one currently in the works) and music, in addition to doing more creative writing.
In the future I’d like to write and direct a feature film based on my mum’s life, but wouldn’t attempt this until having had enough experience in narrative film-making.