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Making visible, invisible communities

Reflections on the Archive by Dr. Kamal Arora

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1.0 Archives have become very "sexy" in the cultural world over the last two decades. Why do you think that is? Assuming we can even agree on what an archive is, why have they entered the centre of the art world of late?

The use of the word 'archive' has changed so much in the last two decades. The term has broadened and now encompasses a broad range of associated practices. I believe archives have surged in popularity because artists, scholars, and institutions alike are starting to realize the importance of historical records and continue to engage in creative ways to showcase and reinterpret these records. With technological advances, it has now become easier than ever to preserve contemporary records and research historical ones. It's an exciting time, and I can't wait to see what advances develop in the next two decades!

2.0 In your practice/projects, give an example, or two, of how you have engaged the archive?

My PhD research focused on the aftermath of the 1984 massacre in Delhi, particularly in Tilak Vihar, or what is known as Delhi's "Widow Colony." Although I was conducting ethnographic work, it was important for me to delve into the archives to learn more about the events of 1984 in Delhi and how they unfolded. This became especially important when I realized the extent of rumour and hearsay surrounding that time. To do justice to the work and to the experiences of women I was working with, it was important for me to bring forward proof of the atrocities committed during that time period. Too often, women's stories and life histories are marginalized. Engaging in archival research, in my view, provided a supportive parallel narrative that allowed women's narratives to take center-stage.

Also, I am currently working as Co-Director at the South Asian Studies Institute (SASI). The SASI has a rich history of engaging with the archives of South Asian communities in BC. We firmly believe that South Asian stories and narratives are important threads in the fabric of British Columbian and Canadian history. Some of the projects we are working on currently are: creating a pan-Canadian network of South Asian archives and scholars engaging in South Asia, curating the Sikh Heritage Museum at the National Historic Site, Gur Sikh Temple in Abbotsford BC, and working alongside the Royal BC Museum to preserve and share the stories of BC's Punjabi community. The SASI has a rich research portal where community members and scholars are encouraged to explore our archival work.

 

“Archives have surged in popularity because artists, scholars, and institutions alike are starting to realize the importance of historical records and continue to engage in creative ways to showcase and reinterpret these records.”


3.0 In dealing with archives, what are two or three key things which you have learnt?

Personally, I have learned immensely and grown as a scholar while working with archives. I have learned that archival work takes an extraordinary amount of time and labour and requires long-term funding and community support. I have also learned that archives are a vital part of both our past and our contemporary present. We are creating archives every day.

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4.0 With respect to South Asian archives, what is you sense of the interface between community-based archives and academic archives? What are the challenges in creating bridges between both?

I am generalizing here, but I find that one of the challenges with South Asian communities is that we are not aware of our own historical importance. As minority groups we have been marginalized and told that our stories are not important. Yet they are critical. Many of us have photographs, videos, and material artifacts gathering dust in our basements. Often, we do not realize their impact, or feel hesitant to share our private life with others in the form of an archive. Academic institutions and community groups have a responsibility to engage with our communities and emphasize how important our histories are. To build bridges, academic archive projects also need to ensure that members of the community are part of decision-making processes. Also, visible minorities are poorly represented in the archival world. Academic and archival institutions need to ensure diverse hiring practices are followed to best serve such diverse communities.

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5.0 If there was one (or two things) you could say about where energy and funding needs to be focussed over the next 5-10 years in South Asian archives (within the geographies in which you are engaged: Canada and USA), what would they be?

Our community archives are slipping away. Many of the early South Asian settlers who immigrated to Canada and the USA are now gone or are leaving us. I personally believe that funding and energy needs to be devoted to collecting archival materials and life histories from South Asian elders. At the same time, funding needs to be devoted to more contemporary periods and movements as well. For example, there is a rich history of South Asians engaging with anti-racism efforts that the community at large may not be aware of. I have found that it is all too easy to slip into the model minority narrative when discussing South Asian community history – i.e., we often focus on our 'success stories.' We need to go beyond this. Funding and energy also needs to be devoted to archiving the histories of marginalized voices in our community, including women, LGBTQ, working-class, and Dalit voices, as well as exploring our relationships with Indigenous communities.



Dr. Kamal Arora is an anthropologist whose work focuses on gender and Sikhism. She is currently serving as Co-Director of the South Asian Studies Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley. View bio.

 

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