blog posts Deep Breath: Meditations on the Race, Migration, and Memory Symposium Dec 18, 2023 8:00 am by MacKenzie Guthrie Images Deep Breath: Meditations on the Race, Migration, and Memory SymposiumBy MacKenzie Guthrie, graduate student in Comparative and World LiteratureI would like to ask you, if you would indulge me for a moment, to take a deep breath. No, not just a deep breath, a deep breath. Fill your lungs. Fill them fuller than you think possible. Are you ready?Inhale.…Deeper.…Hold it.…Hold it. …Hold it. …Hold it. Until you feel your heartbeat deep within your bones. Until you think about how uncomfortable it is to not breathe. Until you can’t hold it anymore.…Exhale.Thank you.I think we sometimes forget, perhaps take for granted, our profound capacity for breath. We forget what it means to not be able to breathe, to sit with the discomfort of not being able to draw breath when you want to, when you need to. At the same time, we hold our breath without realizing it is time to exhale, to release ourselves back out into the world. So, we must be mindful of both, of the need to inhale and exhale, to take in and let out. My attention to breath stems from my unabashed love and admiration for the works of Black feminist writers such as Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Cole Arthur Riley, Aracelis Girmay, and so many more, whose work in print and on social media calls for us to engage our world with our eyes, hearts, and lungs open. It is through the practice of breathing, the act and art of taking in and letting out, that I reflect on the Race, Migration, and Memory Symposium hosted here at UIUC on November 3rd. It has been a month since the conference, and even weeks later I still feel an immense, almost inarticulable sense of awe at the depth, breadth, and sheer breathtaking force of thought shared by our two keynote speakers and twenty-two presenters. Spanning disciplines, genres, and the globe, the work done by our conference’s speakers is of ever-increasing importance, as war, racism, xenophobia, displacement, imperialism, and environmental devastation intertwine to threaten, now more than ever, our collective ability to breathe. It is difficult to imagine a more apt time for the conference to have taken place on our campus. From the kickoff of the Center for Advanced Study’s Climate | Change initiative; to the premiere of the newest installment of Deke Weaver’s Unreliable Bestiary: Cetacean (The Whale); to the launch of Associate Professor of English Jamie L. Jones’ book Rendered Obsolete: Energy Culture and the Afterlife of US Whaling (UNC Press); to a visit by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Black queer feminist love evangelist and author of Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals (AK Press); to a guest lecture by Jeffrey Insko (Professor of English, Oakland University) on oil infrastructure, climate change, and ecological “disasters,” this semester has offered us no shortage of moments in which to ponder how increasingly difficult it is for us, for others, for animals, for the planet, to simply breathe. For me, the Race, Migration, and Memory Symposium is the cornerstone of all these moments. We began with Thursday evening’s keynote by Debarati Sanyal (Professor of French, University of California, Berkeley) entitled “Arts of the Border: Kino-Aesthetic Movement and Mobilization,” which served as an excellent start to many of the discussions that would carry over into Friday’s presentations.DeleteEdit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.align image leftalign image centeralign image rightIn her talk, Dr. Sanyal reframed the current “refugee crisis” in Europe and elsewhere as a “refugee reception crisis.” That is, refugees fleeing different places and different sorts of violence face radically different receptions in the countries in which they attempt to seek asylum. Remember: threats to our collective ability to breathe do not affect us all in equal measure. Such reframing is critical to how we talk about refugees as a heterogeneous category of people and is needed as we work to resist the flattening discourses that construct certain refugees as figures of abjection, powerlessness, and necropolitics that often arise in discussions of border regimes. Instead, through a variety of documentary-style videos, short films, and multimedia artifacts, Sanyal highlighted the diverse ways that refugees fashion themselves into “agents who remember pasts, imagine futures, [and] transform places they move through.” Breath is creation and transformation. To breathe is to alter both yourself and the world around you. Sometimes, breath comes out as a whisper. Sometimes, it becomes a scream. In thinking about the rest of the conference, I know that it would be impossible to talk about the work of every participant in detail (though I encourage you to view the full schedule here on the HGMS blog to get a sense of the variety of topics and disciplines represented), so I would instead like to focus on the work of several presenters that, for me, embody what it means to center breath and life as key to inquiry. In the morning, Ragini Chakraborty, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Comparative and World Literature here at UIUC, shared with us her investigation into the photographic archive of the Partition of India in 1947. She examined how the photographs depict the newly created borderland as a necro-land that rendered subjects vulnerable to state-sponsored violence and ultimately disposable necro-subjects. Her careful analysis of the photographs and their documentation of death at the border offer a reminder of the importance of memory during and after periods of state violence. To recognize and remember the violence committed against citizens, particularly when state-controlled archives of that violence are made difficult to access through acts of bureaucratic obfuscation, is a crucial element of care work. As part of the same panel, visiting scholar Andrea Villar del Valle from the Universitat de Barcelona also addressed processes of historical memory of state violence in Spain. She provided a fascinating overview of her doctoral research project on representations in Spanish literature of the Spanish Protectorate (1912-1956) in Morocco and the role the Spanish colonial project has played in Spanish literature and memory. She traced the timeline of Spanish colonialism alongside the Franco regime, Spain’s transition to democracy, various political movements of forgetting and remembrance (including the new Memory Law passed in 2023), and the “memory boom” in Spanish literature that began in the early 2000s, explaining how “coloniality of memory” has influenced the way the Protectorate is remembered/forgotten in Spain. She concluded with a powerful quote from Félix Bolaños (Spain’s minister of the Presidency, Relations with Courts and Democratic Memory): “Forgetting is not an option for a democracy.” The fight to remember state violence—in Spain, in India, in the United States, across the world—has never been more important. Deep breath. Exhale. DeleteEdit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.align image leftalign image centeralign image right In the third panel, we were treated to a wonderful paper on Black contemporary art and transformations in the global art market by Art History doctoral researcher Aurella Yussuf from the University of Birmingham. In her presentation, she turned our attention to the racial and economic disparities that impact Black artists and reception to their artwork. Thinking not just about the art itself but also the artists behind the work, she asked “What makes an artist validated? What does the interest in African art mean for African diaspora artists?” The answer for many, she explains, has been an intense focus on (lack of) belonging and desire to assimilate into anglo-Western identity and culture. These anxieties have been exacerbated by the increasingly visible relationship between the value assigned to art by Black artists and the value assigned to Black lives, which Aurella connects to the increase in the valuation of art depicting the loss and spectacularization of Black life. This is an issue that has come up time and again in discussions of art of all kinds by minoritized artists, and it raises incredibly important questions about the ethics of consuming art that renders the death of Black people into spectacles. DeleteEdit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.align image leftalign image centeralign image rightIn the afternoon, Alana Ackerman, a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at UIUC and a 2023-24 USIP Peace Scholar, presented her ethnographic research on the persecution of Afro-Colombian refugees in Quito, Ecuador following the 2016 Peace Accords. Much like Dr. Sanyal’s keynote the night before, Alana’s work highlighted the racialized inequities in the reception of refugees that make “arrival” fraught, as Black refugees continue to face discrimination in supposed places of safety. Contesting the common narrative that refugees’ journeys end when they are granted asylum by the state, Alana instead affirms that “refuge does not exist in [refugees’] documented status as refugees.” Rather, refuge exists as an imaginary in which hope is found in their future departure. Alana’s presentation underscores the importance of recentering the narratives of refugees as counters to flattening, state-sponsored narratives. DeleteEdit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.align image leftalign image centeralign image right Our final presentation of the day was by Ishita Dharap, a Ph.D. student in Art Education at UIUC and Education Coordinator at the Krannert Art Museum. As part of the museum’s celebration of National Immigrant Welcoming Week in September 2023, Ishita designed a program of “Long-Distance Love” virtual museum tours, which allowed people to visit the museum with their loved ones across physical and temporal separations (the tours were held at a variety of times to accommodate different time zones). Her presentation was equal parts description and recreation of those tours as she shared images both of the artworks participants viewed and photos from the tours themselves. Ishita passed around posters, creating an experience that was intellectually stimulating and highly affective. The act of joining together to view art and think about love across distance was immensely moving and for many, myself included, quite personal. During the pandemic, I did not see my parents face-to-face for over a year. That was a whole year of birthdays, holidays, and milestones lost to time (not to mention smaller, everyday moments). I am still grieving that time lost. Ishita’s work reminds me of the verbal nature of love and of the ways that love persists over immense distances. Loving is breathing. DeleteEdit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.align image leftalign image centeralign image rightWe closed the conference with a lovely (virtual) sit-down with visual artist Shimon Attie, whose art brings to the fore the faces and lives of refugees and asylum seekers. His works, both still images and videos, are imbued with a sense of life and movement that made them leap off the screen. What I found most striking about the works we discussed with Shimon were their intimate relationships with water. Portraits of Exile was projected from under the water of a canal in Copenhagen near Christiansborg Palace, the seat of the Danish Parliament, while Night Watch was played on boats circulating through waterways in New York City and San Francisco. From both ends of the Mediterranean Sea, to the Rio Grande, to the Caribbean, and beyond, water crossings are central to the lives, and deaths, of so many migrants every year, including this summer when more than 600 migrants from Syria, Pakistan, and Egypt drowned off the coast of Greece on the fishing boat the Adriana. To invoke water alongside the faces of migrants, then, is to acknowledge the many faces of migrants who did not survive their crossings and honor their lives as well. (Note: For those interested in viewing the full conversation between participants and Shimon, a recording of the session can be found here.) In a moment when I am so acutely aware of those who struggle to breathe and those who no longer can, to find myself amongst so many others who are also grappling with similar questions of justice, of art, of our futures, from so many different angles and diverse fields was a profoundly poignant experience. Academia can feel quite isolating at the best of times (and I would hesitate to call our “post”-COVID landscape the best of times). To remember that we are not alone, to take the time to learn and breathe together, makes us all better scholars.I would like to part with a simple provocation from Cole Arthur Riley’s Black Liturgies Project:"Inhale.My practice is love.Exhale.My path is justice."Keep breathing. Keep fighting. Keep loving. Keep writing. This symposium was made possible by the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies (HGMS) with the support of the American Indian Studies program, the Birmingham-Illinois Partnership for Discovery, Engagement and Education (BRIDGE) program, the Humanities Research Institute (HRI), the School of Literatures, Cultures, and Linguistics (SLCL), the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center (REEEC), the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (CSAMES), the Center for Advanced Study (CAS), and the Program in Jewish Culture & Society. I give innumerable thanks to the conference organizer and HGMS Director, Professor Brett Ashley Kaplan, for all her hard work to bring this conference together and providing us a space to learn and breathe together in an incredibly trying time.