“I Was Inspired by the Work of Many Feminist Theorists, Historians and Activists” – Interview with Maya Caspari
We regularly introduce scholars that work in the project by letting them answer three short questions. Today, we talk to Maya Caspari. Maya is Curator at the German Historical Institute in London. She is also Postdoctoral Research and Engagement Fellow at the University of Leeds.
What will you be working on while being involved with the “Knowledge Unbound” project and what did you work on before?
I am curating an exhibition for the International Standing Working Group on Medialization and Empowerment, ‘Forms, Voices, Networks: Feminism and the Media’. The brief was to produce an exhibition exploring the intersections between the development of feminist movements and the growth of mass media in the 20th century. The exhibition had to engage the ISWG’s three core countries (India, UK, Britain) and to reflect the development of different media forms across the 20th century. This posed lots of really interesting questions and challenges, both conceptual and curatorial. The early stages involved conducting research, including reaching out to activists and academics, visiting archives (where possible!) and delving into the many different stories that speak to this theme. I then spent time trying to narrow things down, within the parameters of the brief, to identify a core narrative and concept. At root was the question of how to create an exhibition about feminist activism that is in some way also ‘feminist’, and anti-colonial, in its form and presentation of materials? In addressing this, I was inspired by the work of many feminist theorists, historians and activists; I wanted to build on (and draw attention to) these bodies of work. At the same time, I also needed to make sure that the exhibition was engaging and clear. Most recently, I’ve been working with our designers to achieve this, as well as drafting exhibition texts, and finalizing all those fiddly but important elements like image rights.
Before working at the GHIL, I had finished my PhD, which was — broadly speaking — on the ethics of representing modernity’s violent histories in contemporary creative work. I’ve long been committed to public engagement and I had also worked with various arts and cultural organizations, including the ICA, the Migration Museum, and Wasafiri Magazine.
What role does the concept of “knowledge” play in your own research?
That’s quite a big question! Like many researchers, I think the ‘concept of knowledge’ is quite slippery; it’s really a point of departure and a site of interrogation, in my work. Many of the writers, artists and activists whose work I engage with – both in the exhibition and in my own research – invite us to question how ‘knowledge’ is produced, who it is for and indeed, even what is meant by knowledge. For instance, someone like the Ukrainian-Jewish-German writer Katja Petrowskaja (who I worked on in my PhD), writes about her process of trying to trace her family history across countries and generations: she makes the point that it is hard, and maybe not even desirable, to try to produce definitive written accounts or ‘knowledge’ about the past, especially a traumatic past like the ones she researches. It is not only that so many records have been destroyed, and memories have been lost. Beyond this, she reminds us to pay attention to how some forms of writing, archiving and recording can risk objectifying, marginalizing or even erasing the lives of past subjects. Indeed, from a postcolonial perspective too, it has of course often been argued that what is understood as ‘knowledge’ under modernity is the knowledge produced by European white subjects about those they position as colonized others; in other words, it entails objectification and violent extraction.
As such, I am also interested in how contemporary writers and artists use creative form to generate other forms of historical knowledge. To give some examples: the American poet Claudia Rankine, for instance, represents the body as a kind of archive, holding memories of violence for Black Americans; at the same time, her recent poetic work also brings together such memories and voices of friends, activists, writers, so it becomes a kind of moving archive in itself, and a generative site for new relations between all of these voices. Petrowksaja, meanwhile, turns to conditionals and subjunctives, trying to re-imagine the history through a temporality of ‘what if’. Finally, in the exhibition, we present work by the photographer Sheba Chhacchi. Her ‘portraits’ of Indian women activists uses multiple, staged images of each figure to undercut the idea that they can be authentically captured in any single frame.
I try to draw on these approaches to knowledge in the forms I adopt for my own writing and curatorial work. I think I’m drawn to them because they resonate with my own experience of exploring my own mixed and unsettled family history. As such, in the exhibition, I want to treat the materials and stories we present with care, and attend to the limitations, gaps and unresolved elements of what we present. This is especially important, I think, in presenting a feminist history. Meanwhile, I am developing my creative writing work in addition to my academic critical writing: I find poetry an interesting form for experimenting with these kind of ambiguities.
Have there been any surprising moments in your research recently?
There have been lots of surprising moments in the archives! I’m not a historian by training, so spending time in archives is still quite new and exciting to me! One area that interesting and surprising was looking at some of the really early 20th century periodicals and artists’ posters exploring issues around women’s rights, suffrage etc. Though they are over 100 years old some of the more radical publications presented ideas about gender and sexuality that still seem relevant; the creativity and humour of the work is also often very striking. Secondly, this isn’t so much of a ‘surprise’, but I was also recently able to visit the Audre Lorde archive at the FU in Berlin, which I found very engaging. This archive included recordings of Lorde’s seminars for German students in the 1980s: it was just really interesting to hear how she interacted with the students and their questions – firm, patient, tough, engaging – and to get this insight into her voice in another form (beyond the recorded lectures and printed materials I was familiar with). I guess the surprise, if there is one, was just the reminder of the impact it can have to actually hear the voice of someone you have often read, even sitting in a small archive 30 years later—that twinned sense of distance and sudden tangibility.