Eyes, finger tips, hair, curves and folds, skin or scales, dark recesses. Glass, porcelain, tendrils, fragility, tactility, intricacy, fluidity …
These seven images have been selected from 61 photographs I used in creating an installation for an exhibition in Berlin in 2021. I called the installation The Crossing Cabinet : Of Curiously Enchanted Things and Crossed Memory-Bodies
*All the 61 Things were first used in creating a performative image/text work called Crossing Formations by Salma Ahmad Caller for the AGYA funded edited collection Forms of Migration by Falschrum Books being published in February 2022
I selected these particular seven images from the project to share here, to explore the elements within them of what might be perceived as the feminine. But it could easily have been many of the other 61 images/things. I hope people question the idea of the feminine, how we are shaped by cultures and religions, our parents, the places and societies we live within, and by the things that end up around us. How things and materials become gendered, and are carriers for how we perceive ourselves.
The foundation of the Crossing Formations project was my parents, my identity as both Egyptian and English, and our family journeys, literal journeys across ‘East’ and ‘West’ but also internal emotional, psychological and subconscious journeys across cultures, borders and boundaries. You can read more about The Crossing Cabinet below.
But my mother was really very core to the heart of the making. And there was a mythical notion about my Turkish great grandmother there too, very present in my formation. My father’s grandmother was often presented as the reason for my green eyes and dark gold coloured hair, despite my having an English mother which was a more obvious reason. I also have Scottish and Tunisian heritage. Both my parents had blue eyes. Different kinds of blues. And this kind of racial understanding about skin, hair and eyes is an underpinning we are all often brought up to be aware of. Which bit of you came from which parent, are you like mother or father? People ask. Are you Egyptian or English? Where are your ancestors and your roots? Mine seem to be everywhere and nowhere. Our identity mythologies are not based on any ‘reality’ but that is not what matters.
Here are the Turkish evil eye charms given to me by my mother, that my father bought for her in Istanbul, placed on a colonial postcard of a veiled Turkish woman. Blue eyes. The gaze of the stranger. There is the Egyptian hand-blown glass perfume bottle, also my mother’s, placed on a colonial postcard of a young Egyptian dancing girl (?) who has been asked to dress up in ancient Egyptian style as imagined by Europeans in Egypt and her arms / hands placed in a coquettish ‘Egyptian frieze’ pose. The rippled glass stopper of the bottle has been laid over the body of a goddess, from a magazine cutting of the Burney relief. An ancient Mesopotamian goddess thought to be Ereshkigal or Ishtar, she stands naked, winged, taloned, with owls and lions. A goddess of the night. The relief was ‘found’ and ‘taken’ from Iraq where I was born and placed in the British Museum. It is fascinating to read up about her, the histories, colonial and other, surrounding her.
My mother’s silver thimble is now metonymically her hands and her warm touch. She made dolls clothes, our clothes, embroidered, stitched. I still feel her warmth. My hands are often cold. A tiny matryoshka, lost from within a nest of other maternal folk forms, ancestors unseen surround her. A skein of old golden thread with tiny peacock feathers my mother bound together. The feathers have the appearance of fish scales on a mermaid’s tail or those of a glittering snake. Snake-woman.
Cultural and feminine mythologies abound for hair, and gleaming and falling tresses. Coils. The old gold thread of unknown origins, like my hair.
Ornament is often coded in Western cultures as feminine, other and exotic, with its intricacy, delicacy, curves, whorls and arabesques. But that is not the case in most of the rest of the world. The swirling calligraphic lines of the Ottoman tughra or seal of the Sultan, from a calendar picture that hung in our home as a child conjures music, movement, mystery and majesty. I juxtaposed my mother’s very white porcelain lady holding out a rose with this calligraphic music of the unseen.
The rose in Sufism has a deep and divine symbolism that is far more than symbolism, but we are left with these words of once-removed ‘representations’ which cannot encompass the vastness of the emotive and embodied ways in which we experience so-called ornamental forms. We are held at arms length by such words.
And lastly there is Mary. And all that she means to so many. Made of glass and eternity. As a Muslim girl attending a Catholic school in Nigeria, I conceived of her in my own way, not as an ideal to live up to. I broke all rules.
Salma Ahmad Caller
About The Crossing Cabinet:
This conceptual curiosity cabinet, also a kind of periodic table of ‘elements’, was devised as a continuation of and introduction to Crossing Formations – of the Things and their tales. Within the ‘cabinet’ viewers/readers/feelers (seeing is touching) can participate by enacting gestures and movements – of searching, exchanging glances, trying to match inventory texts to Things, following migratory crossings by making connections and relationships across time and place, feeling resonances, consonances and dissonances, spotting visual analogies and juxtapositions. Where one person finds Strangeness another may find Familiarity. Here the political and private, the global and the personal/familial meet, collide and elide. Each Thing in the cabinet is an active and disruptive Fragment that can never really be pinned down or catalogued. Any notion of nationality, identity or fixity is constantly disturbed, any attempts to curate wholeness or completeness will fail.
Living across different cultures, religions, borders, space and time, these possessions became inhabited by the bodily connections and interactions of lives lived in transit/transience. Memories of real and imaginary experiences blend, dissolving real and contrived boundaries. Things also become lost in time, merge and reconstitute. Like characters in a play with multiple roles, the Things become part of multiple Bodies of Memory, fluid and changeable, and like me they are not either/or but both/and. Their materiality altered as they now exist not only outside the body but inside it. We remember and misremember through them. Through them, teleportation occurs – a sudden transfer of matter and energy, of pasts into presents, and vice versa, and even of pasts into futures.
Metonymically they are the people who owned them, possessed Possessions.
And like the chemical and physical processes that bind the animate to the inanimate to create the structures of shells and feathers that my mother collected, so the Things have been transformed into relics and residues, deposits out of time still active. Semi-animate Memory Bodies. Glass is still moving, crystals are fragments of compressed ancient time in the present. Iridescence may be an illusion but it is what we experience that matters. In an old photograph light from someone in the
past carries them into the future, like starlight. Mirrors may hold only reflections but how else can we catch a glimpse of ourselves? Identity is all smoke and mirrors. Mirror Flower, Water Moon.
Salma Ahmad Caller is a British-Egyptian artist whose practice involves creating an imagery of body and identity across profound cultural divides and contradictory mythologies about self. With a Masters in Art History and Theory, a background in pharmacology, and teaching cross-cultural perspectives at Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, she is now an independent artist and writer. Her photography and creative non-fiction writing in the the form of a performative text / image work have been published in the radical collection Forms of Migration by Falschrum books, released in Berlin February 2022. An Art theoretical essay exploring ornament through the lenses of cognitive science and the cross-cultural for “Broken Time Machines: Daisy Patton” was published by Minerva Projects in 2021. The New Landscapes Anthology holds five of Salma’s poems exploring embodiment, identity and colonialism, published by Lungs Project December 2019, and eight of her collage works were commissioned for the international award winning digital film Lockedown Locked In directed by Baris Celiloglu released December 2021. This June 2022 as part of FAMILY LINES at The Douglas Hyde gallery Dublin Salma will be showing her first short film / installation exploring her mixed Egyptian English family heritages and mixed race identity.