Postmemory Blues

By John Nassari

postmemory-blues.jpgThe Painting

Painting remembrance, filming arrival: versions of Cyprus

My father’s cousin Photis arrived in Britain in 1974, as a Greek Cypriot refugee. He left his home and village of Rizokarpaso, situated in the northern peninsular of Cyprus. The village was taken over by Turkish soldiers, and while Photis’ parents remained in the village under Turkish rule, Photis and his sisters left and became exiles. They had no contact with their parents or the village for over fifteen years.

My grandparents came from the same village, though they arrived in Britain in the 1920s, as economic migrants. Stories of the village of Rizokarpaso formed a larger part of my family narrative. It was always an important reference point for home, a central focus of where they and we (generations after) were from. The stories performed an essential method of reference, by helping them locate their site and place in the world. My grandparents told me they arrived before Greek Street was Greek Street, and waited twenty years before they could get to eat olives in Britain.

In the mid 1980s, after nearly ten years of exile, Photis began a project of recuperation, of reclaiming and remembering. Having been forced to migrate, Photis, like many refugees, found the continual disconnection from his home an extremely painful, separating experience. One way of managing this experience was to commission a Greek artist in Manchester to paint a pictorial representation of the village and his old home, also the village’s restaurant. What was remarkable about this is that the painter was instructed to paint it from Photis’ memory. For my grandmother and great grandmother, Photis’ project awoke in them a strong nostalgia (and consideration of the narratives of return). Although they had migrated years before, a family debate began: at first representing the memory was a slow patchwork job, a mismatch of fragments and disjointed images, which they tried to thread and weave together in sketches and drawings. Sometimes they had disagreements about perspectives and about whose memory was more authentic. Photis had been there more recently and had some old black-and-white photographs, which was the starting point for the artist.

After six months, a fifteen-foot painting was made of the village of Rizokarpaso. Photis’ home, (Uncle Luis Bar) formed a small part of the painting but a large part of the narrative. Everybody talked about how great the bar was and how people from surrounding villages would go there to eat on special occasions. The painting took up the entire wall of the lounge, a defining monument of home and roots. Whenever Photis moved he could only buy a house that had a flat wall long enough to hang the painting. No one would forget where we were from. It was a statement that weighed down on me. The painting became an important signifier of home, exile, location and return. I remember my great grandmother telling me that this was where I was from and I was special because I came from the village, but I didn’t even know it – as I had lost my roots, she said.

My father, of the second generation, stood as a mediator, translating for us, so that we understood one another. I told him to tell her that I was from Watford, that I was a third generation Cypriot in London, who doesn’t speak Greek. I felt in-between locations, homes, cultures brought and cultures found. Growing up, the painting and the narratives of home drew me to consider my home to be a place somewhere else, over there, not a lived-experience that I could go back to through my own memory, but rather relate to through their memory. Yet I spoke about the place as if I had lived there too. Marianne Hirsch describes this experience as postmemory, where generations grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth.

Photis painting

I went to the village for the first time in 2002. I crossed before the recent loosening of the border in May 2003. I went across for a day, using my British passport, and travelled to the village from the south (the Greek Cypriot side) to the north (the Turkish Cypriot). The overriding feeling I had was of ambivalence, as I felt that I was arriving and returning at the same time

When I arrived, I felt as though I had arrived in my uncle’s memory – so similar was the real village in relation to their pictorially represented version of their memory. But I was also revisiting my own memory, so powerful was the work of postmemory. I remember thinking: Oh, yes, that was how I remember it…and oh, that’s changed. The physicality of my experiences, the churning feeling I felt, as if I was returning, was overwhelming.

In fact, what I expected to find was a village quite unlike the painting. I thought that their memory would be distorted by nostalgia and romanticism. I was convinced in a way that I would find myself in a place almost totally foreign, bearing no relationship to the memory of the place that had been woven for me. I was already resigned to this idea that a part of my memory had been an imaginary one. The reason for my visit to the village was partly to explore the politics of my uncle’s and my grandparents’ memory and the representation of that memory in the painting. But I also needed to consider my own relationship to my own postmemory of the village. I needed to go there to reconcile, connect, reflect on these experiences, and importantly to disconnect from it as well.

I filmed the village and, importantly to me, Photis’ home, from the same perspective and angle that the place was portrayed in the painting. I chose to compare their representation with my own, and to consider the unities and discontinues in each of our relationships to the place. They remembered in fragments, with black and white photographs (which then got fixed as a unified memory in the colour painting of the village). But my memory was different. I remembered through their memory – through the painting. My memory of the village was formed through their collective and consensual memory (the image reached at as a result of many discussions and disagreements) My memory carried the nuances, fragments and accent(s) of their memory, but collided and fused with my own lived experiences of being a third-generation Greek-Cypriot in Watford. I carried with me the responsibility of remembering, of keeping the memory functioning for the coming generations.

I used film as a medium to allow me to reveal while concealing. I represent the village in parts, in windows that reveal and pan across the village street, sometimes overlapping and connecting, sometimes creating gaps and fragmenting the street. My experience needed to be represented with more movement and possibility, for my postmemory was a different experience then their memory and its representation as a static and bounded image. The distortion in their painting and the gaps and distortion in my film are differently configured.

When I arrive there, I build a new relationship to the village, and I record this through the film, – but I am always aware of my postmemory and my feelings of responsibility, emotional and sentimental at times, while I re-member and re-present. My film work incorporates these different situations: firstly, I inflate, romanticise and sentimentalise the village, the home, the return, which represents my postmemory of it and secondly, while building this new relationship to the village I distort its perspective, precisely because I want to inset my own memory of being a child once upon a time, immersed in migration stories, and the painting. I minimise the church and amplify the “home”, an effect of postmemory.

An extract from the film

Photis’ parents left the house and restaurant in the late 1980s, and the building is now occupied by Turkish residents. I didn’t go inside, not to make any political point but because I wanted to represent it, and view it, standing there from the same angle that the painting represented it to me for so many years. The interior was never represented in the painting so I held no postmemory image of it. The fact that the real home was so similar to the painted representation prevented me from entering. What would I find? Scattered tables, a remnant of a restaurant, signs of departure, of our family, a dislocated past? Somehow, by not entering I was allowing the memory to serve its purpose – to remember in a particular way and to not register the change that has taken place. In my film I over-emphasize the home/restaurant as a means to serve such a purpose.

The whole experience was as much about exploring the process and difficulty of remembering as it was about considering how that experience, process and family narrative has impacted on the way I frame and locate my own sense of place and belonging and my responsibility to it. Photis and my family have always been very supportive of my project, but often I get the senses that they don’t understand why the painting or the project is of such personal, political and academic importance to me. They seem to assume that we are all part of the same memory work. One thing is clear however. I need to distinguish between their memory and mine and for this I have to go back.

By going back I can open up and explore these complex disparities, unities and dialectics. My postmemory is not the same as their memory; it carries a generational burden not to forget and it is at odds with and in contestation with my lived experience of Watford. There is an absence of the traumatic experience of dislocation and yet it is specifically linked to that experience. My postmemory is a unique and specific one, but interestingly, I always doubt it (I am a migrant without a journey). There is always an unease when living with the knowledge that my memory is a mediated one but, perhaps, this is also a challenge for those suffering the postmemory blues: a realisation of the arbitration and arbitrariness of memory work.

The film and the painting will be shown at the Pantheon Galley in Cyprus from 19th-30th July 2004. Tel: 0357 22670843 or email for further information. You can also see the film, which is published on a CDROM called Migrating Memories, published by Counterpoint at the British Council,