Since my childhood I have been affected by the phenomena of experiencing simultaneous timelines. Existing in the present with a palpable memory of the past which appears with equal force and persistence. Growing up within a narrative of transgenerational trauma, I have at times found it impossible to unravel my own memories from those I have inherited, it is therefore not surprising that Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s current exhibition at Maureen Paley particularly peaked my interest.
Abu Hamdan’s film ‘Once Removed’ (2019) suggests the experience of transgenerational memory might be employed as a method of re-processing history and gathering together fragments of the obscured past through a more empathetic lens. Presented as a split screen video where the artist and his interviewee converse as silhouettes in front of two large projections, this work exists on multiple levels.
At face value it is a compelling narrative of historian Bassel Abi Chahine, who became the foremost archivist of a particular period of the Lebanese Civil War, compelled by a need to reconfigure memories of his former life as People’s Liberation Army (PLA) solider Yousef Fouad Al Jawhary (killed aged sixteen). Haunted since his youth by residual emotions of this past incarnation, Abi Chahine’s journey to honour his previous life has lead him to reconcile with former family and friends from the PLA movement, to dress in the clothes of his former body and to seek every photograph and article of ephemera remaining from that time.
The work challenges memory and explores the way our perception is pieced together by implanted materials and subconscious influences. As Abu Hamdan gently probes Abi Chahine, questions on the accuracy of historical accounts, the censorship of information and the ethics of withholding challenging evidence suggest that this more personal approach to gathering history through a transmigrated soul may offer a truer account of the past.
Abu Hamdan is not concerned whether or not his interviewee is actually the reincarnation of a former PLA solider. For those of the Druze faith, reincarnation is fact and therefore undisputed here. The focus of this work is not to cast doubt, but rather to propose a new methodology for how one might address a larger communal trauma and forge a safe space to speak free from judgement, using the transmigrating soul as a bridge between the past and the contemporary perspective on an obscured moment in history.
The making of the video itself is an act of healing through a multi-layered process. The historian finds healing by coming to terms with the traumas of his past life; in turn, Abi Chahine affords healing to those who cared for him in his previous life by holding space for them to speak to his former incarnation. In his quest to understand his past, Abi Chahine allows others to process theirs. Abu Hamdan introduces another layer of healing by playing witness to and documenting Abi Chahine’s narrative, allowing him to be honoured as both his contemporary and past self. The audience enacts the final layer of healing by witnessing this collection of testimonials.
This work is as much a combination of performances, confessions and testimonials, as it is a video. Everyone involved in the act of experiencing the video is called to witness, challenged to digest information presented in a means that we may typically overlook, due to our social programming. ‘Once Removed’ shines a light on how binary our systems of information are and how alternative methodologies for approaching history may provide a more effective avenue for inviting testimonials and instigating collective healing. No matter how violent a movement or regime may be, all those who survive conflict deserve the space to process their experiences and, in doing so, hopefully end the transference of trauma from one generation to the next.
This work gives rise to many more questions than it does provide answers. Ultimately, whether we believe in reincarnation or not, it is indisputable that Abi Chahine’s journey has brought forth a powerful act of healing with a butterfly effect that reaches beyond his geography, migrating across generations. This healing is propelled by Abu Hamdan and now encoded in the medium of a video which, like the transmigrating soul, exists in a mid-place between fact and fiction, memory and the immediacy of the present.
Abu Hamdan’s exhibition is deeply generous for those who are willing to receive its message.