Fatema Abdoolcarim is a Hong-Kong-born, Indian-Pakistani visual artist. Using mixed medias such as photography, video & sound installation, she creates visual metaphors to transform personal stories (autobiographical, biographical and fictional) into non-linear, sensory narratives. Fatema’s work deals with themes such as tension between nature and culture, the personal and the universal, the physical and the psychological and loss and beauty.
In this series titled She forgets, Fatema depicts the story of her grandmother’s pain-filled life of abandonment and isolation. Using old family photos, hand-written notes, the artists own analog 6×9 photographs, and painting with turmeric paste (a home-remedy Fatema’s grandmother would apply to heal her bruises from childplay falls), Fatema invites the viewer to follow her own journey as she experience her grandmother giving in to dementia and the change of personality and memories that follows. We had Fatema tell us about her grandmother’s story and her thoughts behind this beautiful ongoing series:
“A year ago, as my grandfather (dada) was slowly passing away in the hospital, I sat with my grandmother (dadi) in her home watching a Bollywood soap opera: a story of young innocent lovers muffled by the drama between their feuding families, violent threats, car chases and a kidnapping. Through this action-packed volume, I heard my dadi say: I have had such a happy life.
What did you say, dadi?
I have had a happy life. Your dada kept me so happy. I have been a very lucky woman!
Hearing this, an unforeseeable rage welled up inside me and I stormed out of her house. How could she say this?
Portrait of dadi (photograph printed from colour 6×9 negative)
Since I was thirteen years old, my grandmother did not leave the house. For more than sixteen years she spent most of her day lying on the sofa. The phone always by her side, her lifeline to community gossip.The television and news, portals to the outside world, the only pauses to her bundle of worry-filled thoughts: Did the grandchildren get home from school safely? Are they hungry? Who is preparing their dinner? Who will come and visit next?
Inside (photograph printed from colour 6×9 negative)
She came to believe she was weak, sick even, thus incapable of leaving the house. Standing firm in this belief, she made up for her “weakness” with the strength of her will. She spent her days, all sixteen years of them, replaying the history of her life: Her mother dying when she was seven years old. Her father abandoning his four motherless daughters. The arranged marriage to my dada, a man she didn’t know. Being left behind in India with his family while he went to work in Hong Kong. Finally arriving in Hong Kong, pregnant and with two young children. No one helping her settle into the foreignness of her new home. And then of the electric waves running through her when the doctors tried to snap her out of that numbing menopausal depression.
She was snapped out of it alright, and paralyzed into feeling. From that day on, she repeatedly replayed all these stories of loss and isolation to anyone who would listen – especially to her young and only granddaughter.
What can I do? She would say to me. Not really a question, but a punctuation, a mark of resignation.
I look for her in old photographs but they are faces of a woman I cannot see (scanned family photographs printed on vellum, tape, pencil and turmeric)
Send-off on the S.S Victoria, Bombay, 1956 (scanned family photographs)
Before her self-imposed confinement, my dadi used to go out, though only to the market or for weekend family lunch. But these outings are overshadowed by the dramatic journey it took to get there. In the backseat of the car she would grab my wrist, squeezing it tight with her fleshy hands, and turn my bones blue. Her unblinking eyes would fix on the road ahead and she would scream Ya Allah! (O God!) And she would continue to scream until we arrived. I would close my eyes and pretend I was somewhere else, far away from her violent outburst. And from this faraway place I was safe to secretly hate her. Over time, the anxiety of getting into a car to go somewhere became too much for her. The only remedy was to not go anywhere.
Dining room (photograph printed from colour 6×9 negative)
Bedroom (photograph printed from colour 6×9 negative)
That afternoon, after storming out of my grandmother’s house, I realized my rage was layered with betrayal, loss and confusion. In her admission of ‘happiness’, it was as if she spoke to me of a grandmother that could have been and denying the grandmother that actually was. These memories of a “happy life” – where did they come from?
Dadi on the sofa (scanned family photograph, turmeric)
About two years ago, my dadi entered early stages of dementia. She forgets if she’s taken her vitamins; some days she forgets who I am; and for four months after my grandfather’s death, she continued to forget that he was gone. Yet the things of the far past, every detail of her youth, she remembers vividly. She remembers everything except the stories that she has told over and over again of her hardships and sufferings. Her repeated stories, which became my repeated stories of her, are fading from memory. And from what she does remember, there appears to be a good life, a life unseen to me.
Familiar glimpse (inkjet print of scanned photographs and pencil collaged on wallpaper)
Perhaps, like the forbidden lovers of the TV shows she watches, the only way she could feel joy was to do so in secret. Perhaps my dada and dadi were in fact private lovers, where the words of contempt, criticism and complaint exchanged between them were just a habitual show. Perhaps beneath the grief that shrouded her tales, there actually lie unseen snapshots of happiness. And from these snapshots, she remembers her life.
Or perhaps she is simply forgetting it all. And in this forgetting, there is nothing more to hold onto, and this is where the happiness lies.
Wallpaper (photograph printed from colour 6×9 negative)
On December 23rd 2015, after over sixteen years, my dadi left the house for the first time.” – Fatema Abdoolcarim
She forgets is a photographic journal that is both an archive of my grandmother’s life, an uncovering of the seen and unseen layers, as well as a personal reflection, healing even, as I grapple with her forgetting. It is a remembering of her stories and a forgetting of them, unknowing the woman I knew her to be.