Memory Work and Militancy

Memory Work and Militancy: Performing Feminist Diasporic Remembrance at a Distance

Art Papers

An essay on feminist memory work and the “responsibility to recall” in West Asian diasporas as modes of political organizing. The essay addresses a performance by She Loves — a collective of Armenian women artists — entitled “The Rifles Our Ancestors Didn’t Have.” Through the lens of this work, the essay argues for the diasporic body and its inscriptions of collective cultural memory as a weapon against the forces of historical erasure.

From the essay:

Rifles attends to the undervalued and undercompensated feminized labor of Armenian craft work. Outside LA City Hall, the artists assembled on top of woven Armenian carpets and began collectively stitching images of rifles onto individual sewing hoops. They reproduced diasporic memory through an act of weaving what Anne-Marie Fortier has called a “thread of continuity.”1 For Baghdassarian and Sarkissian, the act was linked not only to the struggle in Artsakh but to “the fight to prove that there is something valuable in [our] work.” The highly choreographed, synchronized nature of their activity demonstrated what can be done when the dispossessed organize.

What the performance ultimately calls for is not militarization but self-determination. Its titular rifles don’t extol the weapons of military violence. Rather, they make a claim for how the continued existence of people targeted for annihilation constitutes a kind of victory. The artists argue for the diasporic body that performs cultural memory as a weapon against the forces of historical erasure. To put a fine point on their argument, the size of the rifles silkscreened on the artists’ robes was carefully calibrated during the design process. The rifles had to be “fifty-two inches and not an inch shorter,” to cover the performer’s entire body and code that body as a weapon.

Notably, what scholars term the “responsibility to recall” in diasporic communities is often coded as a feminized practice.2 The preservation of cultural memory is cast as invisible and gendered labor, as is the unwaged reproduction of communal social life. Rifles turns these formulations on their head, recasting the labor of recollection as an active force of political transformation. In this way, the performance weaponizes feminist memory work as organized resistance.