Writer Sharmini Aphrodite reflects on the oscillation between wounds and regeneration through artist Mandy El-Sayegh's personal paintings.
History breathes. Some people talk about the past as if it was dead, but it is always alive, not just in the way of simple genetics — us being the stuff of our ancestors — but also in the sense that an object of history — a recorded story, a museum artefact — becomes a conversation when we chance upon it in the present. That communion is an act of resurrection. Like Bruce Springsteen sings, in Atlantic City, his voice a tight plea:
“Maybe everything dies, baby, that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies, someday comes back.“
When I think of history, I think of noise. I am drawn to places in which I can feel this communion occur. In a previous regular commute, I would take a bus through the Bukit Timah and Pan-Island Expressways in Singapore. There would be a bend in the road from which the urbanity of Singapore would fall away and we would plunge onto a silken street bracketed on either side by remnants of jungle. Not thick or dense enough to actually be a rainforest, but free from the skyscrapers of the country’s Central Business District, or the public housing apartments that scaffold vast swathes of the island. Going down that road, I would listen to Atlantic City on repeat. Something about the landscape that the bus would drive through — that blue tropical hum — gave the song a deeper gravity. Springsteen’s song is about a man caught between his mounting debts and inability to find work. The man accepts a “job” that might give him the chance to escape this cycle, but he knows, on some level, that he is already on his way to the slaughter. He knows already that it is futile to prevent it, but he continues anyway because he has no other choice. All that he can really ask for is another chance — that in some shape or form, he will be able to come back. This desire for resurrection mirrored the landscape I would see through the glass, that of the jungle feeding upon itself and yet living forever — finding its way back through the dark.
The work of the artist Mandy El-Sayegh reminds me of this imagery. There is a tactility and an almost brutal physicality about her work; there is something wounded about it, but also the sense of something existing within and through the wound. When I first spoke to Mandy, she took me virtually through the corridors of her studio and spoke of the space in terms of the body. The studio’s library was “the brain”. The room in which she painted was “the stomach”. Sheets of latex spread on a raw cement floor were, she told me as she panned over them lovingly, “like skin.”
There is a tactility and an almost brutal physicality about her work; there is something wounded about it, but also the sense of something existing within and through the wound.
This material is deeply personal to her. Her mother was a rubber tapper in her childhood in Malaysia, where she had grown up in Jerantut, in the state of Pahang. The latex was processed in local factories, and many of the workers ended up sickened by the factory’s toxic runoff. To Mandy — who still has family in the area — latex is thus a symbol of not only tropical geography but also of life and death. There is a tension to latex as a material; it is organic, living as it dies. Latex — rubber — is what provides the workers their livelihood, but the industry of rubber production is also what harms these workers in the end. This Malaysian background is something Mandy and I share. Her mother’s family comes from a kampung in Pahang, my mother’s family is from one in Sabah. As we talked, we conjured up images familiar to us both: the hulking jungle, the cloying heat. Even the rubber trees and plantations that are represented in Mandy’s work were known to me. I grew up in Johor, just below Pahang; both states are clustered with said plantations, which sprout all over Malaysia like a rash.
But what also drew me to Mandy’s work was the nature of its relationship to archival practice. Yet I spoke with the artist through a state of glitch — in the present. As Mandy trawled through her Central London studio with her phone camera, the screen would shatter into pixels, the images arranging and rearranging themselves constantly. When she tried to show me a piece of her father’s calligraphy, all I could see were blocks of pixelated gold, but soon the text fell together, taking on shape. From the distance of my computer screen, her canvases — Net Grids — practically hummed with colours and shapes. In her 2019 show Cite Your Sources in London’s Chisenhale Gallery, sheets of sepia newspapers cascaded down the walls to the floors. Like her studio, Mandy’s works are hubs, sites of communion. Observing them, you get the sense of clamber and clamour.
In photographic language, “noise” describes a visual distortion, like the static snow you get when you turn on the television at six in the morning. Photography itself is a practice of light. You snap an image and you pull in light: a picture being the result of an intersection of light rays. Archival practice, documentation, archaeology — the practices of historians — all work in much the same way. They are processes of gathering, plumbing through, sieving to get to the core of a story. One might think that, after browsing through an archive or museum, history is organised, a precise collection of dates and names. But it isn’t really — what we see is just what we’ve managed to pull out of the dark. History isn’t something you can wade into, filing your findings into neat cabinets; you will invariably get stuck.
History isn’t something you can wade into, filing your findings into neat cabinets; you will invariably get stuck.
To me, Mandy’s work illustrated the messy heart of the archival process. When I spoke to her about the parallels between her practice and the work of archivists, and asked her about how she approached history, she told me that she thought it couldn’t be done. The viewer, she said, should approach the work with their own ideas, and she would let them do so. “Unless there are very specific contexts,” she said, and told me a story about her maternal uncle, a man who practiced calligraphy in Jerantut. His practice was limited from the wider reaches of the art world because of his geographical and material limitations, but the work that he made was more meaningful than what is found in many galleries. In a manner of speaking, her uncle was also an archivist of kampung life. He would write out announcements for deaths and weddings, beginnings and endings, and Mandy would ask her mother to bring back these calligraphies, etched delicately onto rice paper, so that she could include them in her own work. The recorded histories of the kampung were thus, quite literally, stored in Mandy’s work, turning her pieces into archives of written documentation. In exchange for her uncle’s calligraphies, she would give him ang pow as payment, completing the loop of communication.
The process of sampling, at its core, is one that is regenerative. The old breathing again through the new.
This sampling of other materials constantly occurs in Mandy’s work. Newspapers and cut-out logos are fixtures in her pieces. Her studio in Central London has stacks of the Evening Standard and Metro — free London dailies — lined up, all ready to be chewed up in the workspace. In the works from Cite Your Sources, her father’s calligraphy also made appearances. Both sides of her family’s ink practice have thus been inherited and represented. “This is where the digestion happens,” Mandy said of her workspace in the studio — which is also a process of resurrection. The process of sampling, at its core, is one that is regenerative. The old breathing again through the new.
It is important for Mandy to ensure that her work keeps these aspects of her personal history alive. That is because these aspects of history are not solely hers; they are also her mother’s and father’s, and those that came before them. Her father is from Gaza, a site where not only life, but history is precarious. From 1967 to the present, Israeli authorities and settlers have uprooted over 800,000 olive trees belonging to Palestinians.