Imaginary nostalgia – Architecture – e-flux


Having spent most of my life between cultural dissonance and cultural isolation, double consciousness has always been a part of my daily reality. Struggling to make sense of my otherness, I gradually began to romanticize Ethiopia, the country my mother had to leave during the “Red Terror” (Qey Shibir) in the late 1970s. This romanticization took place in the absence of a positive narrative about Ethiopia, or the African continent as a whole, either in class, with my peers, on television, in museums. ‘art, or anywhere outside of the places I called home. The dominant narrative that I absorbed from the environments around me, and in particular the school, was one that defined Africa as nothing more than one small village of non-self-sustaining victims. There was no indication of its vastness, history, complexity, beauty, richness, cultures, languages, any contribution to the world’s knowledge production or its possible future. It was a faraway, unwanted place where only tragic things happened and people still needed “our” help. From these environments, I was taught that we are less than human and that this is our reality.

However, at home I absorbed a completely different reality. It was the nostalgia for my mother that shaped my conception of Ethiopia. She told me beautiful stories of her childhood in Gorée, of the fun she and her friends had during her stay at nursing school in Gondar, of her adventures working in remote areas of the country like Gambela. , then of his life as a cosmopolitan city while working. for Ethiopian Airlines in the capital. She lived through Qey Shibir’s trauma. She uprooted her life and emigrated to the United States on her own. Yet she was human. She had hopes and dreams, ups and downs. Her memories of an “ordinary” life in Ethiopia have been precious to me. They looked boldly in the face of the dominant narrative of victimization that society seemed so desperate to believe. Its nostalgia endowed me with an oral counter-archive, with a counter-imagination; an intangible toolbox with which I could break free from the double consciousness and dehumanizing hegemonic narratives that I unwittingly internalized at school.

Fragmented, inverted and distorted, this impression of the Piassa district in Addis Ababa is a distant dream, temporally disconnected and spatially detached from its original reality. A fragment of an imaginary nostalgia. Ainslee Alem Robson, Ferenj: A graphics memory in virtual reality, 2020, VR again.

My mother’s stories defined a surreal, fragmented dream of Ethiopia, my own heterotopia in a way. Somewhere between the reality of her memories and my need to build an emancipatory and nuanced understanding of my culturally and racially mixed, half-first-generation identity, an imaginary nostalgia was born. This “interior landscape” does not come from my own nostalgia, but from the ideas that I projected onto my mother’s. I depended on a version of Ethiopia of my own conception, both real and unreal; a virtual counter-site, a productive space of illusion that I could superimpose on the hegemonic narrative, the simulation of the continent and of my identity that I felt the burden to fight and correct every day.

On this piano, I learned to play Mozart, Chopin, Scott Joplin and others. Housed next to this piano, a dusty cassette and CD rack opened my ears to other sounds ranging from Buena Vista Social Club to Ali Farka Toure, BB King, Tsehaytu Beraki, Emahoy Tsegue Maryam, Mahmoud Ahmed, and many others. No border separates the interior from the exterior in this portrait of harmonious coexistence. Ainslee Alem Robson, Ferenj: A graphics memory in virtual reality, 2020, VR again.

This imaginary nostalgia was a space in which I was free to feel like a contradiction of black and white, east and west; free from the oscillation between invisibility and hyper-visibility. It was a decolonial space in which my mixed identity could exist without any excuse and without any doubt; a place where the house was post-space and encompassed impossible geographies. Although partially imagined and a bit magical, my imaginary nostalgia was the only “real” space that reflected my reality. Tezeta is an Amharic word which can be translated as “longing” or “state of desire”. Tezeta is also the name of a melancholy subgenre of Ethio jazz that became the soundtrack of my childhood. I first unwittingly accessed my imaginary nostalgia through this music, but over time it became an intentional ritual.

Proudly serving injera since 1992. Just another night at Empress Taytu Ethiopian restaurant. Ainslee Alem Robson, Ferenj: A graphics memory in virtual reality, 2020, VR again.

In high school, I worked at the Ethiopian restaurant Empress Taytu in Cleveland, Ohio. Although I didn’t fully understand the meaning or significance of working there at the time, I needed a space where I could enthusiastically and openly embrace my culture, where I could express my pride in being. Habesha. I saw myself there as an ambassador, and the clients as my guests. On slow nights, I wanted every customer to order the coffee ceremony at the end of their meal so that I could brag about how we are the cradle of not only humanity but also coffee. I would tell them the legend of Kaldi and the dancing goat with exuberance. Incense burned over hot coals, tezeta music played, and I savored with pride when I nailed the story delivery, when guests were enthralled and left wanting more. With each recitation, it was as if I was pleading for the authenticity of my Ethiopianism, and at the same time, I was pleading for people to believe that there was more to being Ethiopian or African than they might already think. .

Melkam pours rabbit (coffee) of a Jebena (clay pot) during a coffee ceremony. Ainslee Alem Robson, Ferenj: A graphics memory in virtual reality, 2020, VR again.

Looking back, it is frustrating that one of my rare cultural pride outlets at the time existed in the service of advocating for predominantly white people to see Ethiopia through a non-racist and non-reductive lens. I made their burden mine and then tried to correct it too. Despite this intricate dimension, I transformed this toxic hierarchical binary into an infrastructure of conversations that I wanted to have on Ethiopian history, traditions, cuisine and contributions to the world. While these stories have been structured in a way that seems to mimic historical power structures, we don’t always have the ideal or most practical life circumstances to break free from the simulations of who we are. Cons and toxic binaries are ubiquitous; the question is how and when can we thrive despite and within them?

Emancipatory story

The image of Africa as inferior has infected almost every forum, conversation, media or scholarly representation of the continent that I have experienced growing up in the Diaspora. This image was contrary to my sense of pride and my own knowledge of the reality I had experienced – Africa as being so valuable, both intellectually and culturally. This message of hierarchy and inferiority has insidiously dominated my ability to perceive the continent as possessing any knowledge that might have global relevance or prestige. As a child and young adolescent, I never thought that Africa could be a site for the production of knowledge. The image of the victim is essential to the perpetuation of the oppressor’s self-perception as superior.

Identifying force, recognizing erasure and internalization, understanding how it works and perpetuates itself, and actively seeking counter-imagination is an act of resistance. Drawing inspiration from the very cultures seen as permanent and essential ‘victims’ and portraying their worth not only runs counter to the oppressor’s victim-creation cycle, but it also subverts their message and can free those bound by it.

The essence of emancipatory storytelling is the continued presence of active traditions, wit, mentality, and even humor. Wisdom and the spirit need a space to live – whether that space is physical or intangible, oral or digital, 1: 1 or 1: ∞. Active presence resists erasure and oblivion by living in a story told by a mother to a daughter or told by a waitress to a customer; in the context of a restaurant, or a memory artifact.

A gursha is an expression of love, and something that you are never quite allowed to refuse. After the hours in Taytu, it was a time of laughter, loud music, eskesta on someone’s birthday or graduation day, and shared meals during the holidays involving many gurshas. . This restaurant is a portal through time and space for our community and our customers. Ainslee Alem Robson, Ferenj: A graphics memory in virtual reality, 2020, VR again.

Ferenj: A graphics memory in virtual reality is an exercise in emancipatory thought in resistance to cultural domination and otherness. Using photogrammetry, I captured fragments of memory that are usually not seen through the lens of high technology. These daily spaces of life and resistance – a convenience store, a local butcher, a fruit stand – form a counter-archive that goes against the defined and imposed blank narrative of my intersectional post-spatial identity. Instead, they present a narrative derived from snippets of family memories and stories; a tale drawn from what I knew to be true of Addis Ababa, and which contains pride, hope, cutting-edge technology and a host of possible futures.

Cultural archives, created in collaboration with Kidus Hailesilassie, recontextualizes the process of archiving dark consciousness, knowledge generation and technology through the prism of sankofa. The Ghanaian concept of sankofa refers to an ideogram of the Adinkra writing system that describes the process of bringing elements of the past into the present in order to learn from them and move forward into the future. Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine vision are placed at the heart of the narrative and technical world designed to reframe the alphabetic characters of indigenous African writing systems as vessels for the generation of knowledge, technology and knowledge. African wisdom, and to enable the wisdom embedded in them. to thrive in a new dimension.


Survival is a collaboration between the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and e-flux Architecture.

Ainslee Alem Robson is an Ethiopian director and writer based in Los Angeles. Ferenj: graphics memory in virtual reality (2020) is her directorial debut.

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