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Inheritance Project | art and images beyond a silenced genocide

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Dahlia Elsayed

Elsayed Essay
Since I was a little girl, I've have kept illustrated journals, which have developed into the kind of paintings I make today — diptychs that recall the pages of an open book with text throughout the images. Writing and painting are closely linked processes for me and I use both to convey the narratives in my work.

The paintings and books I make are documents of personal history, but have some place in a larger context of the archaeology of women's daily lives. This ongoing documentation of everyday occurrences is the link between the kind of rug work and embroidery that my great-grandmother and grandmother did and the work I am doing today, both a tradition of expression that speaks visually. Even though the materials are different and the work serves a different purpose, the expression still comes from the same place — the need to visually record and document your presence in the world around you, to keep some record of the events in your view, to create a communicable history.

My work is informed by autobiography and environment and is always aware of the dynamic between content and medium. I use the elements of text and color to construct maps of internal and external geographies, and to document a personal landscape. References to daily life appear alongside washes of color and ghost-like figures looming on the horizon. The most recent works are paintings that are driven by dialogues, specifically they are abstracted figures with speech boxes capturing moments of interaction. The two panels form a kind of plot movement or action. The figures represent inner voices, specifically my Armenian grandmother who acts as a guiding force for the main character in all the paintings.

I was born in New York to an Armenian mother and Egyptian father. The most cherished objects in my house were the handmade things made by my grandmother and great-grandmother. The fact that these objects survived generations of movement, so much a part of the Armenian history, is testament to how valuable they were. The objects became evidence of our stories. In the case of my family and many others, because of relocations not only from city to city but between countries and then continents, things got left behind in the moves. As a people with such a large diasporan population, it's hard to keep our family stories in tact. These objects become the holders and tellers of personal histories. I never knew my great grandmother but she was alive to me, and so was her story and her passion because of the objects she made.

Although my work ends up in public spaces, quite different from my great-grandmother's, the origin of the work still comes from the same place that it did for her — from a story that needs to be told, to ourselves and to others, stories that help locate one's self in some bigger picture, and through that process of telling, helps us define ourselves as well.

Dahlia Elsayed
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