Interview with Layla Zami, Artist and Scholar at Columbia's IRWGS
Layla Zami is an artist and scholar, currently a Visiting Research Scholar at Columbia University’s Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality (IRWGS), sponsored by the Talents Program of the German Jewish ELES Foundation. She is a PhD candidate at Humboldt-University Berlin in gender studies and performing arts, and has studied International Relations at Science Po in Paris. Recently she co-realized an artistic documentary film titled “Dancing Through Gardens” (Durch Gärten Tanzen) with dancer Oxana Chi. The film explores dance and memory and involves 3 generations of women and takes place in 3 different countries.
How did this documentary Dancing Through Gardens start?
For me, it started in 2010 when I met Oxana Chi. In fact, it was originally an idea from Oxana. [Oxana is a seasoned artist whom Layla Zami accompanies in the movie and who performs the unique dance solo "Through Gardens" as is featured in the movie.] She has been working on the theme of the memory of Tatjana Barbakoff [an artist of the 1920s] since 2007 or 2008. I met Oxana when I saw her performance, "Through Gardens", in Berlin, and I was mesmerized by it.
When she was invited to perform in Indonesia later that year, she asked me if I would like to come and document that. I didn’t know she had bigger plans for a film when I went along with her, or that it would take place for several years, as it did. It was a long process. It all started in 2010 when we met, but I wasn’t aware that it would become the film it now is, taking several years to complete. We finished the editing in 2014.
Image: photo of the DVD cover released in Berlin; 2014
Gender is something you’re focused on in your studies as your based at IRWGS and it comes up throughout the film. I am interested in how you see it in relation to identity and memory.
The film has been very inspirational for me in this regard. I see these elements not necessarily as separate but as different layers that interplay. If I hadn’t been so closely involved with the performance and the filmmaking process, I wouldn’t be able to write the thesis I am writing now. I am not interested in writing traditional, academic thesis. A film and probably additional visual materials will accompany it.
Tatjana's work has sometimes been read through a heteronormative lense. Oxana and I wanted to open more space for telling a different story. We want to present different facts that have been overlooked. Identity is a complex matter; for example, Tatjana was of Chinese and Jewish decent yet some historians have negated certain aspects of that background, saying she was Jewish and not Chinese. Though someone may identify as one ethnicity, others might say they are not. Women may have different views on their own identity as well than men do, and what is told in history books is not always the whole story. So, we wanted to explore this as a question about who holds the truth.
Photo of Tatjana Barbakoff by Robertson; Berlin, 1929.
From research on Tatjana and through the film you can see how Tatjana got into her memories – it was through her costumes. They are in a museum now. We saw and also experience the struggle to find or create space to share this memory that had not been told. This comes out through many scenes in the film; in this way, the opening scene with the unpacking of the suitcase can be a metaphor for unraveling the ties of history.
Photo by Layla Zami of dancer Oxana Chi and her performance Through Gardens; Berlin, 2010
In your work and with each of the women in the film there are these individuals working to make sense of things in the midst of so much trauma and war, and who are confronting these violent moments that they are living through, whether in present day or in memory. Can you comment about the connection to conflict resolution in your work?
I think present conflicts are partly determined by conflicts from the past. We need to understand and know better about those conflicts from the past in order to manage present day conflicts, especially those that are fueled by racism.
I really see connections with conflict resolution because I think that if people watch this movie, attend Oxana Chi's performances, or get familiar with work I am doing in the frame of my PhD thesis, maybe they will be encouraged to research history and engage with history in a different way, seeing it as more complex than it is usually narrated. Many voices are often marginalized – of women and persons of color – and these voices need to be heard in order to have more dialogue in the society today and to achieve peace.
That is why we switch in the movie, thematizing Islamophobia as well as fascism and various cases of extreme violence that have gone unaddressed now and throughout during the history of the 1920s and 30s. I am very interested in how this film can engage with and be integrated into conflict resolution programs.
Full interview will be released soon. Till then, learn more about Layla Zami: www.laylazami.net; and more info on Oxana Chi.
To host a screening or buy a DVD, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.