Artist Suneil Sanzgiri Wields Memory Against History

By Jacinda Tran
November 21, 2023

Strewn across a red banner digitally anchored in an oceanic horizon replete with sunset, a 16mm projection reads, “YOUR HISTORY GETS IN THE WAY OF MY MEMORY” in Suneil Sanzgiri’s artwork, My Memory is Again in the Way of Your History (After Agha Shahid Ali) (2023). This evocative text entreats viewers into Sanzigiri’s deeply researched first solo museum exhibition, “Here the Earth Grows Gold,” on view at the Brooklyn Museum until May 5, 2024.

The show collates documentary, filmic, textual, and sculptural elements from Sanzgiri’s research to reflect on his family history in Goa. These personal histories are in turn abstracted and recontextualized to thread anti-colonial efforts throughout India to those in Africa (Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Morocco, Mozambique, South Africa, etc.) and beyond. In “Here the Earth Grows Gold,” these shared histories under Portuguese colonialisms remain fluid rather than overdetermined, oceanic rather than territorial.

The line “YOUR HISTORY GETS IN THE WAY OF MY MEMORY” derives from the poetry of Agha Shahid Ali, one of Sanzgiri’s many collaborators. By pitting embodied memory against official accounts of history, My Memory is Again in the Way of Your History (After Agha Shahid Ali) poignantly interrogates whose memories and histories matter, not only in the context of the poet’s roots in Kashmir but also in the contested space of the Brooklyn Museum and the world at large.

These efforts also feature in the exhibit’s sculptural installation Red Clay, Stretched Water (Return to the Source) (2023). In it, a black bamboo scaffold emerges from a fluent well of water, linking a curation of archival photographs and screenshots in an homage to diasporic synthesis. The images on display feature prints of found, forged, and family photos. Included among them are the cover of a midcentury text by Goan anticolonial writer Telo de Masarenhas; a screenshot of a Youtube video featuring Palestinian theorist Edward Said and Pakistani writer Eqbal Ahmad from 1993; and a 3D rendering of a crumbled statue of Saint Francis Xavier, chief proponent of the 1561 Goa imposition.

In another endeavor to cut across the forced divisions and disappearances of the archive, Sanzgiri’s 16mm film Two Refusals (Would We Recognize Ourselves Unbroken?) (2023) illuminates the connective sinews of anticolonial solidarity across two screens. Like Red Clay, Two Refusals experiments with an amalgamation of archival footage, interview, films, photography, simulation, and performance: spanning multiple continents, languages, and interwoven temporalities adhered by an elegiac score. Sanzgiri’s experimental collage of sundry splinters reconstructs the fragments of a selfhood broken by colonial severance, scrubbing, and censure.
This antagonism of “your history” against “my memory” resonates deeply with the continual production and consumption of colonial narratives of conquest we are witnessing today, from Goa to Gaza.

The question prompted by the parentheticals invoked in this work’s title—Would We Recognize Ourselves Unbroken—appears in a dreamy poetic recital (written by Hyderabadi American poet Sham-e-Ali Nayeem and performed by Tilya Fernandes) before transitioning to an expository by Sharada Sawaikar, a Goan liberation fighter, recounting how the state had broken her in so many ways. Appealing to a maternal figure, Mãi, the narrator dreams piecemeal of rivers and oceans haunted by Adamastor, the fictional spirit of the Cape of Good Hope threatening colonial seafarers in the 16th century.

While the ocean has facilitated European exploration during the Age of Discovery, water has also come to represent, in Sanzgiri’s film, a place for possibility and connection rather than self-possession. This contradiction—between oceanic travel and diaspora—reveals how movement and circulation might also enable solidarity across colonial encounter, as the film’s fragments skip from Asia, Europe, and Africa, a route embodied by the abbreviated life of Communist organizer Sita Valles (as told by her surviving brother Edgar).

Sanzgiri’s filmic representation of transoceanic defragmentation—unmoored by the structuring borders and obscurities of colonialism—orchestrates an alternative to the modalities of censorship, disappearance, and dispossession weaponized by the authoritarianism of “your history.” This antagonism of “your history” against “my memory” also resonates deeply with the continual production and consumption of colonial narratives of conquest we are witnessing today, from Goa to Gaza.

Yet Sanzgiri’s exhibition avoids the trappings of ethno-nationalist representation by critiquing the myth of institutional inclusion, even going so far as to include an “Artist Statement on the Brooklyn Museum” acknowledging the colonial violence and plunder that makes museum acquisitions possible. This wall text, like the remainder of the exhibition, illuminates how coloniality silently structures the politics of cultural memory and memorialization. Additionally, an artist-authored reflection “On World-Making amid Contradiction and Crisis” remains available for visitors to learn more about Sanzgiri’s process confronting and connecting legacies of anti-imperialism that continue to haunt the ongoing struggles against “your history.”

—Jacinda Tran is a writer, researcher, and teacher based in Lenapehoking (Brooklyn, NY). She is currently a postdoctoral fellow in Global American Studies at Harvard University, where she is working on a book about visual technologies and imaginaries established during U.S. intervention in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.

Related Stories