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My Work Is an Archive

“My works are themselves archives”, Nil often repeats to me when we discuss either her works or the archival project we are undertaking. Indeed, regardless of their medium, Nil's works act as living archives: they preserve the voices of migrant workers, freeze in time the Paris of the 1970s (Paris Ville Lumière, 1974), gather hundreds of photographs of workers, children, and women caught between two worlds, that of their native land and their new home – the welcome often being cold, harsh, and brutal.

Image 1 : Paris Ville Lumière, 1974. On the left: 15th arrondisement. On the right: 20th arrondisement.

As French art historian Fabienne Dumont rightly points out, Nil Yalter's art is deeply influenced by ethnography (see article Nil Yalter, un art sous influence ethnographique, 2013). Driven by a desire, if not a duty, of memory, Nil has carried out projects at the intersection of art and documentary, drawing on the investigative methods of social sciences. An unclassifiable artist who aims to be unclassifiable (she often tells me: “I take pictures, but I am not a photographer. I make film, but I am not a filmmaker”), she delights in archiving the voices, places, habits, and faces of those whom future generations may undoubtedly forget.

Video 1: Ris-Orangis (1979)

Video 2: Turkish Immigrants (1977)

In her 1983 installation Exile is a hard job, a former fragment of a larger series which, from 2011 onwards, spread across cities in the form of posters, and which we were privileged to present at MAMCO in Geneva last month, Nil intertwines the poignant testimonies of clandestine workers from the garment workshops of Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis in Paris. Both critical and sensitive, this work, like so many others in her career, underlines her commitment to making her work a noisy art form, giving the power of scream to those whose words are stifled, and showing the difficult lives - but not only - that the big vibrant city, violent and insensitive, camouflages in its streets and interiors.

Image 2 : Nil in front of an iteration of “Exile is a hard“ presented at Geneva's MAMCO, an initiative of Archivorum and Salman Matinfar from Ab-Anbar Gallery. January 26 th , 2024

At this point, how can we create an archive of archives? Are we creating a meta-archive? This question transcends the mere preservation of documents and plunges us into a deeper reflection on the very nature of archiving and collective memory. Are wecondemned to a perpetual accumulation of stories and testimonies, or does the very act of archiving create a dialogue between past, present and future, forming a complex web of meanings and interpretations? These questions invite us to rethink our relationship with history, and to recognize the importance of the artist, Nil Yalter being the first in our case, as an archivist of past lives.

Image 3 : Turkish Immigrants (1977). Photography and drawing.

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