Aslan Gaisumov, Keicheyuhea, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 26 minutes.

Aslan Gaisumov, Keicheyuhea, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 26 minutes.

Aslan Gaisumov

Aslan Gaisumov, Keicheyuhea, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 26 minutes.

“Truth” and “reconciliation” do not always go together. The imperative to testify—particularly in instances of collective trauma—is presumed to outweigh any costs, emotional, psychological, or even legal. But who really has the right to demand those truths? To whom do they belong? For whose benefit are they shared? And to whose detriment? In his films and objects, Aslan Gaisumov walks the line between silence and articulation. Born in the Chechen capital of Grozny, he creates work that not only revisits the devastation of the recent conflicts, but also traces them back to their roots in the forced migration of the Chechen and Ingush peoples to other parts of the USSR in the 1940s, purportedly the largest and most brutal deportation in Soviet history.

In late February 1944, as part of Stalin’s resettlement campaign, residents of Chechnya and Ingushetia—two neighboring republics in the northern Caucasus—were rounded up from their homes, loaded onto trains, and deposited in sparsely populated stretches of Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan. Of the nearly five hundred thousand people deported, an estimated 30 to 50 percent died as a result, prompting the European Parliament in 2004 to formally recognize the deportation—which Chechens call Aardakh, the exodus—as genocide. Yet even now, few people outside the region are aware of the events and their repercussions. One primary reason is that for decades, the Soviet government forbade even speaking about the deportations, which were framed by propaganda as a generous, state-sponsored opportunity for “education” and “cultural exchange.” Today, on the anniversary of the Aardakh, Chechen citizens may still privately observe a day of mourning, but publicly the republic celebrates the Day of the Defenders of the Fatherland, a Russian holiday dating back to the aftermath of the Revolution.

The exhibition “All That You See Here, Forget” paired two of Gaisumov’s films exploring the silence around the Aardakh. The first, People of No Consequence, 2016, is set in the anemic grandeur of a municipal hall in Grozny, empty save for rows of chairs. One by one, men file in and take their seats, with the wool-hatted elders accorded places of honor at the front. After all the men have entered, women start shuffling in, ambling over to the chairs at the back. Over the course of the eight-and-a-half-minute video, no one says a word. A closing title card explains that the artist has gathered these survivors of the deportations together for the first time. Why are they silent? Perhaps to speak would be to tear open decades-old wounds. And, really, what can be said?

In his most recent film, Keicheyuhea, 2017, Gaisumov pushes his own grandmother to give voice to her memories. The twenty-six-minute video follows her as she visits her former village, which she has not seen since the deportations. Her tears of joy and exuberant greetings to once-familiar places quickly give way to a crippling grief. At first, she coquettishly brushes away her grandson’s off-camera inquiries (“Oh Aslanbek, this was something no one wants to hear about”) but by the end she cannot bear to speak. “Aslanbek, some things can be left unsaid,” she pleads, reasoning, “They’re all in the past.”

Gaisumov leaves intact the various ethical entanglements of the action, so that the viewer feels uncomfortably implicated in the central act of cruelty underlying the film’s premise. In doing so, however, he raises the question of who can lay claim to collective memory. Technically, he is part of this community—this trauma is his heritage—but does that mean he has the right to extract it? After all, the trouble with speaking one’s truth is that the moment something is articulated, it no longer belongs to the speaker alone. Whose story is it to tell then?

Kate Sutton