Remembering Life

by Esther Kalaba, Collecting Loss catalogue essay, November 2012

Collecting Loss began as a project inspired by a textile piece I made in honour of my brother, Sasha, looking at how memories infused in fabric altered with the passage of time. I was always intrigued by how clothing, so intimately linked to body, effortlessly held narratives about an entire life. These memories, like cloth, were subject to the elements, fragile and impermanent, wearing thin, their disintegration revealing a slow erasure of identity through time. Holes in fabric exposed absence, revealing delicacy in the act of remembering- forgetting, being akin to death.

Remembering my brother after his death was fraught with difficulty, partly because of the traumatic nature of his death, but also because of the awkward silence that instantly hushed any conversation where I would speak about him. I believe that people couldn’t listen, not out of a lack of compassion, but rather a deep discomfort of not knowing how to respond.  Thus, Collecting Loss was birthed, as an art based memorial paying homage to the deceased, as well as creating a much needed platform for public discourse about death, grieving, and remembering.

When I began working on Collecting Loss, I overlooked the complexities of undertaking such a sensitive project. While I simultaneously cut and re-pieced the donated clothing, read and re-read the stories, I conjured up daily memories of people I had not known, but nonetheless felt intimately connected to. Each contributor through their thoughtful donation of clothing and story had invited me into their home, into their lives, into their private world.

Working with the clothing was very difficult. At times I had to step away from the project because the daunting sense of responsibility I felt in having been entrusted with such precious memories was too great. With mixed feelings I would cut through the clothing, knowing that I was altering permanently something of great meaning. I was destroying memory by annihilating an artefact of personal identity. To cut, to rip, and break apart were necessary as acts of transformation but they also mirrored the inability to ever return to the way things once were, the inability to change inevitable death and the witnessing of the physicality of the body rendered to an abstraction… to just a piece of fabric. However, the longer I worked, the less this project was a struggle to capture something lost, but rather, through the cutting of clothing, became about letting go. Memories, now infused with a breath of fluidity could no longer remain as static objects of the past. I was creating something new from the old.

Piece by piece I would begin, trusting that the laying down of individual bits of fabric, next to one another, would come together to form the foundation of a new garment. Deep down, I knew that sewing, by its very nature was a reparative act and that stitches could make what was once separate, whole again. Many long hours in front of the sewing machine, in quiet contemplative solitude, with tears, with joy, with anger, with frustration, with understanding, with love– one stitch at a time – I witnessed history re-writing itself as I, and each contributor, together had begun re-piecing this new narrative.

Each completed textile piece is unique and touches on the many different expressions of grief. Suspended in three-dimensional form, in the gallery, the viewer is invited to contemplate the space in between the threads, representing the absence of physical body, while paradoxically alluding to its presence. This notion of space after a death can be difficult as it is the perpetual reminder of who is no longer there, of the intangibility of loss, and of particular type of numbing silence.

However, the threads, textures, colours, and fabrics of the Collecting Loss textile works dress this once empty space in patchworks that conjure up vivid memories woven deep within the fabric itself. Vacant silence transforms into stillness, out of which, words, poems, stories, and voices are carried, offering songs of hope and repair. By publicly recounting memories and in hearing these narratives, this space then becomes the fertile ground for creating legacy, making room in the present to remember and honour the dead.

These stories pulse vibrantly in our hearts. We become alive through remembering, we light up. Through our active story-telling and story-sharing, our loved ones live, vicariously through us, in our love of life. Through memory practices, this love becomes undying. Thus by remembering, we give life, to the dead and to one another.

This exhibit and book are only other beginnings. Returning back to the contributors of the project, and turning to all viewers, the public, to ask,

“What is your relationship to the work, but more importantly, to death itself?”

My hope is that this project is a starting point for this kind of personal reflection, which can then extend out into the collective psyche. As it is only by acknowledging death in our lives, that we can begin truly living and celebrating our lives in the present, as our loved ones would have wanted us to.


Read these other essays on the project: