I like looking through the old notes and letters and documents and photos that have survived through traumatic upheavals from one attic to another, stuffed into shoeboxes until they fall apart, fought off advances from mice and lived through fires and floods and acts of god. Artefacts, snapshots of history, accidental chronicles: they smell of moths and decades and dust.
Danny Braverman’s show, a cross between lecture, powerpoint presentation and stand up gig, takes the act of discovering faded moments of family history and shares it with strangers. His great uncle, Ab Solomons, drew a doodle on a wage packet every week for over 60 years and gave it to his wife Celie. There are over 3,000 drawings that capture moments of their life, the chronicle of a Jewish family in London from the 20s, through the Second World War, on into the 80s. A compact projector shines the little pictures onto a huge screen, and in high definition they seem to have an uncanny animated quality. Danny has picked a selection of pictures and woven them into a narrative.
Sitting with a collection of strangers and studying these drawings feels voyeuristic – should we be prying into the deeply private life of Ab Solomons, the Dalston shoemaker? Should Danny? He’s only a great nephew – does he have a right? I don’t know. Ab kept hold of the drawings after Celie died; would he really draw them without any thought for posterity, without realising that, when he was gone, anyone could find them? There’s a clash between the fact that he drew these specifically for his wife and the notion that art is, on the whole, made in order to be seen.
The pictures are deeply personal. Everyone has a family history that gets told to them by mum or dad. When my dad tells me about his Jewish family and their escape from Eastern Europe at the start of the Second World War it’s a fascinating, affecting story, but I’ve never met the people he’s talking about. Neither have I met Ab, but the personality that comes through the drawings and the amount of detail Danny gives us about his life makes him seem like just as much a distant family member as any great grandfather or distant cousin whose life has been recounted by my own parents. This is partly because there are similarities in the stories of any family. And mostly these are stories of tragedy: war, death, mental illness, sexuality, suicide. A few births thrown into the mix every now and then.
Ab did not shy away from representing the tragic moments of life – the outbreak of war, the death of his son. But it is mostly a sharp wit that shines through, and in particular the chronicling of things Celie said that he found particularly funny. He seems to have completely captured her in single line and a tiny drawing.
The quality of the miniatures is extraordinary, ranging from broad scrawls to minutely etched detail, from monochrome to colour. Part of their quality lies in their number, over 3000, spanning 60 odd years. How vastly life has changed.
Danny comes across as the consummate dad. He is unerringly friendly, tells tame jokes and imbues his story with heartfelt sentiment. His voice dies down when moments in Ab’s life are poignant, he shouts with enthusiasm at the funny bits. Getting swept up in the chronicle is easy. But there’s something here about the importance of a narrator/curator. He has chosen which packets to show, and he forces his own interpretations on them. Sometimes these are obvious (one depicts Celie on VE Day), but sometimes they seem far fetched, speculative, and that makes it uncomfortable. Art is about interpretation, about immediate emotional response as much as analytical interpretation and the narrator, while completely necessary at points, guides (or misguides) the audience members’ individual responses by giving his own.
It draws attention to the fact that this is a carefully written and structured show. It would be brilliant to be able to sit with all 3,000 for days and days and sift through them all.
At the end of the performance Danny brought out the rest of the drawings in the shoeboxes they came in. Shoeboxes. Brimming with 3,000 snapshots of the life of a shoemaker. The symbol of one craft, the shoes he spent his life making, cradles another: the extraordinary, accidental annals of an ordinary life.