Opinion

What nostalgia is to me

One Emirati defines it through art and Dubai memories.

By Kamla Sultan Alolama

Image: Shutterstock.

Most Friday mornings I take a walk between the old houses in the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, buy jasmine garlands in the souq, not unlike the ones I used to make with my grandmother, and go on a ride on the ‘abra (boat), the same ‘abra that featured in my mother’s stories of childhood adventures. I oscillate between a nostalgia for a childhood I lived, and one I didn’t, in these precious pockets of Dubai. It drives me to the question, is nostalgia a longing for a past reality, or is it a constructed collective memory of a society?

I have been nostalgic for many things at many points of my life; nostalgic for childhood pastimes, for old cartoons, for a brand of chips that I loved but no longer exists and nostalgic for a feeling of childish wonder. These past few months, however, nostalgia has taken on a different meaning, one of retrospection and reevaluation. I turned 30 a few months ago, an event that I had been dreading for several years. To cope with this overwhelming anxiety, I created lists ( something I always do when I feel stressed). These were lists of 30s: 30 things I am grateful for, 30 things I am proud of, 30 mistakes and what I learnt from them, 30 things I aim to achieve and many more. These lists made me reflect a great deal on the past. This retrospection also reminded me of something I had heard a few months back about how nostalgia occurs in cycles of 30 years, which made me wonder if this was related to why turning 30 was so significant to me.

“Is nostalgia a longing for a past reality, or is it a constructed collective memory of a society?”

I later learnt that this “nostalgia pendulum”, as it is labeled, is a topic of debate. Many argue about the precise time period, with numbers ranging from 12 to 20, 30 (the most common value I could find), 40 and even some going for 50 years. However, is this view too simplistic? Too linear?

Even though I was attracted to the 30-year cycle concept I had first heard about, I found myself gravitating towards readings of nostalgia that are non-linear. After all, the temporal aspect of nostalgia doesn’t necessitate that it be treated the same way that time is dealt with in scientific realms, as a measurable linear quantity. Nostalgia, whether you consider it a feeling, or an emotional state, is a personal experience like any other feeling or emotion, in that no two people experience it in the same way. A nostalgic trend for some might be a new style for others.

“I have been nostalgic for many things at many points of my life; nostalgic for childhood pastimes, for old cartoons, for a brand of chips that I loved but no longer exists and nostalgic for a feeling of childish wonder.”

Nostalgia, like any other emotion, also has a place in literature, music, the visual arts and even marketing. One example of nostalgia that I have always found fascinating is that of the Pre-Raphaelites in 19th  century Britain.

The Pre-Raphaelites were a group of artists that revolted against the aesthetic of their era. Their art was nostalgic of the Medieval Period, a time before Raphael, the great Italian painter who was active during the Renaissance, and the manner of art that came after.

“Nostalgia… is a personal experience like any other feeling or emotion, in that no two people experience it in the same way.”

Their art was nostalgic to what they viewed as the simple beauty of their perception of the Medieval world. This perception was not based on firsthand recollections, as they had not lived in Medieval times. Instead, it was based on literature, legends and myths that they had read about and heard. In other words, it was a constructed view of what life was like in that time, and a yearning for that life, partially imagined as it may be.

Nostalgia and memory constructs are not only dependent on the past, they are also deeply entrenched in the present time, place and emotion, especially since memories are colored by other feelings that we have at the time of recollecting. Thus, remembering can also “taint” the memory with what is happening in the present. This is why the past- focused approach to understanding nostalgia can be seen as incomplete.

The present is a very important entity for nostalgic art in its many forms. For the Pre-Raphaelites, the present was evident in the way they treated their subject matter. After all, they instilled their modern techniques in their pieces. They could have gone back to painting using Medieval techniques, and pre-linear perspective cognizance. However, their paintings are hyperrealistic, and very detailed, even though they did not adhere to the rules of perspective that were taught to artists, this know-how helped them create spatial depth.

“Nostalgia and memory constructs are not only dependent on the past, they are also deeply entrenched in the present time.”

This reinforces the idea that the present plays an important part in understanding nostalgia. Even if we are passively recollecting a past and yearning for it, we do so with our present understandings of things  and concepts, and we analyse these occurrences in retrospection. After all, we have acquired more knowledge, and our constructed recollections are seen from our current frameworks.

This brings me back to my personal case of nostalgia. It is a blend of my idiosyncratic memories, and constructed pasts of my foremothers. It is a polyphony of memories and collective recollections; a blend of old and new, not unlike Dubai’s Al Fahidi district.

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees, and affiliates.

Kamla Sultan Alolama is an Emirati designer and design historian. She holds an MA in Design History from the Royal College of Art in London. She is interested in ornament and pattern at the intersection of culture, art, design and craft. She is the founder of Designerly Diaries, an online design blog.