Lost or Found

By Mara Ahmed and Claudia Pretelin

The idea of leaving something of ourselves in places we visit or reside in, reminded me of the opening lines in A Thin Wall, my documentary film about the 1947 partition of India:
Places inhabit us, as much as we inhabit them. They form the myths and lore of who we are. Landscapes with edges softened by memory, imagined homes, burnished light – dream-soaked remnants of loves and lives, stubborn in how they bind us to the past even as we are propelled into the future.

The following is a portion of the correspondence between Mara Ahmed and Claudia Pretelin. Ahmed is an interdisciplinary artist and activist filmmaker based on Long Island, New York. Claudia is an art historian, independent researcher, and arts administrator based in Los Angeles, California. The two women collaborated on several projects, starting with Current Seen, Rochester’s biennial for contemporary art. In 2020, Claudia interviewed Ahmed for Instruments of Memory, a site she curates and which documents conversations with women in the arts. As a response, Ahmed decided to interview Pretelin about her work, but in the form of a dialogue about art, memory, language, and becoming. They hope to continue this conversation over the years and capture the continuing shifts in their lives and work. Their correspondence is a collage of text, images, and references both literary and cultural. It is intimate and global, straddling distances between Mexico, Pakistan, Belgium and the US.

Correspondence between Mara Ahmed and Claudia Pretelin

August 5, 2020
Dear Claudia,
Love the interview you did with me. Thank you for your exquisite attention to detail and the care with which you curated my work.I was thinking, in a reversal of the process, perhaps I could do an interview with you about your life and work. I know your bio is already included in Instruments of Memory, but we could have a conversation about art, memory, what inspires you, and what shaped the direction of your life. How is your family in Mexico? How has the pandemic affected life there?

Thinking of you and sending hugs,


August 5, 2020
Dear Mara,
Thank you for your kind message.
I’m working on having the interviews translated in Spanish. It will take some time, but I hope to have everything ready by the end of this year.
Regarding your proposal, I would love to do an interview with you about my work. In fact, it would be an honor.
My family in Mexico is doing well, thanks for asking. Miss my Dad and hope I will get to see him again soon.

Lots of hugs and love back at you!

Talk soon.

August 8, 2020
My Dearest Claudia,
Glad to know your family is doing well. Are there any flights to Mexico at the moment? International travel is cumbersome right now. My parents are in Lahore and I’m not sure when they will be able to fly here.
I’m excited to interview you. Am thinking about something different – more of a back-and-forth about art and activism but also about being women, immigrants, American, and living in multiple languages. What do you think?
Or we could each choose art/photographs/films that inspire us, explain what they mean to us, and how we interpret them. It could become a photo essay.

August 9, 2020

I love all your ideas.
Here’s something to start with:
I saw this image by Mary Ellen Mark the other day and the quote really resonated with me. “In a portrait you always leave a part of yourself behind.” I guess one can think about this in many different ways but it made me think of every time I’ve moved to a new place. I left a part of myself in that place.
Do you feel the same way?

In 1998, while I was in college, I went to see the exhibition “Mary Ellen Mark: 25 years” at the Centro de la Imagen in Mexico City. I was so impressed by her work that I remember deciding at that moment that I wanted to study and write about photography. Two years later, after I graduated from college, I got my first job as a curatorial assistant in the department of photography at the same museum. Someone took this photo of me while at work in 2001. I overlaid a picture of birds I took during a trip to India in 2017. Both Graciela Iturbide and Mary Ellen Mark visited India and captured this country in poetic and evocative photographic images that have inspired me. This is my very humble way of honoring their work and inspiration.

The first time I really connected with photography was during an exhibition by Mary Ellen Mark in Mexico City in 1998. Years later I was lucky to meet her in person during one of Graciela Iturbide’s exhibitions in New York City. Mary Ellen was so generous with her time. In my memory, we talked for what felt like a long time, but in reality it was no more than 15 or 20 minutes. I remember that talking to her made me feel like she was really seeing me. What a strange feeling! I always wonder if all her photographic subjects felt the same way.

August 11, 2020
Dearest Claudia
The photograph you sent me and the questions you posed about both time and place, sparked countless thoughts in my mind.
The idea of leaving something of ourselves in places we visit or reside in, reminded me of the opening lines in A Thin Wall, my documentary film about the 1947 partition of India:

Places inhabit us, as much as we inhabit them. They form the myths and lore of who we are. Landscapes with edges softened by memory, imagined homes, burnished light – dream-soaked remnants of loves and lives, stubborn in how they bind us to the past even as we are propelled into the future.

Still from A Thin Wall

It’s as if there was some physical exchange, a sticky mixing together of people and places.
In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit talks about how places “become the tangible landscape of memory,” how places make us, and in some way we become them. “They are what you can possess and in the end what possesses you.”
I want to know about the cities in Mexico that made you, that possess you. Could you share pictures and tell me more about the sticky interchange or “becoming” that happened between you and those places?
I was also interested in the idea of time that you hinted at: how time is relative, not absolute. After all, the linearity of time, its constant scientific calculation, and oppressive dominance represent a Western capitalist imperative. Other cultures understand and experience time quite differently. For example, the Yoruba of Nigeria perceive time as being circular. There are no clear-cut partitions between the past, present and future. They are woven together so intimately that eternity is no longer remote.

Artist Yetunde Olagbaju examines such notions of time in their video, i gave myself space to go back…pt II.

They explain:

My artwork explores, exists within, and expands on the idea of nonlinear time. I’m Nigerian, Yoruba, and have always been connected to the idea that we are in constant conversation with our past, present, and future selves. To go even further, I also believe we are in constant interaction with other people’s past,present and future selves. Ultimately what that ends up translating to, art wise, is a sort of “emotional excavation” practice: learning about time travel, and sorting through how we, as human beings, orient ourselves through our emotional and physical landscapes—our internal and external worlds. At the end of the day I care about being able to create other worlds where we can communicate with our past, present, and future selves, and about building worlds in which we can heal those aspects of ourselves.

An accordion of time or how the past enfolds the present: With my mother as a young woman on the left and with both my parents celebrating my first birthday on the right

What do you think about that?

October 28, 2020
Dearest Mara,
Please accept my apologies for my VERY late response to one of your questions. It’s amazing how time escapes us.
I don’t have photographs of everything but found some memories that made me smile. In 1985, Mexico City, my hometown, experienced a major earthquake that killed thousands of people and caused serious damage to the city. This was my first encounter with physical and emotional displacement as the home where we used to live with my grandparents and my aunt’s family was one of the ones damaged by this event.

In 1985 my parents and I were forced to leave our home because of an earthquake. Our house (seen here in the middle) was damaged and became a hazard to live in.

Soon after the earthquake, my parents and I moved to a new home on the outskirts of the city where we became somewhat isolated from most of our family and friends. Growing up as an only child with both parents working full-time jobs, the period from elementary to middle school became a period of major introspection for me. The time I spent at home by myself, I would play records from my father’s collection. I remember an LP by American singer Eydie Gormé singing in Spanish with a Mexican guitar trio, a record that I played so many times that I believe I ruined it. I would spend a lot of time reading encyclopedias trying to memorize historical events, for no particular reason. I loved one in particular. A series of books illustrated by the Casasola Brothers, photographers who documented the Mexican Revolution.

I didn’t fully experience Mexico City again until I went to high school and was allowed to commute alone, taking the new subway line that connected the suburbs with the city. That’s when I truly got to know the city. At first it felt foreign to me as I lived in my own inner world, created to compensate for the friends I would only meet in school. I discovered that museums were free to visitors. I attended public music events and plays held at major art schools, and spent hours in libraries, bookstores, and flea markets. I became a devoted visitor to movie theatres. Mexico City and its many cultural offerings made me fall in love with the arts, with film, with music, and the beauty of those who dedicate their lives to creating such unique worlds.

In my late twenties I traveled to Monterrey, the capital of the State of Nuevo León, 200 km south of the border with the U.S. Without a specific plan to live there, on the third day of my arrival I was offered a job in a private school as an art teacher. I ended up staying for 3 years. Monterrey allowed me to become independent from family, particularly from my father’s strict views on life. It opened new worlds and gave me a better understanding of the social inequities in my country. I lived in San Pedro Garza García, a city municipality known as the most affluent neighborhood in Latin America. During the week I taught art to privileged kids, and over weekends I would travel to small towns where most men had migrated to the U.S. and left their families behind in desolate, low-income neighborhoods.

I documented images of my students living in underprivileged communities. I often think about them. During one class, I showed them Modern Times with Charlie Chaplin. I remember how much they enjoyed it. When I moved out of the state and back to Mexico City, Nuevo Leon was entering a dark period of violence, drug wars and militarization

Every Saturday I would travel two hours to teach kids of different ages how to make movies, how to take photographs, and how to create their own interior worlds to cope with the realities of life. This was an extremely rewarding time in my professional life and I remember my students fondly. I stayed in touchwith some of them. I met some of my closest friends in Monterrey and, as has happened many times in my life, I thought this would be the place where I would put down roots.

However, life changed and I decided to go back to Mexico City to apply to grad school. Soon after my move, drug violence and organized crime took over Monterrey, the same city described years before as one of the safest cities in Latin America. I remember seeing images on television of dead bodies found hanging with narco messages in the neighborhood where I first lived and reading about gunmen opening fire on the bar where I used to meet friends every weekend. All of it a consequence of the failed strategy of declaring war on the country’s drug cartels by then president of Mexico, Felipe Calderón.

After I left Monterrey, I went back often to visit friends. But my main goal was applying to grad school and working with Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide, my mentor and friend. In 2008 I got accepted into the National Autonomous University of Mexico, one of the top public universities in Latin American. I was back in school for a degree in Art History while working for my favorite artist. It was a dream come true.

Photo of me with Graciela Iturbide in her home studio, Mexico City, 2012

March 25, 2021
Dearest Claudia
It’s been a while. When I got your response, I was in the middle of organizing, editing, sound engineering and uploading The Warp & Weft audio archive, meant to preserve stories from 2020, the year of the pandemic. It got intense as I was doing a lot of the work on my own and corresponding/working withmore than 50 people simultaneously. Now that the archived stories are being released weekly, I can sit back and enjoy them all over again.
Thank you for the beautiful plates you sent me. That they traveled with you from Mexico to Rochester, then on to Los Angeles, and are now safe with me on Long Island, is something incredibly special. They remind me of the earthenware pots I got from Lahore called handis. I kept them in our home for years but when we moved to Long Island in early 2020, and needed to downsize, I gave them away. These plates, made of the same earthen material, painted sparsely and elegantly, remind me of the similarities between our cultures and make me feel less bereft.

A Pakistani handi and Mexican plates

Thank you too for your email and the wonderful journey through Mexico, from Mexico City to Monterrey. You are lucky to have taught in Mexico and to have experienced the unevenness of its social fabric firsthand, through your students. The sea change you describe on account of the war on drugs is something I understand viscerally. This is what the war on terror did to Pakistan – incomprehensible, surreal violence that disrupts a country’s sense of normalcy. I feel strongly that these wars are activated from the outside. This is why they explode onto the scene in unexpected, grotesque ways and seep into people’s collective psyche.

A lot has happened in the world since we last wrote to each other. In the world and in our personal lives. I know that you lost your dear father earlier this year. I am so sorry for your loss, dear Claudia. It feels like he was a towering presence in your life. It’s an irreplaceable loss. Although both my parents are Pakistani, my mother’s family is from Gurgaon, near Delhi, and my dad’s family is from central Punjab (which became part of Pakistan). My mother’s family is Urdu-speaking and Sunni Muslim. My father’s family is Punjabi-speaking and Shia. The contrast between their cultures and traditions couldn’t be starker. Yet they met in college, fell in love, and married in spite of strong resistance from both families. These divisions are at the core of who I am. Perhaps this is why I look for borderlands, amorphous spaces where contradictions and hybridity can thrive.

My parents, Nilofar Rashid and Saleem Murtza, before they got married

From my mother, I got a love of language and literature, and the drive to work hard and take chances, so I can learn and better myself. From my dad, I got a love of travel, and an innate need to mix up genres, disciplines, class hierarchies, and life choices. My dad reads Sufi poets like Baba Bulleh Shah, but also loves T.S. Eliot. Growing up I remember how he played qawwali and hardcore Indian classical music in our house, but also enjoyed Jagjit Singh, Carlos Santana, and Mozart.

Tell me about your parents and how their loves, beliefs, and desires have formed you?

After asking you about the places that have marked you, I asked myself the same question. Although I was born in Lahore, I was quite young when we moved to Brussels. The first place that shaped me was Woluwé-Saint-Lambert, a verdant, mostly French-speaking, residential municipality in the capital region. We lived in a high-rise, part of a community of apartment buildings that surrounded a manicured, parklike central area with abundant trees and grass. My sisters and I walked to school every day, only having to cross one small road. In the summertime, we would roller skate outside until 10:00 p.m., when the sun would finally set. We would get scolded for staying out too late but always had the excuse that we couldn’t tell what time it was. The lingering sunlight played tricks on us. We lived on Avenue de la Charmille.

My family in Brussels, in the early years. I am the eldest child, fourth from the left

In some ways I felt completely at home, knowing the lay of the land, excelling in school, and dreaming of becoming a French writer one day. But in other ways, I belonged to a subculture – a set of ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and religious idiosyncrasies that were only legible to my family. We weren’t close to other Pakistani kids from the Embassy and so we learned to navigate a sea of whiteness. My self-awareness was bifurcated into deep self-knowledge, inaccessible to others for the most part, and a constant reading of how the white majority was seeing/reacting to me as the little brown girl from an exotic country. Things changed when we moved to Islamabad, but I kept feeling like an outsider in other ways.

I finished high school in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, then went to a brand-new city for college. Karachi is the largest city in Pakistan, a commercial hub and home to one of the most important seaports in South Asia. It’s cosmopolitan and diverse, with almost double the population of New York City. The political situation was volatile when I moved there in the late 1980s. Curfews were enforced regularly. This is me in Karachi in the 1990s, after I graduated from the Institute of Business Administration. I was working for Société Générale at the time. Less than a year later, I got married and moved to the U.S. (Photograph by Umar Ahsan Khan)

I look forward to continuing our conversation and building our stories brick by brick, email by email.
Lots of love and hugs to you my dear friend,

June 18, 2021
Dear Mara,
My mother used to tell everyone a story about me when I was a child. Both my parents had full time jobs, leaving them no choice but to drop me off at a childcare center while they would be at work. One day, a four-year-old me, found a way to sneak out of the childcare facility and follow one of my favorite caregivers. She didn’t notice me. I kept wandering on my own, unattended, until a woman saw me standing all alone and stopped to help. Coincidentally, she was on her way to a doctor’s appointment at the health clinic where my Mom worked. When we arrived at the clinic, one of the staff members recognized me and after questioning the woman I was with, they called my mother. She couldn’t believe her luck and the concurrence of events that rescued me that day.

The meaning of Perderse. Claudia Pretelin’s portrait overlaid with a map of Mexico City from 1930

I often think about this story and all the possible scenarios that could have happened. I have no real memory of it – I don’t recall any fear – and I always wonder if at that age I had already developed a mental map that allowed me to navigate close to my mother’s workplace.
I also think about our experiences with loss. What does it mean to be lost, to get lost, to lose someone?
My mother died on November 23, 2009, she was 59 years old.
My father died on January 11, 2021, he was 97 years old.
When I was born my mother was 28 years old.
When I was born my father was 55 years old.

This is a fragment of “their song,” Candilejas by José Augusto:

Tú llegaste a mí cuando me voy | You came to me as I was leaving
Eres luz de abril, yo tarde gris | You are April light, I gray evening
Eres juventud, amor, calor, fulgor de sol | You are youth, love, warmth, sunshine
Trajiste a mí tu juventud cuando me voy | You brought youth to me as I was

With my family, Mexico, ca. 1981. Polaroid print

You’ve asked me to tell you about my parents and how they formed me.
In their own way, they created an environment that allowed me to find answers for myself and to develop my own sense of responsibility. Although my father wanted me to become a doctor, and it took him some time to understand how it’s possible to make a living from studying art, I know that he was proud of me. I don’t recall any conversations with my mother about what kind of expectations she had. I do remember that even when she disagreed with me, she was always supportive and happy to help me reach my goals.
From my father I learned to love films, from my mother I learned to love literature, art, and museums.
However, the best lesson I learned from them is that parents are individuals – people with their own loves, beliefs, and desires.
How have you experienced loss? Could you trace a map of these memories?

June 20, 2021
My dearest Claudia
Thank you for sharing these moving and precious memories of your parents. I know it wasn’t easy. I wish I could hug you.
Your story of being lost and found at age 4, reminded me of how I would constantly escape from home as a child. I was once found roaming down the street, in Lahore, visiting neighbors and having a good chat with them (at the age of 5), before that I left the house and followed the milkman’s daughter to see where she lived, and earlier, in Murree, I followed an older girl into the fields to pick some flowers for my mom. It came to a point where my mother threw up her hands and handed me over to my father. In Pakistan, during the summertime, afternoons are unbearably hot and siestas necessary. I remember, as a wee child, how my dad would encircle me with his leg when we slept during the day, too afraid to let go and allow me to break free.
It’s amazing that we were both escape artists!
The Spanish word perderse (perdre in French) sounds like the Urdu word پردیس (pronounced pardes) which means abroad, away, elsewhere, overseas, traveling in foreign lands. Could there be a connection?
As immigrants to foreign lands, are we permanently lost?
“What does it mean to be lost, to get lost, to lose someone?”
Such poetic words. They remind me once again of Rebecca Solnit’s book:

To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away. In [Walter] Benjamin’s terms, to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.

When I read your words, the first image that flashed through my mind was a beach, where frothing waves erase writing in the sand. I heard Blythe Danner’s voice read one of my favorite poems, One Art by Elizabeth Bishop. “The art of losing isn’t hard to master…”

I have been lucky so far. I have not lost anyone in my immediate family, although I have lost most of my aunts and uncles – my parents’ siblings. Living in the U.S., away from extended family, it is difficult to mourn loved ones back in Pakistan and make such losses real. It’s like being in a state of suspension – unmoored and unsubstantial.
Like you, I have lost cities, continents, friends, homes, communities, and languages. Always there is this ache in one’s heart. A sorrowful mourning.

Recently, I lost Rochester, New York, a city I knew and loved for 18 years. A city where my kids grew up and where I became an activist filmmaker.

Starting from the top left (clockwise): Farm on Mill Road in Pittsford (near our house), my husband and I at a wedding reception, our kitchen where I had painted our cabinets blue as an homage to Sidi Bou Said (Tunisia), at the Memorial Art Gallery after visiting Lessons of the Hour, “a meditation on the life, words, and actions of Frederick Douglass” by Isaac Julien (Photograph by Sarita Arden)

I also lost a puppy in Rochester. She came to us when she was a baby, just a few months old, and left us before we moved to Long Island. She is lodged into our hearts, humaray dil ka tukrha. She gave us 16 years enriched by her sweet, endearing presence. Our unforgettable Phoebe.

Phoebe at home, in Pittsford

In Our Experience of Grief is Unique as a Fingerprint, David Kessler writes:
Every loss has meaning, and all losses are to be grieved—and witnessed. I have a rule on pet loss. “If the love is real, the grief is real.” The grief that comes with loss is how we experience the depths of our love, and love takes many forms in this life.
Just today my daughter told me she had dreamed of Phoebe, how she looked young and full of life, and had come back to us.

Another poem I love is Memory at Last by Polish poet Wisława Szymborska (translated into English by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire). It starts with:
Memory at last has what it sought.
My mother has been found, my father glimpsed.
I dreamed up for them a table, two chairs. They sat down.
Once more they seemed close, and once more living for me.
With the lamps of their two faces, at twilight,
they suddenly gleamed as if for Rembrandt.

I wish such a luminous reunion for you, dear Claudia.
Love and hugs,

Jun 29, 2021
Dear Mara,
After rereading our stories, I am wondering whether we lost Rochester or escaped from it!
When I moved 2,601.5 miles away from Rochester to Los Angeles, I felt lost again. Lost like the day I was found wandering the streets of Mexico City in 1981. After almost three years of living in Rochester, experiencing its unique history, its Genesee River, its architecture and poetic industrial ruins still standing at Kodak Park, I was once again unsettled – in need of a new place to call home.
Lately, I find myself reading books wherein the authors explore different notions of home. I didn’t set out to look for the meaning of this word/concept/construction. Or did I?

“When the house fell down, it can be said, something in me opened up. Cracks help a house resolve internally its pressures and stresses, my engineer friend had said. Houses provide a frame that bears us up. Without that physical structure, we are the house that bears itself up. I was now the house.” ― Sarah M. Broom, The Yellow House

“Not a flat. Not an apartment in back. Not a man’s house. Not a daddy’s. A house all my own. With my porch and my pillow, my pretty purple petunias. My book and my stories. My two shoes waiting beside the bed.
Nobody to shake a stick at. Nobody’s garbage to pick up after. Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem.” ― Sandra Cisneros, A House of My Own in The House on Mango Street

“Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” ― James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room

Carretera 61, de Clarksdale, Mississippi a Memphis, Tennessee (Highway 61, from Clarksdale, Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee), 1997

This is one of my favorite photographs by Graciela Iturbide. It’s a found structure. Ruins that belonged to someone. Remnants of something that once existed. Overtaken by nature.
Now I realize that I didn’t move away from Rochester, or Mexico City, or Monterrey. We are still miles apart, but I carry with me the memories I made and the people I met – including you, my dear friend Mara. Whether we lost or escaped our little Western New York refuge, those memories we carry with us are home. A home built in collaboration, in mutual support, in partnership, and complicity. A home where other women, other voices, other thoughts are invited to co-exist. Thanks for having this conversation with me, for seeing me, for being part of my home.

With love,

Mara Ahmed (mara.ahmed@yahoo.com) is an interdisciplinary artist and activist filmmaker based on Long Island, New York. She was educated in Belgium, Pakistan, and the United States. Her documentary films have been broadcast on PBS and screened at film festivals across the world. Her first film, The Muslims I Know (2008) started a dialogue between American Muslims and people of other faiths. Her second film, Pakistan One on One (2011), is a broad survey of public opinion about America, shot entirely in Lahore. Ahmed’s third film, A Thin Wall (2015), explores the partition of India and possibilities of reconciliation. It premiered at the Bradford Literature Festival, won a Special Jury Prize at the Amsterdam Film Festival, and was acquired by MUBI India. Ahmed is interested in dialogue across both physical and psychological boundaries. In 2017, she gave a Tedx talk about the meaning of borders and nationalism entitled The edges that blur. She is now working on The Injured Body, a documentary about racism in America that focuses exclusively on the voices of women of color. Her production company is Neelum Films.

Claudia Pretelin (claudiapretelin@gmail.com) is an art historian, independent researcher, and arts administrator based in Los Angeles, California. She holds a BA in communications and received her MA and Ph.D. in art history from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). She has lectured in Mexico, Argentina, and the United States and her work has been published in magazines such as Alquimia, Revista de Arte y Diseño, La Palabra y El Hombre, and Terremoto. For more than ten years she worked for the Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide and has also assisted and coordinated research and exhibitions in photo collections, museums, and art galleries in Mexico and the U.S. Pretelin is the founder and curator of Instruments of Memory, a site that documents conversations with women in the arts published as interviews and oral history. Its purpose is to give voice to a diverse set of women in different geographical locations and at various stages in their careers, by focusing on their work in progress or a cumulative body of work.∎