Tarrah Krajnak, El Jardín de Senderos Que Se Bifurcan

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Dais Books (here). Softcover foil-stamped raw chipboard slipcase (9 x 11 inches), 116 pages with booklet insert, with 54 plates. Includes texts by the artist and Kavior Moon. Design by Shawn Bush. In an edition of 200 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The work of Tarrah Krajnak examines the complex and personal issues of identity, belonging, and ancestral exile, and engages with the omissions of marginalized political histories. Krajnak was born in Lima, Peru, in 1979, during a time of transition between the end of a military dictatorship and the onset of the Shining Path’s guerilla war in 1980. Fleeing both violence and deep poverty, many indigenous peoples from the Andes and the Amazon settled in Lima, and the artist’s birth mother was one of these people. She had to leave her infant daughter at an orphanage called the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, located on the dusty outskirts of Lima. It was run by an order of German nuns who facilitated hundreds of adoptions of Peruvian children by families in Europe and the United States. Krajnak was adopted by a working-class American family; that year the family also adopted an African American boy and a girl from another orphanage in central Peru. Krajnak’s upbringing in a transracial family, at a time when total assimilation was the unquestioned approach for many parents adopting international kids, sparked her interest in identity and inherited histories. 

Krajnak returned to Peru for the first time almost 30 years later, eager to trace her history and ultimately to “patch together, reclaim, or invent something like a psychic history of the year 1979.” She looked like the people there, yet didn’t understand the language and had the mind of an “outsider”. This sense of instability drove her to search out other women born in Lima during the same year she was born. She placed a newspaper ad to find them, and then photographed them and recorded their personal histories. A few years later, she revisited their recorded stories, listening to them again and again, memorizing and repeating their words to Google translate. The process led to layers of mis-translation and mis-remembering, creating a new parallel story re-lived by the artist. Over the years, this investigative project has taken the shape of a photobook looking at the “process” of tracing origins.

The title of the book, El Jardín de Senderos Que Se Bifurcan, translates from Spanish as “the garden of forking paths”, and is borrowed from a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. It is a softcover book with an exposed spine, hosted inside a chipboard slipcase with the title and the artist’s name foil-stamped on the front. Inside, all the photographs are black and white atop pages of a vanilla color, creating a sense of warmth and comfort. A photograph of an open palm with two ID photographs of a woman appears on the cover, introducing the ideas of archives, personal stories, doubles, and investigation. 

Krajnak is less interested in simply tracing authentic records, and instead she more imaginatively explores the larger socio-political context of her home country, her place within it, and the circumstances of her birth and adoption, employing archival collections, contemporary photographs, oral histories, “poetic forms of mis-translation” and performance. The narrative of the book is non-linear, and consists of fragmented sections with photographs and texts. To build her narrative, Krajnak presents imagined histories, employs re-photographing, uses mis-remembering, and blurs lines between locations and chronologies. In a way, her unorthodox approach to storytelling resembles Borges’s own use of the parable strategy.

One of the first spreads features a row of twelve photographs shot from the back, some of them with date stamps like “22 May 1959” or “16 December 1972”; the word “Lima” is also visible on one of them. Absence and unfamiliarity are the starting points of Krajnak‘s investigation. The spread with the title “Twins Beds” shows a bedroom with two beds taken in 1989 in Pennsylvania and the text references the artist’s adopted brother and sister. It is followed by “Time Twin” and a photo of two women dressed alike seated on the floor in the same position, and then, a photograph of a baby goat’s conjoined faces. These elements symbolically reference the artist’s life, and her feeling of being misplaced. Then, she brings us back to the spread with the twelve photographs, this time with two of them turned up showing photos of young women; the artist’s hand behind one of them connects the past and present. 

Krajnak imagines her own story through the photographs of women born in Lima in 1979. The portraits start with Angie; it is a square black and white image with the caption reading “Lima, 1979 / Lima, 2014”. It is followed by a spread with four smaller square images of Angie in an empty room. The last image in the sequence is a self-portrait of the artist as Angie, this time the caption reads “Lima, 1979 / Lima, 2014 / Claremont, California, 2018”. Krajnak uses the technique of embedding herself in the black and white projected photographs of the women re-enacting their stories as she tracks imaginary lineage and connects to ancestors. These eerie self-portraits appear next to the poems in Spanish and their translation in somewhat broken English referencing incomplete memories. 

To provide political and social context, Krajnak also includes photographs from 1979 era political magazines she collected during her trip to Peru. She has re-photographed and Xeroxed them, repeating the process multiple time as a symbolic act of re-appropriating the narrative through repetitive acts of copying. A blurry photograph of a woman walking on a street becomes the artist’s mother, “she arrived in Lima and the winter fogs were already starting in <…> She could have lived a thousand different lives here she thinks”. This is followed by a photograph of the artist reenacting the same moment with a projected photograph. During her visits to the orphanage, Krajnak learned that her mother moved to Lima from a faraway village to work as a maid; she was raped and had to give up her child for adoption. 

Krajnak reflects on the traumas of violence and war from that time, many of them remaining undocumented and unaddressed, especially cases of rape. A number of archival images are photographed with roses spread on top – a symbolic act of remembering and paying tribute. In the last spread of the book, all twelve photographs appear face up, showing the faces of young women, re-claiming, re-writing, and re-imagining their lost histories. 

Elements of Krajnak’s book bring to mind several recent photobooks that have probed incomplete family histories, like Mariela Sancari’s emotional book Moisés, where she searched for her deceased father in men the age her father would be if he were still alive, and also those exploring the complexity of the immigrant experience, such as Diana Markosian’s Santa Barbara which reenacts a family migration story using a soap opera and June Canedo’s Mara Kuya which tells the story of her family split between Brazil and the United States. 

El Jardín de Senderos Que Se Bifurcan is a considered and thoughtful photobook, beautifully designed and produced. It presents an unconventional and creative approach to re-imagining personal histories, research processes, and archival materials. Working on this book allowed Krajnak to authentically re-connect to her home country and her indigenous roots, and it arrives at a time when sharing the uncertain complexity of personal stories while connecting and recontextualizing them in larger narratives feels more urgent and necessary than ever.

Collector’s POV: Tarrah Krajnak does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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