An extraordinary, unexpected find in a garage led to this ground-breaking project by Sara Davidmann, and to her book, edited by Val Williams; ‘Ken. To be destroyed’, published recently by Schilt.
“In my mother’s garage we found a chest of drawers. One drawer was full of letters I had written to my mother over the years. In another drawer, we found two large envelopes and a brown bag.” Davidmann’s discovery of the archive which is the basis for her current work was by chance, when she and her siblings inherited a collection of memorabilia, letters and souvenirs from her mother, Audrey, in 2011. One of the large envelopes was labeled ‘Ken. To be destroyed’, and it contained letters between her aunt Hazel, her mother Audrey, and her uncle Ken, who had been transgender. This information was not news to Davidmann, but the existence of a carefully preserved record of how Ken, his wife, her sister and their brother-in-law Manfred came to terms with Ken’s transgender identity in 1950’s Britain was a revelation.
Davidmann has been working with the transgender and queer communities for some fifteen years, and indeed also with photographic archives, so the serendipity of this discovery could hardly have been more appropriate. One wonders whether this fact has some bearing on Audrey’s keeping the box of letters where she knew it would eventually be found by her daughter, but it is not known why she did not destroy the records herself.
‘Ken. To be destroyed’ is a very public telling of an intensely private, secret story. As Williams says in her essay ‘Secrets and Scraps’, it is a “fractured narrative… the identity of the archive is crisis, of things hidden, of a morass of secrets.” Only four people knew of Ken’s real identity, and they all died before the archive was discovered. The archive collection itself consists of 93 letters, 52 envelopes, 31 loose photographs, 4 photograph albums, 49 papers and 2 dance cards, one from the Royal Medical Society’s Annual Ball of 1954. The book includes almost scientifically presented photographs of the different items; letters tied in neat bundles, small black and white prints, an album, as well as Davidmann’s new works, created using scans and digital negatives made from the original prints.
The physicality of the archive contents plays a large part in the new pieces. In ‘The Dress’ Davidmann redraws, recreates, destroys and obscures the original image, making sometimes a grotesque vision of a headless woman, a disembodied summer dress hanging in scribbles of horrible, painful confusion, sometimes more forgiving reworkings of portraits. The later pieces in ‘Looking for K/Finding K’ – pretty, handcoloured and sometimes clown-like – are kinder, and softer, where Davidmann sought to give Ken, or ‘K’ the gender identity he so much wished for in life. Personally, I found the printed papers in ‘Closer’, the extreme details, the typed words ‘secret’ and ‘for pity’s sake don’t tell anybody’ made so large that the ink spatters make each letter look as if they are disintegrating into space, the most evocative of the pain the family must have felt.
Ken lived his entire life with an overwhelming hidden burden; it is hard to imagine how that is possible, and surely explicable only with the support and generosity of his wife, whose life was affected almost as much as his. We, the viewers, only have tiny glimpses of Ken as he was seen in life; his experience is obscured from us. We see and hear moments of it through Hazel’s letters, and through Ken’s handwritten notes while taking oestrogen treatment, his love-letters to Hazel, and Davidmann’s parents’ painstaking record of events and initialing of ‘evidence’ adds a voyeuristic element, a hint at the judgement 1950’s society would have made, had the truth been known.
Ken to be destroyed is the story of four people experiencing confusion, anger, sadness and frustration, but also mutual support, understanding and love. Hazel and Ken remained together until his death in 1979, and they are buried side by side.
– reviewed by Lottie Davies
Ken. To be destroyed by Sara Davidmann, edit and text by Val Williams, is published in hardcover by Schilt Publishing.
The project is also currently being exhibited at the Schwules Museum, Berlin, Germany until 30 June 2016