Desecration and data death: A conversation with Caitlin Abadir-Mullally

By Shanti Hands

Desecration: A Process (installation view), Automat Collective. Photo by Shaina Nasrin

Caitlin Abadir-Mullally is an Egyptian-American artist and an archivist based in Philadelphia. Desecration: A Process mimics the field of archaeology in three parts: the Research Phase, Excavation Site and Artifact Collection. This series parallels two kinds of desecration relevant to the artists’ access to her own history in the erasure and disposal of queer life and government-funded grave robbing in North Africa. The Research Phase consists of several binders of documents, photographs and writing related to the mysteries of Egypt, the urge to have access to the past, queer joy, and conflict through the lens of the artist’s life. The Excavation Site is an interactive sandpit with sand from the Jersey Shore, specifically the artist’s hometown. The viewers are provided with tools such as handheld shovels, sieves, and brushes and are encouraged to dig for artifacts. The artifacts are art objects that signify queerness such as scissors, nail clippers, and imprints of the artist’s hand. The Artifact Collection is a series of canopic jars and a life size sarcophagus. The sarcophagus is made of plaster casts of the artist’s body, wood and fabric. The casts of the artist’s body remain as negatives, mirroring the theft of human remains. The canopic jars showcase the four sons of Horus, protectors of the deceased. In the context of the exhibition, the artist imagines them as protectors of lost queer people and their histories.

As an archivist, access to history and the lifespan of information is constantly in the back of Abadir-Mullally’s mind. She launched into this interview by delineating the necessary facts to aid any potential archivists:

Caitlin Abadir-Mullally: Hi. My name is Caitlin Abadir-Mullally and this is my exhibition, Desecration: A Process, at Automat. My show opened on August 10th and will be running up until September 2nd. Our open hours are on Saturdays from 12 to 5. This exhibition is part of Batikh Batikh’s programming and it was curated by Sarah Trad.

We are sitting in the gallery in front of Abadir-Mullally’s binders, art objects that are packed with articles and writings carefully plastered on their outer covers to match the golden, aged feel of all of the elements of this show. 

CAM: This whole exhibition draws a parallel between the cultural entitlement to and obsession with the myth and fantasy of ancient Egypt, and queer history and its cultural erasure. Queer materials often come to archives from loved ones, who may or may not be biologically related to the person, trying to hang on to this history that the world, even today, is trying to erase—while ancient Egyptian history is bastardized and recreated across the western world and the United States. Desecration: A Process is a show in three parts. The first site is the research phase, with materials related to Egyptomania, which is the obsession with Ancient Egypt, and other ideas around memory and archives and what things deserve to die. It’s in formats that I find really exciting to work with, like risograph prints, handwriting, and weirdly-formatted printed web pages. 

Desecration: A Process (exhibition documentation), Automat Collective. Photo by Shaina Nasrin

Shanti Hands: I see how one history, queer history, is being erased, and the history of Ancient Egypt is hyper-magnified to the point of distortion.

Oh, the web pages are great. In these binders, which I’ve had the pleasure of leafing through, Abadir-Mullally circled and underlined both instances of manipulative language around Egyptomania and the weird way that digital materials print, and she’s presenting two sides again. Laughing and critical. Artist and archivist. 

Desecration: A Process (exhibition documentation), Automat Collective. Photo by Shaina Nasrin

CAM: The second stage is the excavation site. That is a sand pit that I built and filled with sand from the Jersey Shore, which is where I’m from. Inside is evidence of queerness in the form of inside lesbian jokes, so, like, nail clippers, sex toys, cell phones, hands, and scissors. The idea is that the viewers can think about whether or not they want to dig and participate in this kind of excavation for queer history. The final stage is the artifact collection. There’s a sarcophagus, which is over seven feet tall. These are plaster casts of my body as an Egyptian American. This is referencing that a lot of all these excavations that have happened in Egypt by Westerners in the last, whatever, 150 years are really based on recovering a body and oftentimes bringing bodies to places where they were not intended to be.

The sarcophagus has been dominating Abadir-Mullally’s home studio for months. Seeing it against the flat white gallery wall, my eyes fall into the gentle human shapes, the awareness of the imprint of a body. 

CAM: And then another part of the artifact collection are these funeral jars of the four sons of Horus, which I imagine hold narratives and stories of queer people. There are also these screen prints in different parts of the room to reveal an excavation that happened in 2020.

SH: I forgot that those are from a recent excavation.

CAM: Yeah, they found like 80 bodies, and it was like a great moment for marketing in Egypt. There’s a documentary on Netflix about it, but in the screenprints, you can see that it’s the beginning of the pandemic. People were wearing masks, crowded so close, at that point I was like, you know, that is very close to not knowing what this disease is. People who looked like they were coming from Europe to Egypt, getting as close as they can to take a photograph of this first moment and watch this body as it’s disturbed publicly.

Not discovered—disturbed.

Desecration: A Process (exhibition documentation), Automat Collective. Photo by Shaina Nasrin

SH: It is baffling how people put their own health at risk for the sake of discovery.

CAM: Egypt is a very extreme example because of how much cultural influence it has had. Like when King Tut’s tomb was “discovered,” desecrated, it launched architectural and design movements, art deco, and really kind of influenced what wealth looks like. And those design elements are still worshiped, and seen as power today.

SH: It’s interesting that there is an aspect of preservation itself that is narrative creation, right?

CAM: Yeah. Like “Excavations and Discovery” is a genre, you know? Almost everything you know about mummies and Egypt is very based around the Westerners who found them, not the Egyptians who live in Egypt. It’s very much of this narrative of this self-serving person who’s noble in their quest for information. But I don’t think searching for information is a noble quest.

SH: Yeah, it’s a search for information without asking yourself what am I harming? Who am I affecting right now? Who am I talking to? It’s fucked.

CAM: These ideas of “scholarship” and “access to information is power” have led to so much media and fiction, which might seem cool, but Europeans would go to Egypt and take back body parts with them. Even people who were like, “hey, that’s messed up” still took heads back with them. That was a sign of status and power. This obsession created an economy. There is a case in which someone had taken a hand and then had a very dramatic death, and people were like, “Whoa, maybe it was this person whose hand was on his desk!” and his dog died, and they blamed the hand, and then people were like, “Wait, what if this hand also caused the Titanic sinking, but maybe also a World War.”  Instead of people being like, maybe we should stop removing bodies somewhere people decided they shouldn’t be, they were like, what if we just kind of really hyped up the mystery and drama around this guilt and create movies and books and design around this guilt. The guilt around desecrating burial sites created a larger economy of media than just the need to own things.

SH: So they have an economy around the taking, and then there’s a secondary economy around the guilt.

CAM: Around the guilt, yeah. It has this huge ripple effect. There’s more money to be made out of how Egyptian bodies and mummies made their way into our horror canon than just gold scarabs.  And still, the person who’s destroying history is the savior, you know? Like, oh, you defeated this cursed mummy after pissing it off? I think that this idea that things are coming back to harm you and that you need to defeat them once again so you can hang on to your gold just adds to this whole idea that these are not people, these are other. 

SH: How do I know what information should or shouldn’t die? Is that okay to ask you?

CAM: I think that information has an energy and can move in the way that it wants to, you know? And I think that putting records in the ground is one way for people and information to say this needs to go back into the earth and potentially be forgotten. That doesn’t work for time capsules. I love time capsules. So much information is dying all the time as far as digital content. Like, this video will rot, you know? The bits will flip and it will be corrupted in an unknown number of years. Maybe it has a better chance because I know a thing or two about digital archiving, but this information will die. Maybe that’s just how things are. Paper has a lifespan of around 100 years. A good USB drive only has a lifespan of five or ten years, you know, before the information gets corrupted. Archivists are trying to be superheroes and make some decisions about when things should die, but I think all information is on its way. But that’s releasing control in a way that you’re not asking about.

SH: I think releasing control is maybe better than what I was asking.

CAM: But releasing control is giving control to people in power who are making decisions that do not serve people like us. So it’s complicated. Print stuff out on paper, it’s got a much higher lifespan than your digital files. That’s all I can say right now as a digital archivist.

SH: That’s crazy.

CAM: Yeah. Date things. Write your name on things. It gives context to the future. Please date things. 

CAM: Information Death is really crazy. I think that… It’s okay.

SH: For information to die?

CAM: Yeah.

SH: Do a little mourning.

CAM: Yeah. Or also believe that if it’s going to be important to you in the future, it will come back to you. You have memories like that, you know? You’re like bopping around and you’re like, “Oh, I remember this one moment, but I haven’t thought about it in years because it’s relevant to this thing that’s happening in front of me now.” It will find you.

SH: I love that information is so alive for you.

CAM: Yeah, information is alive, and it will find you when you need it. I think that if you don’t understand something in this particular moment, it doesn’t mean it won’t circle back to you when you need it.

SH: I hope so!

Desecration: A Process (exhibition documentation), Automat Collective. Photo by Shaina Nasrin


Desecration: A Process is the third exhibition presented by Batikh Batikh. Batikh Batikh (BB) is a pop-up cinema and gallery that centers South-West Asian North African (SWANA) women and LGBTQ+ artists. Founded by filmmaker and curator, Sarah Trad, BB focuses on bringing SWANA films to Philadelphia and helping local queer and women artists acquire resources for solo exhibitions at rented spaces. Based on an anti-capitalist art model, where all art is free to the public with featured artists paid, these screenings and exhibitions will provide programming that showcases SWANA and queer joy outside the Western gaze.  |   IG: @batikhcollective

Caitlin Abadir-Mullally is a Coptic/Irish-American artist and archivist based in Philadelphia. Her research dives into hybridity, queerness, collective thinking, grief, and cultural loss. Abadir-Mullally works in sculpture, performance, and relationship building. She is passionate about collecting documentation of diasporic queer Southwest Asian and North African joy and complexity, and the agency of the living to decide how their narratives are preserved.   |  IG: @meatspace2000

Shanti Hands is a huge fan. They want to do anything interesting. Shanti is a video artist and animator based in Philadelphia.  |