A High Art. Precious Violence: Jumana Manna
By Kate Sutton
How is power articulated through relationships? The Berlin and Jerusalem- based artist Jumana Manna’s moving image work returns to this question time and again. In her 2010 film Blessed Blessed Oblivion, the inner lives and outer bravado within a subculture of East Jerusalem that the artist politely describes as “young men who have a special affinity for lustrous surfaces,” or, more succinctly, “thugs,” are her focus. With an exuberant soundtrack of Nasri Shamseddine, Sama El Masry and Shaabulla, she puts a shaabi spin on Kenneth Anger’s 1964 classic, “Scorpio Rising”, to explore their expressions of masculinity.
To shoot the film, Manna trespassed into the inner sanctums of this working class subculture – the barbershop, the gym, an auto body shop and a car wash – where she observed her subjects performing ritual acts of machismo, from lifting weights to hotwiring a car. As the film progresses, it becomes clear how these outward signs of hypermasculinity are meant to mask the deeply emasculating circumstances of life in occupied Jerusalem.
For Manna, bodybuilding has never just been about biceps. Born in Jerusalem in 1987, schooled in Jerusalem, Oslo and Los Angeles, the artist creates films, objects
and installations that question the relationship of the body to larger national or cultural narratives. Sumptous and highly stylized, her films adapt their format to fit the content. In Blessed Blessed Oblivion she borrows Anger’s rapid-fire montage techniques to blur distinctions between the men’s grooming of their own bodies and their care for their cars, so that a close-up of lather being dabbed across the stubble of a man’s chin visually collides with an image of sudsy pink foam, smeared along the side of an automobile at the car wash. Umpire Whispers (2010) applied an even less conventional device: the fifteen-minute video upended the power dynamics in a reunion between the artist and her former swim coach, by having Manna give her coach the kind of intimate massage he used to give her after practices. Meanwhile, A Sketch of Manners (Alfred Roch’s Last Masquerade), (2013) offers a near-elegaic ode to Palestine’s cosmopolitan past, based on a found photograph of an elaborate costume party at the home of a politician in Jaffa in 1924. The film culminates in a restaging of the tableaux by the artist’s friends and family members, their faces blank under their Pierrot makeup.
Manna’s cinematographic savvy and eye for composition reflect in her sculptural objects, which, even if technically non-representational, are immensely evocative. Last summer, Manna showed a suite of sculptures at the Beirut Art Center as part of “Aftercinema,” an exhibition looking at artists who use film as raw material. This series, Walk Like a Vase, combined Manna’s meditations on the male body in Blessed Blessed Oblivion, with selected observations from “Menace of Origins,” a solo project the artist produced for New York’s Sculpture Center in 2014.
“In Silwan, the same neighborhood where I shot Blessed Blessed Oblivion, you have this Israeli archaeological museum, full of objects with polished surfaces, confined to specific visitors,” Manna recalls. “This project started as an amalgamation of these two worlds, with these more consumer materials, the pumped-up bodies and cars, alongside the precious violence of the archaeology.” Made from plaster and shaped like oversized elbows, arms and lungs, Manna’s objects might risk being mistaken for archaeological finds, but for their exaggerated scale and unusual supports (instead of being mounted on grand pedestals or protective vitrines, the objects balance on plastic chairs, a makeshift shelf or a rolling waste bin.)
This fall, Manna developed an installation of these objects at London’s Chisenhale Gallery in her first UK show, and premiered her latest film A Magical Substance Flows Into Me (2015). The feature-length film explores the different musical traditions of myriad communities living in and around Jerusalem, paying homage to the radio broadcasts of Robert Lachmann, a German-Jewish ethnomusicologist who journeyed to Jerusalem in the 1930s to study “oriental music,” a distinction that took a holistic view of the region’s musical traditions, rather than splintering them by ethnic group or religion.
“I was fascinated by the framework of his study, its blind-spots and its idealisms,” Manna explains. The artist decided to revive Lachmann’s experiment, to test the ways in which culture can transcend geopolitics.
Rather than invite musicians to a studio, as Lachmann had, Manna tracked down musicians from wide-ranging backgrounds – Kurdish, Samaritan, Moroccan Jews and Bedouins – and had them play for her in their own homes. After all she admits, “The home is the heart of any colonial struggle.”
A Magical Substance Flows Into Me featured in Manna’s solo show at Malmö Konsthall in January and will be at the Berlinale before traveling to the 20th Sydney Biennale in March. A selection of new sculptures by Manna will also be seen this February at the 6th Marrakech Biennale, curated by Reem Fadda.