Acne Paper

Los Angeles, Acne Paper, No.12, 2011


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Film still from Jumana Manna’s video 7 Men on a Vault, two-channel projection, 4 mins.


The contemporary art world is filled to the brim with the young and talented. Only a few decades ago, it would not be unusual for an artist to debut at a more mature age. Today, young artists are courted and signed to galleries before they complete their degrees and most have had several solo presentations before turning thirty. This is not necessarily a terrible situation to find yourself in, but there are certain challenges facing young artists and we decided to talk to one of these young talents, Jumana Manna, who is currently pursuing a degree in Aesthetics and Politics at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles. Manna has received praise for her political and poetic video work detailing identity politics, gender, nationalism and power, in particular in her hometown of Jerusalem. Geir Haraldseth wanted to find out how she balances politics, art and the pressures of youth. And how her past has helped her shape her present.

Geir Haraldseth: The Umpire Whispers, “Please Play” revisits your past as a competitive swimmer and the relationship you had with your coach. Why was this a point in time worth revisiting for you?
Jumana Manna: I’m not exactly sure why I decided to return specifically to that point in time, but the idea had been lingering in my mind for a while, of an older male coach massaging a young female swimmer before a meet, and her later returning the “gift” – massaging him in return. In previous works I’ve been interested in the borders of intimacy, and when intimacy gets deemed unethical. The project began with the massage and developed from there with the interviews and underwater shots.

Geir: The shots under water are beautiful and dynamic, in contrast to the more intimate setting for the interviews and the massage, which are static and dimly lit. And sexually charged, at least in my mind.
Jumana: For sure. I was also thinking about the pressures of competition, which was precisely the condition for the show for which I made the work. It was a nomination show for an art stipend, and I was reimagining the race, the dive, the flip, hitting the touch board, the sound from the audience, the clapping of hands, echoed announcements and congratulations, your altered hearing when the water is still under your ears with the cap, the cheap motel rooms during the championships, with ugly wall papers, cheap sport photo prints on the walls, pale-coloured curtains, and barely single-sized beds. I wanted to revisit these bittersweet memories to try to grasp the psychological state we were in.

Geir: What was it like, revisiting such an intense part of a life you’ve left behind?
Jumana: While making the film, I spoke to a woman, a former champion of Israel for many years. She was disgusted by the idea of massaging her coach. She thought swimming had so many more interesting dimensions than the eroticism of touch between a coach and an athlete. She was talking about Israelis’ fear of the “Arab Phallus”. How it is a symbol of the fear of Arabs. When it comes near them in the pool, brushes against them when they are swimming their laps, they freak out. She thought the film should focus on how the pool is the social soup, where all the fragments that make up society get boiled together, the water being the medium, turning the whole lot into a soup. Those aspects are dealt with through negation in the film. The issue of racism comes up, but only to be dismissed.

Geir: Other than the reference in The Umpire Whispers, “Please Play”, does your background and training as a swimmer influence your work?
Jumana: Persistence. Full hearted dedication. Your whole life revolves around one pursuit that becomes your identity, your consciousness. Beyond the obsessive nature of both fields, they are worlds apart. Especially when it comes to failure and destruction, which are welcomed in art. Every setback can be borne if you tell it as a good story. In sports, when you do badly, when you fail yourself, you’ve failed, and it’s not much twisting or interpreting you can do about a bad record. In sports, the feeling of loss is heavier. In art, as long as you’re doing, you’re doing fine.

Geir: What formal training do you have in art, and what do you think influences art education? Seeing as technical skills and craft are not necessarily something you would learn at an art school.
Jumana: Formal training. Ha-ha. That’s right, you got it, no technical skills taught at art school in Oslo. What art school does teach you is how to teach yourself. If you want something, the possibilities are out there, but you have to make it happen. No one is going to ask you to do art projects. It’s your freedom. And freedom is the condition of responsibility. You learn how to take responsibility for your time and choices.

“What art school does teach you is how to teach yourself. No one is going to ask you to do art projects. It’s your freedom. And freedom is the condition of responsibility. You learn how to take responsibility for your time and choices.” – JUMANA MANNA

Geir: What are the pressures, in your view, on younger artists?
Jumana: Money! That’s a pressure shared by young artists worldwide. Aside from that, I think the pressure differs depending on what type of artist you are, and where you’re coming from. Those who want to do discursive practices outside the classic gallery setting risk not being canonised in the same way as those artists whose work are more easily purchased by museums. Artists from outside the European–American art centres tend to get pigeonholed because of their nationality. The danger of being named Palestinian to fit a particular quota is admitting to a ghettoisation on a national level. That goes for many whose nationalities come with heavy political baggage that overshadow their identity and practice.

Geir: How do you deal with your own nationality and the complexities of travelling the world, and having to sell not just your own work, but also your identity as an artist?
Jumana: Self-exoticisation is lame and it’s a trap that is easy to fall into. You want to deal with the place you are from, but how do you do this in an interesting way that isn’t reduced to this art-tourism: “We invite you here so you can teach us a little about your country!” The demands for tragedy are so pressing that artists coming from politically fucked areas tend to lose the dimension of it, and the potential of art to transcend pedagogy or literal expression. It’s easy to become so fascinated by the absurdity and extremity the conflict has created that to find the subtleties sometimes may be a challenge. 

Geir: You have worked and lived in very different parts of the world, like Oslo, Jerusalem, and you are now based in Los Angeles. What do you see as the main differences between working in these drastically divergent locations and how does it affect your output? Do you feel the need to be more overtly political in LA?
Jumana: They are drastically different! I have found that art provides a territory that follows you wherever you go. I only feel uprooted when I don’t get to work because of other obligations, lack of time or depression. But art keeps saving me, picking me up, keeps me breathing when I feel destroyed. In Jerusalem, politics is all consuming. Israel practises apartheid, colonialist, oppressive policies, and I feel this on my own skin like all Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank. As a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship, it’s hard to think of doing anything outside a critique of the political situation when I’m in Israel.

Geir: What about living in Norway? How has that been different?
Jumana: Oslo has been like a foster home for living out absurdities and liberties. The city is devoid of political conflict. But more than that, politics isn’t that cool, especially for the younger generation. Art that has something to say about a political issue or other is more easily dismissed than other type of work that isn’t struggling to have a critical political voice. In LA, I have found there to be a strong tradition in the queer community, dealing with politics of sexuality and gender. I haven’t been here for that long, but my impression is that overt politics are more often welcomed here than in Norway. I think it’s also a cultural thing. Americans don’t mind clarity, directness and a clearer definition of what this or that wants to communicate.

Geir: Some of your work communicates an interest in gay imagery and I saw some of your work on the blog of a gay porn-star and I wanted to know why some of your work is latently, or blatantly, homoerotic?
Jumana: Ha-ha! How funny. Personally, I don’t really see my work as homoerotic. My Danish gymnastics video using gymnastics equipment at home is probably the best work I’ve made. I’ve noticed that much of my work is about men, or macho culture. Maybe I’m making up for my childhood years where I would sit jealously at the top of the stairs watching my older brothers leave the door smelling of alcohol and cologne, wishing I could join them out on the town.

Geir: Well, it also ties into your interest in power structures, politics and gender.
Jumana: Of course, I’m very interested in a defiance of patriarchy, be that in gender, the law, authority or nationalism. And nationalism is expressed through gendered narratives. In the Palestinian context, masculinity itself is lived within a model of nationalism. Then again, sexuality is expressed differently in different cultures.

Geir: Which makes sense when you revisit your old coach and retread the relationship you once had with him, whether it was innocent or sexually charged, but time allows for retrospection, as does travel lends perspective.