Jumana Manna

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Jumana Manna’s The Umpire Whispers, 2010, two – channel HD video, color, sound, 15 minutes

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FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS, Jerusalem has been known as a site of religious fervor: a place revered, set apart as sacred. Yet this rarefied status has also made the city vulnerable. An object of desire throughout history, Jerusalem has repeatedly fallen to conquerors, crusaders, and colonial attacks. Sundered and rebuilt over and over, it inspires passionate beliefs but also entrenched superstitions, wild fantasies, and hysterical delusions. These layered mythologies and pathologies are the chosen subject of the artist Jumana Manna, who has fearlessly used the videos, photographs, and sculptures she has been making since 2008 to pry open the city’s complex tangle of urban history and lived experience.

In doing so, Manna has drawn from her own story. A Palestinian with Israeli citizenship, she was born in 1987, on the eve of the first intifada, and grew up in Jerusalem, with an extended family in Galilee. By the time she was a teenager, in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords, she had witnessed a once-revolutionary state-building project collapse into cronyism, petty politics, and graft, and her work shows great sensitivity to this fraught sociopolitical context. Manna has since lived, worked, and studied in Oslo, Los Angeles, and Berlin, three cities with their own respective associations of justice; glamour and corruption; and violence, division, and reconciliation; each has doubtless resonated with her hometown.

Manna has returned to Jerusalem over the years, focusing on unearthing the erotic energy that seems to pulse just below the surface of the city’s history of upheaval and violence, turning a feminist eye toward its masculine subcultures. In one of her early works, The Umpire Whispers, a fifteen-minute video from 2010, Manna reflects on the city as both a site of memory and a point of personal transformation. Revisiting her high school years as a competitive swimmer, she returns to Jerusalem to meet with her old coach. More to the point, she returns to give him a massage. A voice-over of Manna in conversation with a former teammate (in English), in combination with a subtitled dialogue with her coach (in Hebrew), reveals that the coach regularly—and thoroughly—rubbed down his athletes, and while he may have considered it part of his job, for the young female swimmers these physical encounters were much more consequential: first touch, even first love, first bruising encounter with the potent mixing of power and gender. The result is a thoroughly creepy split-screen simulation of Manna’s earliest erotic experience, now reciprocated (and interrogated) with roles reversed.ut despite the deeply personal nature of this return, The Umpire Whispers is also a powerful dissection of nationalism in art and sport alike. Filtered through Manna’s conversation with her coach are allusions to the indignities she endured as an Arab athlete competing on an Israeli team. She reminds her coach that she swam her fastest time fueled by anger, just after seeing DEATH TO THE ARABS scrawled on the windows of the pool building. Such struggles parallel the difficulties she faces as a Palestinian artist, inevitably burdened by the demand to convey a much heavier political narrative than might be expected of an artist hailing from less charged circumstances. What makes her work not only captivating but brave is that she deliberately complicates the accepted—or expected—histories of places and people, revealing the contradictions they suppress. By speaking fluent Hebrew in her own videos, for example, she subverts the unspoken protocols of contemporary art in the Arab world, where “normalization” with Israel is still a sensitive issue. In many ways, the conflicted identities she explores mirror the notoriously contested nature of Jerusalem itself.

Screen Shot 2014-04-15 at 11.39.09 AMThe twenty-three-minute video Blessed Blessed Oblivion, also from 2010, which serves as the centerpiece of Manna’s current exhibition at SculptureCenter in New York, is a broader investigation of masculine identity in Jerusalem. With a sound track blending reverential poetry on the subject of martyrdom with raunchy Arabic and Western pop, the video sheds light on what Manna describes as Jerusalem’s thug culture—an intensely macho world of drugs, crime, and debt, dominated by violent, sexually explicit language and bizarrely old-fashioned codes of honor—and reveals the fears and dreams of disaffected young men trapped in an overly symbolic but toxically small city with limited economic opportunity, terrible fashion sense, and a totally uncertain future. Perhaps it is because so much of the world is always watching Jerusalem that it has fostered such unexpected communities, all of them hidden in plain sight of the diplomats, lobbyists, pundits, humanitarians, academics, journalists, militants, and zealots who consider this city their rightful domain.

Manna’s most recent video, A Sketch of Manners (Alfred Roch’s Last Masquerade), 2013, which anchored her first solo exhibition in New York this past fall at CRG Gallery, reaches further back in time, exploring the ways in which cities themselves become prominent actors in historical events, even as the details of their roles are lost to memory. The work’s starting point is an archival photograph showing a small crowd packed into an opulent room in the Palestinian port city of Jaffa, most dressed in Pierrot costumes, staring somewhat glumly at the camera. From that image, a portrait of the guests who attended a masquerade ball in 1924 at the home of Alfred Roch, a wealthy politician who represented the Greek Catholic community in Palestine, Manna embellished a twelve-minute fiction. Shot at the famous American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem, A Sketch of Manners moves Roch’s party to 1942, at the height of World War II; Palestine has been tossed from the Ottoman Empire and folded into the British Mandate, and is doomed by the imminent formation of Israel. Manna imagines Roch’s event as the end of the world, or the last gasp of that era—which, in her evocative reenactment, was a time of decadence, eroticism, and drag.

Screen Shot 2014-04-15 at 11.39.26 AMA Sketch of Manners is the first chapter in a long-term, multipart project called Imagined Cities, which Manna envisions as an explicit comparison between Jerusalem and Los Angeles, suggesting they are twinned in the visions and misunderstandings they provoke, and posing them as similar kinds of promised lands. Imagined Cities follows a middle-class musician (one of the guests at Roch’s ball) from Palestine (in the 1930s) to LA (in the ’40s), where he tries to make it as a movie star. Manna hopes to place the project in a “tradition of literature about foreigners entering the film world.” Although still in its early phases, in pulling her practice to a distant extreme, Imagined Cities promises to deepen the literary and cinematic inclinations of her work. In setting her Weimar Republic–style portrait of Jerusalem against mid-twentieth-century LA, Manna also seems poised to detect echoes between them that will change how we understand both: two densely mixed cities, subject to conflicting myths and competing dramas, each immensely changed by a commitment to modernism that faltered in the former but thrived in the latter.

While Manna’s videos suggest the manifold associations that cities accrue in our collective consciousness, the sculptures she has long made in parallel take a different approach to specific materials and symbols. They offer something like a renegade archaeology let loose on the bustling consumerism of our contemporary metropolises. Her muscular objects simultaneously explore and embody themes of nationalism (three flagpoles called For Those Who Like the Smell of Burning Tires, 2009), war (in the replication of Norwegian military blankets), and urban transportation (characterizing cars as literal vehicles of death in sculptures made from seat belts taken from auto wrecks or used air bags). By repurposing these materials as allegorical objects, Manna seems to be testing how well their density and texture can contain—at once—personal stories, national narratives, urban conditions, and communal fantasies. It’s a sideways approach to politics and memory, but it makes for an art better able to deal with the weight of such places, which are both perpetually reinvented and fixed in history, forever lodged in the minds of us all.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a critic based in Beirut.