A group of tragicomic masqueraders dressed in Pierrot costumes pose for their commemorative portrait to be taken. As they wait for the shutter to click, they address the camera, and through it, the long, piercing glance of history. They stare and fidget; they wait and rustle. The video camera pans across their heavily lined eyes and faces caked with white makeup. Finally, it stops to rest in the centre of the group, framing the portrait. With its patina of a bygone era, the fully frontal image recalls a vintage photograph, but the colour is decidedly contemporary, and the HD video camera captures the sitters’ movements, registering their tension. In this way, the moving image resuscitates the historicity of an early studio photograph, placing us firmly in the present.
Jumana Manna’s twelve-minute-long film, A Sketch of Manners (Alfred Roch’s Last Masquerade) (2012) was fist shown in Ramallah, at the A.M. Qattan Foundation’s Young Artist Award 2012, where Manna won first prize. Drawing vectors between photographic image, historical re-enactment and geopolitical space, the film is particularly interesting in the way in which it re-imagines history. Its subject is an eccentric and over-looked dimension of the social life of a people now belonging to an unrecognised state and confined behind walls. It was inspired by an archival photograph of a masked ball held in Jerusalem in 1942, on the fateful eve of the nation’s dissolution, and depicts what the artist imagines ‘was to be the last masquerade in Palestine’. It offers a counter-narrative of Palestine through an anecdotal event.
The annual bon-vivant parties described by A Sketch were hosted from the 1920s to the 1940s by a landowner and merchant in Jaffa, Alfred Roch, who was also a member of the Palestinian National League. This cosmopolitan world dissolved with the dismantling of the country and its urban centres in 1948. Manna offers a decidedly romantic view of a bohemian microcosm, where theatricality and dreaming enlarge the psychic dimension of the photographic index. By way of this glimpse into a menagerie of upper-class Palestinians, A Sketch of Manners conjures the prelapsarian moment before the Nakba – ‘the disaster’ – which saw the expulsion of nearly 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and the 1948 Arab-Isreali war, a traumatic rupture shaping Palestine as the space of endless contestation and geopolitical erasure.
Scattered throughout the film are clues suggesting the mutual influence, in terms of cultural fantasy and dreaming, between Europe and the Arab world. A desk is strewn with Arab editions of European books, one by Charles Baudelaire, and the playbills and magazines of Egyptian Opera, cultural ephemera that also serve as archival mementos. Before the scene of the group portrait, the film opens with Roch sleeping on a couch after the ball, his make-up still thickly applied. The projected Orientalist fantasy imagined by the West is met with Roch’s inner dreamtime. A British narrator’s voice recites Baudelaire’s poem ‘A Former Life’, offering a somnambulant texture of fantasy: ‘Long since, I lived beneath vast porticoes … And there I lived amid voluptuous calms / In splendours of blue sky and wandering wave / Tended by many a naked, perfumed slave.’
To create the film and to deepen the understanding of the world evoked by the photograph, Manna consulted both private and public archives, as well as historians and sociologists including Dr Salim Tamari, Issam Nassar and her father, Dr Adel Manna. Her research yielded source images from the Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection held in the Library of Congress, which appear interspersed throughout the film (rather than simulated like the group portrait) as a foil for the film’s social context and the private dreaming of the protagonist. These include a photograph of a Middle Eastern merchant sipping tea with a group of British men, suggesting a detail from the biography of Roch, who was invited to the UK to speak at a conference on the Palestinian question. According to the story, he brought back the Pierrot costumes from this trip, attesting to the porosity between East and West that would be overshadowed by World War II.
This interplay between archival photographs and simulated scenes suspends the Palestinian bourgeoisie of the 1940s in a limbo between present and past time and space. Through the recurrent oscillating between static and moving images – between the external ‘fact’ of the indexical image, and the inward contemplative space suggested by the experiential image (the contemporary actors, the colour video medium) – the work re-animates the archive and offers up a third space – neither fact nor purely fictional – a psychic space of dreaming that is not Roch’s alone. A Sketch shows us how the artistic strategy of re-enactment invokes the lived dimension of history and the private life of politics.
Historical re-enactment is currently circulating heavily in art-world contexts, where historical tropes and content speak to the inheritances and conditions of the contemporary. Omer Fast’s 2005 film Godville, for example, used the site of a living-history museum in colonial Williamsburg to animate contemporary relationships to the imagined past of Virginia. In 2007, Nato Thompson curated ‘A Historic Occasion: Artists Making History’, a survey at Mass MoCA of artists interested in historical retelling, including Paul Chan, Jeremy Deller, Peggy Diggs, Felix Gmelin, Kerry James Marshall, Trevor Paglen, Greta Pratt, Dario Robleto, Nebojsa Seric-Shoba, Yinka Shonibare and Allison Smith. The exhibition took a materialist bent on historical revision, looking at how visual artists render history through objects, especially in a cultural climate where, according to Thompson, the ‘very idea of history seems under siege’ by historians rewriting the past, thinning attention spans, accelerated news cycles and amnesiac governments. In this exhibition, and in films like Manna’s that speak to the present through the past by referencing archival images or moments of historical rupture, one aim is to deliberately slow things down in order to sidestep these modern conditions.
In A Sketch of Manners, the overlay of a twentieth-century past and current events is palpable, if restrained. While we are afforded the spaciousness of historical distance, we can also understand Manna’s film as a direct commentary on the present. Other film and performance work takes up a more recent history of the last five years. Lebanese performance and stage artist Rabih Mroué, for instance, takes as his focus the current political unrest and protest movements throughout the Arab world. However, recent approaches to historical re-enactment can be observed not just in films, but also in paintings that refer to art history or create a historical imaginary that ties into the present. Emerging artists like Los Angeles-based Kour Pour, who recreates Eastern rugs through a process of transfer and erasure, retell a cultural narrative pictorially. The more archaeological, process-based conceptual paintings of Lebanese poet and painter Etel Adnan, recently included in Documenta 13, present a series of amalgamated objects and images that point to Lebanon’s 1975–90 civil war, when militiamen occupied Beirut’s National Museum, a reference that potently alludes to current events in the country.
The trend for using historical contexts as a vehicle to respond to the urgencies of current local and global protest movements and unrest means that the Middle East has been the historical locus du jour, with many film-makers and visual artists of this region circulating more widely on the international scene than they have done previously. Yet historical re-tellers are not always ‘native informants’ or cultural ambassadors hungry to broaden the cultural breadth and understanding of a Eurocentric West or an increasingly cosmopolitan and international art world. Sometimes, they are Western ethnographer-documentarians working with decidedly ahistorical approaches to storytelling. The striking release The Act of Killing (2012) by Joshua Oppenheim pushes documentary re-enactment towards the experimental, blurring the genre of documentary feature. Oppenheim’s implicit denunciation of the Western military-ideological projects of the Cold War and beyond focuses on the massacre, funded by the United States, of more than 500,000 communists and ethnic Chinese in Indonesia during the mid-1960s. The gangster Anwar Congo led the most notorious death squad in North Sumatra. Oppenheimer invites Anwar and his associates to re-enact the genocide as a theatrical dance macabre, using sets and costumes. The viewer is launched into the slippery terrain of Anwar’s trauma-afflicted psyche as he and his friends re-enact, in increasingly elaborate set-ups, their methods of killing. This performance of earlier crimes by living perpetrators proves that re-enactment is more than just a de-politicised visual strategy; it can convey the violent effects of politics better than any statistical abstraction. The re-enactors activate history as they re-write it in real time. The creation of a tertiary space of consciousness through the combination of documentary sources and artistic elements resurrects the depths of the collective unconscious.
More dreamscape than nightmare, it would be inappropriate to compare Manna’s film to such a full-length re-enactment. A Sketch concisely signifies the unconscious without actually exhuming its contents. (It is enough to hear Baudelaire’s lines and see Roch sleeping on the sofa, to extract the notion of dreaming.) Nevertheless, with its capsular view onto the past, it offers an account that gently defies the prevailing Western cultural bias, which sees the East as hardened by radicalism and categorically antagonistic to Western influence. Like the bon-vivant pleasantries of Roch’s last masquerade, the representation of the psychic space of the dream is a depiction that also runs counter to the expectations of dominant forms of historical narration. In Manna’s short film we find a world of pleasure on the brink of a tectonic geopolitical shift. With her deft transitions from archival image to personal imaginings, she offers a cavernous space that echoes with the traumas of the twentieth century.