The Young Artist of the Year Award is a biennial competition run by the A.M. Qattan Foundation to celebrate fresh Palestinian talent in the arts.

The Young Artist of the Year Award
Fresh Palestinian Talent in London
London - JUL 30, 2013

Tucked away in a beautiful house on a busy intersection near Earl’s Court, the Foundation’s London home – The Mosaic Rooms – plays host to the shortlisted artists of the Young Artist of the Year Award 2012 until 16th August 2013.

The Young Artist of the Year Award
Fresh Palestinian Talent in London

©Jumana Manna, A Sketch of Manners (Alfred Roch's Last Masquerade)

The first work one encounters is second-prize winner Mirna Bamieh’s This Mined Land of Ours, a video installation that explores recent nakba anniversary demonstrations. Nakba – ‘catastrophe’ in Arabic – refers to the expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians from their homeland in 1948. On the anniversary of this date in 2011, Palestinians living in Syria crossed the border into the Occupied Territory of the Golan Heights to protest their continued oppression. The raw material of the work is amateur YouTube footage, captured on camera-phones, of people walking and chanting with banners and flags. Bamieh, however, has digitally manipulated the footage to isolate the protesters’ movements. Like tiny characters in a computer game, their outlines are cropped and placed in a white expanse; they exist as jumbles of pixels, jerking across the screen. By removing the land on which they walk, Bamieh’s figures march snake-like into a void. Without explicit territorial transgression, how does their resistance retain meaning? The artist’s erasure of landscape highlights the inherently arbitrary nature of the border, and yet also amputates the charged environment of the rally, decontextualising the dissent. In this way, Bamieh intimates the bind in which Palestinian identity and agency finds itself caught, between international standards of power and personal passivity.

The Young Artist of the Year Award
Fresh Palestinian Talent in London

©Mirna Bamieh, This Mined Land of Ours

Jumana Manna’s first-prize piece, A Sketch of Manners, offers a subtle, comic portrait of a historic aspect of Palestinian identity. Having come across the biography of Alfred Roch, a Palestinian urbanite who threw European-inspired pierrot parties in 1920s Palestine, Manna created a film around an archival image from one of Roch’s soirees. A semi-grand, dusty house lays still, a man curled on a sofa, breathing softly. Here he is in the bath, wiping thick white makeup from his face, before reapplying it. Both gestures are caught in a small round mirror; the paint has the sticky texture of gesso. Guests drift in. A formal voice offers historical commentary. Everyone gathers into a living portrait, to restage the archival photograph. Actors stand statue-like as the camera pans over their faces; puppets in full costume, anticipating performance.

A curious concept underwrites Manna’s work. She states that, in this on-going project, she is interested in exploring the similarities between Palestine and Los Angeles. The two are interwoven overtly through narrative (a guest of Roch’s party will end up in Hollywood later in life), but the places seem also implicitly connected through performance. Los Angeles, homeland of cinema, constitutes a surreal space in the popular imagination – made up of cliché, film fragments and nebulous associations with glamour. This Los Angeles does not exist as a geographical space, but as an imaginative one. In a not dissimilar way, Palestine today is characterised by liminality – lacking international recognition, denied full geographical physicality, living significantly in the exilic imagination. The film’s culmination in a tableau vivant feels palimpsestic: a theatrical-photograph-within-cinema. Manna’s work thus uses media to complicate the interstice between history and the contemporary. In honouring ‘the last masquerade in Palestine’, she revives an explicitly theatrical historical narrative in order to trouble the performed nature of the Palestinian state in the present. The imagined-space of Los Angeles broadens her conceptual reach, and the embrace of eccentricity and humour offers an unusual, beguiling approach to these questions.

Manna’s intermingling of biography and space brings us back to Bamieh’s piece, in which Palestine exists in the transgressive movement of its people, not in the tangible rub of its soil. The gesture of protest is highlighted – elevated, even – in the work. And yet in this flattened, pixelated, decontextualized form Bamieh forces us to question the impact of its energy and emotion. At its end the film cuts to a single figure in close-up. Lacking surface to give sense to his movements, the screen is filled briefly with one man’s fitful steps. It is this last shot that gives the work greatest poignancy. Embodying the liminal status of so many Palestinians in exile, caught between the active and the passive, he is a digital jumble caught in a private dance: the product of an endless stumble into blinding whiteness.


Rachel Dedman

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