Cinematic Borderlands

Detail of a still from Rosalind Nashashibi's film Vivian's Garden, 2017, 30 minutes.

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In Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel To the Lighthouse, which concerns the Ramsay family and their holidays on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, the narrative advances through a complex patchwork of the perspectives and inner monologues of different characters, whose thoughts and emotions are often expressed in relation to objects. Mrs. Ramsay’s knitting, for instance, is a recurrent motif symbolizing feminine creativity, stability, and harmony. The rhythmic action of her needles mirrors her inner thoughts, which repeat with slight variations.

To the Lighthouse was important to British-Palestinian artist Rosalind Nashashibi as a teenager in the late 1980s, and it remains so today. “What I see in those streams of consciousness is what I would like to do with my films,” she explains, describing her attempt to “depict an inner moment of understanding or changed inner relationship, the way that Virginia Woolf does.” 1 Nashashibi’s lyrical, slow-paced film sequences, shot with a 16mm camera, emphasize the sensory over the linguistic, so that what little dialogue she includes is merely one component in richly layered, nonlinear works.

The comparison with Woolf feels particularly apt in the case of Nashashibi’s recent film Vivian’s Garden (2017), which was one of two she presented at Documenta 14 and was also exhibited at the 2017 Turner Prize show in Hull, northern England, following her nomination for that award. The film focuses on the relationship between the Swiss-Austrian artist Vivian Suter and her nonagenarian mother, Elisabeth Wild, also an artist, within the fragile idyll they have created in their sprawling jungle home in Panajachel, Guatemala, where they are cared for by local Mayan workers and surrounded by numerous dogs for protection.

With its intimate portrait of women in a domestic setting, Vivian’s Garden shares clear affinities with To the Lighthouse, which is dominated by Mrs. Ramsay, a nurturing mother of eight, and a spinster painter named Lily Briscoe. More striking, however, is the way the relationships between Suter and her mother, and between the artists and their helpers, are frequently expressed through their interactions with the objects around them.

One scene in Nashashibi’s film shows a worker climbing onto the roof and arranging banana fronds over the skylight in the ceiling of Vivian’s room as she rests, bathing it in verdant, tranquil light. In the refuge they have inhabited for the past thirty years, the women depend upon these helpers, who cook, clean, and attend them and seem to be the only people they see regularly besides each other.

Though Suter and Wild rarely travel, in part because Wild is wheelchair-bound, the film depicts preparations for a journey. In one scene, Suter folds and unfolds clothes as she consults her mother about what she should pack for her trip to Greece, where she is participating in Documenta. The moment underscores the tenderness of their relationship as they chat and laugh; Suter cries at the thought of leaving her mother in this environment replete with latent danger from a violent neighbor, local narcos, hurricanes, floods, and snakes. She reaches for a tissue and giggles as she pulls out a pair of underwear instead.

“These very emotional and complex relationships and fears are not far away from the relationship with the clean pair of underpants,” Nashashibi explains. “And being in bed and having the light softened by banana leaves because you’re ill or you need sleep . . . is like the touch of a lover or a mother. It’s attention to the body as an integral part of who you are, not just the brain, the soul, the intelligence, the sexuality. It’s the whole body, the whole house. It’s another way of thinking about the relationship between people and things being really rather deep.”

Suter paints bold abstract forms, often in her garden amid the encroaching vegetation, while her mother creates fantastical collages from glossy magazines. Both participated in Documenta, where Nashashibi also presented abstract paintings in addition to her films. Having pursued film since studying painting at Sheffield Hallam University, she took up her brushes again four years ago, inspired by a series of paintings created by another Swiss artist, Renée Levi, in response to one of Nashashibi’s films. “It was quite humbling,” she says, “and made me think that the language of painting is not really so separate as we tend to think.”

Nashashibi felt especially invested in Vivian’s Garden because of her friendship with the artists and her own recent move to an apartment above her mother’s in London. However, her in-depth observation of family relationships can also shed light on larger geopolitical structures. In Hreash House (2004), which is set in the home of an extended Palestinian family in Israel during Ramadan, the camera lingers on stacks of empty plastic chairs waiting to be used by numerous guests during the evening breaking of the fast, or on toys littering the many stairwells that link the different households of the growing clan.

Her scrutiny of the details that ordinarily go unnoticed—such as the vast quantities of food prepared by the many women in different rooms—offers discreet clues about the relationships and customs within the Hreash House; the family swells as male members marry and welcome their wives into the home, while the female offspring must leave to join a new family when they wed. The artist’s attention to the confined spaces both occupied by and devoid of people creates pauses for contemplation of the restrictive existence of the building’s residents, especially the women.

One way Nashashibi peels back the surface layers is through her use of the cinematic close-up to reveal “the soul of things,” to quote film critic and writer Béla Balázs. “The close-up shows the speechless face and fate of the dumb objects that live with you in your room and whose fate is bound up with your own.” 2 In her film Eyeballing (2005), for instance, Nashashibi juxtaposes close-up shots of anthropomorphic faces embedded in the fabric of the city with footage of New York policemen in uniform loitering between shifts outside the police station. She finds physiognomies in two pearl earrings and a necklace displayed in a shopfront, in three-point plug sockets, in a building’s facade with two windows and a ripped awning. One might read this as a sign of the omnipresent surveillance of citizens by the oppressive civil and state security apparatus post-9/11 or of the city’s mute defiance of the police’s swaggering glances. Ultimately, who is looking at whom?

Besides the relation of objects to people, another theme in Nashashibi’s work is the way humans organize themselves into communities and institutions, whether a patriarchal extended family or a police force, and how they navigate within these structures. She homes in on social groupings that are often single-sex and isolated by function or circumstance. Her film Bachelor Machines I (2007), for instance, is confined to the close-knit, all-male community on board a cargo ship. Such environments, where normal social conventions are generally altered, serve as a petri dish for observing the alternative standards of behavior and the new hierarchies that develop.

Nashashibi’s film Electrical Gaza (2015), commissioned by London’s Imperial War Museum, takes this idea to extremes, presenting the community of Gaza, which has been cut off from the rest of the world by an Israeli and Egyptian blockade. Nashashibi spent four years attempting to gain entry to the enclave, prompting her to question whether she needed to go in person or could somehow make the film from afar. “In the end it was something as simple as solidarity, and how I work, which is so much to do with these tangible experiences. I had to go,” she says. The sound of her own breathing—part sigh, part gasp—punctuates the film to underscore her physical presence in the zone, where trauma permeates the air like an unhealthy electrical charge, hence the title of her film.

Despite sensational news coverage of the territory, little happens in Electrical Gaza; yet, it exerts a hypnotic power. The film begins at the chaotic Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza strip and features scenes of daily life, such as boys washing horses, men singing resistance songs in a living room, a Hamas Youth march, and women and children swimming clothed in the Mediterranean Sea. The soundtrack is composed of field recordings made in Gaza interspersed with periods of silence, Nashashibi’s breathing, and three pieces of music—ambient trance at the border, an electronic piece during a car ride through bustling streets, and a clamorous, urgent operatic passage by Benjamin Britten near the end.

Nashashibi further complicates the “reality” she shows by weaving animation into her footage. What at first appear to be fairytale scenes of a kite flying over a cityscape or children resting under the shade of a tree morph into actual shots of Gaza. “Using animation felt like a way to express the position of a child,” she told me, “which is not having political power or presence or agency, only the feeling of things happening without your being able to monitor or control them.” Being in Gaza seemed to her like being under “enchantment.” Near the end of the film, an ominous black spot grows over a street scene, presaging Israel’s impending war on Gaza in the summer of 2014. This flipping between modes of presentation has a function similar to Woolf’s multiple perspectival shifts; it is the artist’s attempt to translate the surreal experience of being in Gaza, for which cinematic observation alone is inadequate.

Nashashibi’s extended family has experience with conflict—her father is Palestinian and mother, Northern Irish—and she has recently recognized the autobiographical aspects of her seemingly observational films. This has perhaps allowed her to embrace a more personal approach, as seen in Vivian’s Garden (her first film about people to whom she is attached) and Electrical Gaza (in which her breath intrudes). While her earlier films were more concerned with archetypes such as policemen or male crew members on a cargo ship, all of these works reflect political realities. She is careful, however, to eschew didacticism. “I’m looking to achieve this space around me when I’m working . . . where you’re actually receptive enough that you’re not defending a position with the work, that you’re actually able to show things and see things and understand them better,” she says.

To this end, Nashashibi takes on difficult subjects with ambiguous political valences. One strand of her practice entails collaboration with the British artist Lucy Skaer as Nashashibi/Skaer and involves a more knowing and critical form of observation, often using another artist’s work as a point of departure. Their 2017 film Why Are You Angry?, which was shown at Documenta and takes its title from a late Gauguin painting, is the result of the artists’ recent journey to Tahiti to examine the nineteenth-century French painter’s representation of women. They restaged Gauguin’s paintings using nude Indigenous models and created tableaux vivants of women, sporting colorful wraps and flowers in their hair, in front yards full of dogs and chickens.

The strange conceit exposes the artists to accusations of perpetuating Gauguin’s exoticization of women of color in the Pacific. One might ask if this is so different from the way women in cinema are—in the words of feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey—“simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.”3

The artists do not try to resolve the problem of Western exoticization of non-Western women’s bodies or offer redemption, which would undoubtedly feel forced. “It’s a ruthless experiment in a way,” admits Nashashibi, but the film’s engagement with difficult questions, in particular about representing the female body, was part of the appeal for the duo. “We were drawn to Gauguin’s paintings fully aware of those problems but interested in the ambivalence we felt reflected back on Gauguin, that the women in those paintings seemed to be shooting back to him,” she says. Their project ponders how myths are made, the exploitative nature of film, and the slippages that occur when two British women artists follow in Gauguin’s footsteps more than a century later.

Numerous scenes disrupt Gauguin’s original perspective, such as shots of young girls snapping pictures of each other with their phones—active agents in their own self-representation—or an instance when one of the models waves at the camera while relaxing away from the set, her quizzical expression seeming to ask why she is being filmed at that moment. A further distancing effect is produced by the film’s frequent jumps between grainy black-and-white and color footage in a play on time past and present.

Such elastic treatment of time runs through much of Nashashibi’s work. In the confined environments of Electrical Gaza, Hreash House, or Vivian’s Garden, time seems to be suspended. In the last, Vivian and her mother inhabit an Edenic sanctuary in which their relationship, their art, their home, and their garden are in perfect equilibrium. One is reminded of the artist Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse, who achieves harmony in her painting just at the novel’s end. “One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy.”