I am a 34-year-old French-Algerian woman. I arrived in the UK 10 years
ago to study English. I graduated at the University of Plymouth in 2003
with a BA in Media Arts (film, video and photography). I am obviously flattered
to have been chosen as one of the black digital artists to be commissioned
by Kuumba and The Watershed in Bristol. Writer Jenny Davis and painter Gloria
Ojulari Sule were also selected to produce a work of art using digital technology
in their own practice.
(The selection panel met on Thursday 20 May . The panel consisted of Tanuja Amarasuriya, Live Art & Dance Co-ordinator, Arnolfini; Yasser Rashid, creative technologist and interactive media artist; and Simon Poulter, co-founder and director of PVA Medialab) www.calling.org/pages/participation.php
The works make use of our African heritage and reflect on how digital technology is to contribute in the making of our individual projects and disciplines.
The Portraits Diary
Although I do not start my work with an agenda, I tend to be political. I believe we need stories and images, if only our own, to make sense of and hold onto our freedom. Meanwhile the purpose of this diary is to document and reflect on this residency in all manners and forms (i.e. visually, ethically, collaboratively, etc.). Besides, I need to get some intellectual pleasure out of my work. Theory and practice feed from one another while experimentation and final work are not always distinguishable.
Filmmakers and video artists are quickly reminded in their practice that the grammar of film is rich but the complexity of the human soul is even richer. Most of us are familiar with the language of film; this is why artists often battle with the medium in order to cast a new light on the issue at hand. Digital technology has been praised by manufacturers and practitioners alike for its wide access to the public and good value, but like the still camera its use is mostly confined to personal diaries and mementos. In the hands of the few, video is also a tool for surveillance. The presence of CCTV in the high street adds to the furtive look of the passer-by, the sudden recognition of an acquaintance, the welcoming face of a friend at a rendezvous. One needs not to be close or intimate to participate in another’s individual sense of worth and decency. Paradoxically, the ubiquity of images has made the look a rare occurrence for the exercise of looking is so intrinsic and open to the world.
Although its production values are generally lower than film, digital video
retains the same preoccupations with sound, cinematography and editing.
With interactive media, many of the components that were once integral to
the work, form instead a menu to enhance our viewing experience. Portraits
is a series of short films combining distinct layers of words, images and
sounds of what is essentially a mosaic of people.
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I have met a lot of people from different origins. While we were foreigners often speaking English as a second language to communicate, we were also strangers from different cultures. I could list these countries; most I have never set foot in, yet their presence in our conversations was undeniably there, whether it be individual accents or a certain ir/reverence for English customs. With each encounter, I was reminded that I too had a culture.
I find the word “culture” troublesome. I once attended a module entitled “Cultural Practice” at The University of Greenwich. Far from associating the notion of practicality with a set of beliefs, I feared that my so-called culture had been so far a matter of contingency. I did not rebel against my parents’ customs, language or faith. Besides, my mother and my father were in many ways European and understood the importance of integration. My confusion started with a threat made by a sibling; I was not to speak Arabic, the language of my grandmother with whom I could not communicate without the presence of my mother as a translator. From a very young age, I was snatched of a voice, censored and threatened. Today, I live in England and speak English, a foreign language that has become as familiar as my mother tongue, French. I know for sure that the English voice in me cannot translate to the self that expresses itself more readily in French without any loss and vice-et-versa. There is no denying, I will never be whole.
I am incomplete – a sentiment often romanticised by those who rely
too much on their roots at the expense of the grafts and choices made by
individuals; while others convert every new addition into a lack, convinced
that to be singular (French or Algerian) is to be whole. Mrs Atkinson was
born in Algeria in a pied-noirs family (French settlers) and grew up in
South West France. As a young woman, she travelled to England and married
an Englishman. Mrs Atkinson has been living in England for almost 30 years
and still speaks with a French accent. So do I. There are no individuals
by default in society because cultures evolve regardless of political manifestos,
trade practices and open universities. Why else would there be so much debate
about “our” borders?
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I interviewed Mrs Atkinson in her flat in London. She talked to me about Amigos, a charity organisation helping refugees to understand their status and deal with everyday life problems such as using the new currency, finding a place of worship, a doctor, etc. She also reminisced about her own feelings of loneliness and alienation during her early days in Britain. She described it as still palpable and her reason for volunteering with Amigos. I could relate since I too was once an aupair drinking coffee alone in a strange city.
I used to eavesdrop on conversations in crowds and wonder if anyone suspected my true nationality for as long as I did not speak I was one among others. How naïve. A few years ago, I sat in a classroom at the University of Greenwich with three white male students when our tutor (British, white, young, male) made sexist and racist remarks – to whom but me? – I was so stunned; it took me a year to write a letter of complaint. Naturally, I had left by then. Angry and half way through the course, I had made up my mind not to return. Ironically, one of my classmates present at the lecture confided in me later on how he thought such comments were out of order, how it had felt wrong. “Wrong” was exactly how I’d felt for about two hours in that room, I, the only attending black, female, non-British, non-Christian person there to take offence. I eventually confronted the tutor; his response was as follows: he had made the same lecture before and so far no one had accused him of sexism or racism – and jeopardise his or her degree? Also, I had failed to appreciate his sense of humour – how lame. I remember very little of what he said. What really mattered was how helpless I’d become in that classroom and how I had to will myself to remain rational in the face of outright irrationality. The staff were so intent on avoiding the issue I finally withdrew my complaint and it acted only as a serious warning.
This sudden shift in my identity, from student to minority, had been a
shock. So imbued with the notion of Freedom are we that to construe identity
as a “democratic” choice seems almost (a) right. We speak of
the creation of identity, the renewal of origins and beliefs as if we were
blocks of clay. To what extent is that true? I wonder. I was once thought
to be of Asian origin by a white person in England because of the colour
of my skin while Kuumba and The Watershed questioned my blackness and African
heritage from the start. The term “French-Algerian” was something
of a mystery to me for a long time. Like any girl, I supposed, to be called
“a woman” for the first time was both foreseeable yet unexpected.
The hierarchy of signs with which I present myself, changes according to
my interlocutor, my onlooker, my reader; I, on the other hand, have very
few means to direct the exchange and the circumstances of what I mean to
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The diary is a fermenting dialogue that may never arrive at its conclusion. Anyone, short of a translation, can respond to it on the message board while search engines discriminate on the basis of a few words, not colour or nationality, not even fluency of language. My editor, Folake Shoga, has asked me to trust the process, to write without so much revising, to be transparent about my mistakes and look at the clouds of my thoughts with wonder instead of being so wary. She talked about being “exposed” and “vulnerable” referring to the artists in residence and their online diaries. Although I have been unusually autobiographical – a necessary detour in this case, a gut feeling to which I am not interested to give the pretence of intellectual justification – I tend to subtract myself whilst looking at the work. Besides, I am not so deluded as to think that I will discover the value(s) of my life through words or images – mere poultice over panic attacks.
Needless to say trust is a very important issue in filmmaking. I have been begging for trust to the persons I wish to film for a few months to no avail. The portraits require abandonment and resilience. As a filmmaker, I look at the camera with distrust too. How can I persuade camera-shy individuals to be filmed knowing that the value of the film may not reside in the intent of the participants? Somehow, I feel certain that it doesn’t, that the film should be slightly fazed, that the diary should attempt to salvage it. Therefore, the work of the reader/spectator is to reconcile what is said with what is meant while I strive to reverse these two repelling poles.
My proposal for “Calling:” stemmed from my previous work, Feminine,
a short film. A young woman (Nicola Johnson) ties up her hair in front of
the camera. This simple task is of course prosaic, unmoving, mostly brushed
off awareness. Film transforms it into a – female – ritual,
a pause. She walks in and out of the frame, a painterly figure, while the
fine grain of her skin absorbs the light. We worked tirelessly until the
camera and I became invisible, till the acting was driven out of Nicola
and her slender figure acquired its own fluidity. I looked for femaleness
rather than prescribed femininity. Incidentally, she used her favourite
hair clip, a gift from a relative (I forget who). I realised later how short
scenes could capture enough of a person to be called portraits.
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In my first film, Veiled Woman, I tackle the issue of the veil in Islam. My intention is not to polarise the argument but to isolate it from any partis pris, somewhat of an impossible task when it occurs to me that I am perhaps recreating my relationship with Islam through film. Once removed from land, culture, language and history yet affiliated through family ties, ethnicity and religion, I stand behind the camera looking into the familiar and strange. Admittedly, covering up should be as foreign to me as foot binding since I have never covered myself in the name of religion or been told to do so. Born and brought up in secular France, educated in public schools, l’école laïc, what is my heritage indeed? Does the memory of my mother donning the veil on holiday in Algeria constitute a sufficient claim to an entire culture? Since, “unwittingly” the veil has become “a sign of difference”, East and West. (Professor Nadje S. Al-Ali, The Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter)
I remember my mother standing at the gate of my grandmother’s house
in Oran. As I watched my aunts help her to cover herself, I knew my mother’s
life had been severed from mine. No doubt, I would get accustomed to it
by growing up myself, I thought. Place, language and traditions were irrelevant,
only time mattered lest people speculated on a few “Home” truths.
A French gipsy woman once stated at a market stall in front of my mother
that we, Arabs, slept on a bag of straw? My mother’s scowl was enough
to make the woman include her own family in that remark and turn it into
a bad pleasantry. In France, my mother’s social life was minimal.
At my grandmother’s, she was hardly left alone. I suspect my mother
had forgot how to wrap herself in the local customs, so to speak, and was
suddenly experiencing the distance and familiarity the years had put between
her, her youth and her country.
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I’d never thought it would be so difficult to find a Muslim woman willing to be filmed putting on her veil perhaps because finding my subject was somewhat obvious? Fathema Syeda worked in a high street shop behind the till. “That’s funny,” she said, “my family and I have just been interviewed by a television channel as part of a programme on minorities in small communities.” So the idea of being interviewed did not frighten her. That’s a good start, I thought. But when I explained my idea to her, her eyes slightly narrowed. “I don’t know,” she said. I decided a straightforward interview would put her at ease in front of the camera and help me with the central piece later. After all, this was going to be a collaborative project.
On the day of filming, I took a taxi to her home after work happy to get on with the practical stuff instead of writing the diary. I’d checked the equipment the night before; the camera battery was full and I had a spare mini DV and batteries for the microphone. The room was small but comfortable. I unpacked the equipment. A small part was missing from the tripod. I’d left it on a rental camera at The Phoenix Media Centre. I feared this was an omen for the entire project. It might have a leg to stand on now but it will eventually reveal what is most lacking. Already Folake had troubled me by praising the slightly unfinished quality of the diaries. What did she mean by that? I substituted the tripod for a pile of books and advised Fathema to pause for a moment or so before answering my questions for editing purposes. Despite being a confident teenager, Fathema’s voice was feeble. “I started wearing the veil when I was… It was when I was eleven. It was earlier than I needed to but I wanted to wear it because all my sisters were wearing it and, I felt a little left out really.”
Afterwards, she asked to watch the interview, all 13 minutes. She seemed satisfied with the content while I worried about the sound. “What about filming you covering up? Have you thought about it?” She had indeed and her answer was NO. Her refusal to participate any more in the project was a huge disappointment because in my mind, the film had always been a follow-up to the interview featuring the same woman.
A few weeks later, I stopped a woman in the street wearing a hijab. Again, she was a teenager, a 19-year-old girl from Kuwait. Her name was Noha. Her appearance was less modest, trendier than Fathema’s but her assurance was equal. Soon after, she called me to meet her and her mother at a café. Both were eager to tell me about Islam. We all had tea and coffee. Noha was coolly smoking. She looked at me then pointed at her hat. “This is modern hijab.” I noticed her mother’s jewellery, nail polish, sunglasses and the scarf fashionably tied up around her neck. There were highlights in her hair. No, her mother did not cover and Noha’s decision to do so was entirely hers, I learnt. They were very kind. I remember a French woman once told me she did not like Arabs for their lack of deference and instant familiarity.
I understood Noha might agree to be filmed putting on her veil. Her mother had little objection but Noha’s father was away and I had to wait for his return for a full authorisation. I gave them a sample of my work and a recording of Panorama about four women in the UK “Covering up” (BBC1, 13th June 2004, 10.30 pm.); I was hoping to convey the seriousness of the project. As it happened, I was not to film Noha and it took me a couple of months to realise this. Noha was about to go to college in Plymouth and commute every day from Exeter. The month of fast, Ramadan, was approaching. Lack of time and exhaustion were not the only problems though; her father would finally object to her daughter being on the Net in what he understood was a political film. This time, I didn’t even have a recording to fall back on and, I wouldn’t write about my non-existent work in my diary; it just seemed pointless.
For most of the residency, I lived around the corner from the Mosque in Exeter. One weekend, I talked to a few women there. Resolute and hopeful in my search, I couldn’t help but think that one of them would grant me more than a passing interest. I introduced myself, The Watershed and Kuumba. I patiently explained the aim of the project. The group was made of mature and younger women. All of them flinched at the thought of being filmed without their veil. I insisted that digital technology offered sufficient protection and privacy, that any unwanted footage would be erased and remain unseen by the public except for the parties concerned (me and the veiled woman). A woman volunteered to bring up the issue the following week without my presence and contact me soon after.
In the meantime, I met with Dr. Nadje S. Al-Ali who clarified the term “veil” for me at The Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in Exeter. She then extended our discussion by inviting me to a debate on the subject with her students. I was also introduced to her colleague Anissa Daoudi. Anissa described Algeria and the consequences of living outside one’s native country for too long. She suggested most immigrants stick to traditions out of nostalgia and pride often against the modernisation of their own country of origin while these very same traditions were generally perceived as a reaction against the country of destination and lack of integration.
When The Institute e-mailed my request for a practising Muslim woman who
wears the veil to its graduate and postgraduate students, no one came forth
and, when the Mosque finally gave me the contact details of a woman who
might help, many weeks had passed since my visit. The woman in question
was in Exeter for the day at her in-laws’. She gave me one hour to
explain and complete the filming for which I had not brought the necessary
equipment. Once again, I went home empty-handed.
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Obviously, I needed to rethink the whole project. Still, I refused to believe that the work of the past few months had been all for nothing. Had I given myself a mission impossible to complete? – To film a Muslim woman covering herself. – Or, was I being too forceful to consider her position?
These veiled women are not only an embarrassing enigma for the photographer but an outright attack upon him. It must be believed that the feminine gaze that filters through the veil is a gaze of a particular kind: concentrated by the tiny orifice for the eye, this womanly gaze is a little like the eye of the camera, like the photographic lens that takes aim at everything.
The photographer makes no mistake about it: he knows this gaze well; it resembles his own when it is extended by the dark chamber of the viewfinder. Thrust in the presence of a veiled woman, the photographer feels photographed; having himself become an object-to-be-seen, he loses initiative: he is dispossessed of his own gaze.
Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem, University of Minnesota, 1986, p.14
This excerpt leapt at me for its confrontational stance. I thought of the Algerian women who were made to remove their veil to be photographed by the French authorities in front of a white wall in the street, more recently the photographers who rushed to shoot women in Kabul removing their burgha. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and of course 9/11 have brought Islam to the fore and, talks of conflicts and fundamentalism have replaced the liberal discourse of multiculturalism. The climate of fear and disapproval after the killing of the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh and the burning of a Muslim school in Amsterdam come to mind. I was adamant that my project could only further understanding.
When Negar moved in the house, it did not occur to me to ask her to play the part. Negar was born in Iran and brought up in Sweden. Persian, Muslim and Swedish, Negar only wears the veil when on holiday in Iran. One could argue that I’d reneged on the principles of my proposal to The Watershed and Kuumba by not filming a “fully” practising Muslim woman as perceived by most media. Not so. If at first, it felt as if we were playing with our mother’s dress, it soon dawned on me that Negar was performing what she’d learnt and chose not to accept for herself. That choice did not make the act of covering oneself any less legitimate for others who walk the streets of Exeter wearing “the scarf”, “the hijab”, “the veil” or a hat like Noha. Art often consists of unlearning and considering what has been acquiesced with so quickly.
I was left with over three hours of footage and a lot of conversation with people in passing. Representation seemed impossible. I’d spoken with people from Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, Jordan, Sudan, Algeria and Kuwait among other countries. I wanted to preserve the individuality and richness of these voices. They needn’t concur. Actually, they seemed to open questions by seemingly answering one another. In the end, most of the recording referred to experience and perception rather than matters of religion per se.
Curiosity initiated this project. I wanted to find out what it would be like to be a filmmaker under an Islamist regime. I sometimes question the value of freedom. Does it make us, artists, more productive, responsible and self-aware? Obviously, I had to adopt a new mind-set and censor any images showing the woman’s hair or neck. The first images have a slight tinge of blue. The transparency of the veil is very seductive. The ripples are dramatic in their movement. These images descend from the erotic postcards selling Orientalism to the West a century ago. They are also suggestive of the glossy fashion magazine. The central image of the triptych, a mere reflection of her face in the mirror, is grainy and black and white. The presence of the camera is neither acknowledged with her look nor seen by the audience. This still picture is inspired by news items, which look for outward signs of difference, insert images of covered women shot at random in the streets of Europe. The veil has become another shade of skin. The last part of the film is more naturalistic capturing the daily ritual of covering oneself and the simplicity of the gesture much like Feminine showing a woman tying up her hair.
The most difficult part of this residency was to engage any sort of dialogue
with a community who often wishes to be invisible but obviously cannot be
because of the veil. This modest garment has been attracting a lot of attention
from the media, governments and scholars. Before focusing on the veiled
woman, I believe they must ponder their own relationship with her as I have
been through my African heritage.
- September 29
- October 24
- December 2
- February 2005
- April 05: Entire revised text