The Body Has Memory

This short video was part of the Huntington Arts Council’s juried exhibition about the exploration of the human body. It won best in show. It’s finally public. Pls watch.

In her book, Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine says: “Yes, and the body has memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight.”

Biological memory can be understood as a cellular response to a transient stimulus, a response that becomes lasting if chemical changes ensue. Body memory can be transmitted genetically via DNA and helps explain generational trauma.

This poem is about the multiformity of the human body and its many contexts. Some of the visual language in the text is inspired by a viewing of “52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone” at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, in Connecticut. Hence the reference to detached limbs and strewn body parts, but also the need to reconstitute the female body, a powerful site for resistance and healing.

This video is closed captioned. Thank you Rajesh Barnabas, Mariko Yamada, Cloria Sutton, and Rochester City School District students <3

my review: agua by pina bausch

so finally, here is my review of pina bausch’s “agua,” which i just saw at BAM. apart from the beauty of her dance language, which i find mesmerizing, there are some issues with this work.

created during a residency in brazil in 2001, agua is supposed to be a refraction of the “landscapes, sounds, movements, and music she encountered into a color-saturated fantasy.”

yet the film projections that act as backdrop to and inspiration for bausch’s choreographed dances are too facile, too superficial. thundering waterfalls, swaying palm trees, jaguars and monkeys in the jungle, along with gigantic amazonian plants and exotic birds all come together to exoticize without the benefit of a more complex, political encounter.

even more problematic is footage of young men from the favelas lost in intense drumming and nude indigenous people swimming seamlessly in rivers, used as background or wallpaper. it reminded me of the colonial gaze that’s evident throughout “out of africa,” where faraway landscapes merge with the flora, fauna, and othered bodies of african people to create a vivid contrast against which white european stories can unfurl.

although bausch’s dancers are famously diverse (ethnically but also in terms of height, body type, and skill set), her work is still quintessentially european and so is her gaze in this piece.

the scenes she creates embody stereotypical touristy images of white people on vacation in a tropical country: people in swimsuits with funny beach towels lounging at a resort, hanging out, getting drunk, having a water fight (in a country where potable water is scarce), having sex outdoors, and dancing the night away.

as thomas hahn has written in his excellent critique, « Agua » : Pina, le Brésil et le réel:

Les images de nature paradisiaque, de tourisme de plaisance, d’ivresse en lounge, et autres fêtes d’une classe aisée dans Agua révèlent aujourd’hui à quel point cette pièce passe à côté de la réalité du pays. Agua est l’œuvre la plus superficielle de Pina Bausch. En 2001 on a pu apercevoir, avec beaucoup de bonne volonté, un semblant d’ironie ? Aujourd‘hui, cela ne tient plus.

pina bausch: a new dance language

pina bausch created a new dance language. u can see its syntax in the fractured phrases and speech elements she configured in her work, held together by a logical structure, with extensions, explorations, and repetitions. modern dance itself developed against the codified tenets of ballet and its male-dominated companies, but pina pushed the genre further, combining dance with theatre, art and music, and completely transforming the european dance landscape.

pina has been criticized for the acts of brutality and humiliation found in her work, and for creating a “theatre of dejection” that embraces the pornography of pain. i can see it both ways.

i understand that she’s reflecting the world we live in by creating rigid gender binaries – women in colorful slip dresses, long hair flowing wildly, and men in suits or slacks with bare torsos. since gender consists of repeated, performative acts (according to judith butler) and depends on “fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and discursive means,” bausch is simply establishing the acts that mark someone as “man” or “woman.” many times, the men are aggressive, manipulative, menacing, or mere props to climb on or be carried by.

the women are softer, non-confrontational but strong and athletic. many scenes have the intensity of ritual sacrifice. sometimes the women and men indulge in a dance of mechanical symbiosis, like pulleys and belts that fit and turn together.

there is a “hysterical” woman who rages and screams and wants what’s impossible. many of these ideas (including sexual harassment, frustration and madness) were present in agua, even if they were presented as humorous rather than troubling. there is always a layer of discomfort underneath.

but i can also see how recycling misogyny/violence without presenting an alternative world, can seem to normalize, magnify, and even promote it. more about agua specifically in next post.

tanztheater wuppertal in brooklyn

i’ve been a fan of pina bausch since 2011, when wim wenders’ brilliant film came out, which included interviews with her dancers and performances of her best known, strongest works. what a treat then to be able to see ‘agua’ at brooklyn academy of music yesterday. i found a lone seat, center mezzanine, in the first row, and probably had one of the best views in the entire opera house.
bausch’s work is not always easy to experience, but this is supposed to be her lightest, most joyful, lush and visually spectacular work. more about that later, but i still cannot believe i got to see tanztheater wuppertal dancers live on stage, in brooklyn

my review: a woman under the influence

‘a woman under the influence’ is absolute genius. the writing and direction by john cassavetes is seamless, compacted, organic. gena rowlands, who is at the center of the film, is fearless and original – an erratic woman on the verge of a mental breakdown. she finds an equal partner in peter falk who delivers a surprising performance as her violent, temperamental husband. he misreads her unfailingly, and all he can do when he gets frustrated is to yell or strike. she on the other hand, resorts to over the top, neurotic behavior. it’s as if they lack the social vocabulary to express themselves and communicate with each other.

it’s also that mental health was seen quite differently in the 60s and 70s. same time frame as ‘one flew over the cuckoo’s nest’ when electroshock therapy was common.

the kids are incredible. their scenes with rowlands beautiful, filled with immense tenderness and intimacy.

i was shocked to find out later that the film is 2 hr 26 min long. one is so caught up in the chaos onscreen, that time flies. as it often does in real life.

badshahi mosque

badshahi mosque, lahore fort, and lunch at cooco’s den in old lahore with my bacha. the mosque is so beautiful it moved me to tears. commissioned by mughal emperor aurangzeb. built between 1671 and 1673. majestic. grand. but in constant dialogue with its surroundings. every arch a different framing of the mosque and courtyard. the proportions perfection. the artistic taste level divine. breathtaking beauty.

adania shibli in lahore

back at the lahore literary festival. wonderful to hear palestinian writer adania shibli talk about her stunning book, minor detail. not sure about the panel – she was paired with william sieghart, a british entrepreneur, publisher and philanthropist, who kept talking about the ‘conflict’ and how dialogue can solve all problems.

so glad adania addressed the use of language and her issues with the word conflict. it’s colonialism, she said. she explained how language can become complicit in a crime, how it can disappear it, and that there is no dearth of dialogue between palestinians and israelis – there is constant contact but it’s a certain kind of interaction, based on power differentials, where palestinians are forced to confront and challenge power structures day in, day out.

adania spoke about her love for the arabic language, how playful, free, and open it is. how important it is to palestinians. ‘adab’ in arabic means both literature and ethics. she also spoke about translation and how it’s essential, even in english, to create a scarred language with a memory of arabic.

finally, she talked a lot about narration and silences. the impossibility of narrating. the linear structure (beginning, middle, end) is not accessible to palestinians, therefore she can only imitate coherence. it’s better to accept silence rather than put words in someone’s mouth. we come to language from two sides of silence – both the reader and writer engage with language in silence.

my favorite session so far.

lahore literary festival

landed at the lahore literary festival today (thx for letting me know saira). went to alhamra to listen to daisy rockwell whose translation of “tomb of sand” by geetanjali shree won the booker prize, historian corinne lefèvre whose book “consolidating empire: power and elites in jahangir’s india (1605–1627)” resets the history of jahangir’s rule, mohsin hamid who talked about “the last white man” (a book i have read), and finally nobel laureate abdulrazak gurnah who discussed his work in: across centuries and continents, colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.

obviously, i was thrilled by a discussion on decolonizing literature and history, and so i wanted to ask mr gurnah about writing in english and the complications of producing decolonial literature in an imperial language. i referenced ngugi wa thiong’o’s “decolonizing the mind” and how he describes the disconnect between a colonized person’s mind and body – the mind functions in the colonial language while the body remains stuck in its native tongue. as colonized people ourselves, here in south asia, i was hoping to engage in an interesting discussion, but mr gurnah became defensive. perhaps he thought this was a personal attack on his work. he didn’t really address my question, saying simply that he didn’t agree with me or with ngugi who was welcome to do his own thing. i was hoping for more nuance and engagement.

anyway, later in the day i was approached by a woman who didn’t seem to be pakistani. she recognized me and said my question truly spoke to her and her husband, esp the idea of the mind-body split. they are french-speaking algerians and understand what it means to think and write in the language of the colonizer. there was an immediate connection between us. we talked about the algerian war of independence and frantz fanon. finally.

mohsin hamid being interviewed

alserkal avenue in dubai

i found my groove in dubai today. it’s called alserkal avenue. located in al quoz, halfway between old and new dubai, this contemporary art hub was created in 2008 by housing art spaces, galleries, internet cafes, and artist studios in existing warehouses and factory buildings. incidentally, i started with an exhibition that purports to lift the voices of kashmiri women thru photography and testimonies. it was awful. from the get-go. more about that later.

i want to share what i loved first: ‘for you mother’ by palestinian artist rula halawani. based on conversations with her mother about palestine and her words, “even when we die and leave this world, our spirits remain, floating in the skies of our country,” halawani has produced these beautifully haunted and haunting, large-scale photomontages, a “marriage between archival images of palestinian families before the 1948 mass diaspora and palestinian landscapes captured thru her lens.”
halawani is also interested in examining how palestinian landscapes have changed — the people and natural environment that disappeared and are still disappearing.

decision to leave

on the flight from JFK to dubai, i saw ‘decision to leave.’ beautifully crafted by park chan-wook, it’s a slippery film, hard to pin down or categorize. it’s romance, mystery, crime, and detective story. it’s about obsessions, repetitions, imaginings, watching and being watched, recordings, replays, metaphors, poetry, death, murder, desire, and fantasy. it slides back and forth in time and space, even in language and translation (chinese and korean). an evasive, fatalistic, seductive film that takes its time (2 hours 18 min). makes me long for richer, more challenging and inventive filmmaking and storytelling than what we see celebrated in the US.

A grant for my project

I am beyond thrilled to share that I have been awarded a NYSCA (New York State Council on the Arts) grant for my project “Return to Sender: Women of Color in Colonial Postcards and the Politics of Representation.” This project will involve a short film, an art exhibition, artist talks, and a community discussion led by three women of color. The film premiere will be at Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, NY, on Oct 1st this year.

There are so many amazing people to thank: first of all, Patty Eljaiek at Huntington Arts Council, Inc. without whose encouragement I wouldn’t have applied for this grant and whose consistent support was invaluable; Emily Dowd, Kieran Johnson and everyone at @huntingtonarts; Stephanie Gotard at @huntingtonhistoricalsociety who is my community partner (and my biggest cheerleader); Dylan Toombs who shot the footage for the film with dazzling artistry; Boris Sapozhnikov for additional cinematography; the beautiful and talented Fatimah Arshad, Urvashi Bhattacharya, and Sumayia Islam who are the stars of the film; Rajesh Barnabas and Darien Lamen who will be helping with postproduction; Nia Adams, Madeline Churney, and Farhana Islam for agreeing to lead a post-screening discussion; Jeremy Dennis for being open to a screening at Ma’s House & BIPOC Art Studio; and finally, Dylan Skolnik and René Bouchard for a film premiere and discussion at Cinema Arts Centre in spite of many complications.

Also trying to get a student intern from Stony Brook’s Women’s and Gender Studies dept to curate the art exhibition — thank you to the faculty there.

I will write more about the film, but for now I want to thank all my people — everyone who has worked with me, believed in me, and inspired me. Love you all!

This project is made possible with funds from the Statewide Community Regrant Program, a regrant program of the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature and administered by The Huntington Arts Council, Inc.