Sitdown is an Alchemy Film & Arts series of artist interviews, published to complement its exhibitions, residencies, and other events. You can find all other Sitdown entries here.
PLEASE NOTE: This conversation was first commissioned and published 2021. The programme of Emily Jacir’s films to which the conversation refers is free to stream again on this website until Thursday 16 November 2023.
Emily Jacir is an artist and filmmaker primarily concerned with transformation, questions of translation, resistance and silenced historical narratives. Her work investigates personal and collective movement through public space and its implications on the physical and social experience of transmediterranean space and time. Jacir has built a complex and compelling oeuvre through a diverse range of media and methodologies. She is the recipient of several awards, and is the Founding Director of Dar Yusuf Nasri Jacir for Art and Research in Bethlehem.
A programme of Emilys films is part of the eleventh edition of Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival, available on demand, 29 April – 3 May.
Listen to a conversation between artist in focus Emily Jacir and writer and translator Yasmine Seale, whose commissioned essay in response to the programme will be published soon.
Yasmine Seale (YS): Hi, Emily.
Emily Jacir (EJ): Hello Yasmine.
YS: How are you doing?
EJ: I’m good. How are you?
YS: I’m all right. I’m very excited to be talking with you.
YS: This is the first time we’ve ever spoken. Although I feel like I’ve been having a kind of conversation with you, since I first encountered your work in 2015. That was the retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, which I think was your first solo exhibition in the UK. Is that right?
EJ: Yeah, it’s the first solo exhibition in the UK. I mean, I had had solo exhibitions at Anthony Reynolds Gallery, the small shows, but this was definitely the first big retrospective in the UK.
YS: Yeah, it was it really was a retrospective wasn’t it. It was such a monument that was curated by Omar Kholeif, I think.
EJ: Yes, exactly.
YS: And it was just a revelation to me. I loved just the sheer range of the work. I loved its playfulness, and its seriousness. I loved its ambition and its modesty at the same time. I found it really compelling. And I remember also, in that show, feeling a kind of relief. It’s sometimes a bit frustrating to see the way the work of Arab writers and artists, and maybe especially Palestinian artists, the way they get presented as a kind of commentary on the question of Palestine, or, you know, as a series of kind of political statements about where they come from. And I love the way that show kind of, refused that or insisted on the complexity of your practice and the breadth of your interests. And the way your work is always making connections across and around the Mediterranean, particularly in that show.
EJ: Thank you. I can also add to that, that it was also a relief to me, and a breath of fresh air when I read what you wrote when that show was up, because I felt that also that feeling that I was in a conversation with you and that you had understood things in the exhibition, and it was such a pleasure to read your writing.
YS: That’s wonderful to hear. Thank you. I mean, we’re speaking as part of this film festival, where you have three films being shown that I, if people are not familiar with the work, with your work in general, I thought it was important to place your films within this incredibly rich and varied body of work which I’m really curious about. I mean, I, I think that you began as a painter and a sculptor. Is that right?
EJ: Yes, I began as a painter with a strong focus also in ceramics. And I received my Masters in painting with ceramics always being side-by-side with the painting as something that I was working on. So yes, a very strong foundation in painting.
YS: Wonderful. Is that something you still do?
EJ: It is something I still do. And it’s a medium I love and it also informs the way I make other things. I really feel like the way, for example, ‘letter to a friend’, when I think about the ways in which I edited it, I would say that was very much informed also from my painting practice.
YS: Could you say more about that?
EJ: Well in two ways. One would be the materiality of the film itself and the archives, and constructing the layers of those things together, which was very much what was going on in my paintings. When I look back at those paintings I was making in the early 90s. They were so much about language, and about time, and languages, translation and also a conversation that comes through through the various layers of the painting. So I do feel like that does very much link to the film works.
YS: It’s really fascinating to hear that because these, these three films being shown are also different from each other, as well as being part of a very, very varied practice they are, they almost feel like they belong to different cinematic genres.
EJ: I think they do. And they were actually all made, like, 10 years apart. Yeah, you know, there’s a decade apart between each one. I mean, the first… Yeah, 20 years, this is a span of 20 years, not 30.
YS: Yeah, I mean, Lydda Airport is a piece of yours that I love that feels like it’s so witty in the way it plays with techniques and motifs from the history of cinema. I think of it almost as a kind of very experimental period drama. You know, five minutes long, silent, but, you know, it has this very 1930s kind of atmosphere. And letter to a friend being kind of on the other end of that, having this much more kind of DIY feel to it. And it’s kind of fascinating to hear you link that to painting because of course, although it does have this documentary aspect, it’s also all of your work however documentary, however, research-based is always… has this other aspect as well is, is within a kind of art history, or is kind of playing with aesthetic motifs as well. And it made me curious about what, what film is for you, you know. What, what place you feel it has within your work, whether it’s something you’ve always done, whether your approach to it has changed over time, whatever you’d like to say about that.
EJ: That’s an interesting question in the sense that I studied in schools which were quite poor in the south of the United States. I didn’t have such opportunities as studying film, because obviously, that’s a very expensive medium for a school to have on their campus. But film was very important to me. It was a very important influence on my paintings. And I could actually probably do a lecture showing films I was watching at the time of making a particular bodies of work of painting. I have always had a very strong affinity with film, but never had had the opportunity to use film. I also had had no exposure to contemporary art until long after my MFA. Because I was, you know, I was in Memphis, Tennessee at that time.
So film was always there, it was always very important to me. And it was always a strong influence and something that I pursued. And it’s not possible to talk about it without linking it to photography, which was also, has always been an essential element of my practice. For my MFA show, actually, the body of work that I had created then was based on a series of photographs that I had taken in Bethlehem, during The First Intifada about the graffiti on the walls. And being covered up by the Israeli army and the ensuing conversation, what I saw as a conversation happening in public space, by the, the, the going back out and rewriting on the walls and that being covered up, etc, etc.
Those photographs inspired the entire body of work for my MFA show. And along with those, those photographs, those paintings sorry, those paintings, also incorporated a letter my mother had written to her best friend after the 1967 War, in which the car she was in coming from Oman back to Bethlehem was attacked by the Israeli army and crushed by a tank. And she wrote this letter, and that letter became an important element of those painting works. And I used excerpts from her letter on the bottom of those paintings, and I saw them functioning as subtitles. The way the subtitles… subtitles never actually match what’s happening on the screen. There’s always this kind of disconnect. So there’s always been a kind of filmic language in my work even before I had had the opportunity to actually work with video and film.
YS: It’s wonderful to hear you describe that that process of adding the letter which is a real object to the painting, because I feel like that approach, you find that in other aspects of your work, that kind of collage almost aspect, or the work becomes a kind of sack into which you can keep adding material.
EJ: Yeah, that’s such a great way to put it, exactly. That’s especially a letter to a friend…
YS: Like a basket.
EJ: Yeah, like a basket, but also Lydda Airport. Because Lydda Airport was, I had, I was doing this extensive research on the transportation networks in Palestine, and in particularly the airports. And I was obsessed with Lydda Airport when Salim Tamari told me the story about his father told to go to wait for Amelia Earhart with this bouquet. And that just was such a strong element for me in inspiring the story of that piece.
YS: Which you then embody, you then have embody, this waiting, this person you’ve just been told a story about. And that’s something you have returned to I think, a few times – this idea of putting your body in the… almost in the place of someone else, or it almost feels to me like ventriloquism, like enacting this thing that someone else is no longer there to enact or cannot themselves be present for. But I wanted to… you’ve mentioned a couple of times, as a series of photographs or a research project, there’s often this sense that, that the work happens in the form of series or in the form of projects that that grow. And that might, there’s a sense that they might keep growing forever. There’s this kind of open ended quality.
And one of the strange things that happened to me after I, I saw your show in London in 2015. That the piece I wrote about it ended with a few lines about the One Thousand and One Nights, because the nights were part of the show, they were part of a piece in that show Material for a Film, which is your ongoing, I think, project to document the life of Wael Zuaiter, a Palestinian translator, who was living in Rome, when he was assassinated by Mossad in ’72. At the time he was killed, he was working on a translation of the One Thousand and One Nights into Italian and one of the bullets actually lodged inside this book that he was carrying on him, which is an image I haven’t been able to forget and have thought about many times. And you have a photograph of it in your piece. What’s happened since is that I have been commissioned to produce a new translation of One Thousand and One Nights into English, which I’ve now been working on for several years…
YS: …and which feels like a similarly open-ended kind of project because the Nights is the story that has a beginning but doesn’t really have an end, and could just keep going. And I myself feel sometimes like this work might never end.
EJ: This is incredible!
YS: It could keep going you know that it shall be a book without a back cover or something, you know, so that you can keep adding to it. And that’s a really, I’m really compelled by that aspect of your work. This sense that the kind of self enclosed nature of the work of art kind of comes under pressure, because there’s always more to say, there’s always more to add. This process of gathering evidence, gathering information could go on forever.
EJ: There’s that, but, and there’s also, I mean, going back to Lydda Airport for a second because there’s one thing you mentioned earlier about the three films that I think it’s important to, to say which is Lydda Airport was never intended to be screened as a film in a theatre. It was very much constructed to be part of an installation, which also has a sculptural component. And the installation is constructed to be so the viewer is walking in a in a circular motion and that film is always on a loop.
YS: Is the sculpture a model of the airport?
EJ: Yes, the sculpture is a model I made of the airport. And it’s behind the screen actually. So this this kind of continual looping of time but also of the viewer walking through the space is essential to that piece, which is very different than what letter to a friend is doing. So the way I use film in my work really also depends on the piece because this work, I would, I would compare it to something like Entry Denied, which also has very specific construction of the screen to be, you know what I mean, it’s very, it’s very, it’s, you know, so I think that’s an essential component of the piece as well, which maybe explains the diverse approach and what you’re seeing when you see the three films.
YS: And it makes it even more complex because the viewer then is put in the same position as you’re in as this figure who’s waiting on an airfield. As we walk around the model of the airport, we are also somehow embodying this experience, rather than simply watching it.
EJ: Yeah, exactly. That’s an important aspect of the work too, that the works are somehow completed by the viewer.
YS: Mm hmm. Yeah, that’s a that’s an interesting way of thinking about this. Another aspect of your work, what I see is almost a kind of tension within your work, which I find really interesting between, if you like, explaining, and not explaining, or works that leave a lot of space for the viewer, works that allow for a lot of ambivalence, or a lot of different interpretations, and works like letter to a friend, which are much more… I don’t think there’s a single claim in that film that isn’t backed up with evidence, photographs, references to scholarship, reports, you know, legislation. It’s this kind of incredibly forensic argument you’re mounting. And it has to be because you are mounting this case. And I think, I wonder if it’s particularly the case, in a work to do with Palestine, where the story is always in danger of being rewritten, or of being erased. And so you have to continue to tell the story and to kind of armour plate it in a way with facts and evidence. And I wonder if it would be difficult to make a work that was more ambivalent, that left more room open? Whether you see that as a kind of tension or frustration.
EJ: I, I don’t see it as a tension because I think Lydda Airport, which is about Palestine, and the disappearing network of transportation, and, and all these other stories, Hannibal does do that. The other link I would make between those two films, specifically, is the relationship of my body to the film. I think an important aspect of letter to a friend is that it’s, it’s really a… Yes, I’m mounting all this evidence. But I’m sort of doing it cheekily. Because the real evidence is actually the evidence, the subjective evidence from my body. As I walk in… you never see me my body, but you see me counting how long it takes to reach the walls, the steps in the house, or the importance of the sound of my voice inside the house. If voice had a volume that could be measured, what would that be? What does the volume of the house do to my voice?
Those were all ways of measuring that I was thinking about when I was making that film. But also I was thinking about the house as a body, a physical body, so that you’re almost looking at the street through the eyes of the house. So I was kind of making a direct relationship with my own physical body because you never actually see the house. It’s always looking out at the house at all these things on the street. But I don’t, you know, it would depend on which works and what time period of my life it was to answer that question, because every single work is coming from such a particular period politically, but also personally.
You know, one thing about the show at the Whitechapel, which you saw, which was in 2015. When they asked me to mount that show I really pushed hard to have the show be only about work that I had done in Europe, because I felt that that was a very important aspect of my practice that’s often overlooked. And, and in particularly, in particular the influence of Italy in my work, which is a place I’ve been living. I went to high school there since I was 14. I mean Rome is such an integral part of who I am. So I really wanted that show to shift the conversation around my work. And I felt that was really important. So that focus on Europe was also a way to allow other conversations to take place instead of focusing just on what I’m doing in Palestine or more activist work I undertook in the US.
YS: Right, right. And that way of involving your body, the way you were talking about it, I feel is also part of this, this kind of honesty, I think, in your work of always showing where you stand, you know, from from where you’re speaking. You’re never kind of speaking from on high, or making a kind of grand claim about something. We’re always being shown how things are at eye level. I think you make this point in letter to a friend, you know that it’s always… it looks a bit different on the ground from whatever you might see from the map. There’s this kind of sense of what is it, what it is actually to experience something in an embodied way. And Emily, I’m wondering if you’d like to talk about what you’re working on at the moment.
EJ: Yes, I am working on a couple of different projects as best that I can given the current situation. But essentially, I recently just completed a new public work, which is going to be permanent in Pietrapertosa, which is in the Basilicata region of Italy.
YS: How fabulous.
EJ: It’s actually wonderful. And I’m really excited that we’re… it was on view at the Merz Foundation. And now we’re about to mount it in the village, which essentially, in the, in its most simplistic description is about hospitality. But basically, it’s the… in this village, which was founded by Arabs, the dialect that they speak incorporates a lot of Arabic words, and a lot of Arabic food in the local cuisine. And I was walking in the Arabic Quarter, Old Quarter of the, of the village called Arabata. When I was researching and these elderly people saw me walking around, they didn’t know who I was, you know, but they they saw me and they just saw me in their quarter. And they said, ‘Ahlan wa Sahlan’.
And they asked me if I would like to have some tea, and I was just shocked out of my mind to hear that then, and I asked them, ‘What, what, what does this mean?’ Like, what does that mean for them saying that? And they said, ‘Oh, well, this is, hospitality is very important for us, because part of our heritage’, and they translated it to me in English, it sounds better in Italian, but in English, it would be like: ‘You have come amongst our people, and your life is secure’, which is so beautiful. So I’m working on that, finishing the final installation there on site and working on a new film, and of course, directing and running Dar Jacir, which is the Art Centre in Bethlehem. So kind of have juggling all of this while being in lockdown.
YS: I know it’s been a difficult year, you’ve been very isolated the past year. Dar Jacir I should say is the film, whose portrait you paint in one of the films being shown at the festival, letter to a friend. It’s such a fantastic, fascinating study of this place, and its history.
EJ: And I hope to host you there one day.
YS: I would love that, more than anything. Emily, thank you so much for talking.
EJ: Thank you. Yes…
YS: A pleasure.
EJ: Thank you for this wonderful conversation, really, thank you.
YS: The joy for me. Take care.
EJ: You too.
Yasmine Seale is a British-Syrian writer whose reviews and essays on literature, art, myth, archaeology and film have appeared in Harper’s, Times Literary Supplement, the Nation, Apollo, 4Columns, frieze, and the London Review of Books blog. She reviewed Emily Jacir’s 2015 Whitechapel Gallery exhibition for the Nation, and has translated many texts, classical and contemporary, from the Arabic and French. Translations, poetry and visual art have appeared in Poetry Review, Asymptote, Rialto, Seedings, Partisan Hotel, Wasafiri, Two Lines, and anthologies with Comma and Saqi presses. She is the winner of the 2020 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize for Poetry.