Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 29th January 2016

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Jumana Manna’s first solo UK exhibition

Manna’s combination of unique sculptures and 70-minute feature film at her first solo UK exhibition is designed to show that music and radio waves “transcend Palestine’s artificial borders”.


Fascinating abstractions combining the vulgar and the precious.

Fascinating abstractions combining the vulgar and the precious.

London - Palestinian artist Jumana Manna’s combination of unique sculptures and a 70-minute feature film – A magical substance flows into me – at her first solo UK exhibition was designed to show that music and radio waves “transcend Palestine’s artificial borders”.

East London’s spacious Chisenhale Gallery was an ideal venue for Manna’s multimedia exhibition. Visitors watched the film about the musical traditions of diverse communities in and around Jerusalem, while seated on trellis-like wooden steps, which formed part of the sculptural installation of hollow plaster forms resembling discarded, vessel-like artefacts.

The inspiration for the film came from the broadcasts of Robert Lachmann mentioned in the memoirs of a Palestinian musician, Wasif Jawhariyyeh, which Manna read while researching another project on Jerusalem and Los Angeles as two “promised lands”.

“Lachmann wanted Arabic music to remain pure and free from Western influence. Jawhariyyeh thought that the only way to preserve tradition was to write it down and that notation could be a tool for progress,” Manna said.

Lachmann, a German Jew who arrived in Palestine from Berlin in 1935, following the Nazis’ rise to power, wanted to set up an archive and department of Oriental Music in Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

In the 1930s, he made a series of Oriental Music radio broadcasts for the Palestine Broadcasting Service established under the British Mandate, featuring field recordings of musical performances by the “Oriental groups” in Palestine, comprising both Palestinians and Eastern Jews.

Manna revisited the communities – including Kurdish, Moroccan and Yemenite Jews, Samaritans, members of urban and rural Palestinian communities, Bedouins and Coptic Christians – that Lachmann had studied, replaying his recordings and making recordings of her own.

Revisiting Lachmann’s project provided a methodology to explore the complex and fragmented history of her hometown. “I chose not to emphasise borders, in terms of what is Palestinian territory and what is Israel given that Lachmann’s radio programme took place before the partition of Palestine,” Manna said in an interview posted on the Chisenhale website.

“I thought of Lachmann’s programme as radio waves spilling out across a territory. In a sense, when making the film, I physically followed those waves. I followed the path of Lachmann’s research, performing the radio waves as I travelled to the different parts of the country bringing the recordings on my smart phone to where these groups live – even more segregated today than before.”

Her encounters with musicians are interspersed with scenes staged in her family home in East Jerusalem. By positioning herself alongside the musicians, Manna includes her own subjectivity within the historical narratives she portrays.

“In this way, the structure of the work expresses both the loss of the political space – historical Palestine – but also my effort to retrieve it,” she said in the posted interview. “This paradigm of partition, the two-state solution that is still the prevalent one for Israel and Palestine, is no longer realistic or appropriate… Part of the decision to ignore borders in the film is also part of my interest in a long-term, one-state solution.”

“Lachmann realised that from a scholarly perspective, the distinction between Arab and Jew, which was already ubiquitous in Jerusalem at that time, was false and detrimental to the study of Oriental music,” Manna said in other comments on the gallery website.

The installations, examples of Modernist architecture, on display in conjunction with the film are fascinating abstractions combining the vulgar and the precious and leaving their meaning and interpretation to the viewer.

Manna said the title of the film was influenced by a chapter in Michael Taussig’s book What Color is Sacred? The chapter is called A beautiful blue substance flows into me and describes the experience of two philosophers under the effect of a Colombian hallucinogenic brew.

“Both colour and sound move through time and are similarly at once authentic and deceitful,” Manna said in the Chisenhale interview. “They are mediums that connect to the vibratory quality of being and mediums that encounter us, in a way that doesn’t always give us the possibility to control their entry into our bodies and our psyche.

“Historically, the scales of Oriental music were based upon a cosmological system, with consideration of seasons and times of the day. The scales are thought to have a real impact on our bodies and human temperaments.”

Manna, who lives in Berlin and Jerusalem, received the A.M. Qattan Foundation’s Young Palestinian Artist Award in 2012. Her selected exhibitions include Aftercinema, Beirut Art Centre; Doubt of the Stage Prompter, Edit-Russ Haus für Medienkunst, Germany (2015); Menace of Origins, Sculpture Center, New York (2014); The Goodness Regime, Kunsthall Oslo; and Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin (both 2013).