An Interview with Basma Alsharif and Tirtza Even by Susan Mamoun

Posted by | Jessica Bardsley | Posted on | March 30, 2012

Basma Alsharif, The Story of Milk and Honey (2011)

Feburary 9, 2012

Susan Mamoun in conversation with Basma Alsharif and Tirtza Even on the occasion of the screening “We Began by Measuring Distance,” a program of works reflecting on home and distance by women from or connected to Palestine, curated by Tirtza Even.

Susan: Where were you born and where are your parents from?

Basma: In Kuwait. Both of my parents are Palestinian. My mother is from Gaza and my father from Tulkarem in the West Bank. They met in Alexandria Egypt where they were both in Medical School at the university there.

Susan: And you went to school here in Illinois; have you shown work here at the Gene Siskel Film Center or in Chicago before?

Basma: Yes, I went to UIC. I’ve shown at a Palestine film festival here and, while in grad school, I showed at the Chicago Filmmakers. I’ve actually had limited experience showing in Chicago.

Susan: How do you connect yourself to Palestine? What is the connection there for you?

Basma: Another Palestinian artist and I have talked about this a lot. It’s that you don’t really have to make the connection, it’s already there, even if we’re making work that’s not directly related to Palestine or the cause. Even if the work is not necessarily political, it inevitably contextualizes our work, which can often be problematic but also is a kind of interesting challenge. I’m hesitant to call my own work political, but I know that it is.

Susan: And why would you say you’re hesitant to call it political?

Basma: Because I approach the subject matter aesthetically and structurally, so the political content is described by its form. I never feel like I can accurately describe the political content, but I can describe the structural and aesthetic very easily. I try really hard not to state things or inform, or to be factual or historical. It’s more about asking questions and seeing how things read–and how we relate to these things–whether or not we do or don’t come from political backgrounds.

Susan: So for tonight’s program, since your films are being shown with other Palestinian filmmakers, how does your work fit in with the rest of the works?

Basma: I personally know a couple of the others in the program. When Tirtza and I initially met in the fall, a lot of our discussion was how the framework for such a program would function as a vantage point for these works. I emailed Jumana [Jumana Emil Abboud] and asked her what she thought about being labeled as a female and a Palestinian. And she said that she didn’t think of gender playing a large role in her work. I think that’s what makes this program interesting because gender is not a significant factor in the way we define our work, at least as far as I know, and this grouping of works/artists together reveals things that are perhaps neither political nor gender-related and what originally brought the works together for the program becomes an afterthought.

Basma to Tirtza: I think the programming for tonight’s show is interesting because all of the films shown tonight deal with big ideas–female, Palestine–and you’re Israeli. It just shows that all of these categories are nothing but categories, you group them and then push that group aside and you have something completely different being revealed, which is really great. It speaks a lot about the region not being black and white, which is how it is often treated.

Tirtza to Basma: The fact that I’m Israeli, did that make you participating mean one thing or another?

Basma: It definitely made me curious. I feel like it’s something that can’t be ignored and this is something that I deal with constantly, always being politicized: having to decide whether I am Palestinian or American and where I stand on certain issues when this is not necessarily something I am even interested in with my work or personally.

Tirtza: I feel the same way. I’m invested in this history and all the problems because I’m from there. But I don’t wear that hat. But does that none-the-less mean that it is more risky or provocative for you to be a part of the screening tonight?

Basma: No, not at all. I’ve recently started collaborating with an Israeli artist. She’s enough conflicted with her own identity that it is interesting to be in conversation with her. Collaborating with her has already posed problems on my side. There are many who’ve implied that I will lose friends and colleagues if I continue with this project. It’s a sensitive issue but for me the only way to make sense of any of it is to attempt to understand these things relatively and personally. I don’t see art as a place for revolution necessarily, I see it as a place that creates dialogue and allows for experimentation. I totally respect why others would have an issue with this kind of collaboration and understand it completely but the challenge of figuring out how to do this is far more interesting to me because it could potentially totally fail.

Susan: How does “home” and “distance from home” inform your work?

Basma: Home has always been a measure of displacement for me, which is now something I recognize in the places I live in and visit. It’s something that I’m constantly looking at: one’s relationship to surroundings and how one’s identity, opinions, morals, etc. are formed as a result of this down to how one navigates a city. Are you tied to the nation you’re from and if you’re not- what does that mean? These things are becoming more and more important today I think. My generation has seen major shifts as a result of globalization, I think this has shifted how we relate to the idea of home as an ideological relationship as well as a physical one. More and more people are moving around and living in different places now. For me, living in more than one place at a time is a very significant experience because it ends up being about the opposite of freedom and forces me to be more aware of my relationship to place and the people in these places.

Tirtza: All the works tonight deal with displacement in various ways. In Mona’s [Mona Hatoum] work, she shows how she was displaced from certain social norms.

Tirtza to Basma [concerning the different reactions to the work between the East and the West]: So when you show your work in the East, you can almost remove the more narrow or overt frame and look at it in relation to other, more open, contexts?

Basma: I’ve experienced really different perceptions of my work depending on where it is shown and in what context, sometimes the work comes off as obvious or even kitschy while in different circumstances it is seen as subtle and poetic. I was working on The Story of Milk and Honey in Lebanon and when I showed it to some friends there, they thought it was too bold–not in a good way. I like the fact that depending on where you are from or where you are seeing this, which languages you speak, the work takes on different meanings.

Susan: How does history inform your work? Do certain facts or events start your projects off and then you go from there?

Basma: It’s never a single idea; it’s a combination of many ideas and how they come together. So it could be a combination of a particular historical event, a song, a set of words, etc., and then a question of how to alter the way these things are read or understood.
I work by building a kind of archive and I don’t know why or what I’m using as far as images, sounds, text–I’m constantly compiling without any clear intent. And then it’s about how all of these things come together in the end. So, it’s about history being a kind of material, and how it relates to a color or sound or afterimage.

Susan: There is a male voice-over in your piece [We Began By Measuring Distance]. Why did you decide to use a male voice-over?

Basma: I like using voice as a kind of material as I do with anything else–like sound or image. Even the content that I deal with is used as a physical material. The voice-over is chosen because of the quality of the voice, which becomes another layer of information.

Tirtza to Basma: But I think the male voice gives an authority that makes the tension more acute in your work.

Basma: Right, that’s true. But he is speaking in an Egyptian dialect. I hired him based on the quality of his voice and because I knew that he wasn’t educated, so speaking classical Arabic was going to be difficult for him and would affect the pace that he would read the script at: with a degree of uncertainty. He also has a really rich, deep, male voice that I found incredibly soothing to listen to. I knew that if you understood Arabic you would have access to how the voice over as information and that if you didn’t understand Arabic the voice would serve as a kind of pleasant background sound that paces the speed of the subtitles and alternately have an aesthetic experience of the sound whereas those who understood the voiceover would have an aesthetic experience of the subtitles, and that the line distinguishing these two experiences would also be blurred.

Susan: Is your work geared towards a certain audience?

Basma: Both pieces reference the Middle East but I try to remove it from a specific place, so it can’t be located in just the East or just the West. Depending on your knowledge, you’ll understand it differently. If you understand Arabic, you’ll understand something different than someone who understands English alone. It’s all about what kind of information you know in order to unpack all the different layers.

Basma [regarding the Arab Spring]: I feel that with everything happening in the region, my work is becoming dated. My work talks about the region in an isolated way, but everything that’s happening in Egypt and Syria shifts everything out of perspective because it makes the situation in Palestine and Israel seem less relevant somehow, even though it remains just as extremely relevant.

Tirtza: Part of the problem is that all the other news is overwhelming, but it doesn’t diminish the gravity of the conflict in Palestine. The polarity isn’t so simple anymore, now it’s not just Israel and Palestine.

Susan: Is there anything you want to discuss after the screening tonight during the Q&A?

Basma: My work is about asking questions and seeing how people perceive information in different ways. So I am interested to see how this audience will see mine as well as the other works in this program.

Tirtza: [In regard to Chicago viewers watching the screenings] It might be very foreign to them, it’s not a burning issue here. They will have a distance that might generate different insights.

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