Hetain Patel: making sense of the weird in the 2019 Jarman Award

Still from HD video The Jump (2016). Copyright Hetain Patel , courtesy of the artist

I am chuffed to see that three of the nominated artists for the Jarman Award 2019 have already been highlighted for praise in previous mialondonblog posts, accessible through the tags Imran Perretta, Rehana Zaman and Mikhail Karikis below. The other three MI artists are new to me so I was delighted to make the final day of screening at the Whitechapel to see what had impressed the selection panel.

Hetain Patel’s admirably concise film, The Jump (2016) is funny, gripping and unsettling. It is weird yet ultimately satisfying because its elements are few but highly concentrated. We seem to be in a homely sitting room faced with a group of relatives arranged in rows just before the shutter clicks. It is the classic pose of the Victorian photographic portrait. The range of facial expressions among this varied bunch is immediately captivating. We can see that some are uneasy about the experience while others are delighted. I fancy I would be in the former category, wishing I was somewhere else. If only I possessed a superpower to teleport me out of there! Is this what the artist is thinking?

We are observing a slo-mo film, not a still. The initial giveaway is the toddler fidgeting in his mother’s lap. Over the next six minutes we gradually pan left to reveal a lean crouching figure in a Spiderman outfit whose anonymity, unlike the others, is guaranteed by his spidermask. (Shouldn’t it be the toddler in costume?) His prolonged graceful, athletic leap in front of the group is met with interest but not shock. As a Hollywood style climax our comic book hero might be expected to shoot out through the window but instead comes to rest on the carpet.

I really rated this film. Some may be asking, why did he win? Not so obviously political or as personal as others on the shortlist, it has the advantage of a brave restriction of imagery which expands the options for our own responses and interpretations. The simplicity of the surreal image of an ur-Spiderman interrupting a family photo-session gives room for the art to penetrate our unconscious. Like all superhero representations, it triggers atavistic impulses of disguise, flight, escape and invincibility. But within the claustrophobic domestic setting we have to cope with a figure that is either a dangerous interloper or a madcap member of the group itself. Is he hoping to break out of the group to assert his individuality or to swoop in to help them? Patel’s film make so much sense of the tensions of family and group dynamics that we are all prone to.

Mikhail Karikis. Still from HD video, No Ordinary Protest (2018) courtesy of the artist

The Mikhail Karikis film, No Ordinary Protest (2018) highlights the place of children in the environmental debate and his signature collaborative method allows his subjects to control the form of the film. Hearing these seven year olds cogent views and seeing them transform their fears into a colourful and chilling masked mime is a real treat. Giving a voice to the unheard without patronising them is both an artistic and interpersonal skill which Karikis applies with great subtlety.

The two other nominated artists are represented by films that are packed with weird and striking images but whose significance seemed hazy. Both are inspired by other artworks, the ballet Giselle (Cecile.B. Evans) and a Gertrude Stein play (Beatrice Gibson). These had less resonance for me than Spiderman (a polite way of saying I have nil knowledge of either of the source artworks!) so that partly explains why they failed to connect in the same way.

Neither had a clear narrative which some excuse by describing them as dream-like. This seems to me to be a misnomer as dreams are not really that fragmentary; one image seems to morph with pretzel logic into the next. Dream symbolism is highly personal so its use in art seals meanings behind an impenetrable screen (unless like Freud you have the arrogance to attempt to interpret them for the patient). However, Beatrice Gibson’s Deux Soeurs Qui Ne Sont Pas Soeurs (2019)  had some memorable features including a torch singer accompanied by a haunting accordion. Why we saw so much of a poodle in an open-top car being dishevelled by the slipstream, I am still trying to fathom.

The Jarman Award has a great track record for talent spotting although I do not always agree with their decisions. However I cannot quibble with their choice of Hetain Patel as this year’s winner.

Rehana Zaman: subtle scrutiny of Muslim stereotypes

Rehana Zaman- Still from video  Tell me the story Of all these things (2016) courtesy of the artist

Icebergs, cooking and gendered creation myths; three tracks I was led down watching Tell me a story Of all these things, Rehana Zaman’s lively fifteen minute video work in what must be the tiniest gallery in London, Tenderpixel, last week. In this visually and conceptually cohesive work it was fun to experience the clever connections she forged between her three very different sources: found footage from the government’s Prevent e-learning package on radicalisation, interview footage of an engaging and self-aware Muslim woman, Farah, reflecting unself-consciously on her life while she cooks and a digital animation featuring an Eve archetype with no need for Adam, alone but vibrant in a burnt and scarred anti-Paradisial landscape.

Icebergs are scary not just because of the sinking of the Titanic. Many government campaigns have exploited the underwater cross-section  view of the treacherous unseen 90% of the iceberg to symbolise an amorphous menace. I remember scoffing at their appearance in the 1985 public health AIDS campaign when it was portrayed as an obscure disease that might decimate the population unless we were terrified into taking appropriate precautions. How an iceberg was meant to protect you against HIV infection I never worked out. In charge of sex education in a sixth form college at the time, I was struck by the irony that sex and death were being so closely aligned in teenagers’ mindsets. More recently icebergs have illustrated campaigns to highlight unreported domestic abuse. Particularly crass then that Prevent graphic designers use the iceberg trope in the online training to convey the difficulties of identifying the dangerous radicals in the population of ordinary people. Zaman selects a very memorable sequence which starts with a cartoon graphic of a bus with its roof ripped off like a tin can lid, a vivid image from the 2005 London jihadi bombings. A shard of wreckage in the foreground transforms into the iceberg of hidden threats that the teachers must be alert to. The term “Muslim” is never mentioned in the training as the avowed intention is to extend the definition of potential terrorists to include the far right. This striking transformation allows a confused subtext to leak out.

Zaman’s employer, Goldsmiths University of London, like all educational institutions, has a statutory duty to identify students at risk of being drawn into “extremist ideologies”. Aware of the controversy this expectation places on her, Zaman is rightly critical of this invidious subdivision of cultural groups. For the government the key divide is between those Muslims vulnerable to radicalization and those safe from it. But Zaman’s interviewee, Farah, points to other divisions important to her: Bangladeshi as opposed to Pakistani, dark-skinned compared to light-skinned. This contrast reappears in the black and brown shades in both the skin tones and the landscape of Zaman’s digital world. Is this a reference to a “melting pot” ideology?

God’s moulding of Man from the soil of the earth is common to the creation myths from nearly every culture anthropologists have studied. Christianity and Islam simply adopted a much earlier widespread belief system. Zaman’s reimagined digital Garden of Eden contains a lone woman who blends and re-emerges from the arid ground. As well as commenting on this almost universal justification for patriarchy, perhaps her heroine’s mottled skin tone critiques the Islamic teaching that different races were created from different coloured clays.

Cooking can be relaxing and creative and this activity allows Farah’s frank testimony to flow. Whether this is scripted or not is irrelevant as it is conveyed with an authenticity that keeps you gripped. The gist of her thoughts is that stereotypes of Muslim women are damaging and she will not allow herself to be boxed in; she has a younger boyfriend and demands space to pursue her interests including skiing.

Earlier blogposts have highlighted Goldsmiths graduates as visually innovative moving image artists with a sharp and subtle political edge.  So the good news is that as a tutor there Zaman continues to inspire the next generation.