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 media: 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 digitally animated 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 campaign when AIDS was seen as an obscure disease that might decimate the population unless they 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 the 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 widely define potential terrorists to include far right groups. 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”. Regardless of the controversy of the role this places her in, it becomes clear that as an artist she feels a duty to scrutinise this approach to subdividing cultural groups. For the government the key divide is between those Muslims vulnerable to radicalization and those safe from it. But Farah points out the divisions  important to her: Bangladeshi as opposed to Pakistani, dark-skinned compared to light-skinned. This colour contrast is reflected in the amalgam of different black and brown shades in the skin tones and landscape of Zaman’s digital world perhaps suggesting that a melting pot ideology is what we need.

God’s forming of the first 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.

The closest I get to this kind of pottery is cooking and the relaxation and creativity it engenders is invaluable. Zaman employs it as context for allowing 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 are damaging but 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 the high esteem I hold Goldsmiths for their ability  to produce visually innovative moving image artists with a sharp and subtle political edge like Zaman.  So it is good to know that as a tutor there she is inspiring the next generation.