Opening in January 2021, the 5th edition of SI’s annual Architecture and Design Series, entitled The Space Between Classrooms, is curated by artist Alia Farid (b. 1985; lives and works in Kuwait and Puerto Rico). The exhibition will feature newly commissioned as well as existing works that respond to educational infrastructures, interrogate prescribed learning, and seek to redraw parameters of knowledge.
In advance of the exhibition, Swiss Institute is delighted to share Alia Farid’s video At the Time of the Ebb, which is hosted on the online cinema, Vdrome, until May 12th. The video is accompanied by an interview between Farid and Claire Tancons. To watch the video, please click here.
Alia Farid in conversation with Claire Tancons
A trance ritual on an island, a festival between desert and sea, fishermen in animal masks, a camel chewing trash, and a young man dancing to a love song. The sequences of Alia Farid’s mythopoetic meandering, At the Time of the Ebb, do little to elucidate the context of the film but much to delineate the essayistic aesthetics of an artist versed in the complexities of subjective self-determination from the margins of representation.
Claire Tancons: How much did your twin connection to the Caribbean and the Gulf impact your selection of Qeshm, a vast island in the Persian Gulf at the mouth of Iran, as the location of the film?
Alia Farid: I notice the same situation in the Caribbean and the Gulf, where the ties between adjacent communities that share cultures and whose histories are overlapped have been severed by dominant, modern politics. My interest in filming in Qeshm was motivated by an urge to move beyond the prescribed parameters of what it means to inhabit a place, to transcend national and ideological borders, and insist on a diversity of experiences of contemporary life.
I meet more Dominicans, Haitians, and other islanders in the US and Europe than in the Caribbean. Direct travel between the islands is restricted. Though geographically different, the situation in the Gulf vis-à-vis some of the Northern Arab states, Yemen, and Iran is the same. Qeshm is only an hour away from the easternmost tip of the Arabian Peninsula but getting there is not a streamlined process. I also chose Qeshm because I’m interested in how urbanization affects the aspiration of communities that are close enough to major cities to be influenced by them, but still far enough to continue living their own ways.
CT: Yes, the derelictious effects of rapid urbanization in rural societies are translated in the arresting sequence of the camel eating the cardboard of what seems to be a cigarette box.
AF: Right, and in the introduction of a plastic mask amongst the fishermen’s costumes, or––something I did not film––the contraband trade between Qeshm and Khasab [in Oman] in which goats are exchanged for certain technology that isn’t available in the local market because of US sanctions on Iran.
But going back to nature and what you saw in the camel-eating-cardboard sequence, it’s also like how qat—an endemic plant and stimulant that has been chewed by people in Yemen and Africa for centuries—is sold today in plastic bags that then get scattered everywhere. These pollutants are preceded by the misconception that progress is commensurate with processed and packaged goods.
CT: Now, did you also choose the period of Nowruz, the annual fishermen festival and new year celebration, following the same premise as that of the location of Qeshm? While the Caribbean is often associated with festivals, the Arab world isn’t, unless they are religious, which isn’t the case of Nowruz.
AF: The fishermen festival happens every year during the summer solstice. It involves members of the community dressing up and dancing in celebration of nature’s bounty. It’s called ‘Nowruz,’ but it’s not the same ‘Nowruz’ that marks the start of the Iranian new year. That Nowruz happens in the third week of March, during the spring equinox. I think the fishermen also refer to their celebration as ‘Nowruz’ because the word simply means ‘new day’ and since it’s held on the summer solstice, the day with the longest period of sunlight in the year, I suspect it’s probably some absorbed form of Zoroastrianism. The fishermen’s performance seems to be a confluence of ancient and more recent practices.
On this day, the fishermen stay on land and the whole village abstains from consuming anything from the sea. Instead of fishing, the fishermen praise the sea by dancing at its shores, performing what looks like a very antique ritual, creating silhouettes reminiscent of Sumerian or Elamite art. I find this resurgence of the past within the present invigorating, but at once I am saddened by its dwindling presence/visibility. In 1991, Qeshm was made a free trade zone with the introduction of foreign investment policies in Iran, and an eco-park was concurrently established on the island to encourage tourism. It was a wild idea, but I suppose the island is big enough to be both a petrochemical hub and an ecotourism destination. Anyway, efforts to boost tourism trivialized practices like the fishermen’s performances. You see it in Caribbean carnival as well, how pretend bureaucracy and heavy-handed sponsorship are detrimental to the authenticity of such practices.
CT: “Look for Me All Around You,” the platform I curated for Sharjah Biennial 14: Leaving the Echo Chamber and for which I commissioned what turned into At the Time of the Ebb, was very much premised on a connection between the Americas and Arabia, looking through the dual lenses of these seemingly remote and resolutely opposite locales. In a way, At the Time of the Ebb seems to exemplify how surprisingly related the Caribbean and the Gulf are––and not simply because of the insular factor.
AF: Right, they are both strategic locations. Qeshm is an Iranian island in the Strait of Hormuz, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. About a fifth of the world’s oil shipments pass through here, making it an important location for international trade as well as a choke point. Interest in the Caribbean archipelagos, too, has to do with expanding trade and increasing military presence. In some of my work I try to undermine the conflicted relationship between neighboring territories, exacerbated by western involvement in these areas, by making visible the porosity between lands, identities, cultures, etc. Not in a nostalgic way, but rather in thinking about the vernacular and the past as a way forward.
The performance troupe consists of two dancers or shushis wearing tall, palm leaf hats, and carrying a frond in each hand. Like vejigantes in Puerto Rican folk, the shushis represent the ungovernable self. They move in a stylized way amongst the other characters and spectators, occasionally bursting into a chase with anyone staring too much and swatting them with the palm fronds. There is also a camel being led by a herder and his son, and the character wearing a tensed black fabric mask and carpet on its back is a horse. Another character is the lion, but in this performance it’s been replaced by a plastic-mask tiger. The lion represents the sun. The symbols, sun and lion, have been used interchangeably in Iran since the 12th century when an emblem combining the two was created. It was replaced after the Islamic revolution with the name of Allah, which you see on the flag today. Then there is the white bird, presumably a crane or seagull, and another character called shia-poosh, which I wasn’t able to decipher.
CT: You often speak of the importance of making images and recording memories that may not otherwise be perceived or even conceived. What ethics of looking do you bring to this endeavor? (How did you come to form the ethics of looking necessary for such an endeavor, one that at once highlights specificities without sensationalizing difference?)
AF: I see art making as a way to expand knowledge. My work is driven by a desire to experience and excavate aspects of culture that I feel steered away from by a growing valorization of western logic coupled with religious fundamentalism. I feel a responsibility in making such practices visible, thus revealing attitudes against diversity and queerness.
CT: There is a horizon line that seems to provide a formal balance to almost all the aforementioned sequences in the film, whether in the half-pink room, or of course on the shore, or again at the foot of the mountains. What are some of the formal anchors onto which you relied to bring together your myriad material?
AF: Just as you mentioned, the horizon gives continuity to the sinuous material in the film. It was also a sort of understated way of pointing to the location of the film on the other side of the horizon, from where it premiered in Sharjah––that is, across the Strait of Hormuz.
CT: Your desire to draw direct attention to the entangled history between Iran and the Gulf within the space of the Biennial was made evident by the translation of this horizon line in the projection room where your film premiered.
AF: The use of the horizon was also an intuitive and natural way to communicate what I was trying to do in Qeshm. I don’t speak Farsi and the people of Qeshm don’t speak Arabic, with the exception of a couple of the elder fishermen. So placing the camera down in front of the sea where the fishermen convene was how I asked to film. I then did this repeatedly wherever I was taken.
CT: Including indoors? This horizon line repeats in the two indoor scenes in the film, the trance scene and the dance scene, also linking indoor and outdoor spaces.
AF: Indoors as well. I met Farzad buying a watermelon. He saw me struggling to count the money I had and figured I wasn’t from the island. He asked what I was doing and I signaled that I was filming by holding up an invisible camera. He somehow managed to say his father spoke Arabic and offered to help. We exchanged phone numbers and later that night he sent me a video of him dancing in a room much like in At the Time of the Ebb. I thought it was a strange thing to send someone you just met and became unsure about working with him. The next morning, he showed up and tagged along all day and again in the days that followed. He knew Baba Gholam, the owner of the house with the pink room where I filmed the indoor scenes––everyone knew everyone––and at some point he got in front of the camera while we were all in the next room having tea and began shimmying. He’d been wanting to dance for the camera the whole time. I later understood that dancing for guests was a form of hospitality, and remembered it was also something practiced in the Gulf before the advent of oil and modernity. I didn’t have a script or strict idea of what I was there to film. I was interested in learning and being shown, and with that, remembering.
DoP: Reza Abyat
Producer: Mahmoud Sani
Co producer: Farah Al Adsani
Sound recorder: Ali Alavi
Camera assistant: Sajjad Karimi
Still photographer: Huda Abdulmughni
Director: Alia Farid
Edit: Alia Farid and Cristian Manzutto
Color grading: Francois Nobecourt – Cristian Manzutto
Sound Edit and Mix: Cristian Manzutto
Post Production studio: estudio de producción
NOWRUZ CAST I
Shushi – Yahye Irani, Hassan Chabok
Shtoor (camel) – Mohammed Poozan, Mohammed Karoi
Asb (horse) – Shoja Chabok, Mohammed Tolandi
Shir (lion) – Salim Daryai
Siyah Poosh – Abdurahman Irani
Rooba (bird) – Mohammed Tamakhrah
Saroom (herder) – Mohammed Ali Chabok
Booye Saroom (herder’s son) – Abdulla Irani
NOWRUZ CAST II
Shushi – Yahye Irani, Abdulrahman Poozan
Shtoor (camel) – Ali Poozan, Ali Hasmi
Asb (horse) – Shoja Mahmood Shadman, Ahmed Shadman Roob’e
Rooba (bird) – Ahmed Shadman
Saroom (herder) – Akbar Deghani
Booye Saroom (herder’s son) – Huma Irani
Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation on the occasion of Sharjah Biennial 14: Leaving the Echo Chamber under the curatorial platform of Claire Tancons (Look for Me All Around You)
‘At the Time of the Ebb’ is featured in Alia Farid, a solo exhibition at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, the Netherlands.