Jumana Manna’s most recent film, A Sketch of Manners (Alfred Roch’s Last Masquerade) (2013), opens in an opulent interior, bathed in a rush of morning sunlight. Amid the oriental rugs and antique chairs, a young man slumbers on a settee. His face is painted white, in the imitation of a Pierrot, while his cramped pose and full dress imply that this doze may have been unintentional, most likely the aftermath of some kind of carousing. The hall is hushed but for the sound of a steady drip; its source is concealed but the echoes of each splash suggest that there is already standing water underneath. Wherever the leak, it has been going on for quite some time.
The reverie is broken by a narrator’s weighted intonation of Charles Baudelaire’s ‘A Former Life’ (1857). The poem – a stem from Les Fleurs du mal (1857) – paints the portrait of a life ‘beneath vast porticoes’, where the protagonist languishes ‘amid voluptuous calms’, ‘tended by many a naked, perfumed slave’ whose only ambition is to soothe their master’s inner ache. His sadness stems from the understanding of the dual nature of this eternal paradise, where the ‘majestic rows’ of ‘mighty pillars’ morph into the terrible stalagmites of basaltic caves with each disappearing of daylight.
The scene shifts, and our Pierrot appears for a second time, now confined to the tidy circle of the handheld mirror in which he inspects his newlyshaven cheeks, while sitting naked in a tub. The dripping has ceased, replaced by the whistling and chortling of an antique faucet. Finished bathing, he pulls on freshly pressed trousers and dabs white paint along his brow with a kind of ritualistic dedication. Once he has made himself up as Pierrot, his guests enter, all too elaborately attired for the ordinary staircase of the entrance. Inside the parlour, they gawk and flirt with one another, with the pronounced determination of scheduled debauchery.
The ten-minute film was co-scripted with Norman M. Klein and acts as a loose first chapter to the larger, collaborative project, ‘Imagined Cities’, 2011-ongoing, which investigates the inner workings of Los Angeles and Palestine. The film’s structure recalls that of Manna’s The Goodness Regime (2013, with Sille Storihle), which diverged from historical document to restage scenes of Norway’s history in a manner that suggests the country took on its peacekeeper role for want of a better national narrative. The action unfolds primarily through tableaux of a children’s play, with the underage actors undermining the intentions of such grand gestures as the Oslo Peace Accords. The departure point for A Sketch of Manners … – another title borrowed from Baudelaire – is an old photograph that Manna uncovered during her research for ‘Imagined Cities’. The group portrait was taken in 1924 at one of the annual masquerades given by Jaffa-based citrus baron Alfred Roch, a member of the Palestinian National Congress and, if Manna’s account is to be believed, a storied bon vivant. A casual souvenir of one evening’s merriment, the photo provides a glimpse into a nearly forgotten past, when Palestine enjoyed the status of a cosmopolitan, colonial cultural capital, rife with revelry and decadence beyond the most extravagant dreams of the displaced settlers of the country to come.
A copy of this group portrait hung on the back wall of the gallery’s screening room, but in her film, Manna largely sidesteps the historical confines of the photograph. A Sketch of Manners ... relocates the party – now ‘Roch’s Last’ – to Jerusalem, April 1942. This repositioning allows the artist to tie Roch’s masquerades to his 1939 stay in England, where he represented the Palestinian delegation at the London Conference. Convened to plot a peaceful end to the British Mandate, in the event the conference overlapped with Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia, which in turn triggered a shift within Europe’s priorities. Palestine would be left mainly to its own devices, an unresolved question, while Europe waged a war of its own. This turn of events cleared the way for the 1948 Nakba, a forced evacuation that drove hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes. In 1942, however, these tensions existed only as a slow drip in the background of more pressing events.
Manna tries to capture the uncertainty of this moment at the climax of the film, a re-enactment of the group portrait. Here Manna’s choice to use amateur actors (the cast is primarily composed of the artist’s own family members) plays to an advantage, as very real insecurity and doubt flicker across the white-powdered faces of the 50 fidgeting guests. Their drinks have disappeared and coquetries are put on hold while they wait for the photo to be taken. The final scene leaves the party altogether, dipping instead into the deep recesses of a basaltic cave where, at last, the source of the drip is revealed.
The film was complemented by a suite of sculptures fashioned from the seat belts of crashed cars. Suspended from scrap metal frames two to three metres high, the belts hang stitched together like banners that gradually give way to tatters, as if they were separating stripes on the flag of an uncertain state. While the spareness of these structures contrasted with the visual richness of the film, both bodies of work were bound by a similar ambivalence, characteristic of Manna’s work and fitting for the artist’s first solo exhibition in New York.