‘Your Friends and Neighbours’ by Jowhara Al-Saud
At the intersection of social and visual culture, Jowhara Al-Saud’s ‘Your Friends and Neighbours’ embodies interesting concerns and questions.
In the Islamic artistic tradition, human representation is surrounded by misconception, myths, and controversy. Sometimes a certain interpretation of religion and sometimes local custom seem to be at cross-purposes with figurative representation. Its status has always depended on locally relevant, hence variable factors.
The equation becomes more complex in Saudi Arabia (or perhaps in the larger context of the Middle East where tradition and law constantly define and impose new limits) where official censorship, a compound of tradition and legislation, brings in an additional variant of legitimacy and limits, of what can be represented and what must not be, of what is appropriate for the private sphere, and what is forbidden in the public sphere, what is allowed ‘under certain circumstances’ and what is ‘simply out of the question’.
The dynamics of censorship, and the constant shifting and manoeuvring between restraint and permission, between approval and disapproval creates pockets of selective permissiveness, in which certain things otherwise forbidden become acceptable after a partial erasure, omission, or addition. This choice reforms the image, and its visual traces become a part of the image when we read it. For example, we might pay more attention to the black ink marks than we would want to, we might spend more time trying to guess what is being glossed over. Our attention and our process of reading are reoriented as a result of this visual tampering. Jowhara Al-Saud, in her series ‘Out of Line’, conducts a visual experiment investigating the visual language that emerges when an image undergoes the transition from inappropriate to appropriate, what it loses, and what it gains in the process. As viewers, it invites us to reinvent both our notion of image as well as our postures of beholding it.
Jowhara starts with a series of pictures from her personal life, pictures of her friends and family. She ‘operates’ on the images, removing certain selected elements (in keeping with the etiquette of censors) by scratching into the negatives, and then reconstitutes the ‘operated’ image back onto film. Although the images are from an intimate circle and the identity of these people is central to the artist’s reading of them, when she decides to share the images in a public manner and a public place, she needs to surgically remove traces of identity, and replace their uniqueness with a more generic, universal quality. She names the selection ‘Your friends and neighbours’, putting the viewer in the middle of the artistic experience.
The metamorphosis of the image from the intimate to the public is a concern that she consciously translated into the guiding exercise for her series, circumventing the local taboo of sharing the personal and private in public. ‘It became a game of how much you could tell with how little’. At several levels, this series (or for that matter, some of Jowhara’s other work) is a visual experiment, and pushes the boundaries of the notion of image, what it means to create it, what it means to read it, and to what extent the image is dependent on or independent of the process and circumstances of its creation.
At face value, the series is a collection of stills from narratives of daily lives. Jaunty, youthful, and pulsing with a joyful energy, they read like snapshots of daily lives that could be from anywhere and about anyone. It’s interesting to see how, as the image mutates from its conventional paradigm, its aura changes. As soon as some factors are suppressed, others rise to the fore. In direct relation to this, our own behavior and expectations as viewers change and we draw upon other elements for our ‘reading’. Traditionally, the locus of an image with humans is the face, we learn to centre our gaze on the face and move outwards from there. In a group of humans, we automatically scan the picture for what sets them apart. Confronted with the images in the series, we are surprised at how seamless and unconscious our re-orientation as a viewer is, and how quickly and naturally we respond to the re-invented paradigm of ‘image’. In the absence of eyes and facial expressions, we latch on to other cues to make sense of the image.
We notice the impact of posture, the body language, the group dynamics, and a general atmospheric charge that leaps off the surface, and which is a function of several elements like the angle of shot, clues suggested by the title, the energy of the lines themselves, or the hint of a lurking backdrop. To reply to the artist’s question then, how much can you express with how little? Apparently, a lot. In fact, if anything, the series proves that the identity of people in the series becomes almost irrelevant, since even with that suppressed, there are innumerable counts on which we can still own the image. There is much that replaces the glint in the eye, the hesitant flicker of eyelids: a dramatically candid camera angle, a naughty tilt of the face, or the query in a gesture of the hand.
A sense of narrative and continuity
It has often been said that the images look like story boards. The narrative mystique is common to other works of Jowhara as well, where she works a constant interplay of the revealed and the hidden up to a delicious suggestivity. This fictional dimension, this reminder that the images are being manipulated and tampered with is deliberately evoked by the reminders of secondary surfaces (the corner of an envelope, a graded work sheet from a school note book, a sheet of fabric, a series of stamps) which jut rudely into the picture plane, coming from nowhere and dissolving into nowhere, it seems. For the artist, it is a conscious concern as an artist to ‘undermine any documentary claim that photography lays claim to’, and to sensitize us to the margin of manouevring inherent in the medium.
Another unreality is the sense of time they embody. They seem to exist in a parallel time zone, where they never snap out of their languorous postures, where the music and holidays never end, where youth is permanent as is the warm embrace of family and friends. This idyllic universe lingers beyond the last frame along a make-believe timeline. They have a quality of frozen perfection, and the recurrence in the sequences creates an illusion of permanence; they are as real and as unreal as the perfect families in yoghurt ads, who seem to go on living in a world where they never age or fight, and where they continue to savour happiness on repeat long after we’ve switched the television off and returned to the imperfection and reality of our own lives.
Exploring the metamorphosis of image with the subtraction of some conventional elements inspired by the visual logic and process of censorship and social etiquette, Jowhara creates a crisp new visual idiom.