Tucked away in a corner of the permanent collection of the Jewish Museum is a little movie theater that transports you far away from the artifacts of Jewish history in the surrounding galleries. In late 2013, the Jewish Museum launched an ambitious ongoing project, entitled Sights and Sounds: Global Film and Video, which each month invites a curator from a different country to choose four or five videos that play continuously on the museum’s third floor. By 2016, when the project will come to a close, videos from a total of twenty-five countries will have been shown in the theater.
The country in the spotlight for the month of May is Nigeria, followed by India in June. The Nigerian curator, Jude Anogwih, has chosen an interesting array of pieces. All of the artists are Nigerian-born although some are now expatriates; Uche Okpa-Iroha and Mudi Yahaya live in Lagos, Wura-Natasha Ogunji currently lives in Austin, Texas, and Emeka Ogboh lives in Berlin. Curiously, the curator makes a point of noting where these artists are currently based but doesn’t elaborate on how living in or away from Nigeria has affected their work.
All of the Nigerian videos are explicitly political, and some more accessible than others. Mudi Yahaya’s piece, For Crown and Country is based on what one sees while switching between TV stations. We are channel surfing through Nigerian history, shifting back and forth between archival TV coverage of political, military, and civil events, and news photographs illustrated by historical quotations. The timeline of the video begins with Nigeria’s struggle for independence from England in the mid-1950s to becoming a free nation in 1960 through the following decades of political disappointment up until the mid-1990s. The video suffers from bad sound, which makes an already complicated political history lesson harder for a non-Nigerian to follow. Without knowing all of the players, it’s a little hard to grasp the full power of the work, although a wave of anger and disappointment is palpable throughout the video. Perhaps for us, viewing a complex history from far away, the relevant takeaway is the emotional impact, rather than the specific events and people in the video.
Wura-Natasha Ogunji’s piece, Will I Still Carry Water When I’m Dead is simple in concept and totally intriguing. A group of hooded women dressed in nifty Afro-Futuristic short jumpsuits laboriously drag large jerry cans full of water through city streets. The curatorial statement mentions that these costumes are a reference to traditional Nigerian masquerade ceremonies, which women are forbidden to join. Even before learning this detail I found in the outfits an underlying tension between how modern and forward-thinking Nigeria can be and yet for many women, tradition and the lack of adequate clean water forces them to carry water for miles every day. Some of the big plastic cans are tied to women’s wrists; the most difficult women to watch are the ones who have the cans tied to their ankles. They can barely walk, the cans so full and heavy, tripping them up and holding them back from the others. They are shepherded through the streets of a busy city by a group of young men who direct traffic with slim canes. The women become increasingly exhausted as they toil. It’s an obvious but affecting statement about the eternally burdened state of African women.
June will switch gears quite dramatically. The four videos chosen by Indian curator Nancy Adajania run the gamut of subject matter. They are not so obviously political as the Nigerian choices and they encompass imagery and subject that move beyond the nation’s borders. Production values are very high in these videos: three out of the four use advanced animation and digital manipulation techniques to tell their visual stories. The video, Political Realism, made by Gigi Scaria, explores our ability to topple all sorts of world dictators or icons. Peaking through two doorways in a surreal room, we see animated iconic sculptures of Lenin, Mao, and the World Trade Center towers — all being knocked down by construction machines. It’s a little bit goofy; bright colors abound. The movie is a little Monty Python-esque in its irreverence, surrealism, and gentle political commentary.
The most arresting of the Indian videos is in many ways the most straightforward one. Ayisha Abraham’s I Saw a God Dance is a documentary about the most famous Indian classical dancer, little known in the West. Ram Gopal was a biracial gay man who popularized classical Indian dance in the West, partially by emphasizing his “exoticism” to titillate Western audiences. There is an implicit political undertone to this film, but frankly the footage of Gopal dancing is so mesmerizing that the political statement becomes secondary. Born in 1912 (died 2003), Gopal traveled and performed extensively throughout the world. From the interviews with surviving company members it appears that his sexuality was known and accepted. His artistry trumped everything else.
After India we will travel via video to Cuba. For the month of August, we will be in New Zealand. Each curator was given free rein to choose the pieces included in this project and, as a result, each month will be very different from the previous one. There appears to be no contiguous theme that runs throughout the series. Indeed this diverse and eclectic vision seems part of the point of this fascinating, multi-voice project organized by Jens Hoffman, the Deputy Director of Exhibitions and Public programs. Sights and Sounds will culminate in 2016 with a public conference and publication documenting the three-year journey that will serve to tie the program together. I look forward to seeing what the entire project morphs into.
Sights and Sounds: Global Film and Video is a long-term series at the Jewish Museum (1109 Fifth Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan). Films from Nigeria will screen through May 30 and films from India will screen during the month of June.