Rehana Zaman Invites Us into Intimate, Decolonial Narratives

TORONTO — Siblings can have a profound effect on each other. Their relationships, and birth order, exert lifelong impacts on one’s social development (or dysfunction). In Rehana Zaman’s Jupiter in Aries, Moon in Virgo, a film exhibition at Trinity Square Video, the artist ventures into this autobiographical terrain, probing how the colonial state impacts identity and difference across the generations. 

Featuring two works by the London-based moving image artist, the exhibition hones in on frequent subjects: members of her own family and diasporic consciousness rooted, in these particular cases, in South Asian experiences. Inevitably, turning the camera on one’s loved ones raises some ethical concerns — who’s truth are we, the audience, actually witnessing, and how honest is it? The exhibition seems attuned to this power dynamic, hence the intimate two-channel installation: an inviting circle of glowing, squat neon green curved benches, with projections at opposite ends, set at seated height. It cradles the unfolding family confidences, positioning the viewer literally at the same level as its non-artist film subjects. 

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Rehana Zaman, “Your Ecstatic Self (still)” (2019) (all images courtesy Trinity Square Video)

Jupiter in Aries, Moon in Virgo takes it name from the planetary signs for Sajid, a 44 year old Pakistani Muslim (and Zaman’s older brother) in “Your Ecstatic Self” (2019). (Tellingly, he’s a Leo: a “performer when it comes to sexuality.”) Commissioned for Independent Cinema Office’s “Second Sight” film program (2020) — which revisits the legacy of the 1980s UK Black Film Workshop Movement — the 33-minute experimental documentary centers a car ride conversation on Sajid’s Islamic faith. Namely, how his turn to Tantra finally aligned his spirituality with sexual liberation after years as a strict Sunni Muslim. Zaman’s work often uses conversation or a personal relationship as a starting point to weave fragmented narratives. Here, the front-seat confessional is intercut with archival footage of pre-Islamic shamanistic rituals in Pakistan’s Hunza Valley, contextualizing the barriers Sajid has faced in embracing ecstatic states often gate-kept for white touristic consumption. Meanwhile, saturated, LomoChrome Purple-esque community gardening footage of Zaman and fellow artist Priya Jay alludes to Ingrid Pollard’s Pastoral Interlude photographic series, a reference that questions the omission of women of color from British pastoral scenes, as Chandra Frank writes.

A multitude of sources play out similarly in “Tell me the story Of all these things” (2017). It opens with a CGI woman camouflaging in the desert, then alternates between Zaman’s older sister Farah cooking in the kitchen with actual scenes from the British government’s e-learning counter-terrorism program. Periodically, floating frames pop-up, featuring tightly-focused hand gestures by Zaman’s mysterious other sister in front of a red backdrop. The focus is on Farah, however, and how she contends with conflicting selves: “I always feel I have to adapt to certain environments,” she divulges during fish curry preparations. “Mosque, college, Dubai.” But learning to ski at 46 — and her sexually compatible second marriage — have freed her: “my body is mine.” 

Installation view of Jupiter in Aries, Moon in Virgo, Trinity Square Video, Toronto, 2021

A particular kind of middle-aged, first-generation awakening emerges in both of these works. There’s an awareness of the cost of youthful assimilation in the face of structural orthodoxies, tellingly coaxed out by a younger sibling in the safety of a car’s front seat and at a kitchen’s stove top. In-keeping with Zaman’s practice, each film highlights the ways in which diasporic journeys differ greatly between the generations of aggrieved British “subjects,” a dynamic that feels deeply familiar to me as the youngest sibling of a Trinidadian-Canadian family. As Sajid and Farah’s life-long observer and witness, Zaman is uniquely positioned to reflect on the ways in which they have, in spite of these systematic barriers, come to fully accept themselves, owning both their subjectivity and sexualities.

Rehana Zaman: Jupiter in Aries, Moon in Virgo continues through June 26 at Trinity Square Video (121–401 Richmond Street West, Toronto, Canada). 


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