The Artist Jumana Manna Preserves Palestinian Heritage Through Film, Music, and Seeds
RAMALLAH—The Palestinian artist Jumana Manna is obsessed with her people’s long memory.
During a recent presentation at the A.M. Qattan Foundation in Ramallah, the 33-year-old displayed a still from her 2012 short film A Sketch of Manners (Alfred Roch’s Last Masquerade). In the image, 50 of her relatives covered their faces in white makeup. Their scene was a melancholic allegory for the uncertainty that those of Palestinian heritage can’t escape under Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The scene was inspired by an archival photograph of a 1942 masquerade in Jerusalem hosted by the businessman and Palestinian National League member Alfred Roch. Manna was inspired by this photograph to recreate and reimagine the modernity and urbanism of Palestine before the creation of Israel in 1948, which led to the expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinians from their homeland—an event they refer to as the “nakba,” or “catastrophe.”
“The film recollected the 1948 Palestinian exodus as an archival and past event, and its continuing effects on the recent Palestinian life,” said Manna.
Now based in Berlin, Manna was born in Majd Al-Krum, an Arab town in Israel’s Upper Galilee region, and grew up in Jerusalem. She studied at the National Academy of the Arts in Norway and the California Institute of the Arts in the Los Angeles area, and has exhibited at galleries and film festivals in Britain, Canada, Lebanon, the United States and elsewhere.
Building a Palestinian Archive
The image from A Sketch of Manners was one of three subjects Manna discussed during her talk in Ramallah, which focused on what she called the “Palestinian archive.” Music and her work on a herbarium, or a catalogue of plants for study, were other parts of her project, which seeks to protect Palestine’s cultural heritage. “The archive has the capacity to preserve as well as to eradicate the history and the stories of nations,” she said.
At present, the location or locations of many historic Palestinian photographs, films, books, newspaper collections, maps and manuscripts are unknown. The Palestine Liberation Organization has claimed that Israeli forces looted the extensive archives it once held in Beirut. Israel has denied those claims, but the
“The Palestinian archive is dispersed between countries.”Raed Al-Faris
A general director at the Palestinian Ministry of Culture
newspaper Haaretz reported in 2017 that the Israeli Defense Ministry is holding millions of Palestinian photographs, films and other items.
“The Palestinian archive is dispersed between countries,” said Raed Al-Faris, a general director at the Palestinian Ministry of Culture. “It is also under the sovereignty of Israel. Israel controls, regulates, and damages the archives based on its laws and rules. Working on the Palestinian archive is very complicated and, thus, important.”
Manna seeks to use archival material to help her audiences access the inner minds of Palestinians who experienced the traumas of the 1940s and earlier times before the “nakba” of 1948. Music is one of her favorite means to accomplish that goal.
“Music is an inherited memory that transmits from one generation to another,” she said.
Songs of Cultures Under Stress
At her talk at the A.M. Qattan Foundation, Manna showed a short clip from her 2015 documentary, A Magical Substance Flows Into Me. The film portrays a Moroccan-Jewish woman in Israel who sings traditional Moroccan songs while cooking. Then the woman talks about how Israeli culture attempts to eclipse her Moroccan side.
The scene is connected to a 1930s-era series of radio programs by Robert Lachmann, a German-Jewish ethnomusicologist who studied the musical traditions of Palestine while employed by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem from 1935 to 1939. Lachmann’s scholarship was a key influence in the development of Israel’s later suppression of so-called “Oriental” cultures, Manna said. “Lachmann denied the existence of piano and violin among Oriental music,” she said. “He also tried to split between Oriental music and Western music.”
She attempted to find a musical archive of Wasif Jawhariyyeh, a Palestinian composer and master of the oud. Jawhariyyeh opposed Lachmann’s scholarship as divisive, Manna said. “I could not find any work of Wasif Jawhariyyeh,” she said. “But I was able to find the entire work of Lachmann in the Music Department of the National Library at the Hebrew University. It might be a coincidence or an intended action to demolish certain cultures and history.”
Jumana Manna: How Seeds Reflect History
In 2016, Manna started studying herbariums. She had become interested in how plants and seeds reflect the history of land in relation to Israel’s occupation. “Seeds are a commodity that occupy land under the umbrella of investment,” she said. “By controlling the planet’s seeds, the land and its biodiversity can be controlled.”
In the 2018 film Wild Relatives, Manna depicted how officials of one of the many seed banks established around the world to preserve natural genetic material had moved their collection from Lebanon to Aleppo, Syria, in the 1970s, and then moved it back to Lebanon because of the Syrian civil war. The seed bank has since been relocated to Norway, where a safe facility for seeds is located on a remote Arctic island.
“Controlling the rural architectural heritage can be a form of soft power under the banner of protecting populations and lands.”Jumana Manna
“Controlling the rural architectural heritage can be a form of soft power under the banner of protecting populations and lands,” Manna said.
Manna is also a sculptor. She has screened her films and delivered talks in Palestine, but she has yet to hold an exhibition of her sculptural objects there. The Palestinian Authority lacks funding, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip lack suitable venues.
“Sculptures need special materials and spaces, which Palestine lacks,” she said.