I stood watching Australian artist Angelica Mesiti’s Nakh Removed (2015) at Carriageworks, Sydney, in the middle of winter. A silent single-channel video installation, the film is made up of nine looping minutes in which four Parisian women of Algerian, Moroccan, and Tunisian heritage perform the nakh, a “hair dance” originating from the Algerian-Tunisian border. Traditionally danced by women at weddings and during periods of fertility, it consists of a kind of swaying movement, the women flicking their hair up and over their heads, back and forth, again and again.
Mesiti presented Nakh Removed on an imposingly large screen. She chose to show the dance in slow motion, which meant that my attention was drawn to every soft arching coil and tendril of hair. It’s said that the performers of the nakh enter into a trance-like state through the rhythm of the movement, which seems to transport them elsewhere. Mesiti has often spoken about the hypnotic pull of bodily motion and it became hard to watch the work without swaying in time. But beyond the transcendent allure of the performance, Mesiti is interested in the ways in which tradition and the present overlap but also remain separate. The film is indeed of a dance removed, highlighting the somewhat jarring contrast between a historical-cultural gesture and modern women dancing in plain black clothes in a Parisian studio.
Mesiti was born in Sydney, Australia, is of Italian descent, and relocated to France seven years ago. As she explains in the interview that follows, the experience of growing up in a multilingual household formed the basis of her interest in communicating across cultural distance: “You have to then pick up on other kinds of cues—body language, intonation—which then helps you understand what’s going on.” In high school, Mesiti found herself pulled to the films of New Zealand director Jane Campion; she later discovered Italian neorealism and Dogme filmmaking while studying experimental art in Sydney at the University of New South Wales.
Mesiti is widely known in Australia for her involvement in the collective Imperial Slacks, which formed in Sydney in 2000. Composed of sixteen disparate artists who lived and worked in an abandoned warehouse, Imperial Slacks was focused on spontaneous collaboration and provided its members and others the space and freedom to show experimental work. During this time, Mesiti was also a member of the The Kingpins, an all-female group known for drag parodies that remixed and reappropriated heavy metal and R&B music videos, subversively challenging gender norms. It was through these early projects that Mesiti developed a fascination with reworking and reframing performance that has stayed with her. In Citizens Band (2012), a four-channel video installation with surround sound, for instance, individual films document the performances of four musicians: Geraldine Zongo from Cameroon drums the water in a public pool in Paris, Mohammed Lamourie from Algeria sings and plays a Casio keyboard on the Paris metro, Asim Goreshi from Sudan whistles in his Brisbane taxi, and Bukhculuun Ganburged from Mongolia plays the horsehead fiddle while throat-singing on a Sydney street corner. As each of these vignettes comes to an end, the viewer’s gaze shifts from one inward-facing screen to the next, until the films eventually merge to fill all four panels. The sounds of each musician collide in an overlapping cacophony: a band of players.
In Mesiti’s work, verbal language is decidedly absent. The artist is preoccupied with actions and movement—with the communicative potential of sound and the body, the significance of an upturned hand. You can see it in The Calling (2013-14), for which Mesiti filmed three remote communities in Turkey, Greece, and the Canary Islands that use a whistling language to communicate. It’s there again in The Colour of Saying (2015), in which a choral work is performed entirely in sign language and all that can be heard is the swish of fabric and the hushed progression of arms through air.
I spoke with Mesiti via Skype while she was at home in Paris, and we discussed, among other things, how much can be shared in a tiny gesture.
—Naomi Riddle for Guernica
Guernica: The formation of Imperial Slacks was such a significant moment in Australian art in the early 2000s. It’s been described as a chaotic cultural experiment that really energized the Sydney art scene. Has being a part of this collective had a lasting impact on your artistic practice?
Angelica Mesiti: For me that period was all about experimentation, collaboration, and working across mediums. It was a very formative time for all of us, and the lasting effects of that space has been the idea of working collectively, as well as working with performers who have a unique ability. I like to work as a group toward something. All my studies are in time-based art, experimental art and performance, so I’ve never really had a studio practice where I’m on my own. I’m much more drawn to a way of working that allows for engaging with other people and developing new things out of existing situations. I see what I do as placing a different frame around these situations, as a way of looking at them through the lens of contemporary art.
Guernica: The performers in your work are often reframed. They are performing live to an audience, but by filming them and exhibiting the films elsewhere, that audience inevitably changes.
Angelica Mesiti: I think that happens a lot with my work. It exists somewhere in between documentary and reenactment. I’m really fascinated by this idea of an existing performance or cultural action, and developing a project around this gesture without ever firmly directing it. I’m drawn to the concept of the ready-made in terms of performance—an already-existing situation that I engage and interact with through a process of recontextualization.
Guernica: How did you go about bringing the disparate performances in Citizens Band together into a single work?
Angelia Mesiti: Each of the films in Citizens Band is based on either my first experience of encountering that performer or the place and situation where they would normally play to a crowd. In a way, I tried to reconstruct real events with Citizens Band. It was the same with The Calling, where I filmed communities that practice a whistling language. There’s usually a period where I like to get to know the people I’m working with, to try and spend time in conversation and discussion, watching their performances in order to build a relationship. I’m not interested in coming in as a director and then asking them to do something that’s unfamiliar.
I’m preoccupied with the physical experience of sound, its ability to move us.
Guernica: When you’re recording these individuals or communities, are you aiming to be a fly on the wall, or are you ultimately working to create a sense of an overarching narrative?
Angelica Mesiti: I usually have a broader concept or idea that I’m trying to communicate through the individual’s experiences and performances, whether that’s about cultural resilience or nonverbal communication. I hope that the performances will accumulate to become a collage to convey that broader idea. For The Calling, we tried to have as much of a documentary approach as possible. I visited each of the locations on a research trip for months before shooting, had conversations and saw where and how people lived, visited the schools and the villages. I was trying to think about the idea of how cultures adapt and change, and how a cultural act might disappear in the process, or reemerge in a new form. Since that was my narrative concept, in each of the communities I tried to select or assemble scenes that considered this question. I was very wary of what I didn’t want to make, which was a documentary about an exotic rare language and cultural community. I was also very aware of how it could easily have an anthropological feel to it, which is also not my field. I’m exploring real situations and cultures, so I think a lot about my position as a visual artist working in a visual medium and presenting these works in a contemporary art context. It was really important for me that there was still a sort of visual pleasure in watching the work—that it was a visual and aural experience rather than a predominantly narrative or didactic film.
Guernica: I get the sense that you’re often drawn to filming people who are using sound in a distinctive way.
Angelica Mesiti: It’s funny because that’s something I’m drawn to and I haven’t necessarily figured out why. I have a set of themes that I go after, and in one work I often discover something and then want to explore it further. It comes back to my background in performance and my relationship to dance. With The Kingpins, we did a lot of work with live performance and the construction of soundtracks, and this experience of performing has fed into my perspective as a filmmaker. The space of performance is very charged, with the combination of music, a collective of people and their energy, the lighting and the activity on stage. Having experienced performance from both perspectives, as an audience member and performer, I’m very engaged by what is going on there, and sound plays a huge role in communicating what is outside of language. As an artist working in a nonverbal medium, I’m really curious about the different ways we receive information and learn to understand the world around us. I think sound is an ephemeral thing that exists in the atmosphere, and that we receive as waves entering into our bodies. I’m preoccupied with the physical experience of sound, its ability to move us—sound is non-intellectual and we engage with it in an immediate and instinctual way.
Guernica: Language is our dominant mode of communication. Is challenging this kind of hierarchy important to you?
Angelica Mesiti: This is a hard one for me. I think when you grow up with multiple languages, where you speak one language at school and another at home, which was my experience, and particularly when you don’t fully understand one of the languages, you have to then pick up on other kinds of cues—body language, intonation—which then helps you understand what’s going on. I’ve also been living as a foreigner in a country for seven years where my language skills are not that great, I have a very acute experience of what it’s like to not fully understand in a verbal way, and so again I’m relying on different cues to translate what’s being said.
I’m also really drawn to producing work that is outside of language because then any audience can understand it. I feel that language is really limited; it’s not a field I’ve chosen to work in. If a work is in a single language, it has to be subtitled and it couldn’t translate across to all viewers. My background has been in dance, music, and cinema, which have had a huge influence on my work, particularly through ways of communicating ideas through a visual form.
Guernica: Can you tell me a little more about your upbringing? How has it influenced some of the themes and ideas in your work?
Angelica Mesiti: Like anyone growing up in a family from a different culture than the dominant one in the country that you live in, it colors your worldview. You also get very good at adapting and “passing,” which gives you a sense of seeing things from the outside. Dance was my first love as a child. But when I realized I didn’t have the talent or commitment to be a dancer, I gradually found another form that I could communicate through.
It’s easy to feel the currency and urgency of issues like the immigration crisis when refugees are sleeping in your local park.
Guernica: Your subjects often come from migrant backgrounds and project a certain authority and control, even in contexts where they may be “other” in some way. Is challenging a viewer’s perception of the meaning of “outsider” a significant part of your practice?
Angelica Mesiti: I’m always drawn to people who exist on the so-called periphery. Even early on with The Kingpins, we were concerned with presenting a perspective that was outside of the mainstream, whether that was about gender stereotypes or the performance of gender. As a group we were responding to a misalignment with mainstream representations of femininity. I’m attracted to representations of people who are not normally seen on-screen, particularly in Australia. Since moving to France, I’ve had the experience of living in a very populated, dense city and alongside people from diverse migrant backgrounds. These types of overlapping communities within the city fascinate me and I find it significant in how they represent a contemporary moment that we’re experiencing. It’s easy to feel the currency and urgency of issues like the immigration crisis when refugees are sleeping in your local park; it’s hard for that not to influence the way you see the world when concrete examples are visible in your immediate environment. I’ve often felt angered by the lack of representation of certain subjects, or the labeling and categorization of people of certain appearances, this kind of otherness that’s placed on people. I’m drawn to representing people from different backgrounds because I feel that they need to be present within these dialogues, especially where there is a great absence.
Guernica: Crucially, you do this in a way where the subjects have both visual presence and apparent agency. Your subjects are enacting their own performances, which disrupts the stereotypes we are used to seeing on-screen.
Angelica Mesiti: That’s really important to me. I started making Citizens Band in 2010 and in some ways it was a response to a real frustration and anger to the political climate at the time, particularly in attitudes to “the other” both in Australia and internationally. As someone who is making images, I’m also acutely aware of what can be a potentially charged hierarchy between the director and the subject, and so, having this awareness, I’m intent on a way of working that is in conversation with the subject and developed collaboratively in a partnership. Usually there is a period of discussion, a few meetings where they show me their particular performance, and then I’ll figure out how it is I want to record it. I tend to ask them to do pretty close to what they’ve shown me and then I may change the context slightly. With Citizens Band I asked the performers to do exactly what they usually did, we chose the song or the section of the performance together, and often they would say to me, “I feel better doing this,” or, “I like this one better.” There is a framework, but they do retain a level of autonomy. I think this is why these people are depicted in a certain way in my work, because I feel that I’ve gotten to know them, I have a huge sense of curiosity and wonder about what I’m filming and I’m authentically fascinated by it. I hope that comes through in their representation.
Guernica: Many of your films are displayed on multiple screens within an all-consuming sensory space. How much do you consider the immersive nature of the viewing experience?
Angelica Mesiti: I think a lot about the experience of the viewer when I’m constructing the installation. Working within the museum or gallery space allows for a different form of visual experience, and I’m interested in creating an environment for an engaged viewer. Like so many contemporary artists working with the image, I’m trying to activate the viewer’s experience rather than have them just passively looking at the screen. For example, with The Colour of Saying, the screens were double-sided, free standing, and positioned with enough space so that the viewer could walk around the screens. There was no specific, ideal perspective. I wanted a scale relationship between the people on-screen and the viewer, it was a 1:1 scale, and when there’s no front to the work, the sound design changes and comes into play in different ways.
It also depends on the nature of the work. With Nakh Removed, I’m trying to create and communicate a sensorial space; it’s shot in slow motion and has quite a hypnotic quality. The way the work is displayed is intended to give the viewer an experience that is akin to the trance-like state that the dancers are entering into.
I’m trying to look at our contemporary moment through the conflation of daily experience and cultural traditions, traditions that we tend to think of as belonging in the past.
Guernica: One of the aspects of Nakh Removed I found interesting is the connection between everyday contemporary life and cultural traditions that have been passed down. The traditions have a historic frame to them, yet they are grounded in the contemporary moment.
Angelica Mesiti: As a viewer, I often get the richest experiences when looking at a work that helps me to understand my experience of the world now. I feel like it’s quite important to always ground my pieces in the present, even while looking at something that is more of a historical act. I’m trying to look at our contemporary moment through the conflation of daily experience and cultural traditions, traditions that we tend to think of as belonging in the past. We can view their significance better by looking at them through the lens of the quotidian.
I think it’s a fine line; I can easily spill over into nostalgia, which I’m really wary of. Everything is rosy in the rearview mirror. Having said that, we are in a very strange time and place. Things are changing so rapidly since the Internet, and even within generations there are huge advancements, developments, and evolutions in how we experience information. I feel like there is this kind of rupture between history and the present. I don’t really understand it; these are the questions I’m trying to figure out.