Peripheral Visions: Interview with Rehana Zaman

London-based Rehana Zaman discusses instances of less obvious – but no less potent – forms of political resistance from people whose experiences are often marginalised

Preview by Adam Benmakhlouf | 05 Feb 2018

On Friday 9 February, from 7-9pm at the CCA there is a preview for London-based artist Rehana Zaman’s first solo show in Scotland, Speaking Nearby. Talking about the work she’ll be showing, Zaman here describes the possibility of a political position that doesn't assume unchanging or fixed power dynamics but finds surprising ways of resisting and subverting power relations within what seem like stable dynamics, as well as describing a few of the elements of the three film works that form the basis of Speaking Nearby.

The films that will be shown at CCA are selected from the previous three to four years of Zaman’s practice. Thinking about the distinctiveness of each of these works and her own rhythm of research and making, Zaman describes the process of being immersed in each as they were being made. Underlying all three films are common processes of research and specific ambitions, which nevertheless do not dampen the variety of contexts and working methods that are present throughout her oeuvre.

One of the most pressing concerns for Zaman is to centre the narratives and experiences of people that somehow exist on the geographical or social periphery. For instance, in the upcoming Glasgow show, the new work, titled Lourdes, comes from an interaction with one market trader during a period of residency in Tepito, Mexico during 2015-16. The area is known for its notorious bootleg and knock-off market, but is also being threatened by government buyouts and gentrification. Within this, resistance on the part of the market traders and residents is mostly structured around matriarchy and strong, women-led organisation.

The interview that forms the basis of Lourdes revolves around a discussion about the kinds of innuendos that permeate informal speech and conversation in Tepito, as well as Mexico more broadly. “Someone might be talking about a table, but the innuendo is something to do with an orgy, but you would never know unless you were really fluent.” The linguistic term used to describe this kind of slang is 'albures,' and these are often compared to similar ways of speaking in Creole, for example. These subtle, coarse and usually sexual turns of phrase are, to some extent, “impossible to translate. The film is [in this sense] slightly ridiculous as Lourdes is trying to explain how it works, but the translation is always falling short.”

The protagonist speaks from a working class perspective about how this language originally comes from a way of existing before and during colonialism. It is a way to "undermine the hierarchy they find themselves in, as they can communicate without anyone knowing." Doing so, "destabilises certain norms and is quite subversive as it resists power structures in a way that doesn’t just set up us against them, but exists inside a system and disrupts from within."

In Lourdes, the local tensions involving state and international private interests are thus addressed through "this woman talking about slang and giving a brief background to the area." The lateral direction of discussion comes from Zaman following "what feels right in that moment," and complicates any overarching or simplistic idea of the power relationships of those involved. Rather than relying on, or reinforcing a binary of who does or doesn’t have power or agency in a situation, Zaman describes ways of appreciating that "after a while, oppositional-type politics has an emotional weight to it, and that [she is] increasingly trying to find a way to articulate politics or a position through other ways to think that are dynamic." She raises one suspicion that there is otherwise the risk that, "You end up reinforcing the thing you’re trying to dismantle."

While Lourdes is structured around one encounter and type of filming, Zaman’s works often incorporate several experimental genres and techniques within single films. This is the case in Tell me the story of all these things, which will be showing in CCA. It includes a staged cooking demonstration, a nebulous body, screenshots from Prevent’s e-learning website (the UK government’s ‘anti-radicalisation’ programme) and an intimate probing interview with the artist’s sister Farah. After using the idea of "pleasure" to think about Lourdes, Zaman also speaks about intimacy and pleasure as ways of describing her strategies of filmmaking, in place. “How do you embody a politics that isn’t just rhetoric, that is sensitive, and that has emotional dynamics that will sustain you and space for other positions to sit beside you?”

In particular, the part of the film that involves a direct interview between Zaman and her sister Farah, also activates parts of Zaman’s own biography without the artist including herself more obviously in the film. For Zaman, she’s "already present in the film, through editing, or a hand that you see," and putting further emphasis on herself would be "really boring."

An important theme of the interview is being recognised and misrecognised for different reasons and in various ways. In the film, her sister speaks about being brown-skinned, and "acknowledging the coding that is going on here and that she’s battling around as a woman in her 40s," says Zaman. ‘Coding,' or 'to code' can be understood as a term here to describe the problematic action of others who make frequent and automatic assumptions about Farah’s appearance in a way that is without basis and usually stemming from attitudes of prejudice.

For instance, Farah challenges some of the associations that might be made about those who wear religious clothing. She speaks candidly about how "I used to be embarrassed wearing a hijab, but I'm now more interested in provoking a response." But Farah also compares the experience of wearing the abaya in Dubai and how it differs here. While it might be pleasurable to wear only the abaya in the warmer climate of United Arab Emirates, chances are that in colder places like the UK, the abaya may just be one layer of many. So while the experience of the abaya in Dubai could even feel sensuous and sexy, this might not carry over to the UK.

This is one of the subtly different experiences that challenge the kinds of 'coding' that’s involved in understanding the experience of a Muslim woman, and how it changes dependent on many circumstances. This leads Zaman to think more broadly of collectivisation that takes place around certain categories of experience, religion or skin colour, and that there are also "discrepancies" for which allowance should be made. To put it another way, there’s the opportunity for "alliances that don’t appropriate experiences, and that don’t smooth them over." This kind of interaction and political organising that is sensitive to difference and which features in parts of Zaman’s work, charges the upcoming exhibition with a sense of urgency and excitement.

Rehana Zaman, Speaking Nearby, CCA, 10 Feb-25 Mar, free