Alaa Mansour, artist, Beirut

Kinshasa, Beirut, Marseille: the first is the city where you were born in 1989 and the other two the cities you dwell in. What’s life for you, Alaa, in the spatial sense and what has been your story until now?

Life is a scattering of times and memories. Often chasing time, because we’ve been beyond the limits of time since birth, frequently evading death, not always willingly, and always remembering. We were born dreaming, live in remembrance, and die dreaming. My mother reminds me that we come from the source, from a genealogy of pain and resistance. My father’s age is marked by the Nakba. I was raised in a Marxist home, with liberationist and revolutionary education and aspirations. Born in Kinshasa (DRC) during my parents’ exile from the Lebanese civil war, I reunited with my homeland when the civil war started in the DRC (formerly Zaïre) in 1991. I migrated to Paris one year before the Israeli 2006 war on Lebanon. I finished college there then I studied filmmaking. I had the honorable chance to meet and assist late Lebanese filmmaker Jocelyne Saab for several years. But my time in Paris was also kafkaïn in every sense of the term. I had to navigate through its insidious colonial spaces and pass through its racist walls since day one. I moved to Marseille in 2020 during the unreal and hysteric months of the war on covid-19 and the people. I needed the sea and the horizon. Our gaze needs the horizon, it needs to dilate and wander. I assume it was also a way for me to shorten the distance to home, with myself. Perpetually justifying your right to exist before the Western colonial capitalist world becomes a life sentence demanding a choice between resistance or compliance. I choose to be free. I choose freedom and to work towards total liberation, both in the physical and mental realms, across both the land and the mind. The distance between exile and home was heavy to bear, especially after the disappearance of home itself. We are left with fragments, debris of selves that are forever gone but still alive within us. Our being becomes a vessel of all lost histories.

Watching your movies and exploring your sketchbook made me immediately clear that your medium is blowing away the current narrative scheme in video art and the socio-political approach as an engaged artist and citizen.

Your films are like a punch: the use of distortion in video and the poignant, apocalyptic sound design are compelling the viewer, more than a sculptural, pictorial or immersive journey. 

Your collection of witnessing, essaying and text-art in your page are blowing my mind and will keep reading it for a long time.

Can you describe the preparatory work for your new movie and can you tell us the way you can stay engaged with the current situation of cruel state of terror everywhere?

Life itself is a constant preparatory work. There is no beginning nor end to history, there are only possibilities. We were brought to this earth as questers, eternally adrift in its currents. I have always stood either on the edges of reality or at its core, never in-between. This perspective shapes my understanding of the work of a maker, and how I position myself in this world, and inside the work itself. Making images has been brought upon me by centuries of historical erasure and death escapes. We were never fine. What makes possibility possible? Children in Gaza emerge from under the rubble. The tree dreams, and so must we. I guess that’s the core of my work process, undoing. Making images feels like a sacred duty. For now, in the immediate present, beside mapping the film’s own path to liberation, I exist alongside the images, I sit with them, they stare at me and I stare at them. I reach out to them yearning to pierce their surface, to set them free and in turn free myself with them. I refuse to see them as passengers, rather they are ghosts, they are the source we carry with/in us until forever. I wouldn’t say I simply “stay engaged.” It’s a matter of life or death, of freedom or oppression. History engages (with) us, and we, in turn, engage with the earth. It’s a matter of resisting this world. We should be constantly at work when we are makers, image makers, dream makers.

In a conversation with curator Edwin Nasr for TBA21, you define yourself also as an archivist. Your ‘history of violence’, your archeological approach to martyrs is very peculiar. Propaganda and terror mystification against muslims pairs US, Israel and France. And the entire world now experiences terror against what and who is unaligned, I would say.

From where all it started? In which way you navigate archives and found footages? What is for you the ultimate sense of memory and truth in the age of mystification? Is the archivist the ultimate witness?

It began with the image, or more precisely, with the absent image. There’s an embedded violence in belonging to the absence, and yearning for belonging in the presence of absence is to learn how to walk in the darkness of one’s own eyes. I remember it as if it were happening now. I witnessed my home in the south of Beirut set ablaze by Zionist bombs live on TV. It was during the month of August, the year was 2006. The Zionist war on Lebanon was in its third week, lasting 33 days. I had already escaped back to Paris through Syria. I was 16 years old. In retrospect, In that moment, staring at the image that is no more, I understood it to be my first encounter with the archive. Not just a testament, a bare witness, but also an exit. I found myself obsessed by it, with its survival and its becoming. It still holds me captive. This is the stubbornness of being born in a land where we have died countless times. I’m originally (what’s an origin? the source?) from Aïnata, my village in the south of Lebanon, which was under Israeli occupation for nearly 25 years. It’s the birthplace of my parents. I was raised alongside the Resistance, and the faces of the martyrs. As an eight-year-old, I dreamt of becoming a martyr, believing I would one day die for Palestine. This envisioned image wasn’t born solely from a place of ecstatic despair— I don’t recall it that way— but rather from a surge of raging love. The martyr (the dream) and the image (the archive) are one. The martyr is an archive that dreams. The archive is a possibility of and for the future, and so is the martyr. In attempting to comprehend this perpetual oscillation between a yearning for memory and the urge to break free from the image, I gave birth to Aïnata, my first film, which I finished editing in 2018, 6 years after its initial making. The archeology of time is inherent to the archeology of the image. I paved the way to Aïnata—the film— through the image of my home bombarded to ashes on TV. Aïnata unleashed streams of questions and quests into the aesthetics and value of death, on both political and semiological levels, shaping what I term the sublime negative. I’m fascinated by the power of the image, by the image of power, by the violence in the image, by the violence of the image and by the power of violence, especially in relation to technology, and more specifically to perceptive and cognitive technologies. Everything is contained between the boundaries of death and the image. The image being death after death, and death being the image after the image. By encapsulating the absolute—the image becoming a martyr, the martyr becoming an image—the martyr is the ultimate witness. He survives the image; he exists outside of time. It is in this place that the memory of truth resides. Ballads in the capital’s realm are neither gay nor reassuring; instead, they are mandatory passages for counter-acts to exist. Much like the act of resistance, montage is the nexus of history making and undoing. It’s also the crux of my work—an ever-ending, always evolving system of thoughts and questioning. Montage is about becoming. It’s about weaving a possible trajectory, working through duration, and generating ruptures. Resistance, in that sense, is a disruptive montage of time and space that counters the oppressor’s perceptive and epistemological realm. I have no hesitation in saying that montage is resistance and that resistance is montage. An artist is a fighter. That’s literally my approach to life and to work. I’m driven by intuition. It allows for a transversal and intersectional research methodology that isn’t bound to a specific medium. Archival research forms its core, unearthing and shaping the genesis of my films. Gore-capitalism is the focal point of my research, plunging me into murky depths where I navigate sensitive visual and textual content from official and unofficial sources. The Mad Man’s Laughter (2021), my second film, was brought into this world during a moment of state terror and unprecedented escalation against Muslims and Islam, following a series of terrorist attacks that hit Europe and France. The decapitation of French school teacher Samuel Paty marked its apogee. It was the end of the year 2020. I found myself crafting a film on images. My film dives into the hallucinatory nightmares spun by the military-entertainment complex, through which manufactured enemies and weaponised fictions justify endless wars that sustain the empire’s neoliberal apparatus. It’s a system of belief meticulously engineered by necropolitical technologies and imperial speculativeness, empowering a war of annihilation against the “Arab”and Islam through centuries of colonial capitalism. 

What artist can be considered a lighthouse in your practice and what writer?

There is more than one. Not lighthouses. But presences, ghostly companions that traverse my life. I remember the cinematic works and poetry of Lithuanian filmmaker Jonas Mekas, his fragments of home, his image fever that captures the infra-ordinary. Likewise, I think of the contributions of Jean-Luc Godard, the French filmmaker whose work has profoundly influenced me. In the realm of philosophy and literature, figures like French philosopher Jacques Derrida, with his legacy of hauntology, and Persian poet Rumi that teaches me love, come to mind.

Where SWANA contemporary scene is going, according to you, and which audience do you see growing with it in the movie industry and in art-related moving image sector?

I have some resistance towards identity group labels and politics, especially when they morph into commodities, as is the case in the art market. I don’t aspire to belong to a specific ‘scene’. This is also why the concept of a target audience is completely foreign to me. My films cease to be mine once they are seen by others. They belong to this earth.

A book you’re reading now and where it lays at the moment

‘I have found my answers’ by Palestinian writer and freedom fighter martyr Basel Al-Araj who the zionist occupation forces assassinated on March 6, 2017. The book is a collection of articles, posts and thoughts on the struggle for liberation and the ways of being dedicated in love with Palestine, as much as a freedom fighter. It’s a call to engage with freedom as an act of absolute radical love. “After all, is there anything more eloquent and expressive than the martyr?”. The resistance isn’t a choice, it is a right, a necessity and a duty. 

Tell us secret or loved places where to read in your actual cities

Currently in Beirut there are no places where I enjoy reading. Before October 7th I used to go the cafe, but it is often loud and it’s surely is alienating. I think the best places to read from besides from home, is in a garden or by the sea. 

Where do you see yourself in ten years from now?

I see myself sitting under an olive tree in Jaffa, Palestine, drinking tea while facing the sea of freedom. 

What did you learn so far from life?

Life teaches me about death, about becoming, about those born dreaming and those who died dreaming. Life teaches me that time is inherent to being, that there is no time outside of ourselves, and that there is little time left. Life teaches me that love is the end, and that the end is the beginning. Life teaches me to remember, to dream.

Alaa Mansour (1989, Lebanon), is the recipient of the Han Nefkens Foundation – Fundació Antoni Tàpies Video Art Production Grant 2023, in collaboration with NTU Centre for Contemporary Art, Singapore; WIELS Brussels; Museum of Contemporary Art and Design (MCAD) Manila; and Art Jameel, Dubai

The Han Nefkens Foundation – Fundació Antoni Tàpies Video Art Production Grant 2023 aims to be a tool for increasing contemporary artistic production in the video art field and is directed at emerging visual artists living in the territory of Central/West Asia.

Alaa Mansour will receive $15,000 from the Han Nefkens Foundation to support the production of a new, limited-edition video artwork for which she will have 9 months to complete. The produced artwork will be presented from 2025 at each institution collaborating in this grant: the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona, the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art in Singapore, the WIELS Contemporary Art Centre in Brussels, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design (MCAD) in Manila and Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai.

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