Moving Bodies, Moving Images | Whitechapel Gallery

This show of video art seems like an appropriate one to feature for the last post of the year. Firstly, because it’s the festive season, and the artwork I’m going to write about features a festival. Secondly, because it means that posts on the Whitechapel Gallery, my local public art collection, will bookend this year.

Alia Farid’s 15 minute movie At the Time of the Ebb could hardly be more different to the Theaster Gates ceramics I featured back in January, though. In contrast to the US sculptor’s chilly grandeur, Kuwait-born Farid tells us the story of Nowruz, a midsummer festival held on the island of Qeshm, in the Persian Gulf.

The film shows three scenes, in descending order of strangeness. Qeshm is an island of fishermen, and the festival involves everybody staying off their boats, dressing up and having fun. The first scene shows a couple of people writhing under sacking, while the rest of the party chants, wordlessly. The second shows the partiers dressed as animals - including a very cute camel - and dancing down the beach and across a mountain top.

still frame from Alia Farid - At the Time of the Ebb. Image source: Artsy

The third scene is more homely. A young, smiling man dances in circles, as off stage musicians sing a (subtitled) love song. The camera’s fascinated by him, lithe and swishy, focusing on his vibrating shoulders, his skinny haunches, as he slowly turns.

Farid’s stunning outdoors shots are organised around a horizon line: of the sea, then the flat-topped mountains. Indoors, the line is on the wall, where pink paint meets white.

We know it’s party time even from a still shot, like the one above: there are bows and streamers on the wall. But there are also reminders that the party will soon be over for another year, with the fishermen back at sea. A plastic bag hangs from a nail, right in the middle of the wall. Nowruz means “new day” in Farsi, the local language. There’s another new one to come, and the dance will soon stop. And that day will be the day after the solstice, where the nights will start getting shorter. The time of the ebb.

But for now, Farid captured a moment of joy and pride for this young man, sweat building under his white T shirt as he shows off his moves.

In an interview, Farid explains the backstory to the scene. The local dancer, whose name is Farzad, spotted the artist struggling to count her money while out shopping, soon after she arrived on the island, and started tagging along with her film crew.

He wasn’t just a participant in the scene either - he was the one who made it happen. Soon after meeting, Farzad sent the artist a video of him dancing, and then during the shoot, he got the whole scene in motion… himself.

“He knew … the owner of the house with the pink room where I filmed the indoor scenes - everyone knew everyone - and at some point he got in front of the camera while we were all in the next room having tea and began shimmying,” Farid explained.

“He’d been wanting to dance for the camera the whole time.”

Moving Bodies, Moving Images is at Whitechapel Gallery (London). 12 October 2022 - 08 January 2023