If you don’t think that human identity is evanescent, multilayered, poly-vocal and downright confused, you probably won’t get “The Monayer Family,” a triptych of short videos by Dor Guez currently on display at the Jewish Museum.
Guez is a provocative, gifted artist who works in a variety of disciplines and media, focusing his attention on issues of multiculturalism, ethnicity and personal identity; appropriately, his own identity is as contested and complex as it is possible to imagine. The work, unsurprisingly, is the same.
Asked about his own identity, Guez told the website www.Artisrael.org, “I’m not sure I’m looking for an answer. It depends on the place, time and context. What does it mean to label oneself? My ID says I’m Jewish. Is this my main reference? I don’t know.”
In fact, as the three videos — brief studies of his grandfather Jacob, his father Sami and his cousin Samira — amply illustrate, many of Guez’s family members are Arab Christians who have been living in Lod for at least 10 generations. As such they are, as both Jacob and Sami put it, “a minority in a minority.” Each video is a brief profile of a single member of the family, one from each of the living generations, and each offers vivid testimony to the twisting paths of personal identity. Finally, each features a formal intervention by Guez that amplifies and further complicates these issues.
In “July 13,” Jacob recounts the disastrous events that befell the small Christian community of Lod when the Israeli army entered the city during the War of Independence. For the Monayers it was the beginning of nearly five years of internal exile, an enforced stay on church property, hemmed in by barbed wire and walls, able to go out only by day. Early in that period, Jacob went to the family’s apartment and store to find that both had been stripped completely bare. The nonagenarian recounts this story calmly, with a certain dry humor, although it is clear that the memory is a painful one. Later we see him walking the streets of Lod to show his grandson some of the places he described; in the meantime, Guez intercuts footage of himself, putting up an artificial Christmas tree for his grandparents.
“Subaru-Mercedes” is the ironic title of the second video, a wry comment on the way that East and West meet in a consumerist paradise of conspicuous consumption. It’s a poor fit, though, for the discussion of ethnic identity that follows, with Sami trying to articulate his own thoughts on the subject, while his wife and daughters offer their own commentary from off-camera, usually contradicting his comments.
“(Sa)Mira,” the last of the three videos, is the most powerful and yet the most low-key. Samira, Guez’s cousin, is a first-year psychology student at Hebrew University who works part time as a waitress in Jerusalem’s German Colony. She is a tall blonde with freckles, who speaks impeccable, unaccented Hebrew. She tells a painful story of being a victim of customer complaints at the restaurant because she is an Arab; she doesn’t look like one, but her name on the customers’ checks gives her away. At her boss’s gentle but firm insistence, she starts signing the checks as “Mira.” It is a story that she tells in a disarmingly casual manner but by the end of the anecdote, she is in tears. Guez holds the camera on the empty sofa as she goes off-screen to calm down, then cuts to her again seated, telling the story from the beginning, getting just a little bit more emotional this time.
Each of Guez’s subjects is someone whose identity is a difficult amalgam of race, gender, family role, ethnicity and religion, a sense of belonging to a town or neighborhood upon which a larger matrix of self-definition has been imposed from without. Similarly, each of the videos allows the interviewees to state their position, to make their own case for who and what they are, but with impositions from the video artist inflecting our understanding of their “true” identity. Guez’s methodology is smart and effective, and his family members are articulate proponents of their points of view, but the end result feels — quite deliberately, one thinks —like a work-in-progress.
Rather like one’s identity, which, particularly in the Middle East, is built on constantly shifting sands.
“The Monayer Family: Three Videos by Dor Guez” will be showing at the Jewish Museum (1109 Fifth Ave.) through Sept. 7. Guez will present a gallery talk at the museum on Monday, June 7 at 1 p.m. For information, go to www.thejewishmuseum.org.
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