EXAMINING THE ETYMOLOGY of forager reveals that the word has evolved to convey starkly distinct meanings. It appears in fifteenth-century English to describe someone who roves in search of sustenance; a century earlier, the Old French foragier referred to a plunderer. This slippage befits Foragers, 2022, Jumana Manna’s most recent film and the centerpiece of “Break, Take, Erase, Tally,” the Berlin-based Palestinian artist’s current midcareer survey, curated by Ruba Kartrib, at MoMA PS1 in New York. With a runtime of just over an hour, Manna’s work follows Arabs who wander fields picking herbs, searching for their favorite green provisions—za’atar and aakoub, primarily—and lavishes attention on the sensory beauty of the activity, its embodied entanglement with the environment, and the transmission of this tradition across generations in the Levant. Manna also casts a critical eye on the Israeli legal system, which has criminalized the foraging of wild plants. In 1977, the Israeli government banned the picking of za’atar; in 2005, it outlawed the foraging of aakoub. These are basic staples of Arab cooking, used for centuries for their nutritional and medicinal properties. Foragers thus stages the dual histories of the word, placing a tender form of nourishment alongside the violent enactment of colonial dispossession.
For Palestinians, foraging is repair, continuity, survival, existence. Toward the end of the film, a man named Samir appears in Israeli court for repeatedly violating the mandate against picking wild za’atar and aakoub. He calls the Israeli prohibition “shit” and says he’ll continue to forage. “I hope I will be caught again in 2050 with my children and grandchildren,” he says. “I’ll continue the path of my grandparents. That is my truth.” Samir’s truth, like that of many Arabs, is that foraging is intimately tied to the protection of Palestinian life and worlds and, as such, is a political act. “Viva, viva Palestina!” shouts another forager as he is caught by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.
Yet as the bifurcated linguistic legacy suggests, others understand foraging as accumulation and pillage. Manna interviews a plantation manager who cultivates ‘aakoub on a kibbutz for Palestinian consumers. He explains that the foraging ban is a matter of environmental protection, to keep the plants from “going extinct.” Such logic is repeated throughout the film: Israeli laws exist to save supposedly endangered species from those who have consumed them for millennia. But later, the same man reveals the truth: “Aakoub and za’atar are banned because Arabs like them very much.”
The film’s oscillation between the perspectives of those who view foraging as a necessary ritual of stewardship and those who view foraging as illegal theft encapsulates Manna’s aesthetics and politics. The contrapuntal is Manna’s method, and at its core is the staging of stasis and movement, the immobility of the archive and the dynamism of life. For a decade, Manna has worked with historical archives. Her early film A Sketch of Manners (Alfred Roch’s Last Masquerade), 2013, takes as its anchor a 1924 photograph of Alfred Roch, a member of the Palestinian National League who hosted wild costumed bacchanals in his home. Manna uses contemporary performers to reenact the last of these fetes but shifts its location from Jaffa under British Mandate in 1924—which was relatively calm, especially if you were, as Roch was, a wealthy businessman—to Jerusalem in April 1942. In so doing, she puts the event in proximity to the Biltmore Conference of May 1942, when a group of Zionist leaders made a call for unrestricted Jewish immigration to Palestine. Manna intersperses her imagined narrative with three archival photographs, counterposing the authority of the archive with her own fluid narrative, exploding the historical continuum and conjuring alternate possibilities.
Manna counterposes official archives and archival drives with a practice that wilds those drives.
The basic tension in Manna’s work—between the frozen and the motile, the preserved and the possible—is also present in her 2016 film A Magical Substance Flows into Me, based on the archives of the early-twentieth- century queer Jewish German musicologist Robert Lachmann. For more than an hour, Manna presents a sequence of long shots of contemporary performances by musicians from the groups Lachmann studied—Coptic Christians, Yemenite Jews, rural Palestinians, among others—as they play in the intimacy of their homes. Manna intercuts these shots with footage of herself handling Lachmann’s photographs, pages from his research papers, and recordings from his 1930s radio program on “Oriental” music (to use the term Lachmann and many others of his day employed in describing the Arab world’s cultures). Using then-novel technologies such as record players and radios, Lachmann aimed to preserve intact and disseminate “pure” musical traditions. Like in A Sketch of Manners, A Magical Substance Flows into Me breathes life into Lachmann’s moribund recordings, presenting the cultural traditions not as stopped in time but as in perpetual metamorphosis, always part of the present tense of life.
In Wild Relatives, 2018, Manna follows the rebuilding of a seed bank and research institute, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), after the Syrian war forced its relocation from Aleppo to Lebanon. Manna’s video pays equal attention to the gargantuan international efforts to archive and preserve seeds (ICARDA retrieved backup seeds from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway) and to the everyday lives of the Syrian refugees who work ICARDA’S fields—and who build their own communal seed banks for sharing with one another.
In these films, Manna contrasts the personal and affective act of collecting with institutional archival practices that can serve as instruments of colonial rule. Manna counterposes official archives and archival drives with a practice that wilds those drives through quotidian, embodied life. She probes the matter within archives and surrounds it with sensing bodies, always in motion—for that is life—despite ongoing ruination. There is a distinct move from literal archives consisting of photographs, manuscripts, and recordings to a more expansive and conceptual look at how archival functions are at play in other, less obvious settings. In Foragers, for example, Manna suggests that environmental preservation is itself an archival practice—one that, in the Israeli case, serves the aims of settler colonialism.
Most of Manna’s films emerge as an extension of previous efforts, not always in the most straightforward of ways. Magical Substance is a continuation of Sketch of Manners, and Foragers flows out of Magical Substance. After shooting Magical Substance, Manna took a foraging trip with her parents, and the memory of picking wild herbs in a destroyed village stayed with her, eventually becoming a recurring image in the later film, which also includes moments from Manna’s parents’ daily life, foraging trips among them. As in much of her work, the sensual and the emotional persist alongside the documentary.
MANNA DID NOT go to school to study film. She taught herself about the moving image by obsessively watching touchstones such as Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963), with its crosscut edits; Thom Andersen’s experiments with durational cinema; Éric Rohmer’s scripting of daily life and family relations; Claire Denis’s Beau Travail (2000), for its choreography of sound and image; and Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s Ici et aielleurs (Here and Elsewhere, 1976), for its portrayal of the Palestinian revolution. Her training includes an MA in aesthetics and politics at the California Institute of the Arts and a BA from the Oslo National Academy of the Arts. Her meticulous research and physical immersion in the act of making extend across her films, installations, and sculptures in clay.
Indeed, another contrapuntal aspect of Manna’s practice is her deft movement between the seemingly discrepant media of narrative film and ceramic sculpture. Through both, the artist addresses what makes spaces livable and who is allowed to inhabit them (sculpture is above all a genre about claiming space). Though her sculptures have not received the critical attention her films have, they are equally incisive and complex. If Manna’s films juxtapose archival practices with embodied life, her sculpture looks squarely at occluded histories of the built environment in Palestine, Lebanon, Morocco, and elsewhere. Her 2018–19 “Water-Arm Series,” exhibited at Douglas Hyde Gallery in Dublin as a counterpoint to Wild Relatives, took inspiration from both agricultural irrigation infrastructure and the problem of water scarcity. Israel controls 85 percent of the West Bank’s groundwater and deprives many Palestinian villages of a vital supply. Manna’s muscular ceramic drainage pipes dangle from the ceiling and sprout from corners, suggesting an attachment to larger networks, as they likewise plug into such charged themes as environmental racism, industrial pollution, resource theft and redirection, and lack of sanitation.
The “Water-Arm Series” works also allude to erotic penetrations, featuring fitted cuffs that nestle into one another’s lips just so. Indeed, many of Manna’s ceramic sculptures, with their limbs, organs, and charged zones of connection, display an acute awareness of the corporeal capacities of clay. Her 2021 exhibition at the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen, “Thirty Plumbers in the Belly,” linked human digestion to the municipal sewage systems that manage and contain this process. Wrinkled tubes snaked and sagged, their mouths agape. Nearby, disconnected pipes with flanged joints shambled across the floor. Wooden armatures covered with scaffolding dust sheets divided the room, evoking the improvised resourcefulness that emerges from scarcity. Normally hidden from view, municipal infrastructure relies on ongoing maintenance and robust accountability to function, but Manna’s exposed fixtures visualize malign neglect.
Her ceramic bits of bread—some encased in plastic bags and installed on a low metal platform, others scattered on bricks along the gallery edge—recall the tradition of setting leftover bread outside to be taken by strangers, which, as Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins writes, is a “social act legible to Palestinians across religious and political affiliations.” In her book Waste Siege: The Life of Infrastructure in Palestine, she highlights an “ethical precarity around disposal.” Manna clearly takes pleasure in the hands-on process of sculpting the bread, relishing close attention to indentations, thumbprints, and dimples, as well as the texture of rot. She gestures to the many parallels between baking and ceramics: Kneading dough is akin to molding clay, and both substances are finished with fire. And Manna connects these leftover remnants of flat circles of taboon and thin curled lengths of ka’ek to food insecurity, the volatile politics of waste management, and the collapse of the domestic and the public in conditions of crisis.
Manna recently discovered that ancient ceramic bread fragments, similar to those she was already creating, had been found in archaeological sites in Italy. That these were likely sacred votive offerings to female fertility goddesses reinforced for Manna how long food and reproduction have been understood as the purview of “women’s work.” The labor of providing sustenance for a household amid deprivation is often feminized, and Manna’s sculpture is decidedly feminist. Its precise organicism—or organic precisionism—grapples with porous membranes of architecture and flesh, evoking chambers, systems, and skin. It is reminiscent of the art of such contemporary figures as Portuguese artist Leonor Antunes (who also sculpts spaces, with her dividers, joints, and grids), the Iranian German Nairy Baghramian (with her abstracted pieces that gesture to interdependence and relationality), and the Chilean-born Johanna Unzueta Rivas (with her textile conduits). Manna’s work further summons twentieth-century forerunners such as Louise Bourgeois, Betty Woodman, and Palestinian artist Vera Tamari, who were also attuned to the gendered associations of shapes that have orifices and protrusions. Tamari, in particular, is pertinent, given her call to work with materials drawn from local traditions “in the spirit of self-reliance—as dictated by the intifada.”
Across her sculpture, Manna draws at once from past modes of habitation and present-day conditions of occupation. For her 2014 exhibition “Menace of Origins,” at New York’s SculptureCenter, she displayed architectural fragments—staircases, slabs of foundation, plinths—that appeared to have been unearthed during archaeological excavations and, in turn, elaborated on the removal of artifacts from historically Palestinian locations by Israelis. The “Cache Series,” 2018–, stems from her research for the Riwaq Centre for Architectural Conservation, a Ramallah-based organization dedicated to the preservation of architectural heritage. During a 2015 research trip with Riwaq, she visited abandoned homes in the West Bank, where she photographed khabyas, a type of seed storage unit. Found in rural areas throughout the Levant, these ingenious yet neglected cubbies are the ancestral precursors of today’s seed vaults, and Manna began translating their blocky forms into arresting sculptures.
With their gently curving geometries, wonky legs, and sensual holes, Manna’s “Caches” sculptures are part dwelling, part creature.
As in Wild Relatives, seed storage in her sculpture is both a literal lifeline and a metaphor for wider ideological divisions; Manna implicitly contrasts the local, collective, and handmade khabyas with the centralization and standardization of industrial agriculture. With their gently curving geometries, wonky legs, and sensual holes, Manna’s “Caches” sculptures are part dwelling, part creature, enlivened by an expressive, anthropomorphic appeal. They are at once funny, strange, and tragic. Across her sculpture, she makes quite deliberate choices around color, often referring to the palettes of Arab architecture. Manna has finished the ceramic forms of the “Caches” with tadelakt, a long-established Moroccan technique for creating a smooth, water-resistant surface by laboriously rubbing lime-based plaster with stone.
Manna’s use of tadelakt speaks to her interest in returning to traditional Mediterranean crafts and other artisanal practices—some of which have been marketed by capitalism as stuck in time, relics to be consumed—as she looks to handmade heritage for ways to stage a dialogue with the past. With her “Caches,” she resurrects old techniques and forms, reanimating them to explore a rich terrain of a shared material culture. Both her ceramics and her films grapple with the porousness among regions, periods, and genealogies—as well as with the forces (borders, regulations) that militate against such traffic. In her films, she transposes the now with the then, evincing the fluidity of history as it seeps beyond the neat compartments of regimented archives.
Manna’s ceramics also teem with life, as they seem subject to moving and are laid out as offerings, inviting us in. With her unconventional mechanics of display in institutional contexts—including careful attention to pedestals, platforms for her bread, and framing devices for her installations—Manna connects her critiques of storage to museum protocols that likewise seek to freeze history. In this, she is in dialogue with artists such as Noor Abuarafeh and Emily Jacir, who seek to stem the loss of Palestinian collective memory by delving into the practices of everyday life.
The storehouse emerges as a crucial theme. Manna reveals how a range of “storehouses” (from boxes of yellowing photographs to massive vaults of seeds to audio recordings of musicians in their home) can contain much more than they appear to. These repositories can hold secrets, yielded in fragments. Manna presents her sculptures as components of quasi-architectural installations that one can apprehend durationally from multiple directions as one moves around them, inspecting them from different angles and positions in space. Like a cinematic story, their facets are unspooled over time. And temporality is another theme across Manna’s oeuvre, regardless of medium or genre. What histories will survive? Whose archives will endure? Which futures will take hold? The artist gravitates toward seeds as vessels for her concerns about preservation, fragility, and possibility: Each tiny seed is its own storage container, stubbornly and willfully awaiting the right conditions to energetically burst forth.
“Jumana Manna: Break, Take, Erase, Tally” is on view through April 17 at MoMA PS1, New York.
Natalia Brizuela is a professor of Spanish and Portuguese and film and media at the University of California, Berkeley; Julia Bryan-Wilson is a professor of LGBTQ+ art history at Columbia University. They are frequent collaborators.