‘Why Are You Angry?’ is a collaborative video work by the British painter and filmmaker Rosalind Nashashibi and sculptor and filmmaker Lucy Skaer. The film depicts the everyday lives of modern Tahitian women. They dance, go to work, swim at a waterfall, buy food and drive cars. The title is borrowed from a painting called ‘No te aha oe riri’ (1896) by the French painter Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). Made in Tahiti, the title translates as ‘Why Are You Angry?’.
In a contemporary way, the film explores not only Gauguin’s journey to Tahiti, but also the fetishized representation of women. Gauguin’s work betrays all the clichés of exoticism and of the passive woman. Contrarily, this film returns the gaze: the women look directly back and have been given agency. The video captures their emotions via scenes in which the women appear relaxed, frustrated, vulnerable or uncomfortable. The camera functions as an eye, bringing together everyday observations with mythological histories by merging choreographed and informal footage.
Interview with Nashashibi/Skaer
‘Why Are You Angry?’ is named after a painting by Gauguin. Why did you choose this title for your artwork?
Using Gauguin’s title makes plain the strategy of our film, which is to revisit the uncomfortable strands in his work. We were drawn to a certain ambiguity in Gauguin’s South Seas paintings. Despite his unequal power relation to the female subjects, the works convey the women’s ambivalence towards the artist. This is something that is totally missing from the work of other comparable painters such as Matisse, who also visited the South Seas. Who is asking the question in the title? Who is expected to answer? The women could be addressing Gauguin, one another, or the question might be coming from the painter to the women. We sensed it was the latter. We felt that his choice of title reflected the Polynesian women’s ambivalence towards him. By selecting it, Gauguin acknowledges an air of discord, whether consciously or not. It also implies a misunderstanding or cultural gulf between the artist and the women he painted.
What are the women in the video doing?
In certain scenes, they are static and recreate the same poses as in Gauguin’s paintings. At other times, they are simply doing what you see on screen: taking a break from filming, going about their everyday business or participating in festivities. It was Mother’s Day during our stay in Tahiti, which is a festival that lasts for several days. Women and girls celebrate together with outings and parties, so we filmed family day trips and dance rehearsals. The music from a distant party is present through much of the soundtrack.
Who are they?
The names of the women who participated in the film are all listed in the credits. Rather than saying who they are, we will tell you how we met them. We partnered with the Museum of Tahiti and the Islands. The organisation helped us with our project and introduced us to its accountant’s family. Our Airbnb host was very helpful and appears in the film. We also approached people while we were driving around. One of the women is a professional model.
The work seems to question the interplay of looking and being looked at. Do you feel as though the interplay is different when the subject is a woman or a person from a different cultural background?
Yes, it is certainly different when the subject, or the image-maker, is a woman or has a different cultural background. We are all conditioned differently as to how we negotiate the idea of being seen and the idea of looking. This is what prompted us to investigate both the issues and the potential surrounding the representation of women. We saw the ambivalence in Gauguin’s paintings as a possible crack in the well-known schema, whereby the male gaze attempts to pin down the woman or the ‘other’. We felt we could extend this into a contemporary examination of the difficulties this entails. We don’t use the observational footage we shot with the idea that it is neutral or more neutral than the staged scenes, in fact it is just as loaded with its own power imbalance, as we see throughout the history of ethnographic filmmaking.
Do you sometimes feel watched and, if so, when?
As artists we present ourselves to audiences in many ways, likewise as people in the world. Perhaps it is more interesting for us to answer as artists in this context, since this artwork exposes our ethical position to interrogation and scrutiny. When we show the film in public, we feel as though we are under investigation, and we didn’t want to escape that feeling of responsibility for the work and its moral ambiguities. Nor did we want to sidestep our own colonial past by clearly subverting Gauguin’s position, and thus excuse ourselves. Our film does not resolve its political positioning for the viewer but asks them what they think or feel. It makes for uncomfortable viewing, which is something we regard as absolutely crucial.
What emotions do you hope this work will elicit?
The emotional tone of the film is very important. We resolved to treat the images that we made of the women with the utmost care but, at the same time, not to sidestep any feelings of discomfort or dissent. The static and soundless sections of the film, which show the recreated tableaux from Gauguin’s paintings, create pressure points. These then ‘release’ into less formal sequences in which the women relax, but these are equally problematic to watch as the camera continues to roll, seemingly without permission. The film was made in an experimental way and was not intended to convey a specific position. We wanted to use our image-making of Tahitian women to be the site of an active negotiation. And we therefore want the film itself to pose an ethical question to the audience through temporal, visual and auditory exploration, as opposed to expressing it in words.
Why are you angry?
We’ve thought about this question a lot. But we decided we didn’t want to answer it directly for the following reason: it is a question that presupposes our work is an expression of our own anger. We feel that if we were to answer in such a way that we acknowledge our displeasure, then it would undo all our efforts to have the film be the active interface with our audience. In other words, the question might assume that the artist makes a work to directly communicate a message or moral position. Finally, it could be a bit too literal, removing the power of a metaphor, almost like asking Maya Angelou: “Why does the caged bird sing?”