Every culture is a tribe, a pack, and within it are repressive factions that discourage, legislate, and punish individuals who stray in their behavior or beliefs. The visitors of BCA Center in Burlington might keep this in mind when viewing Sarah Tradthe exhibition “What’s still left.” Images that may seem foreign – the Arabic language, Middle Eastern music and cinema – nevertheless convey relatable themes: self-discovery, acceptance or rejection, generational divides, objectification, grief.
Trad pursues her research through video and felted textiles – a fusion that Heather Ferrell, BCA’s curator and exhibitions director, said in a phone call “unique to my 30 years of experience”. The mids deliver stunning visuals to the viewer, and the materiality contrast is surprisingly pleasing.
Born in 1989 and now based in Philadelphia, Trad describes herself as a queer, Lebanese-American and Arab-American woman; “What Still Remains” is largely an examination of this prismatic identity. But it also questions the representation of identities in the media. For her, in this country, it’s almost non-existent – although her own video work has been widely screened and won awards.
“It can feel isolating trying to find media that reflects your own personal experience,” Trad writes in an artist statement. “I created a body of work around what I thought new narratives might look like, creating various moving image self-portraits that better reflect me.”
Trad appropriates and manipulates scenes from films, music videos and TV shows popular in Arab culture, creating these new narratives in single-channel and multi-channel videos. With found footage as her base, she uses glitches and other stunning digital effects to create mesmerizing and sometimes explosive visual content.
Viewers could pick up on thematic topics such as depression, trauma and hereditary loss, or Trad’s personal confrontation with a complicated racial lineage. Or they can just take a bench in the gallery and let its optical magic wash over them.
Opposite the entrance to the second-story gallery, a screen filling most of the wall shows “How I Met My Grandfather” on a loop for five minutes and 32 seconds. It’s a scene from “Where Do We Go Now?” a 2011 Lebanese film directed by Nadine Labaki, in which a crowd of grieving women – Christian and Muslim – march in choreographed unison towards a cemetery. Trad’s manipulation shows us the crowd from behind and then from the front, making the women bigger and smaller, eclipsing them into kaleidoscopic polygons and making them disappear completely. Again and again. This work is meticulous, says Ferrell in a gallery label:
“Using post-production processes such as rotoscoping, Trad cuts and pastes each frame from the film’s intro scene to visually express the sense of loss she felt after the death of her paternal grandfather – which had served as the artist’s link with the Arabic language and culture.
Lugubrious chants and, at one point, a male voice provide a muffled soundtrack – it seems to come from water or behind a closed door, or from a dream.
On an adjacent, much smaller monitor, a 16-minute single-channel video titled “Abir, Forever” features a dancing woman, dressed in a sheer white sheath, beaded face covering, and black hair that falls to her knees. As she moves sinuously, sometimes staring confidently at the viewer, several individuals sit motionless in a car parked beside her. The desert lies beyond.
This sequence is taken from a video clip of the Moroccan-American singer Abir. Trad uses it to challenge the West’s sexualized and objectified views of “exotic” women in the Middle East. Alternately, the image pixelates, freezes and then bursts into an abstraction of fiery colors. The piece is completely overwhelming. Trad calls it a “dreamy hellscape” in which the dancer is both seductive and demonic.
Two matted rectangles accompany a vertically oriented monitor showing a manipulated clip of Circumstance, a 2011 Iranian-American film directed by Maryam Keshavarz. In the feature film, Iranian teenagers party and experiment with sex, alcohol and drugs. Focusing on a taboo lesbian relationship, Trad’s “Spiral” shows two clearly upset young women lying side by side, filmed overhead. We get up and leave, perhaps signaling the impossibility of their relationship. Trad again uses fascinating repetitions and glitches, emphasizing this heartbreaking break.
Alongside this assemblage, director Maysaloun Hamoud’s 2016 film Between appears, manipulated, in a small screen a few centimeters wide. This film also explores youth culture, this time in Tel Aviv, as well as the disregard for traditional expectations of women.
If Trad’s videos address “hard” realities, his textile pieces are literally soft and pretty, their presence an inherent homage to feminine craftsmanship. Nuno felting does not belong to his ethnic lineage; it is awarded to an Australian woman. But, as for the diverted and manipulated films, Trad appropriates these markers, sometimes incorporating Middle Eastern motifs.
“The fiber installations in this body of work aim to further immerse the gallery space in a playful and colorful sense of teenage girl fandom,” she wrote in her artist statement. “I matted patterns from Turkish ceramics and Moroccan rugs that mirrored doodles I might have found in my teenage diaries.”
Trad leaves the silk backings of the felts as frilly borders and adds fringe to their stockings. These decorative gestures further accentuate the feminine ferocity of the exhibition.
Ferrell, who met Trad during her 2019 residency at 77Art in Rutland, noted that she got involved in felting Nuno during the pandemic. Trad only recently decided to include some of these pieces in his video installation at BCA, Ferrell said. It turned out that the unconventional pairing of mids works.
Textiles add warm color blocks, organic textures and respite from the drama of videos. Trad seems to have created, albeit inadvertently, a kind of visual safety blanket, a refuge from his declared struggles with anxiety, depression and residual trauma. She disrupted her own original narrative, and that feels a lot like comfort.