21. Red Wax Film Reel


1960–1970s CE
1380–1390s AH
Bought from a small shop in the Malaysian community of Mecca, 2011

I conjure the sounds of old projectors, the rattling of the reel as it spins and my images reveal themselves, as fast as they can, before the film burns and the visions are lost. Perhaps your minds are filled with thoughts of old movies, the romance, the stories? Ah, to be such a film would fulfil all my fantasies! But I am an unseen film, though duplicated beyond counting. A government – one that very soon afterwards banished all picture houses – made me. I show the rituals of Mecca for all those planning a visit. I recruit pilgrims, teach them where they might sleep, what sanctuaries they may access. I promote all the brands upon which Mecca was built. Edited, produced, packaged, I was sent to all corners of the globe.

But let’s leave aside my intended purpose and look towards my past, to my comrades, those films that hold tales of drama, love and crime, and were the trigger of our demise. For manmade dreams and illusions are not permitted within these city walls. We were so popular, projected onto any space or thing that could hold an image. On walls, doors, stretched sheets or even the pilgrim’s whites, you would find us. Communities huddled before us, sipping tea and eating dates, awaiting the next chapter. Then one day we were banned. Our owners had to give us up to the wardens, who would take us to the vaults and stack us up roughly, as if we were sacks of potatoes or coffee beans. The picture houses were closed up, thick red wax sealing everything from the film cases to the doors through which people would rush to be the first to the front.

Recently I heard that some of you are protesting. Instead of flocking to your neighbours’ TVs to get that fix of fantasy and imagination, you’ve started your own screenings. A mobile cinema, they say, has been touring the region, the red wax of the seals broken open again. Those who go there know that they shouldn’t enter, but who can resist the roar of the lion and the strike of the gong?

This work transcends the objects. Ultimately, what I’m working with isn’t only the artefacts themselves, but the stories attached to them. For me, each tale is the manifestation of the object, and each object is a tangible materialisation of an underlying narrative. The work finds its equilibrium somewhere between the stories and chronology they’re chaptered into, the objects becoming knots or points along the timeline, woven into stories as part of the language of this artwork. Each story draws out a tale that intends to trigger imagination and memory, mixing fact with fiction, with the ultimate aim of straddling, conflating and confusing fixed notions of history to open up the unofficial histories that shape the character of place and memory.
Ahmed Mater
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