Sharif Waked’s video Bath Time is a 5 minute video of a donkey standing under running water. It’s simple. White tiles, uneven grout and neon lights imply that we are either in a typical non-descript gym or someplace industrial. There are eight shower heads above our protagonist, we don’t see the actual hardware, just the jets of water. She is wearing a minimalist white harness; one strap encircling her whole head, one across her nose, and a third under her chin. A rein/lead (?) is clipped into the harness but the end of the rein is out of frame; someone or something is holding the donkey in place. We see her in profile, the camera angle never changes, and, excusing the occasional blinks and ear flicks, she never moves. The only complication is the donkey herself; she’s been painted to look like a zebra. As the water runs, bold black and white stripes stream away to reveal patchy concrete-grey skin. The video is 5 minutes long.
Viewed in a vacuum, without any explanatory texts, Bath Time triggers a multitude of issues de-jour: identity, the exotic, make-up, performance, subjugation, passing. But the context, the fact that Bath Time was inspired by true events is... overwhelming.
In 2009, after suffering much damage to his zoo during an Israeli incursion, a Gaza Zoo-keeper painted two donkeys as zebras. His original zebra pair had died of starvation, his ostrich and camel had been killed in an air strike. He didn’t have the funds or means to acquire more exotic animals. Donkeys are aplenty in Gaza, so he improvised.
Sharif Waked created Bath Time in 2012. I saw it in 2012. I revisit it frequently.
Last month, I finally got a chance to talk to Waked about it:
SARAH BURNEY: Hello, thank you so much for talking to me about Bath Time. It’s haunted me since 2012!
Sharif Waked: My pleasure, thanks for your interest .
SB: Is it odd to still be talking about this piece 5 years later?
SW: Well for me it’s always odd to be talking about my own work even 5 hours later. I usually try to find a way out of it, and never for good reasons! But I like the question because this piece is undeniably about temporality, a narration of time passing. Let me tell you something that maybe I shouldn’t: I have a ‘better’ version of this piece that I uneasily dismissed because it’s cut from different takes. I wanted to have the piece in one shot, a continuous sequence, sort of happening in real time. And I never could convince my model to be patient enough to achieve that.
To go back to your question in case you’re wondering about the piece's relevance after these years, I should say that I hope so.
SB: Can we talk about 2009 through 2012 -- the time between the story of the faux zebras making news, and your creation of Bath Time... Did the idea of this piece strike you in 2009? Did it germinate for 3 years? What made you create this in 2012?
SW: Recently I started thinking to date my works by the time the idea is consolidated rather than the time it’s executed. Maybe it’s not a bad idea. You know, I am still working on a piece about ISIS's destruction of the Mosul museum in Iraq back in 2012. Last year, I was jokingly told that I better get this piece done before ISIS itself vanishes!
That is to say that I am never really anxious about the time gap between the art piece’s appearance and its referential moment if it has one. But this is only two thirds of the truth, because you also need somebody to finance these things. I don’t remember in the case of ‘Bath Time’ how long it waited until it was financed by the Aix En Provence museum in France for a group exhibition.
SB: The simplicity of this video makes it very powerful. Did you always imagine it as this stripped down image? Had you envisioned other iterations? What did you decide not to include?
SW: Yes, but I aimed for a ‘better’ removal of the make up. I couldn’t reach that in one shot, you cannot imagine how complicated the production itself was. Enaya, the donkey, was a high maintenance model.
SB: In 2012, when this piece was shown in China, the gallery published a catalogue and for your contribution you did a fake interview* with our lead, Enaya the donkey. It’s hilarious! Your levity really changed how I viewed the piece, I originally had such a “serious” reaction to it... I totally missed the humor! (*Excerpts below).
SW: The text is certainly sarcastic and funny I think, the piece itself far from that but it’s undoubtedly ironical.
SB: How has this piece been received? Does everyone else see the humor?
SW: I don’t really know, I think you got it right, it’s a melancholic piece…
SB: Why choose this point in the transformation? Why choose the moment when the imposed identity is being stripped away - why not make a ‘make-over’ video documenting the painting of the donkey?
SW: Well, the ‘make over’ documentation is there too. You see, part of the thinking was to imagine finishing a day’s work, washing the body after a performance. Metaphorically speaking, what is washed away is not just the make-up but also the marks that the gazes leave behind.
EXCERPTS FROM INTERVIEW W/ENAYA THE DONKEY
This interview originally appeared in No-Mad-Ness in No Man’s Land, published by Eslite Gallery in 2013 to accompany an exhibition of the same name.
HOW WAS THE SHOWER, ENAYA?
Terrible. I really lost my temper. And really... I mean... have you lost all sense of temporality? It’s never ending... what’s going on here? I’m really not that dirty! By the way, I intentionally pooped in the middle of the shoot. It was the most elegant form of resistance I could think of.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE ON THE SET?
Look, frankly, to me the set looks artificial. It’s too clean, too white. It looks like an art gallery. I don’t like it.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO PERFORM IN GAZA?
Oh, God, that stupid zoo? I mean, look, it was terrible. People’s constant gazes just exhausted me. And the worst really is the political reading of my performance, especially by men. It was really hard to handle their heavy conversations. They didn’t even smile. The irony of my performance went right over their heads. And the women, too! The teachers, especially, were so didactic on those school field trips. The kids were cute and playful. They got what it’s all about— entertainment.
YOU MOVE AROUND A LOT, PERFORMING HERE AND THERE, PLAYING WITH MULTIPLE IDENTITIES. CAN I ASK YOU WHAT YOU THINK OF NOMADISM?
I have no idea. Ask the curators!
Sharif Waked (born in Nazareth, 1964) has exhibited at various biennials, museums, and art venues in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States such as: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Queens Museum of Art, NY; Royal Academy of Arts, London; Tate Modern, London; Gallery of Modern Art, Queensland, Australia; Paris Photo, Carrousel Du Louvre; Sharjah Biennial 9, UAE; Museum of Modern Art of Algiers; The Seconde Riwaq Biennale, Ramallah.
Waked’s work is part of the permanent collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (NY); Sharjah Art Foundation (UAE); Fondation Louis Vuitton pour la création (Paris); Israel Museum (Jerusalem); Queensland Art Gallery, (South Brisbane); and the Barjeel Art Foundation (UAE) among others.
Sarah Burney is an independent curator, writer, and special-projects manager with a focus on South Asian and Middle Eastern contemporary art, emerging NYC artists and contemporary printmaking. Raised between Kuwait and Pakistan, Burney graduated from Wellesley College, and worked with Zarina Hashmi, Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop, Bodhi Art, and Burney Morgan Art Advisory prior to working freelance. She was on the board of the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective from 2014 – 2016.