New Artist Focus: Jemma Desai on Imran Perretta

The questioned body; a body of questions. 

Jemma Desai
Image of a white tiled bathroom floor with a green bath mat. Bare legs and feet can be seen on the centre of the image. A silver model plane is in the centre of the frame, out of focus.
Desh - Imran Perretta, 2016.

Listen to the audio version of this essay on Soundcloud. (Listening time: 9 minutes)


This text was written intermittently between February 2020 and February 2024. Please read / listen to it alongside this conversation between Jemma Desai and Imran Perretta on the occasion of his commission ‘the destructors’ at Chisenhale Gallery in February 2020. A transcript is available here.

A Postscript [1]

I wanted to start the letter at the end, because since sending it to you and preparing it for publication, so much has happened. 

In December 2023 Question of Funding collective released a statement on their instagram page detailing the destruction of the Elitqa gallery space after Israeli bombardment of Gaza.  They write of how after the destruction:

 “local people have entered the gallery and took out paintings and furniture to make fire out of them to make heat and bake bread. They [the gallery artists] said they are sad to know that their artworks have been burnt, but they also asked what is the meaning of art now? Aren’t peoples’ lives far more important?”

In a conversation we had about ‘the destructors’ in February 2020, where we detail your practice more conventionally, you don’t talk about the genocide in Gaza, but you talk about the grief wrought by the social genocides of austerity and state repression, also shaped by geopolitical manoeuvring but disavowed as forms of intentional warfare, also repackaged as acts of necessary collateral damage. 

The Eltiqa gallery statement continues “In a genocide the wooden frame of a painting becomes much more essential than the canvas. what is art in the time of genocide?” and reading this, I think about the letter I have written to you below, which has made the artwork disappear, leaving only the frame around it. How is this frame useful to the people who will receive it, right now, in this moment, which is also an ongoing moment?  

Part of the frame not just now, but always, when we make and receive work about such violence and its effects, must to be to consider, in the ways that we can make material, what the structures around our making and receiving are. How are they part of perpetuating this violence or its obfuscation? And in what ways can (should?) we tinker with the architectures of film making, writing, circulation? Can the image ever confront enough to make it unavoidable for those who wish to eschew it? Can writing or circulation that foregrounds the relational over the analytical, make attending to what gives us pain more possible? Can it help those committed to imaging and re-imaging the suffering of others, while also holding that it should always be unimaginable to bear the impossibility of transmutation differently?   I don’t have the answers, I know that no one person does, we will only know this together. I write and speak to you in this way as a form of extension not as an attempt to foreclose.  In doing this, I witness questioning together as a form of knowledge production in itself.  The answers are not found in your body of work, so I cannot write that others will find them there, but I can say that the body of work is pregnant with questions and in writing to you I join in gestating them, waiting for the answers to be birthed as they ripen into articulation. 

A close-up image features the back of the head of young dark skinned man in the foreground. In the background, three other men, out of focus, are facing him. They are seated in what appears to be a gymnasium with a wooden floor. Bright blue balls are scattered across the floor.
The Destructors, Imran Perretta, 2019.

Dear Imran 

I am so sorry I didn’t write to you last summer.

Or the summer before. 

I have been thinking about how to visibilise, or narrate your films, or even to perform my relationship to them, when I sense an ambivalence to that relationship to seeing and being seen in the works, in your practice, and in the ways that you navigate yourself in the spaces where they are made, and that they are seen and discussed. 

I too have found myself retreating to think about this in my own practice, and so I have been reluctant, avoidant, or perhaps, in reflection in this space that I did not write. 


Here in this space that I have, finally, written, I am becoming aware of my instinct to be nonspecific, aware of my impulse to abstract. I wonder if this is a space of possibility with which to begin the writing rather than a place to close off my ability to write. 

Around this time last summer, instead of writing about your films, I wrote another text. I want to put a passage from that here;  an acknowledgement of that time, but also the limitations of my writing, the limitations of what can be said, but also the possibilities of finding new ways to try:

“It is hard to be a writer and to begin to lose faith in words, but perhaps to be a writer with a healthy distrust of words is to write (or not write) like a dancer. Perhaps to dance-write is to understand the capacious nature of language, to understand that poetry is birthed in the space where narrative is interrupted and kinetic registers enter. It is akin to the moments that film turns into a dance and dance turns into poetry”


                           We have not been here or away.


                                           We have been

in movement.


An exhibition installation featuring a large projection screen at the centre, flanked by speakers on each side. The screen displays a collage of digital images, in the foreground is an image of a person wearing a cloak over the head and bared torso. The person is in soft focus and is overlaid with text that reads: "this deep shame."
brother to brother – Imran Perretta, 2017. Installation shot.

I remember watching your films for the first time and I remember the self that I was then. I remember that self meeting with them and with the things we spoke about in the words we used then forming the things that we learnt together, about each other.  I saw things in the work which I know that I would see differently now, because we have changed and the world has changed and the works change along with them. Your works speak then (at least to me)  to the ways that I began to think about phenomenology as ever evolving. It is not material but it is made of material experiences which make the works solid so that they can come alive for us. 

Today I want to imagine that the material that the works are made out of is an earthy flesh, like clay, rather than stone. As they are made from this fleshiness, I find them hard to speak to definitively, to chisel a new image that would guide the catalogue browser, the festival programmer, the curious researcher, the casual observer. (Perhaps they would like some keywords?  Perhaps you would like to offer some, I would prefer not to offer them for you).  


A wet campground with a frail tent in the midst of muddy scrubland and trees.. This image appears in the foreground, collaged on top of a backdrop image of a police vehicle and policemen, with their faces blurred for anonymity. The words "15 days is my name" appear across the screen in white text.
15 days, Imran Perretta, 2018.

If I take your films apart in my hands, I will find that they are made of light and weight, motion, space, time and sound. But these nonlinear elements come apart/together not in my hands but  inside and outside the fleshy body of their form to assemble a story about your own experiences of being embodied (and of being in flight from the ways you are embodied.) When I’ve seen you show your films I have seen you have to turn away from the ways that people handle these works and make and remake them; categorise the affects they feel, index them alongside what they have known. 

When we have spoken though, I have also seen you turn towards the ways that the works evoke shared experiences with different structures of domination that govern the essence of our appearance and disappearance, embodiment and dehumanisation. 

(The questioned body; a body of questions.)

I think so much of your work appears to me as a struggle with visibility and construction. In the most expansive sense. What is it to be hypervisible in some contexts and not others? How is visibility aroused in some spaces and how is its valence tempered in others?  What does it mean to regard the pain of others and channel it through yours and then share it too? I don’t mean empathy, but perhaps I mean ethical relations, not in a sense of the ethics needed to bridge a chasm of privilege, but the one that might begin a meaningful sense of coalition, or shared heartbreak, or struggle that might turn outwards towards something else. 

I see in this work a questioning of what form this kind of grappling might take. Narration? Poetry? Sound? Music? Beauty (or the absence of it?). Further, when we are finished battling with all of this, should we have to explain and narrate  and revisit each part of the journey we, and only we, have been on? 

So, I suppose, I wonder about my writing here.

How can I write to these pieces without fixing you in time and without asking you first how have they travelled with you? How has the fleshy earth of their matter changed as your body has travelled through time? What does it mean to expand our eyes to these works, lids opening like the sides of two books with so much already written in them? 

With love, 

Jemma x


[1] This postscript was inspired by the postscript in “Next No Art: Boycotts and Bothsidisms at IDFA 2023” by AE Hunt.


Jemma Desai is a writer and facilitator based in London.


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