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Runa Islam

British-Bangladeshi Contemporary Artist
Born 1970, Bangladesh
Lives and works in London

Runa Islam works with film and cinematographic practices. She is noted for her attempts to situate her complex video responses within the histories of film and cinema. Instead of occupying explicit political positions through her choice of subjects she invites an enquiry into the formal structures of film by which stable ‘meanings’ are created.



Master of Philosophy, Royal College of Art, London


Bachelor of Arts Hons, Middlesex University/ Manchester Metropolitan University, UK

VIEW     Selected exhibitions     Text      Videos      Selected images      View all



Work is implicated with references to other filmmakers

Instead of only pursuing her explorations of form and material practices, Islam also seeks to engage with other filmmakers who have had an impact on the culture of cinephilia and film history. She wishes to inscribe her own presence within it and therefore cites the emancipatory gestures of Nouvelle Vague filmmakers like Godard and Chabrol, their complex negotiations between truth and fiction, and the independent but informed ethic of someone like Hal Hartley. In her work titled Tuin, 1998, she re-stages a scene from Fassbinder's Martha and opens up a space for conversation across forms and cultures around 'a couple’s fleeting encounter'. The strangers approach each other while crossing what appears to be a college campus. As they near their eyes meet and lock while the camera swoops in, spinning around the two actors who exchange a silent intimate moment.

The screen showing the movie is put alongside another screen that shows the shooting of the scene in black and white. Here, Islam is depicting an intimate moment captured in film, as well as its simultaneous deconstruction.

Runa Islam, Tuin, 1998, still from the film.

Mediating for social inactivism

Perhaps one of her most powerful works, The First Day of Spring is quite opposite to the shattering force of movement that characterised Be the first to see... On a trip to her place of birth (Bangladesh), she undertakes an act of wry charity by paying a group of rickshawallahs to remain still and inactive- presumably missing their first day at work- while her frames caress their faces, their rickshaws and their bodies. This is self-reflexivity at its extreme: searching for a new aesthetic while suffering the impossibility of mediating for the ‘good’ of other people.

Runa Islam, First day of spring, 2005, still from a 16mm film, duration 7 minutes.

The role of the restless subject

Islam’s subjects switch from passivity to defiance. They tend to resist the frames of big concepts like History, Nation, Women- and do not allow us to derive false comfort from these ideas. Carving out their own space, Islam’s subjects highlight the importance of everyday struggles for more space, more light and more freedom. They are restless in their purpose of resisting generalization. For instance, Assault shows a series of photographic stills of a man who seemed almost to be blinded by an unseen, polychromatic light source. Islam’s subject winces uncomfortably and makes the viewer feel like a perpetrator rather than an innocent onlooker. Its positioning in this particular exhibition was poignant, establishing the power that resides in something as simple as one’s gaze.

Runa Islam, Assault, 2008, still from a 16mm film, duration 5 minutes 31 seconds.

Films function as a work of verite as much as one of artifice

Runa Islam’s work revolves around the ways in which we consciously approach film texts as fictional or documentary. She attempts to show how the perception of the world is mediated by cinematic and technological representation. In her seminal work Cinematography, Islam uses the camera much as a pen for writing out the word ‘cinematography’. The arbitrary zooms and pans offer a gentle mockery of the idea of image as a sacred and natural mode of exhibiting power relations, while the physical effort draws attention to its own laboured artificiality. The work brings together a series of elements such as an empty cinema space with its luminiscent white screen and artworks being prepared for installation, among many others, to highlight different visualities of film, architecture and art.

Runa Islam, CINEMATOGRAPHY, 2007, still from a 16mm film without sound, duration 6 minutes 39 seconds.

Islam's definition of the space women occupy in films

Although she isn’t a radical feminist, her work attempts to re-locate a space for women in the histories of film. This does not amount to a simple act of situating; rather, through works like Be The First To See What You See As You See It, the female character becomes an agent of anarchic change, breaking tea pots and cups—symbols of gentility and structured patriarchal conventions of her adopted homeland- and moving across the stability of form to pure disintegration.

A looped 16mm film, ‘Be the first….’, 2004, shows a young woman walking through a gallery of fine china displayed on pedestals. After toying with the objects, the woman begins gently pushing dishes, cups, and saucers off their stands to smash on the floor. Having been filmed in slow motion, the act of breaking gets magnified in its intensity and is symbolic of the irreversible nature of transformation.

Runa Islam, The First To See What You See As You See It, 2004, still from a 16mm film, duration 7 minutes 30 seconds.