Runa Islam, Be The First To See What You See As You See It (2004). Installation view at Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. October 22, 2005 – January 22, 2006.

Tanzia Mobarak

Cultural Identity and Diasporic Women: A Spatial Reading of Be the First to See What You See as You See It by Runa Islam


This paper undertakes a spatial reading of Be the First to See What You See as You See It (2004) by Runa Islam, exploring the ways it dramatizes the nature of cultural identity for diasporic women. A Bangladeshi-British visual artist and filmmaker living in London, Runa Islam’s hyphenated identity facilitates a consideration of her oeuvre as that of a diasporic artist. Her first major work Be the First to See What You See as You See It features a woman whose spatial interaction with her surrounding objects apparently criticizes the illusion of a cohesive cultural identity, revealing how fragmented cultural identities continue to exist outside of the threshold of shared cultural meanings. In its spatial reading, meaning a critical evaluation of the woman’s interaction with her spatial surroundings in the film, the paper adopts Stuart Hall’s interpretation of cultural identity either as the result of a shared belongingness and past, or as the realization and trauma resulting from a distortion of those shared meanings. The paper argues that the film, with its disrupted non-linear narrative and constant shift between opposites, reflects the artist’s experiences of the tension and conflict associated with her dual heritage, and makes it a generalizable case for women with diasporic cultural identity.

Keywords: Runa Islam, Be the First to See What You See as You See It, Spatial Criticism, Diaspora, Cultural Identity.

Be the First to See What You See as You See It is an acclaimed work by the Bangadeshi-British filmmaker Runa Islam which seemingly contains the tension and conflict associated with the artist’s dual heritage. Runa Islam was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh but was raised in London, UK, where she continues to live and work. Several of her works have appeared in international exhibitions and festivals. Her first major work Be the First to See What You See as You See It (2004) ultimately nominated her for the Turner Prize of 2008. The film shows a woman in a room with porcelain objects displayed on tables, and by the end of the film, we see her pushing these objects off the table expressionlessly. The present paper attempts a spatial reading of this film, that is, a critical evaluation of the woman’s interaction with her spatial surroundings in the film, exploring the ways it dramatizes the nature of cultural identity for diasporic women. The critical framework for this paper is borrowed from Stuart Hall’s 1994essay “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” an echo of which can be detected in the title of present paper as it contextualizes Hall’s conception of “cultural identity” and “diaspora” for diasporic women. The paper argues that Runa Islam’s film is broadly a reflection of the tension generated from the dual nature of her cultural identity. In the following sections, the paper elaborates the conceptual framework and technical terms utilized for its spatial reading, then it offers an overview of the contents of the film, next it offers a spatial reading of the film to explore the nature of cultural identity for diasporic women, and finally, it shares concluding remarks.

The paper broadly connects two critical fields i.e. diaspora criticism and spatial criticism in its venture. The term “diaspora” originates from a Greek verb which means “to disperse” (Macey 2000, 98). Stuart Hall contends in his essay “Cultural Identity and Diaspora” that diaspora does not refer to “those scattered tribes whose identity can only be secured in relation to some sacred homeland to which they must at all costs return” (2004, 438). It will become the same old “imperialising” and “hegemonising form of ‘ethnicity’” then (438). Instead, Hall argues, “[d]iaspora identities are those which are constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformation and difference” (438). Cultural identity becomes a crucial aspect in his explanation of diaspora identities. According to Hall (2004, 435), there are two ways of understanding cultural identity. In the first and more general case, identity comes from “common historical experiences and shared cultural codes which provide us…with stable, unchanging and continuous frames of reference and meaning” (235). In the second case, cultural identity stems from a realization that one can no longer speak “with any exactness, about 'one experience, one identity', without acknowledging its other side - the ruptures and discontinuities” resulting from the intervention of history (235). It is noteworthy here that the paper maintains a distinction between “diaspora” and “diasporic” identity following Ashcroft et al. (2006, 426). The term “diaspora” is often used in critical debates to refer to dispersal of people from a specific location such as when we speak of “Indian diaspora” or “African diaspora” or “Jewish diaspora” etc. (426). The term diasporic identity, on the other hand, emphasizes that identities are “constructed and reconstructed by individuals in their everyday life” (426). A crucial area in the understanding of the nature of diasporic identities can be spatial criticism, since dispersal of masses is associated primarily with spatial violence and displacement. According to Robert T. Tally, spatial criticism examines not simply the “places themselves” but also explores individual experiences of place as well as “the interrelations between lived experience and a more abstract or unrepresentable spatial network that subtly or directly shapes it” (“Preface” 2018, viii). An important concept for this paper here is the notion of “lived” space, which has been theorized by notable spatial critics such as Henri Lefebvre and Edward W. Soja. Lived space, in this paper, refers to an individual’s experience of her space; space that can be both a construct or product of “social processes and human interventions” and a force that delimits the actions of an individual in a given space (Wegner 2002, 181).

Be the First to See What You See as You See It (2004) by Runa Islam runs for seven minutes and thirty seconds along with synchronized sound. It features a young woman moving through “a museum-like display of” Chinese ceramics such as cup, saucer, hand-bell to call the servants, etc. (Clarke 2010). She gently toys around with the objects with “a look of vague bafflement on her face,” as if she has never seen anything like these before (Clarke 2010). The whole time as the young female “scrutinizes, uses, and then proceeds to shatter” the ceramics, her “blank blue-gray gaze never quite intersects with that of the viewer” (Owen 2005). Moreover, her “pale, expressionless face” seems to invite “comparison with [the] porcelain” on display (Owen 2005). However, she gently starts pushing the objects off the pedestals and tables. The whole process of the objects falling and then breaking into pieces one by one is filmed in slow motion, accompanied by sharp shattering sounds that intensify the effect. Sharp contrasts can also be identified in the film such as order versus disorder, construction versus destruction, silence versus noise, and calm versus violence.

There is a possible link between Runa Islam’s experiences of living with a hyphenated identity and the nature of the film she has produced. One can detect three major segments in the film narrative. Firstly, the viewers see a woman in a confined room with no doors or windows, who moves about to observe some porcelains on display, acting as if she feels a stranger to that setting. To the viewers, however, the woman is as much on display as the porcelain objects on the tables, for she even resembles the objects in her appearance. The room reminds us of a doll’s house, which perhaps generates a cultural expectation among the audience of how the woman is going to act in the given setting. Secondly, the woman interacts with the confined space in a manner as if she is not acquainted with the place. The woman even heightens up the patriarchal cultural expectations through her interaction with the objects, i.e. we see her having tea in a British manner. The young woman’s baffled exploration of the organized porcelain on display, the cups as teapot, can be interpreted as similar to the experiences of a diasporic subject in the presence of an unknown culture. For the women however, diaspora is often more of a change in the setting of the private and confined realm, not the confinement and restrains imposed on the women in general. Hence, the diasporic women are doubly colonized by patriarchy and colonizing culture in general. Nevertheless, the silence on the part of the woman and her expressionless face creates a tension from the beginning of the film. Finally, we find the woman pushing the porcelains off the tables. According to Clarke, it is no coincidence that Islam chose smashing of “teapots and cups,” which are basically “traditional symbols of British gentry” and may represent “a way of critiquing England’s colonial past” (Clarke 2010). A similar notion is suggested by Owen (2005), who interprets the destruction of organized ceramics as the refusal of colonial heritage. What is important to note here is that it is not an angry throwing of the objects; rather, she simply pushes the objects off the table. If we consider the edge of the tables as border or a secure realm of cultural identity and the objects as people whose violent displacement is occurred when pushed off the table, we can say that the objects still continue to exist even outside the illusory secure realm of cultural identity, but in a fragmented / hybrid manner. It is in the latter case that the trauma and violence associated with colonialism is revealed. What is striking is that the objects continue to exist in a seemingly edgeless realm in multiplicity.

In conclusion, the paper offered a spatial reading of Runa Islam’s Be the First to See What You See as You See It (2004) in order to explore the nature of diasporic identity of women. Tha paper adopted the critical framework from Stuart Hall’s essay titled “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” From its reading, the paper also argues that the film is a reflection of the artist’s experiences of the conflict between her dual heritages. The paper contends that the film exhibits the ways former illusory cultural identities continue to exist in multiplicity and fragments following the violence of dispersal. Nevertheless, this multiplicity is full of potentials, as the limits are no longer so firmly drawn. What is crucial for women with diasporic identity is that patriarchy across cultures continues to delimit an exploration of this potential.


Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. “Diaspora.” In The Post-Colonial Studies, edited by Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, 425-427. London: Routledge, 2006.Bottom of Form

Clarke, Bill. “Runa Islam,” Magneta, February 09, 2010,

Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” In The Post-colonial Studies Reader, edited by Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, 435-438. London: Routledge, 2006.

Macey, David. The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory. London: Penguin, 2000.

Owen, Janet. “Runa Islam,” Hammer Projects, October 22, 2005,

Tally, Robert Jr. “Preface.” Mapping Home in Contemporary Narratives. By Aleksandra Bida. Toronto: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Wegner, Phillip E. “Spatial Criticism.” In Introducing Criticism at the 21st Century, edited by Julian Wolfreys, 179-201. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002.

About the Author

Tanzia Mobarak Monisha is an MA student of Department of English, Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh who grew up in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She has presented a number of her research works in both home and abroad. She is also a passionate translator and enjoys creative writing and travelling. Her areas of research interest include: comparative literature, cultural studies, postcolonial studies, spatial criticism, gender studies, marginality, subaltern studies, etc.

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