#occupation #migration #civilrights #globalization #fundamentalism
“Only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core.”—Hannah Arendt
“They were forced […] to condemn us without believing in our existence.”—Claude Cahun
The horrific images emerging from Gaza in the past weeks have displaced any other visual reference in my mind, artistic or otherwise. While artists have historically played a substantial role in reporting on and responding to the tragedy of war, that immediate responsibility has shifted, since the advent of photography, to photojournalists. The question of whether overt political content is well served by art and vice versa is presently an open one that I will leave to others for the time being. Even so, art has an undeniable importance in times of conflict, in that it has the capacity to humanize those whom political and military interests are better served by dehumanizing. Here are a few such projects, presented as a corrective to the systematic denial of Palestinian humanity currently being waged in American media.
In Aissa Deebi’s film The Trial (2013), the artist deliberately invokes Kafka’s tale of bureaucratic torment while commemorating the trial of Palestinian writer and activist Daoud Turki, a leader of the nondenominational Israeli Left who was imprisoned from 1973 to 1985 on charges of treason against Israel. Deebi casts three actors to reenact Turki’s interrogation and defense in what amounts to an absurdist play committed to film. Absurdity is inevitable in a circumstance where the defendant on trial—an Israeli Arab Muslim—is himself an oxymoron according to the prosecution, a state that legally denies the possibility of his existence. Similarly, absurdity is a fact of daily life in occupied Palestine, and humor a necessity for survival but still a characteristic rarely permitted to Palestinians by the international community that tends to objectify the whole lot as either victims or terrorists.
If Khaled Hourani’s Picasso in Palestine (2009–11) seems similarly absurd, this in itself demonstrates how the media portrayal of Palestinians tends to excise their humanity, in the eyes of the world and of Palestinians themselves. Hourani, an artist and director of the International Academy of Art Palestine in Ramallah, was on a visit to the van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, when he had what seemed a crazy thought. Listening to his guide extol the many distant lands to which works in the museum’s collection had travelled, he wondered if it were even imaginable to bring a masterwork from the collection to Ramallah. Charged with selecting a work to request, Hourani’s Palestinian art students were incredulous, but ultimately selected Picasso’s Buste de Femme (1943). Even with the van Abbemuseum on board, insurance coverage was nearly impossible to obtain given that Palestine is defined extralegally, by exclusions and by Acts of God. The trajectory of the work transported across contested border zones and the paper trail created by a stifling bureaucracy that thwarts his countrymen daily became elements of Hourani’s final work, as did a drawing of the Picasso made by an imprisoned man whose isolation did not prevent him from sharing in the historic event. Despite the intimidating figures of two armed guards who frame the painting in Hourani’s video, visitors to the display were euphoric at the realization that culture and a life of the mind were concepts that could actually be available to them and relevant to their lives. Now permanently ensconced in the historical provenance of this work, Palestinians gain another small acknowledgement of their existence and their history.
Youmna Chlala and Jeanno Gaussi’s Home Sweet Home—Jerusalem (2010) is a video, artist book, and installation created in an apartment in Jerusalem that is an archive of displacement and denial. This home is maintained by a Palestinian woman who must keep her address to preserve her right to work in Israel, while her husband is restricted to the West Bank. The site becomes a facsimile of a home in which an ongoing performance of living takes place—a necessary charade, given Palestinians’ economic dependency on Israel and the constant policing of their movements. Unwilling to suffer without either her job or her partner, this woman is a constant presence despite her absence within the home. The artist book is a record of each object within the home, while the video captures rituals of domesticity performed as a spiritual intervention that shifts the pragmatic context of the apartment to a dream space of potential reconciliation.
Sama Alshaibi has made numerous works about her experiences as a Palestinian born into exile. In Birthright (2004), In This Garden (2006), and My Apartheid Vacation (2005), she speaks to her privilege as one who can return to the land that her grandparents were forced to flee, and to the pain of her family’s further displacement from Iraq to the United States, an uprooting that ironically enabled her return as an American, immune to Israeli sanction. Birthright addresses the dehumanization of Palestinian mothers whose loss is determined to be less real and in which they are deemed more culpable than Israeli mothers who have also lost children in the war. My Apartheid Vacation chronicles Alshaibi’s return to Palestine, in which the class anxiety of the expatriate is magnified tenfold against the recognition of her countrymen’s suffering. In This Garden documents the incongruity of Alshaibi’s American lifestyle with her Palestinian roots. She writes, “I don’t want to be nationalistic. I don’t want to be loud. I just want to go there, and for things to be better than they are.” Even these modest hopes convey her disillusionment.
As another round of brutality passes between two communities, each heavily invested in a narrative of their own victimization, it can seem impossible that the disaffection of war could ever abate and make room for joy. Phil Collins’ instant classic They Shoot Horses (2004) masterfully demonstrates that people will seek pleasure even in the worst circumstances. Collins’ film, shot using journalistic conventions, documents a dance marathon in which young Palestinians dance for eight consecutive hours. This grueling ordeal is nonetheless understood as “fun” by both participants and viewers. The emotional trajectory of the dancers from euphoria to fatigue is remarkable because it represents one of the few times when western media has depicted Palestinians as capable of a range of experiences and emotions. The exploitative nature of the project is tangible, with Collins dancing along a fine line between commenting on abuse and reinscribing it. The work is not really addressing Palestinians directly so much as the media circus that feeds on their collective trauma, a trauma that must be reenacted in order for the artist to critique its representation.
Each of these artists speaks only obliquely about the present-day crisis in Israel/Palestine. To address this specific and temporal political condition directly would be to risk preempting insight in favor of ideology. By focusing on the everyday experiences of Palestinians, these artists question the nature of normalcy itself as defined under occupation. Their intention is not to attack the state of Israel or even to question its right to exist. Rather, these works are intended to balance the inequity between the two sides in whatever small ways they can. If wars are won by dehumanization, casting opponents as the enemy, they are ended only by humanization, recognizing that your adversary is also your neighbor.
#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.