The Many States of Palestine

Blog: Notes In-Between
Author: Charlotte Bank - Date: 24 Jul 2009, 22:15


The Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris is normally not known for spectacular exhibitions of contemporary art, rather for backward-looking celebrations of a former Golden Age of Arab culture. For this reason the new exhibition “Palestine, la creation dans tous ses états“ was expected with much anticipation and substantial hopes for a new, more contemporary outlook of the institute.


The exhibition was opened on the 22nd June in the presence of many artists. Located in a large, temporary exhibition space facing the main building of the institute, it collects works by the grand old names of Palestinian art, Samia Halaby and Kamal Boullata as well as the internationally renowned Mona Hatoum and Khalil Rabah, artists who were among the pioneers in bringing Arab artists to the attention of the international art community. Among the younger generation, names like Emily Jacir, Taysir Batniji, Sharif Waked are on the list. The show is elaborately presented and impressively shows the diversity of Palestinian art, between political alertness, the rich artistic tradition, the conditions of exile and globalized reality. Some of the exhibited works date several years back and allow a glimpse into the newer history of Palestinian art.


Rana Bishara, one of the only artists of the show who is not living in exile, addresses the precarious living conditions of Palestinian children in her installation “Homage to Childhood“ (2002). Suffering Palestinian children are not seldom guests in Western media; however their individual fates seem to drown in the violence-focused covering of events. Bishara succeeds in combining and juxtaposing the poetry and tragedy of Palestinian childhood. In a room of rosy light she has placed transparent balloons on the floor with every balloon containing the photo of a child drawn from the archives of the UNRWA. Each balloon thus embraces a child and creates a fragile shell, not offering any genuine protection, just as easy to break and destroy as the life and security of a child. Hanging from the ceiling of the room are objects reminiscent of halos created out of tulle and barbed wire, tulle with all its connotations of innocence, marriage and family here opposes brutality and violence, symbolized by the omnipresent barbed wire. In Bishara’s installation, life and death is interrelated and intermingled, just as in Palestinian lived reality that does not spare any human being, young or old.


Steve Sabella, originally from the Old City of Jerusalem and now living in London, uses a complex technique of photomontage to investigate his own condition of “mental exile”. His project “In Exile” (2008) draws the viewer into images of multiple perspectives that turn even the simplest view into disturbing and disorienting landscapes. He seeks to deconstruct the familiar in order to recompose it and thus create a new reality through compositions that correspond to the experience of living in constant exile.


In her video “A Space Exodus” (2008), Larissa Sansour offers a five-minutes’ imaginary journey into a bright Palestinian future, far away from the depressing current news. She stages the journey of the first female Palestinian astronaut into space to a landing on the moon, something that only seems possible at the cost of radio connection with the capital Jerusalem. The video is an interesting re-interpretation of Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey of 1968 whose concerns with progress and human existence it reflects. The second video of the artist, “Land Confiscation Order 06/24/T“ (2006) takes us back to brutal reality in the form of a commemoration of the land of Sansour’s family that was confiscated for “security reasons”, like so much of Palestinian land. The artist’s sister and brother recall their memories of the land and the small house that stands on it and celebrate a moving, private ritual of departure from this geographical place.


Taysir Batniji presents a series of 26 photos (“Miradors“, 2008) a typology of watchtowers as used by the occupation forces in the West Bank. Reminiscent of the photographic work of Bernd and Hilla Becher and their documentations of German timber frame architecture and industrial buildings, Batniji’s project serves as an archaeology of control, investigating in an apparently cold and detached way the means of intimidation that regulate the rhythm of life in occupied Palestine.


Compared to these new positions (of which I have only mentioned a few), all of them questioning the significance of symbols and memory, Emily Jacir’s piece, ”Memorial to 418 Palestinian Villages that were Destroyed, Depopulated and Occupied by Israel in 1948” from 2001 almost seem to belong to another era. The subject was also addressed by Rana Bishara in 1998 in the work “531 Villages“, but the most famous piece is the one by Jacir. In a sense, it seems to define a crossroad in Palestinian art history, between earlier cultural practices (such as the regular ritualist naming of destroyed villages) and the new forms of expression of the present millennium with its deconstructive approach to cultural symbols. And it was particularly those new positions that were powerful.


„Palestine, la creation dans tous ses états“ is well worth a visit and collects works of high quality that leave a lasting impression on the visitor. This makes it all the more annoying to the visitor that the organizers found it necessary to accommodate a bazar in the entrance area of the exhibition where belly dance hip scarves are sold alongside hookahs. Those objects are also to be found at the regular shop of the institute. Anybody interested in buying “Oriental” souvenirs would just have to cross the courtyard to satisfy his/her desires. Next to an exhibition of contemporary art this seemed deplaced and recalled earlier days where non-Western art was usually presented within a folklore context rather than as art. And, one could have wished for a larger catalogue in the style of other publications of the IMA. The present small, only 22 pages large catalogue also contain some rather embarrassing statements that speak of the limited specialist knowledge among the organizers. Thus we can read of the increased international presence of Arab artists that only “go back two or three years”. But these points of critique do not change the fact that the exhibition is good and that the contemporary orientation of the IMA has received a good start. Hopefully, we can look forward to more exciting projects in the future.







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