Palestinian identity in 18 shards

BEIRUT: Staging an exhibition that aims to encapsulate a particular nationality or sense of national identity is always problematic – even when the country in question isn’t being occupied by another.

With exhaustive representation impossible, the curators’ selection of the artists will likely be questioned and criticized.

In “Bridge to Palestine,” the group show now up at the Beirut Exhibition Center, curator Mark Hachem has chosen to showcase work by 18 artists of Palestinian origin, some living in exile, others in Palestine. Billed as “a cultural dialogue between generations of artists and geographic locations,” the show includes such traditional media as paintings, photography and embroidery, as well as installation and video art.

Whether by chance or design, many of the best-known contemporary artists of Palestinian origin – Taysir Batniji, Samia Halaby, Mona Hatoum, Emily Jacir, Khalil Rabah and Larissa Sansour, say – are nowhere in evidence in “Bridge to Palestine,” except insofar as their work may have influenced the artists on show, most of whom were born in the 1970s.

In keeping with the exhibition’s theme, the artworks all relate in some way to Palestine, the Palestinian diaspora, or Palestinian identity.

Black-and-white photographs by Rania Matar, capturing families in the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon, where Matar was born to Palestinian parents in 1964, are perhaps the most direct.

The documentary aesthetic of these beautifully framed photographs offer a counterpoint to the more abstract, conceptual work. Accompanied by a lengthy text detailing the situation for Lebanon’s Palestinians, they appear to be aimed at an audience unfamiliar with regional history.

Digitally edited photographs by Gaza-based Mohammad Musallam evoke the loss of Palestine in a subtler way. “Palestinian Pearls” captures a woman whose bare neck is ringed with a necklace of plump green olives.

“Cultural Seige” shows a juicy orange surrounded by green foliage. The fruit has been pierced by a thick metal bolt, on which a nut has been screwed tightly enough to compress the fruit. A single drop of juice hangs from the bottom, ready to fall.

Bashir Makhoul’s photographic installation “Wounds” take the medium in another direction. Inspired by the artist’s first visit to Beirut in 1997, the work consists of a series of eight square lenticular prints – pixelated images that change depending on the viewer’s standpoint.

Each square conceals a series of close-up photographs capturing bullet holes in masonry. As viewers move from one side of the installation to the other, the pictures shift, creating a stop-motion or cross-dissolve effect as one gaping hole, a lipless stone maw, is replaced with another, and another. As viewers determine the speed with which the images change, the work becomes interactive, a narrative born of movement.

These experiments in still imagery are complemented by a series of video works. Bashir Alhroub’s “Gateway to Heaven,” shot in the Palestinian refugee camp of Al-Talibiyyeh in Jordan, is a breathless, menacing rush through the camp’s narrow, rubbish-strewn alleyways, empty save for the startling flap of a sheet hanging out to dry, or the peripheral glimpse of a cat streaking for shelter.

Rafat Asad presents a two-channel video installation, entitled “Journey.” Two screens, one labeled “International Arrivals,” the other “International Departures,” each displays a list of flights bound for cities all over the world and operated by well-known carriers. Each is listed as “on time.” Midway down on each list, a flight to Jerusalem operated by Palestinian Airways is simply labeled “waiting.”

It’s a simple but effective commentary of the situation of the millions of Palestinian refugees living in exile, but the 2009 work may remind viewers of Khalil Rabah’s more elaborate 2006 work “United States of Palestine Airlines, London Office.” Rabah created a complex installation, a fake travel agency offering cheap flights to Palestine, consisting of a large model plane bearing the fake logo, a map with redrawn borders, empty display cabinets, five clocks with frozen hands and an empty sofa.

One of the more interesting installation pieces on show in “Bridge to Palestine” is Nasser Soumi’s “Icon to Jafa.” Deployed in its own white cube-style space, the installation features 30 wooden boxes, each containing a handwritten letter, penned by someone who was born in Jaffa, as well as a small glass bottle filled with local seawater, and strips of dried orange peel cut into wave shapes and affixed to an indigo backdrop.

Beside each box is a simple white candle, and below them are a series of troughs filled with water dyed blue with the indigo pigment for which the city was once famous.

A moving tribute not only to the changing face of Palestine since 1948, but to the irrevocable changes wrought by modernization, the installation merits a lengthy perusal.

Lively pop-art style pieces by Leila Shawa, including the butterfly-and-rhinestone adorned AK-47 she prepared in 2012 for the London group show “AKA Peace,” provide a splash of color, while sketches and paintings by Tayseer Barakat provide a more classical element to the exhibition.

Unfortunately, the quality of the work on show is compromised by its presentation. A large sticky smear of glue and dust mars the edge of the flat screen TV bearing Asad’s work. A video work by Aissa Deebi, “The Trail,” a re-enactment of the 1973 trial of Palestinian poet and revolutionary Daoud Turki, was not working at all when The Daily Star visited the show.

More problematic still is the lack of lighting. The diffuse sunlight from the exhibition hall’s skylights provides the only source of illumination, bypassing vertical works almost completely and leaving viewers to peer at the work on show in a dimness that poses an advantage for video works but detracts severely from the rest of the show.

Putting aside these issues, “Bridge to Palestine” presents an interesting accumulation of diverse perspectives on and approach to the concept of Palestine as country with a turbulent past and an uncertain future.

“Bridge to Palestine” is up at the Beirut Exhibition Center until Aug. 3. For more information please call 01-962-000, ext: 2883 or visit

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 04, 2014, on page 16.




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