Culture

Representing Palestine in photographs and videos

AMMAN: For the generation of Palestinians who were exiled from their land in 1948, it was the rusted key and dog-eared land deed. For the generation who lived through the first intifada in the late 1980s, it was the stone and keffiyeh. For the generation who are now enduring the latest machinations of Israeli occupation - characterized by an elaborate network of security measures intended to protect one side and wage psychological warfare on the other - it is the wall and checkpoint that have become the most loaded visual symbols of the current Palestinian condition.

Those two symbols also serve as the fixed points around which an ellipse of an exhibition revolves at Darat al-Funun, an arts foundation in Jordan tucked into a series of old buildings on a site that tumbles down a steep hill on the eastern edge of Jabal Weibdeh in Amman.

The show carries a utilitarian title, "Wall and Checkpoints," and features photographs and video installations by four artists scattered to various points in the Palestinian diaspora. Emily Jacir is a multi-media artist who divides her time between New York and Ramallah, Rula Halawani is a photojournalist-turned-fine art photographer who lives in Jerusalem and teaches at Birzeit University, Dana Erekat is an architect who lives and works in Kuwait and Tarek al-Ghoussein is an art photographer who teaches at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.

At the upper edge of Darat al-Funun, known locally as "The Dara," Ghoussein, 44, has installed two series of photographs in the rooms of an early-20th century building called the Blue House. He has selected each set of images from an ongoing project investigating issues of identity, mobility, barriers and belonging.

In one room, he has placed six images from his "Untitled A" and "Untitled Self Portrait" series flush against the wall. With a clear nod to Albert Camus' take on the myth of Sisyphus, who was condemned to pushing a large stone boulder up a steep hill only to let it roll back down and start over again, Ghoussein's images also explore the slippery iconography of the keffiyeh, which is taken variably as a proto-nationalist symbol, an emblem of resistance and a threat of violence.

Next door, in a black-painted room specially constructed last September by the architect Sahel al-Hiyari, Ghoussein has placed six more images, each printed on rice paper and hung from the ceiling with fishing wire. The effect is such that each photograph seems to float at shoulder level in the tiny rectangular space, luring viewers into the room to navigate a path around and between them (one image echoes the movement of viewers exactly). 

The delicacy of the material contradicts the sturdiness of Ghoussein's subjects, which are huge slabs of concrete, reminiscent of the separation barrier in Palestine but in fact photographed on construction sites in Sharjah.

"I wanted to address the psychological aspects of the wall," says Ghoussein. "In order to do so it was necessary to move away from the physicality of the wall. The transparency and lightness of the rice paper seemed to be an appropriate medium. In addition, I wanted viewers' shadows to be part of the exhibition as they navigate through the layers formed by the images."

This series was previously shown at the Sharjah Biennial in April, but Ghoussein has since added three new images, two of which are decidedly painterly and one of which is decidedly sculptural. Because the space in the Blue House is smaller than the one in the Sharjah Expo Center, the installation here feels more intimate, suffused with a quiet melancholy that acts as a salve for an imagination troubled by images of political, physical and mental closure.

Down the steep exterior staircase to the main building at the Dara, which overlooks the ruins of a sixth-century Byzantine church, Rula Halawani, 41, has also installed two related bodies of work. Inside the entrance, she is projecting a series of still photographs that roll in sequence like a slideshow. Each image depicts the concrete barrier wall near the Qalandia checkpoint at night, illuminated only by the headlights of Halawani's car.

"I wanted very harsh light," she says, explaining that the wall there overruns the road she takes every day to work.

Halawani has often said that she wanted to photograph the wall at night to let it know she wasn't scared, which, of course, suggests that on some level she was.

"The first time I drove that road and saw that [the Israelis] were putting up the bases, I was so mad and I was so scared. When I take pictures, I like to be alone, but I cannot say I was not scared. Whatever happens, I don't want to be scared in my own land. So despite the dogs and the army, I really wanted to feel I could still do it. And I wanted the work to document what I went through, the experience of it."

In a room beyond the first projected series is a second, this time shot during gray and somber winter days, amplifying the relationship between the concrete wall, felled trees and pools of water, emblematic of what many perceive to be an Israeli land grab for Palestinian water resources.

Further into the main building are two projects by Emily Jacir, 35. The first is her monumental "Where We Come From," a work of such scope and power it deserves to be in the collection of (and on permanent display in) a major museum.

As with many of her works, Jacir began with a premise, the execution of which determined the media. Through word of mouth and the placement of a few targeted classified advertisements, she asked Palestinians living in various stages of exile (both within and outside of the Palestinian territories), "If I could do anything for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?" Then she set off to complete and document the tasks she gathered, the idea being that her American passport afforded her a level of mobility not accessible to everyone.

The resulting work is a record of about 30 actions. Each request is printed in black ink on white paper and framed.

"For the exhibition of the work," says Jacir, "I felt the texts should be framed and trapped with a fixed border."

Beside them is their execution, captured in color photographs mounted on cintra.

"I felt the photographs should not be framed because this is a dream," Jacir explains.

"Where We Come From" resonates with emotion, candor, sorrow and humor. In each piece of the project, Jacir's work ostensibly hinges on the fulfilment of a wish. Yet the strength of it swings on the stark horror of what is wished for to begin with, and why those wishes cannot be fulfiled except by proxy.

Go pay my phone bill. Take flowers to my mother's grave. Take pictures of my family, especially my brother's kids. Go on a date with a Palestinian girl in East Jerusalem that I have only ever spoken to on the phone. Go to Gaza and eat sayadiyeh. Go to Haifa at first light, take a deep breath, and light a candle for all those who gave their lives for Palestine.

In a room next to "Where We Come From" is "Crossing Surda (A Record of Going to and From Work)," a video that unfolds on two screens (one large, one small), recording Jacir's twice daily trek on foot through two kilometers of mud. Since March 2001, the only road between Ramallah and Birzeit University (and some 30 Palestinian villages) has been blocked off by an elaborate Israeli checkpoint.

Palestinians wishing to cross must take a service-taxi to one end of the checkpoint, get out, walk like cattle two kilometers to the other end of the checkpoint, and catch another service-taxi to continue their commute.

On the vast no man's land in between, they must trudge through mud and uneven terrain, navigate past soldiers, M16s, armored personnel carriers and tanks. As is their whim, Israeli soldiers may close the checkpoint at any time, using live ammunition, tear gas and sound bombs to clear the Palestinians out.

In December 2002, Jacir tried to film her feet crossing Surda for no other reason than posterity. Because video equipment is forbidden in such sites, she was seized by soldiers who smashed her tape, threw her passport in the mud, held an M16 to her temple and interrogated her for three hours. The next day, she cut a hole in the bottom of her handbag and filmed her cross, back and forth, clandestinely, for eight days.

Finally, on a floor below Jacir's and Halawani's installations are the photographs of Dana Erekat, 27. An architect by training, Erekat began taking pictures, she says, "to escape architecture and architecture school." In 2002, she got permission to enter Gaza unexpectedly. She had just two rolls of film with her, one color, one black-and-white. But on the strength of those pictures, she won a grant from the University of California at Berkeley to continue her work.

In 2003, she traveled to Palestine to take the pictures that were to become the series "Borders Crossing Bodies."

"I wanted to capture daily life," she says. "What you hear on the news is who gets killed, but you don't see the daily realities, how people live."

Like Jacir, Erekat acknowledges her position of privilege and makes it a part of her work, exploring the mechanisms of such privilege along the way. Her photography, like all the work in this exhibition, does not indulge in hysterical polemics and does not take pity on the Palestinians but rather seeks to document the conditions around them and the resilience within them.

The vibe of "Wall and Checkpoints" is a heavy one. You can't help but reach a point where you say, "This is a tragedy. This situation is impossible, untenable, intractable." But what is striking is the fact that such a tightly themed exhibition could carry so many emotional, aesthetic and political resonances. The show is both tight and full.

The overriding artistic impulse, more so than meaningful representations of walls or checkpoints, seems to be the desire to leave traces, to create records, documents and archives of the Palestinian experience, much like the drive, in the terms of political

science, to establish facts on the ground. What is haunting about that is the suggestion that artists are now actually grappling with the threat of real extinction, desperate to record presence in the face of absence.

"The Wall and Checkpoints" is on view at Darat al-Funun in Amman through April 13. For more information, call +962 6 464 3251 or check out www.daratalfunun.org

 

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