Palestinian Ghettos in White Wall Galleries
The Problem of Nationality
'It is problematic to define a work by nationality. Cinema has the potential for crossing checkpoints,' punned the Berlin-based Palestinian filmmaker Kamal Aljafari during his question and answer session at the 2012 London Palestine Film Festival (LPFF). Of course, Aljafari's comments can be applicable to any form of art or media and it is a point that comes up repeatedly when it comes to the discussion of art from a certain a national perspective. In the case of Palestine, this has been a nation represented via exhibitions more than any other country, resulting in a ghettoisation of works of art and a reductive framing to their narratives.
Lately, there has been a slew of 'Palestinian' or Palestine-focused group art shows in London. A recent few include Despite (Rich Mix, 7th to 28th December 2012) and Defiance (Stone Space,19th April to 6th May 2012) – two exhibitions organized by London-based curatorial body, Arts Canteen. Both focused on works by established and emerging Palestinian artists based both in Palestine and elsewhere. Then there was Refractions the exhibition inaugurating the new P21 Gallery, explores 'moving images on Palestine' (19th December 2012 to 16th March 2013).
Of course, each of these aforementioned institutions has its own organisational aim, structure, mission, object of focus, and thus curatorial tone. The angles from which they each study, analyse, and present works are distinct from each other. But beyond these particularities, as a result of the recent exhibitions focusing on Palestinian art, it seems a unique space has been carved: a margin within which the 'Palestinian artist' works and exhibits globally as a 'Palestinian'. This arbitrary categorisation is no doubt a reflection on the political situation there, which people look to as a special case of hardship that requires its own tone of resistance and affirmation of existence.
Take Refraction, which looks at contemporary lens-based works relating to Palestine by international artists set in a remarkable new space. Works include a specially commissioned 13-metre collage of archive images worked over in charcoal and ink by London-based duo kennardphillips and a feature film by Canadian filmmaker Michael Hoolboom, Lacan Palestine (2012). Also on display are a series of portraits by Pakistani/Egyptian artist Inzajeano Latif entitled Al Ghurba (Estrangement) (2010). The subtlety of this series – with no visible indication towards Palestine but rather to individuals with pensive expressions in blanch-lit rooms that look like a dream – on one hand feels voyeuristic towards the subject labeled as 'Palestinian' in that they are ordinary people, labeled as 'Palestinians' in an 'estranged' place. But on the other hand, the series also shows how estrangement can be applied more openly as a contemporary human situation by their presentation of ordinary people presented in the differences of their variant lives. It was a series that, as the artist explained, aims to 'dispel the myths and stereotypes of the Palestinian people' and to 'show their diversity as a race'. But categorising the 'Palestinian' as its own race is dangerously interpolative in its own sense. This distanced method of engaging with the Palestinian issue as a political concern is fed by singular narratives that this artist attempts to dispel while feeding into the same cycle of same narrative: Palestinians are victims of a long-standing occupation.
This segregation of Palestinian voices neither challenges nor adds to the narratives that are being played out. The lack of criticality has rendered the 'Palestinian issue' as distant and sensationalised. Ideas sway between emotional motivations that are either placed within a victimised frame or suggest an obvious plea for justice, with language used that feels more suited to political campaigns rather than art concepts. The constant and automatic link between Palestine and political activity, on the part of both curators and audiences, dehumanises the art works by reducing them to stereotypes, reinforcing the idea of Palestine as separate, unique and desolate, in what is narrated as an ongoing victimhood. Ultimately, this stands as a betrayal to the development of images and ideas of self-determination.
Meanwhile, Arts Canteen, which focuses on Middle Eastern and Mediterranean arts in general, has focused on Palestine with their two latest exhibitions, Defiance and Despite, with the latter leaning towards Gaza specifically. The exhibition titles themselves insinuate an undertone that focuses on the difficulties of living and working in Gaza and greater Palestine. Further to that is the difficulty of getting the works out of the country and sold to international buyers. While the works range between reflections on occupation and other abstract ideas on freedom, there is a certain victimised underlay about both exhibitions set by their titles alone. Such a view feeds into systematic audience expectations that seek a certain imagery of victimhood and the need for nationalistic determination, a cycle of stereotyping that denies any human aspect present in artistic expressions.
In a slightly different category is Points of Departure, the Delfina Foundation's current residency exchange project between their London base and Ramallah's ArtSchool Palestine, which will culminate in June 2013 with an exhibitionat the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) As a yearlong program, the Delfina Foundation's Points of Departure sits separately from the two aforementioned exhibitions, looking at a concept shared by people coming from two cities. As an exchange residency among two curators and six artists between London and Ramallah, the idea is that the resulting exhibition should speak as much to an English audience as it would to a Palestinian one (having already exhibited in January in Al Mahatta Gallery in Ramallah (15th January to 7th February 2013). Through the exchange, a theme was decided on: 'liminality' – an anthropological term referring to ambiguity and disorientation, applicable to the artists' reflection on place, identity and parallel histories. The artists reflect on this in abstract, poetic and interactive ways with the focus on liminality's productive qualities born of its hybrid state.
Speaking to Bashar Hroub, one of Points of Departure's six artists, and Aaron Cezar, Founding Director of Delfina Foundation at the beginning of the residency in June 2012, we discussed the complexities of pigeon holing 'Palestinian artists' and the saturation of politicised images coming out of it. Hroub noted that the best thing about residencies for him was the opportunity to gain knowledge on international art movements that he is unable to access in Palestine where he lives and works due to limited art education and exposure, something Points of Departure interrogates with success. Having access to a plethora of museums and cultural institutions invoked works that allowed for a cross-cultural, even if at times realistically contentious, exploration of histories, mythologies and economic conditions.
While artists in Palestine struggle with the aim to get out of the reductive 'Palestinian' box, curators continue to put them back in it. Though nation-centric exhibitions are somewhat outdated, they are still common, especially in reference to Palestine.The result comes across as less artistically merited and more politically inclined, whereby works responding to the horrors of occupation are sacred and beyond criticism because of the politics they are reflecting on, while lacking self-criticality to the reality of the situation.
Among the ideas within the Palestinian narrative is the desire to be part of the world, as a country and as a people with a culture, history and future, not unlike anyone else. The ongoing norm of group shows based on national categories should be looked at more perilously and opened up to greater, more thought-provoking and critical dialogues due to their artistic, rather than political, merit.
Malu Halasa's review of Refraction at P21 Gallery for Ibraaz can be read here.