Palestinian photographer Ahlam Shibli’s show “Phantom Home” at Paris’s Jeu de Paume museum is as much an exercise in reading as it is in looking. Shibli has crafted copious captions to accompany six narrative-style photographic series that broadly examine the notion of home and its loss. It is unsurprising, therefore, that words are at the center of a controversy that has included bomb scares and death threats, pitting artist and institution against vociferous pro-Israel lobbies who demand nothing less than the show’s closure.
Critics have pegged a photographic series “Death” (2011–12), documenting images of Palestinian resistance. The hotly contested words in the captions—“martyr,” “occupied territories,” “colonizer”—aggravate some precisely because they represent an alternative narrative, one long discredited and obscured. After all, at its most fundamental level, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a clash of narratives, in which language, of course, plays a vital role. The Israelis’ War of Independence is the Palestinians’ al-Nakba (the catastrophe); a “kamikaze” for one is a “martyr” for the other; a “State” on one side of the security wall is an “occupier” across the divide.
The salvo of official letters and institutional press releases—sparked by the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France’s accusation that the new series “glorifies terrorism”—has consistently targeted questions of language. The Minister of Culture, Aurélie Filippetti, fearful of “false impressions” potentially stemming from the artist’s failure to “explain the context,” obliged the museum to “distinguish between the artist’s words and those of the institution.” This demand resulted in a “disclaimer” begrudgingly emblazoned on the gallery wall.
“The Ministry wanted us to give information from the other side of the conflict,” fumed Marta Gili, director of the Jeu de Paume, “specifying Israeli death tolls—like some kind of lesson.” For Gili, who has received repeated threats to herself and her staff by radicals, the artist clearly endowed her words with exact intent. The words convey a level of subtlety, however, that narrow-minded radicals are ill equipped to understand, Gili explained. “Ahlam’s work is not Manichean. Her research is more profound; there are several layers of meaning,” said Gili.
In spite of the textual tumult that surrounds it, “Death” is ultimately an exploration of visual culture. The series of 68 photographs examines the proliferation of portraits and posters, in public and private spaces, memorializing Palestinians who died during the Second Intifada. In battered streets, crumbling graveyards and cramped sitting rooms, absence is made present: the dead, decked in militant trappings, machine guns poised, peer out from the well-worn iconography of the “martyr portrait.”
Shibli once claimed that her work was more psychoanalytical than political. In many ways, the “representations of representations” in “Death” actually de-politicize the martyr portrait, emptying it of its strength as a publicity tool, a rallying cry, an instrument of recruitment. In these homes, the political has become strangely intimate. The dead, pictured with weapons and all, remain integral to the family.
There are no single images in “Phantom Home.” Every photo is part of a wider series that follows distinct narratives, making the work seem more filmic than photographic. The show itself is bookended by the heartening “Self Portrait” (2000) series—a journey through the formative places of Shibli’s Galilean childhood re-cast with other youngsters—and the complex “Death.” In between, two series are capable of igniting the ire of other groups (namely French war veterans and Palestinians themselves) in much the same way “Death” needled the pro-Israeli radicals. Both “Trauma” (2008–09) and “Trackers” (2005) delve into the disturbing instability between victim and oppressor. “Trauma” investigates how oppressed Resistance fighters in France during the Second World War became aggressors in colonial wars, while “Trackers” spotlights marginalized Palestinian Bedouins who voluntarily join the Israeli army. Across all the series, Shibli’s images never condemn or empathize. Nor do they offer any resolution.
“I employ photography to recognize what is unrecognized,” wrote Shibli in a statement released at the height of the controversy. If her pre-polemic language was shrouded in neutrality (expressions like “shedding light” and “keeping opinions out of my work” were common), the artist now seems fully enlisted in the war of narratives. Bristling against “the language and rationale” of “the Israeli hegemony,” Shibli is well aware that the symbolic negation of a people will occur less through the disappearance of their homes, than through the suffocation of their words.