Four photographers represented personal and historical perspectives on the Palestinian experience in “Aperture 27,000” at London’s Le Violon Bleu gallery. Rula Halawani, Sama Alshaibi, Rana Bishara and Anisa Ashkar each draw from collective and individual memory, conveying the influence of history on the present generation of Palestinian artists resisting the erasure of their culture and identity.
The exhibition title refers to the 27,000-square-kilometer area of Palestine, which was granted in the 1922 League of Nations’ Mandate for Palestine. The country’s borders were eroded during al-Nakba, “the Catastrophe,” the Palestinians’ name for a series of events in 1947–48 following the end of the British Mandate, including a new Partition Plan by the United Nations General Assembly, the founding of the state of Israel and the Palestinian Exodus of 1948. Aperture, an opening through which light enters a camera, here refers to Israel’s border control of Palestine, inferring a supervised passage or access to land.
Rula Halawani, who is director of the Photography Unit at Birzeit University in the West Bank, presented an installation of 12 photographs entitled Intimacy (2004). This series of black-and-white prints documents encounters between Israeli border guards and West Bank residents at the Qalandia checkpoint. As faces of individuals are cropped from the frame, only disembodied torsos, arms and hands are visible. The inequality of status between the opposing parties is visually reinforced as the camera dwells on hands searching bags and examining ID documents. The title’s irony is that this enforced invasion of individual space negates any genuine experience of “intimacy.”
Multiple displacements have been a formative influence on the art of Sama Alshaibi, whose Iraqi father and Palestinian mother fled Palestine to Iraq during al-Nakba and later migrated to the United States at the beginning of Saddam Hussein’s rule in 1979. Abu Ammar, RIP (2004), is a portrait of the artist’s body wrapped in black cloth, concealing her hips, breasts and head. Her arms are clasped above her pregnant, distended abdomen, and her hands are clenched in fists, communicating defiance and stoicism. On Alshaibi’s stomach is the Hand of Fatima—a hand with a single eye in the center of the palm—regarded in the Islamic world as a potent symbol of protection against the “evil eye.” Written under the artist’s navel is “10 Nov 04,” the death date of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who was also known as Abu Ammar. As the first president of the Palestinian National Authority, Arafat represents the continued will for Palestinian self-determination. Alshaibi’s project of remembrance narrates a striving to not forget the past in order to envision a future.
Rana Bishara, born in Tarshiha, Galilee, where she still lives and works, is also motivated by resistance. The large color digital print Homage to Palestine (1999) is a close-up view of a sealed glass jar containing cut pieces of verdant, flesh-like cactus. The cactus, prevalent throughout the region, is used here as a symbol of the determination of the Palestinian people for survival and justice.
Anisa Ashkar, born in Acre, Galilee, and now a resident of Tel Aviv, employs her own body in performance works that describe a counter practice of “interference.” The color print Me and Paul Klee Painting (2004) documents her performance in Israel in 2004. Ashkar wears a long black dress and paints stone steps with milk. The white liquid spreads and spills across the ochre stone, suggesting cleansing and renewal. By inscribing her practice directly into public space, Ashkar draws attention to her presence and identity within Israel.
The art of Palestinian resistance has gained momentum since the 1950s, when early practitioners painted resonant images of Palestinian displacement. A half-century later, Halawani, Alshaibi, Bishara and Ashkar successfully employ the power of the photographic image to move beyond the shattering of the corporeal self by the trauma of exile. The complex challenge ahead is the creation of a new sense of self and Palestinian consciousness free from colonization of their culture, psyche and homeland.