For Scheherazade, the mythical heroine of the Persian folktale The Thousand and One Nights, time equaled life. With 1,001 riveting stories, patiently recounted over as many nights, Scheherazade distracted her husband from his intent to behead her, not only guaranteeing her survival but whittling away his rancor and making possible their long and happy union as queen and king.
Will the passage of time quell the hostility that stokes the contemporary conflict over Palestinian statehood? The question weighed heavily on “The Thousand and One Nights,” a group show held at Postmasters Gallery. Through photographs, paintings and video installations, the six featured artists explored fractured notions of Palestine’s social and political identity.
Effectively displayed in a single gallery, the 11 works in the exhibition ranged from the meditative to the playful to the blatantly discomfiting, underscoring the complexity of artistic responses that have emerged in recent years to address Palestinian displacement. The show opened with three small-scale photographs from Hanna Farah-Kufer Bir’im, one of which, Distorted 7 (2000–06), shows the artist standing quietly, slightly hunched, under a ruined stone arch, the last remains of his grandfather’s house in the deserted village of Kafr Bir’im. The village’s inhabitants were expelled in November 1948 by the Israeli military during the first Arab-Israeli War following the UN- sanctioned plan that made way for the establishment of the State of Israel. Adopting the village’s name as his own, the artist expresses his resolve to remain connected with the historical lineage of both family and state. But the crumbling building in the photograph seems to ask whether such a lineage has a chance of continuing, and if holding on to a now-distant past will only deter collective efforts to rebuild and move forward.
Jumana Manna, a student at the National Academy of the Arts in Oslo, makes a strong case for letting go in her sardonic 2007 video Familiar, which shows the adult artist breastfeeding from her middle-aged mother. The footage makes for uncomfortable viewing and alludes to the absurdity of maintaining an unchecked reverence for the older generation. Taysir Batniji, who represented Palestine at this year’s Venice Biennale, also explores the pervading influence of former generations in his series Pères (Fathers) (2005–06). These photographs of the interiors of Gaza shops focus on the portraits of proprietors or their forebears that are displayed proudly and prominently on shop walls. The stark portraits of the “fathers” of Palestine, hung on cracked and stained walls alongside meat hooks and rusty tools, are an omnipresent reminder of a pre-partition state and testimony to the lingering sway of history, however fraught, on the Palestinian psyche.
Holding on to the past risks both the repetition of errors and the obstruction of progress. The latter is an issue of central concern to Shadi Habib Allah, an MFA student at Columbia University who also showed at Venice this year. Allah’s contribution to the exhibition, On-going Tale (2006), is a short, animated video chronicling a tribe of crudely drawn hunters. The tribesmen, little more than stick figures, perpetuate the enduring struggle between man and beast as they chase and capture a gazellelike animal in a sparse forest. Their victory is short-lived, however, for not long after spearing their prey, they are themselves pursued and overcome by a ferocious, pumalike creature. No aggressive act of dominance will be the last, the work appears to demonstrate, and one is forced to anticipate the next senseless cycle of stultifying violence.
Allah’s cartoon figures are simple but powerful symbols, whose futile struggle against an equally matched foe evokes the impasse in the conflict over Palestinian statehood. Will patience prevail, as it did for Scheherazade, with stalemate giving way to progress? “The Thousand and One Nights” posited no definitive answer but spoke to the efforts of Palestinian artists who seek to reconcile a fraught history with an insecure present.