So much depends upon the acceptance of a few facts. This is what Edward Said was lamenting when, in August 2001, he wrote in the Cairo newspaper al-Ahram Weekly: “The appallingly unbroken history of Israel’s 34-year-old military occupation (the second longest in modern history) of illegally conquered Palestinian land has been obliterated from public memory nearly everywhere, as has the destruction of Palestinian society in 1948 and the expulsion of 68 percent of its native people, of whom 4.5 million remain refugees today.”
In the decade since, and as the occupation marked its 44th year in June, the struggle over the future of Palestine and the status of the Palestinian people remains one of representation, of the past and the present. Nearly everything about the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories is contested on the factual and semantic levels—how many people are wounded or killed by whom at any given demonstration, whether it is a “wall,” “barrier” or a “fence” that now runs through the West Bank, whether Israeli policies constitute “discrimination,” “apartheid” or “ethnic cleansing,” and even whether the 1947–48 Nakba happened at all. They are debates played out by politicians and activists, Israeli and Palestinian, on the international level for their respective strategic interests, as well as in the media, in proxy wars of propaganda and disinformation by factions competing to write the historical narrative of post-Mandate Palestine. As storytellers and emissaries of Palestinian culture, Palestinian artists across disciplines have been caught up in or have willingly participated in this struggle, as they address the urgent subjects of modern Palestinian culture: dispossession, nostalgia, exile and resistance.
For visual artists working in Palestine, questions of how to represent the reality of a situation that is by its design tightly controlled and closely monitored by the occupying military forces and civilians—whether it is the division of the land, or the movement of people, vital resources, material goods, money or images—is much more complicated. Simply and cursorily outlined here, the vast infrastructure of restriction—often “temporary” in name and justified for “security” purposes—renders routine activities in the Occupied Territories extremely difficult, when not impossible, for Palestinian residents, artists among them. Records of daily life are not simply mundane, but serve as highly charged testimonies of the occupation’s far-reaching impact on civilians. The utilization of documentary-based techniques by Palestinian artists over the past decade has not only provided crucial testimony of the social conditions in the Occupied Territories but also has been used increasingly to capture specific acts of resistance and to furnish conceptual models of alternative pasts, presents and futures.
DOCUMENTS OF DISRUPTION
It is historical coincidence that in June 2002, curator Okwui Enwezor opened his survey of global art practices, documenta 11, in Kassel, Germany, just a week after the state of Israel officially began construction on its defining piece of architecture, the 709-kilometer-long (and still unfinished) West Bank separation barrier. Having no causal connection, the two undertakings are nonetheless symbolic of the era. They are each, in their own way, manifestations of discrete processes that started much earlier and would come to influence the course of 21st-century Palestinian art practice. The separation barrier represents the entrenchment of the Israeli occupation at the moment that the al-Aqsa Intifada and West Bank settlement expansion were intensifying. In documenta’s case, the mega-exhibition of more than 100 artists and collectives canonized shifts in art discourse from the traditional economic and intellectual centers in Europe and North America to South America, Africa and Asia. With its focus on documentary- and research-based practices (often by collectives or collaborating artists), documenta 11 was epitomized by filmmakers such as Amar Kanwar with his plaintive recordings of the military ceremonies at the Pakistan-India border, A Season Outside (1997), urban analysts Raqs Media Collective’s videos of New Delhi’s development and Walid Raad’s fictitious cast of characters, comprising the Atlas Group, who provided unique documents of Lebanon’s civil war. Not only did documenta 11 introduce numerous artists to the global stage but it offered a wide range of models for resistance to prevailing economic and political forces, and strategies for representing suppressed histories—what Enwezor would later come to describe not merely as documentary practice but as verité, “a trueness to life.”
Despite the isolating effects of the occupation on Palestinian society, the rise of socially proactive art projects and documentary tactics among artists in the West Bank can be traced back to the late 1990s and early 2000s—at roughly the same moment they were becoming prevalent among artists internationally. Emily Jacir’s Where We Come From (2001–03) is exemplary as an early work in this genre. Because she holds an American passport, Jacir, whose family is from Bethlehem, was able to travel across Palestine and Israel, fielding many personal requests along the way, such as one from a Bethlehem resident, Munir—who though born in Jerusalem, cannot enter the city without a special permit, which the Israeli government has denied him—to “go to his mother’s grave in Jerusalem on the occasion of her birthday to put flowers and pray.” Although in the decade since the piece was made, Israel has further tightened its restrictions on the movement of Palestinians as well as foreigners to the point where Jacir would no longer be able to make Where We Come From—a trip to Gaza from Israel, for example, is now impossible—Jacir was able to fulfill wishes that included walking the streets of Nazareth, eating local dishes in Gaza and Akka and even going on a date on behalf of Rami from Beit Jalla (near Bethlehem) with a girl in East Jerusalem with whom Rami had only ever talked to on the phone. When Jacir displays the project, she hangs an unframed photograph of each completed task along with black-framed notes in English and Arabic about the person’s complicated citizenship status—where they were born, their current place of residence, what passports and ID cards they carry, when and if their family went into exile. Together, the many requests collected in Where We Come From begin to map the many restrictions on Palestinians’ movements around the Occupied Territories.
A year after Jacir’s expeditions around Israel and Palestine for Where We Come From, while she was living in Ramallah and teaching at Birzeit University, Israel Defense Force (IDF) soldiers caught her filming her feet near the checkpoint near the town of Surda, on the way to Birzeit. At the Surda checkpoint, she and all Palestinians were required to get out of their vehicles and walk two kilometers on the road before picking up another ride to continue their journey. The IDF patrol detained the artist at gunpoint for several hours in the rain and confiscated her tape. In response, Jacir went home and cut a hole in her shoulder bag and spent the next eight days recording her commute through the checkpoint from Ramallah to Birzeit University. From the swinging shoulder bag, the camera records a muddied road lined with tanks and armored personnel carriers. Figures huddled in the rain press through concrete barriers and avoid watchful soldiers fingering their M-16s. On sunny days, there are glimpses of Jacir’s shadow and the bag that conceals the camera. Shown in an exhibition context as a two-channel installation with a 130-minute compilation of the raw footage projected onto a large screen and a 30-minute montage of select moments from the footage shown on a monitor, Crossing Surda: a record of going to and from work (2002) doesn’t reveal military secrets. But on Jacir’s part, repeatedly filming the checkpoint was a risky act of low-budget reconnaissance and the resulting footage portrays the far-reaching impositions of the occupation on Palestinian society. Correspondingly, the work is much closer to pure documentary—the establishment of facts on the ground—and, in her act of defiance, offers a simple but effective way around them. Despite its tenor of latent outrage, Crossing Surdaembodies an optimism about the potential for documentary, a faith that Edward Said expressed shortly before his death in September 2003: “Whenever the facts are made known, there is immediate recognition and an expression of the most profound solidarity with the justice of the Palestinian cause and the valiant struggle by the Palestinian people on its behalf.”
VIEW TO THE OUTSIDE
Contrary to Said’s confidence that the facts would speak for themselves—and even when they have—the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands has become even more entrenched. In a period of intense construction over the past decade, Israel has created a vast and complicated infrastructure in the territories. When one is moving through the patchwork between Area A (under full Palestinian control, 18 percent of the West Bank), Area B (under Palestinian Authority civil control and Israeli military supervision, 22 percent) and Area C (under full Israeli control, 60 percent), the jurisdiction can be read by the quality and presence of infrastructure.
These disparities—economic realities enforced by the colonialist structure of the occupation—become evident in an unexpected manner at night, as Yazan Khalili’s photographic series “Landscapes of Darkness” (2011) reveals. In the course of nighttime excursions with a friend in 2008 and 2009, Khalili took pictures of Area C (which is mostly undeveloped, aside from settlements and the roads that lead to them) and, for those images that he was not forced to delete after repeated stops by both Israeli and Palestinian security officials, he titled them not by location but by the exposure time and aperture. In 20" | f 7.1, Khalili captures a steep valley that has been precisely bulldozed and carved to support a winding road that is well illuminated with streetlights and marked with a brown highway sign. By comparison, 10" | f 4.0 shows dark roads leading to a cluster of houses at the bottom of a hill—identifiable as a Palestinian community because the roads are unlit and Israeli settlements in the West Bank are always constructed on the tops of hills for visual and strategic dominance. But the biggest contrast between the two adjacent spaces of Israel and the Occupied Territories is evident in 30’ | f 5.0, which shows a darkened dirt road leading out of the hills toward a horizon bright with orange light—possibly even Tel Aviv itself—and its network of roads.
Along with being able to read the general conditions of the occupation into the photographs, “Landscape of Darkness” also provides the potential for more metaphorical or reflective conceptions of space, as the scenery is defamiliarized and the particular specificities and histories of any given location are obscured. In the darkest photographs—30" | f 20, for example, which shows a tiny sliver of the moon rising in the far distance over the pitch-black hills, or 20" | f 7.1, with its barren rolling hills that recede into the night—there is, as Khalili has written, “the possibility not to see what is there to be seen; a possibility to liberate our image from the scenery, from the landscape and the violence it embeds through looking at it.” The beauty of such limited visibility—even as it is precisely recorded—is the potential to imagine more freely, to wander in an image not over-inscribed with detail. Such mobility, either in physical or emotional space, is rare in the Occupied Territories.
For those who in daylight hours forget the proximity of destinations in this small, divided piece of land, Khaled Hourani provides reminders. In 2009, in towns and refugee camps all across the West Bank, Jerusalem, Gaza and even in locations abroad, Hourani installed ceramic distance-markers, more than 80 in all, on walls and small plinths for a project called The Road to Jerusalem, which was part of the al-Quds (Jerusalem) Capital of Arab Culture. Each sign, made from six traditional blue and white ceramic plates, marks the distance to the Old City in Jerusalem, which for most West Bank and Gaza residents is inaccessible without a permit. Like Jacir’s Where We Come From, the signs connect locations in the occupied West Bank to the outside, which, with deep anguish and irony is, in this case, Jerusalem—the city that Palestinians, whether they are Muslim or Christian, consider their capital and spiritual center. Hourani’s project, in its simple statement of physical distances, both memorializes Palestinians’ lost or limited access to Jerusalem while affirming the city’s centrality—collapsing or rejecting the political boundaries that define day-to-day life.
If measuring distances is one way to refuse or overcome imposed borders,al-Jaar Qabla al-Dar (The Neighbour Before the House), a project for al-Ma’mal Foundation’s 2009 Jerusalem Show by the Mumbai-based group CAMP (among whose various contributors are the co-founders Shaina Anand, Sanjay Bhangar and Ashok Sukumaran), uses surveillance technology to reconnect the dispossessed with the property they have lost. CAMP designed and set up a temporary, portable consumer-grade PTZ dome camera—the kind usually installed on interior ceilings for surveillance—at locations in Jerusalem’s Old City, including the old Moroccan Quarter (demolished in 1967 to make room for the Western Wall plaza), the contested East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and the adjacent town of Silwan. Eight evicted Palestinian families were then able to control the transportable apparatus, allowing them to monitor former homes and neighborhoods that subsequently have been occupied by Israeli settlers. As they are operating the surveillance camera, the family members provide running commentary on the condition of the home, or the structures that used to exist in the area. While none of CAMP’s members are themselves Palestinian, the auteurs of this work, those determining the image and providing the voice-overs, are local residents who are able to reclaim their narrative of displacement, and to reinscribe the physical places with their stories, even from afar.
WAYS AROUND AND THROUGH THE COLONIAL PRESENT
If Palestinians are ever to regain full control over the West Bank, what should they do with the military outposts and suburban-style hilltop settlements that might remain behind? The research group Decolonizing Architecture Institute (DAI), comprised of Sandi Hilal, Alessandro Petti and Eyal Weizman, along with numerous collaborators, has been working on such problems out of their studio in Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, since DAI’s establishment in 2007. Their best-known proposal, Return to Nature, uses the Oush Grab (“Crow’s Nest”) IDF outpost, overlooking Bethlehem and originally evacuated in 2006, as a case study for the transformation of colonialist structures. DAI imagined turning the abandoned military buildings into a nesting ground for the migrating birds that travel through the West Bank and Jordan Valley from Europe to Africa or Asia. Their design—presented in art exhibitions in the form of an oversized book and an architectural model—left the derelict military buildings structurally intact but punched with circular holes that allow access to the buildings’ interiors. It is an example of one of DAI’s core strategies, what they call “profanation” (following a concept lifted from the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben), to reenvision the extant structures for purposes that they were not designed for. As DAI writes about their practice: “Historical processes of decolonization often reused the buildings and infrastructure left behind in the same way they were designed for, a way that left colonial territorial hierarchies intact. In this sense past processes of decolonization never truly did away with the power of colonial domination. . . . Decolonization is the counterapparatus that seeks to restore to common use what the colonial order had separated and divided.”
At the 2011 Sharjah Biennial, the Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency (DAAR) presented, among three projects, Lawless Line (2011), which investigates the problematic five-meter-wide space between Areas B and C—based on the actual line drawn in red ink on the 1993 Oslo Accords map that, when scaled up to actual size, is a physical space, a zone of limbo, between Palestinian- and Israeli-controlled areas. A video in the Biennial showed DAAR members hiring a lawyer to argue in an Israeli court that this narrow area should be declared an autonomous, “extraterritorial” space that is neither Israeli- nor Palestinian-controlled. Through Lawless Line, DAAR conceives of “an anarchic regime of political autonomy to inhabit this line”; they further state that “it is from these seam lines—small tears in the territorial system—that the entire system of divisions may finally be torn down.”
But these speculative, utopian potentials imagined by DAAR are constantly confronted and challenged by existing realities. In the course of meeting with the lawyer for the Lawless Line project, DAAR researchers learned about the remarkable story of a woman whose house was bisected by the line. Their video records the lawyer arguing in court that, even though the majority of the house is in Ramallah municipality, the entrance and kitchen are on the Jerusalem side, and thus the woman should be declared a resident of Jerusalem. What was at stake for the woman was whether she could have access to her family in Jerusalem, to the city’s schools for her children, and to significantly better municipal services and hospitals. As the crude arbitrariness of the border’s conception and implementation becomes evident, the lines of control become open for potential negotiation or litigation, and the sense of their inevitability or permanence fractures.
SHIPPING AND HANDLING
You cannot get to the West Bank without going through Israel—this is a hard reality of Palestinian life. Several artists’ projects look at the particular absurdities and indecencies of this forced, dependent arrangement and what it reveals about the nature of the Israeli occupation. In 2006, Jumana Emil Abboud decided that she wanted to bring a lemon tree—a common plant on Palestinian properties particularly before 1948—from Jerusalem to Ramallah. But she knew that according to regulations, she couldn’t carry a whole plant through the checkpoint. Instead, she took the fruit of a tree from her grandparents’ home in the Galilee, loaded it into a specially designed red waist-belt (resembling, in its form, an explosives holder), and traveled via Jerusalem to Ramallah, where she buried the fruit in the ground. The resulting video Smuggling Lemons(2006) shows Emil Abboud, over several trips, walking through Jerusalem’s Old City, along the concrete separation wall and through checkpoints until she has carried all of the fruit from the one tree. She takes a familiar fruit of Palestine and equates it with a weapon or contraband (surprisingly, the artist reports that she encountered none of the expected interrogations at the checkpoints). The much richer past—the lemon representing for the artist “the wealth and glory of the earth, a historical and personal encyclopedia of cultural attachments”—is replaced by a dismal present reality in which it must be smuggled. What potential there is for subversion lies in the possibility of the fruit’s rebirth, as a tree or, in other versions of the project, as lemonade.
If Emil Abboud was unable to bring the whole tree from Jerusalem to Ramallah, Khaled Hourani, as the artistic director of the International Academy of Art Palestine, set himself an even more elaborate logistical challenge. For his project Picasso in Palestine (2011), he orchestrated the presentation of one Picasso painting, Buste de Femme(1943), on loan from the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, at the art school in Ramallah. Its month-long display beginning on June 24 marked the first time a Picasso had been displayed in the Palestinian territories. More than two years in the making, the project encountered numerous obstacles along the way. The Dutch museum required the construction of a special climate-controlled and secure space for the painting. Even bigger hurdles came in obtaining the permission and cooperation of Israeli officials for shipping the work, including its transport from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport to the West Bank, and resolving the complex legal and insurance issues that arise because of Palestine’s ambiguous status as an occupied nation.
Whether Picasso’s Buste de Femmewould ever arrive—its debut was postponed repeatedly, from October 2010 to April 2011, then again until late June—was a topic of great speculation. But, ultimately, whether or not the painting had come to Ramallah wouldn’t have impacted Picasso in Palestine’s integrity as an artwork, as Hourani, working with filmmaker Rashid Masharawi, was documenting the whole process. These records, and a film that Masharawi plans to release in 2012, furnish evidence about the occupying colonial system that nearly made the project impossible. In testing the limits of the occupation, Hourani forced it to reveal its systemic, bureaucratic and often invisible forms.
A FUTURE THROUGH THE PAST
Creating a connection to the historical past—whether it is vicarious travel to former homes, spying on the neighbors or attempting to introduce a classic Cubist artwork to the West Bank public—is a necessary part not only of sustaining a culture under siege but imagining its future as a homeland or state. Khalil Rabah has worked with several variations on this idea, including inventing national companies—such as the “United States of Palestine Times” and the “United States of Palestine Airlines”—from an independent Palestinian civil society that never came into existence after 1948 because of both the Jordanian and Israeli occupations. Looking further back are Rabah’s versions of the “The Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind” (2004–09), which, among its many iterations in various international venues, has included displays of artifacts such as fossils, bones, plant specimens and meteorites carved by the artist from olive trees.
In a more recent series, Rabah turns his attention to the history of Palestinian art in his new series of 50 photorealist paintings (fabricated in China), entitled “Art Exhibition: Readymade Representations 1954–2009” (2011). The images depict openings, artworks and other important moments in the history of Palestinian art: Ismail Shamout’s 1954 solo exhibition in Cairo; women in furs looking at paintings by Laila Shawa at Kuwait’s Sultan Gallery in 1972; 14 artists posing together at the “First Spring” exhibition at Jerusalem’s al-Hakawati space in 1985; scenes from al-Ma’mal’s “Among Artists” exhibition in Ramallah in 1995; and Mona Hatoum’s glowing, red globe from her 2009 solo show in Venice at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia. Rabah informs viewers that indeed there is a history of Palestinian art, a canon of important exhibitions, shows and projects. Rabah’s contribution is to present documents of what is not yet an established history, or a well-known narrative, which is itself a corollary to the fact that Palestine, as the homeland of the Palestinian people, itself does not have a present in which to reconstruct its past.
In the past decade, Palestinian artists have chosen to employ the kind of realism mixed with ethical claims that Okwui Enwezor, in writing about the critical reaction to documenta 11 in his 2003 essay “Documentary/Verité: Biopolitics, Human Rights and the Figure of ‘Truth’ in Contemporary Art,” describes as: “A kind of testimony which, on the one hand, produces a moral imperative in the telltale details of the real, and on the other, asserts truth in the manner in which it conveys and conducts its judgment of events and depictions of people, things, objects.” For Enwezor, “Above all, it is the concern with the other, the fidelity to a truth that the documentary ceaselessly constructs and deconstructs.” In this conception, artists remain distant from their subject out of their “concern for the other”—a separation that hardly exists in the case of Palestinian artists making work about Palestine’s history and present condition. The particular urgency and broad-reaching effects of the continued Israeli occupation permits no such distinctions. As Emily Jacir told the New York Times in 2009: “Crossing Surda exists because an Israeli soldier threatened me and put an M-16 to my temple.”