“How Green Was My Valley” was a poetic meditation on the backbreaking labor, bittersweet sacrifice and precious pleasures entailed in the Palestinian people’s love for their homeland and struggle for its liberation. Featuring photography, painting, sculpture, video and installation art by 15 emerging and established Palestinian artists, the exhibition at Whitebox Art Center, New York, foregrounded the potential for absurd humor and daring dreams rooted in the cruel and oppressive landscape of occupation, and stood as a testament to the stubborn refusal of Palestinians to let go of hope.
Rendering activism as labor, and labor as activism, Amer Shomali’s Pixelated Intifada (2012) is an animated, black-and-white 3D model of a cow that pays tribute to an act of resistance from the not-so-distant but increasingly elusive era of the late 1980s, and represents a labor movement undertaken to create a Palestinian economy autonomous from the Israeli military occupation. In 1987, a number of residents in Beit Sahour, a Palestinian town east of Bethlehem, set up a dairy farm to supplant the monopoly of the Israeli co-op Tnuva. The Beit Sahour farm was soon raided and shut down by the Israeli army, and the Palestinian activists involved were incarcerated. In retaliation, the activists hid the raided farm’s livestock in the surrounding countryside, spurring a four-year-long hunt by the Israeli army for the cows, which evolved into a symbol of sovereignty for Palestinians. Shomali’s pixelated cow revolves on the video screen, as if suspended in midair. Although Shomali did not visualize it in the animation, he envisions these virtual cows as grazing on the Paris Protocol—a 1994 agreement cementing economic relations between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, ushering in an age of interdependency. The cow-cum-hero is a tongue-in-cheek jab at the ludicrously all-encompassing economy of the Israeli occupation, as well as the equally ridiculous but meaningful symbols of resistance that feed the Palestinian imagination, even as they dissolve into faint remnants of a seemingly lost endeavor.
Mary Tuma’s Twisted Rope (2011) is an 18-meter-long rope laboriously made from traditional Palestinian dresses, kaffiyehs and odd fabrics, twisted and linked together in a chain. These materials were sourced from both sides of Israel’s separation barrier, which cuts through the West Bank, ruining livelihoods and disconnecting families. Eighteen meters corresponds to the length of rope that is required for two individuals on opposite sides of the barrier to scale its height simultaneously—while counterbalancing one another—and meet at the top of the wall. Twisted Rope, which hung delicately from a fixture on the gallery’s wall, evokes an imagined scenario of escape and liberation, as well as visions of the horizon, estranged loved ones and promise in the present—all of which, in reality, are barred in the West Bank by the separation barrier.
Tanya Habjouqa’s photographic series, “Occupied Pleasures” (2011– ), captures fleeting moments of joie de vivre relished by Palestinians in defiance of an occupation that infiltrates the most minute and mundane. Habjouqa’s subjects affirm their desire not just to survive but to take pleasure in life. The photographed scenes range from boys bathing shoulder to shoulder in a small, inflatable pool against a water-denied landscape, to a family lounging atop the ruins of their former home in East Jerusalem, to a balloon-filled toy store on wheels, whizzing down a seaside highway in heavily blockaded Gaza. Habjouqa’s tender photographs touch a collective nerve that has been desensitized by the now-archetypal images of suffering in Palestine; they resist the dehumanization of Palestinians by presenting them not as political subjects but as merely human.
“How Green Was My Valley” also featured a number of older and thoroughly exhibited works and suffered from an overcrowded display, at times presenting projects that felt like incomplete samplings. However, the show distinguished itself in its fresh perspective on the subject of Palestine. The exhibited works largely appropriated familiar and stout symbols of the occupation and resistance in surprisingly smile-inducing ways. Its sensitive representation of the Palestinian people demonstrated that, sometimes, the most effective weapon against absurd injustice is comic relief, which penetrates the depths of one’s human essence in a subliminal and protracted manner.