Date: 2004

AUTHOR: Dr. Tina Sherwell

LOCATION: Ramallah

PUBLISHER: German-French Cultural Centre Ramallah

SOURCE: German-French Cultural Centre Ramallah

The Power of Place and the Representation of Landscape in the work of Palestinian artists

The Power of Place and the Representation of Landscape in the work of Palestinian artists.

This paper intends to examine a selection art works by several Palestinian artists that deal with the question of landscape and place. Although it might appear at first that the question of landscape and of place in particular is distant from the theme of  Art and War. However I would argue its relevance stems from the fact that the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is one that centers around a struggle over the legitimacy of claims to the same terrain. Precisely because Palestine is a country without defined borders and because one of the central aspects of the national struggle  is the struggle for  freedom and sovernity for people in the occupied territories the representation of the land is pivotal for a fragmented and dispersed population. How the land and places are represented in visual art articulates a peoples' relationship to the homeland. The type of images that have been created of Palestine, by Palestinians over the last decades, decades in which the physical landscape of Palestine has undergone considerable change, do much to reveal the image and quality homeland  in the national imagination and how Palestine has been represented in an ongoing conflict. The 'war' between Israel and the Palestinians over the claims to the land has in many ways also been fought out through images, via different mechanisms. Israel has used a wide variety of mediums from archaeology, to tourism and film as Ted Swedenberg observes, "Zionists launched a massive project aimed at revealing an originary historical inscription in the landscape…the Zionist project of uncovering and displaying exclusive Jewish roots had the effect of denying any authentic Arab historicity  in Palestine". While Zionist discourse emphaised a religious claim to the land, Palestinians through their iconography stressed both a natural and organic relationship to the land, epitomized in pastoral imagery.
In his introduction to Fields of Vision Stephen Daniels makes a very salient observation on the relationship between the landscape and the presentation of the nation,"Landscapes whether focusing on a single monument of framing stretches of scenery provide visual shape: they picture the nation. As exemplars of the moral order and aesthetic harmony particular landscapes achieve the status of national icons". Daniel's proposition is that out of the diverse landscapes  that constitute the geographical terrain  of a nation particular landscapes are selected to act as representative of the homeland. One of the qualities of landscape of course, is that one cannot represent all aspects of a landscape, a representation is always by its very nature selective, in fact land defies representation in many ways as we cannot reveal all the histories, experiences and qualities of a place and terrain.

Boris Groys suggests in his piece on iconoclasm that avant garde artists have employed methods of war, being the vanguard of change in revolutions of art. In relation to his observations in the Palestinian context, I would argue from artists' testimonies that we have that they saw themselves as revolutionaries in their role of raising cultural awareness, preserving Palestinian heritage and articulating national identity in their work, which in turn became part of the visual vernacular.  These articulations took place during a period in which there was a suppression and denial of Palestinian identity and a continual negation of Palestinian experiences, histories and cultural identity. Thus, in many ways their revolution was not in confrontation with their own society but with the denial of Palestinian identity by others.

When examining the cultural production of a community it is important to consider both popular and avant garde art in order to understand the consumption of visual media in a society. Images of rural scenes and Palestinian village  was one of the dominant themes  of popular paintings produced in the early 1980's. In  the majority of paintings a specific place was not imaged but rather a generalized view of the rural landscape. The utopias, which in fact means no-place, depicted a golden era of Palestine in which the future Palestine was cast in an image of the past which in turn served to elide the present. The artists during this period did not chose to represent the consequences of modernization and occupation brought about by Israel and the accompanying sense of alienation, rather they took comfort in a nostalgic image of the past. It could be argued that these were all discursive responses to war a retreat to the comfort of past, with emphaisis on the social unit of the family and the nation as a family. These generalised romantic images enabled the national community to identify with the land for it enabled everyone it could be argued to complete the narratives of these images with their own personal memories.

The pre-occupation with representing the rural landscape shifted in the 1990's to focus on the representation of the tactility of place, artists used natural materials and objects from their surroundings as index's of place and their deep attachment to it. The mud works of Sliman Mansour’s which had begun as experimentations, moved into what he defined as a whole language of expression as he perfected his techniques in the late 1990’s. He created monumental works using traditional construction techniques that celebrated local building crafts and appeared as architectural relics from a lost village. Through their tactileness and rich encrusted surfaces they spoke of a nostalgia for a comforting place of the past seemingly making reference to the memory of a lost homeland. Such readings are imparted to the viewer not through former symbolic national symbolism but via the ambiance of the colours and textures. 

One of his paintings Olive Pickers done on the eve of the millennium dealt with dream of utopia in a different way. The colurless figures float on a grey background engaged in the act of olive picking. Ironically there is no landscape just the ritual and gestures of collecting the harvest. The haunting image could not stand in sharper contrast to the wholesome idealic imagery of the Palestinian countryside that Mansour had created in past. In this work he was not only deconstructing and critiquing the former iconography of nationalist paintings he was also conveying a whole mood of the period.
W.J. T. Mitchell in his essay Imperial Landscape suggests landscape takes on the quality of fetish commodity, as fetish it is designated with qualities not inherent to it, yet values are represented as emanating from land rather than being the creation of society which transforms land into landscape. This idea is also represented in another work by Mansour entitled "A Piece of Holy Land". The work comprises of a gilt frame in which ordinary earth is framed. In fact it could be earth from anywhere, however what makes it so poignant is the fact that it is earth from Palestine from the beloved homeland. As the late Edward Said has observed, if one covers Palestine with all the historical inscriptions, experiences and claims to it, there would be on room left for the terrain. The tactility and textures of place was to win the recently deceased Hassan Hourani second prize  in the Qattan’s Young Artist’s award  in the year 2000. Hourani’s piece  “One of Us”    consisted of cubes of herbs and soil placed both in and outside the gallery space, in geometric patterns. The work  made reference to history of abstraction in Arabic art with its sources in the natural world. At the same time, however, the piece also spoke of the deep fetishism of place, in which textures and smells become deeply poignant and symbolic for Palestinians which is evident in the artist’s statement, “The Place takes us away only to bring us back. The place says a great deal in its silence, adding to its magic day after day".

In considering the power of  place and memory and in particular how elements of the landscape become feteshised and symbolic it must be remembered that loss and displacement is not only experienced by Palestinians in the diaspora but by those who live in the occupied territories and Israel. Even though Palestinians reside on the land that is their homeland, many are refugees displaced from their original villages and cities, while in turn occupation and Israeli polices means that people live in a state of alienation with little power over many aspects of their lives. The fetishism of place and the memories and significance everyday objects carry has also been explored by Emily Jaccir in here work "Where we come From". Using her ability to travel within Palestine and Israel she undertook the requests of numerous Palestinians of their longings from their homeland.  Some people asked    her to go to particular places, to eat certain foods and visit relatives. Each journey was documented  with a photograph and a description of the request. Her work operates on many levels and shows that fetishism of natural and everyday elements and their symbolism in Palestinian culture is not only confined to an artistic discourse but rather artists tap into a culture of people and  their social memories and in particular the way they preserve and maintain their identity. Infact the work also reveals much about her own identity and her freedom of movement. At the same time the symbolic importance of these places are not lost for the people who requested the journeys  as they did not undertake the journey themselves, one could argue that infact they become even more poignant.

In the contemporary work of Palestinian artists the bond of place is expressed through a deep fetishism of both natural and “found” materials. It is by taking these everyday elements and creating from them art that the artists suggest how a discourse of place and belonging is fostered and sustained in circumstances of displacement. The olive tree, for example, has continued to be an important symbol used by Palestinian artists. Vera Tamari for example creating dozens of miniature clay olive trees where the leaves and branches of tree appear to created via the delicate impression of a human fingerprint. While Khalil Rabah, has used the tree in many different forms in his installation works: transplanting it, photographing it, and using its oil and leaves all as a symbol of the homeland.  Everyday seemingly banal objects are also elevated to symbolic status and become fetishised icons of place and memories. Naser Soumi based in Paris uses, fragments of Jaffa oranges, the indigo colour and old photographs in his assemblages, which become homages to the lost coast of Palestine. Ahlam Shibli captures the beauty of the  textures of places through the lens of her camera, creating an intimate album of the unique qualities of  everyday Palestinian spaces, contemporary landscapes and homes. Accumulating numerous photos her series functions as a resistance to the workings of time. 

Questions of place inevitably are tied into relationship with time. In many of the art works mentioned the art works suggest a timeless quality in relation to place, whether it is images of a utopian past, or the importance given to natural and found materials and objects. In a sense many of them refer to a paradox of the fragility and temporality of natural materials and forms yet at the same time they serve as a symbol of timelessness. Other works example suggest an exploration of the passage of time, Emily Jaccir's piece mentioned early shows how relation to place is distilled into specific elements with the passing of time, which are held in reverence in the mind of one who cannot reach that place, regardless of how much that place might have changed.

A recent work by Jawad al Malhi entitled "The Bicycle" deals specifically with the passage of time and transformation that has come with it. Re-creating on a grand scale a painting represented a group of children playing on a bicycle in a camp. The original painting which has been lost embodies time and place. The intention of the original painting was to document the community of the camp, during a stage in their history for the belief was that camps were only temporary places. Seventeen years later, the camps still exist but the communities have changed, the children have grown up, while their circumstances are not those of theirs or their parents dreams. In many ways Al Malhi distills the meaning of the passage of time with the large scale paintings and their fragments and with the motionless oversized bicycle on which no one can play and which stands in a silent gallery space symbolic of the paradoxes of this moment in history.

In many ways the fetishisation of place is heightened by its loss and at the same time, although Palestinians reside in Palestine, a sense of loss and disillusionment prevails, for this is not the Palestine of people's dreams, which reveals a lot about their interaction with physical space. There is a complex relation to place in which experience, social memory and aspirations are all entertwined. Currently their has been considerable focus on borders The Wall and checkpoints, with artists documenting The Wall, filming the wall and so forth, more so than in other periods in the history of Palestinian art have artists focused on the details of the 'war' and aggression against them. At the same time however it is not just the landscape which is changing but communities within the these enclaves are also transforming with the experiences of loss.

Ted Swedenberg, 1990. "The Palestinian  Peasant as National Signifier" in Anthropological Quarterly, Vol 63: No.1 p.19. 
Stephen Daniels, 1993.  Fields of Vision: Landscape Imagery and National Identity in England and The United States. p.5.
ًًW.T.J Mitchell, 1994. "Imperial Landscape" in Landscape and Power Ed. W. Mitchel.l
Qattan Foundation, Young Artist Award, 2000.