AUTHOR: Emily Jacir
LOCATION: New York City,US
SOURCE: Art in America Magazine
When "Made in Palestine" opened at Houston's Station Museum in 2003, it was the first museum exhibition of Palestinian art to take place in the United States. The show, which included 23 artists who work in a variety of mediums, was the brainchild of James Harithas, a museum director and curator known for his controversial projects. Harithas and his wife, Ann, have been running an exhibition space in Houston since 1998--initially called Art Car Museum, it is currently known as the Station Museum. Given its dedication to contemporary art with political, cultural, social and economic impact, the couple's museum was an appropriate place for the exhibition. Along with co-curators Gabriel Delgado, an artist, and Tex Kerschen, a musician, Harithas worked in close collaboration with Palestinian artists Emily Jacir and Samia Halaby, both of whom were included in the exhibition and helped to guide him on his travels in the Levant to meet artists and see their work.
Harithas planned on touring the show throughout the U.S., but finding venues was not such an easy task. He received 90 rejections from various museums and art centers. Institutions feared losing funding for exhibiting Palestinian art. Eventually two small art centers--SomArts Cultural Center in San Francisco and T.W Wood Gallery and Arts Center in Montpelier, Vt.--decided to host the show, where it was on view in April and October 2005, respectively. When it came to finding a New York venue, Halaby intervened early on, engaging the efforts of Al Jisser, a New York arts organization founded in 2001 to bring Arab artists to international attention, in what amounted to a nearly three-year grassroots fundraising campaign. With the support of the Station Museum, Al Jisser raised approximately $100,000. They rented and fixed up a raw loft space in a gallery building on West 25th Street, calling it the Bridge Gallery. In the end, the show, which opened Mar. 14, 2006, was extended by a month and brought in a total of 5,000 visitors.
"Made in Palestine" appeared in New York in a slightly different form EWE from the original exhibition. Certain works, such as Suleiman Mansour's large acrylic-on-clay floor piece and Jacir's embroidered refugee tent, were too expensive to bring. However, even in its reduced version, the show revealed innovative and visually engaging responses to a political situation fraught with turmoil. Artworks by long-established artists, such as Halaby and Mansour (his six clay-on-wood-panel relief figures did get to New York), were presented alongside those of emerging artists, offering a slice of modern and contemporary Palestinian art history. Over half of the artists have emigrated from their homeland, but many still live in the Middle East.
Born in 1936 in Jerusalem, Halaby currently lives in New York City. Her contribution to the exhibition, the 12-foot-long Palestine, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River (2003), is made of acrylic paint on pieces of cutout canvas and paper. Various organic shapes are joined with glue and thread into strips. Each time she installs the work, she combines the strips differently. Improvisation and the rhythms of jazz play an influential role in her composition process. Her palette, which ranges from sunny yellows and oranges to forest greens and midnight blues, evokes the topography of the land. Halaby's work breathes beauty and poetry into a landscape that is predominantly pictured as war-torn and brutalized. Her title refers to Palestine as it was before the creation of Israel in 1948, reminding viewers that the current map of the region, pocked with settlements and ripped with bypass roads and the separation wall, is not timeless.
Nida Sinnokrot was born in 1971 and raised in Algeria. She now lives in New York City. Sinnokrot's Rubber Coated Rocks (2002) is a site-dependent installation of smooth stones half coated in variously colored rubber--a reference to the often fatal rubber-coated bullets used by the Israeli army against Palestinians wielding rocks. Sinnokrot's blend of natural and synthetic materials creates a multitiered commentary on Palestinian life. At the Bridge Gallery, the rocks were lined up on the floor along one wall of the large loft space. The single-file presentation suggested people waiting in line, a constant circumstance of Palestinians as they attempt to cross through checkpoints set up to regulate and control travel within and out of Gaza and the West Bank.
John Halaka, born in 1957 in Egypt and presently residing in San Diego, showed a 22-foot-long black, gray and white canvas titled Stripped of Their Identity and Driven From Their Land (2003). Groupings of figures coalesce through a buildup of the ink-stamped words "forgotten" and "survivors," producing a pulsating effect of bodies that recede into space and blur in and out of the background. Halaka purposefully excludes marks of identity, underscoring the universality of displacement and exile. In addition, the life-size scale of the figures in the foreground tends to implicate the viewer, prompting the question: am I another victim, or am I a perpetrator? Halaka's strategy does not attempt to answer questions, only generate them.
The most commanding piece in the show was Mustafa al Hallaj's Self-Portrait as God, the Devil, and Man (2000). Born in Haifa in 1938, Hallaj died in a 2002 studio fire in Damascus, Syria. The massive masonite-cut print features imagery of human/animal hybrids somewhat reminiscent of the work of Hieronymus Bosch. The eight 37-foot strips combine the ancient and the modern, creating a resonant narrative. The print hanging in the show was re-created by the Palestinian Artists Union because part of the print Hallaj made was destroyed in the fire that took his life.
The exhibition also included a range of photography and installation art. Rula Halawani's 2002 series "Negative Incursion" consists of negative black-and-white prints showing the destruction after Israeli army attacks on the West Bank in 2002. Her use of the negative print technique prohibits a quick and superficial viewing, instead requiring an intense focus on the scenes she depicts, such as the displaced family sitting under a tent in front of their crumbled home. Noel Jabbour's 2000-01 series "Vacant Seats" consists of large-scale portraits of Palestinian families who have lost members to warfare. The families stand together stiffly for the camera, perhaps uncomfortable with documentation of their now incomplete number. A sad resentment permeates these depictions, giving an unnatural feel to the photos despite their casual snapshot quality. Vera Tamari's ongoing Tale of a Tree, which she began in 1999, focuses on the Israeli army's relentless destruction of olive trees owned by Palestinians. A black-and-white phototransfer on Plexiglas of an old olive tree was hung behind a platform holding hundreds of 3-inch ceramic olive trees in bright colors. The contrast between the iconic photograph of the olive tree, which symbolizes Palestinian livelihood on a spiritual and economic level, and the multitude of miniature trees suggests the resolve among Palestinians to maintain rootedness in their homeland.
It has been said that the simple fact of being Palestinian is a political act. So is the mere depiction of daily life in Palestine and its Diaspora. "Made in Palestine" offered a forum for underknown Palestinian artists to visually and symbolically express their individual perspectives. The current buzz around Arab art needs to be carefully considered in light of the wars and military occupations in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. Art can play a crucial role when viewers listen and engage with the messages set forth by the artists. Only in this way can we truly appreciate the unique perspectives of the multiple lives made in Palestine.
"Made in Palestine" debuted at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art, Houston [May 3-Oct. 3, 2003]. It traveled to SomArts Cultural Center San Francisco [Apr 7-22, 2005]; T.W. Wood Gallery and Arts Center, Montpelier, Vt. [Oct. 18-Nov. 20, 2005]; and the Bridge Gallery, New York [Mar. 14-May 27, 2006].
Kathy Zarar is a doctoral student in art history at the University of Michigan. Her focus is on modern and contemporary Arab art.