I was first moved by several visits to a concentration camp in Poland , which led me to explore the Jewish narrative and examine the brutal consequences of the dreadful tragedy of the Holocaust. This line of research inevitably led me to “An nakbah” a term used by Palestinians to describe their own terrifying forced exodus from their land.
Israel’s new historians, such as Ilan Pappe, have exposed the ethnic cleansing policy executed in 1948 to drive Palestinians into exile through massacre, rape, and both violent and psychological warfare.
Frustrated by the perpetual myths and ignorance that surround Palestine, I decided that if I was to unravel the numerous questions that had arisen out of my earlier research I would have to embark on a journey of exploration, to feel the daily rhythms of life under occupation and investigate Palestinian history through dedicated field work living amongst he local population.
With its thousands of tiny figures held in suspense the primary aim of the art work is to give voice to those it represents and to create an awareness of the injustice of displacement in a non -didactic, non political way through artistic expression taking both a humanitarian and spiritual approach.
Working with Palestinians, I was humbled by the nobility of many people who,despite being denied dignity and enduring traumatized lives in squalid refugee camps, cling to the hope - after 60 years - that their right of return, once guaranteed under international law, will be honoured.
“Why are they doing that to the poor people” the lady asks, “Because they are Palestinian” says a voice in her head, “ that way they are kept in a state of suspension, neither able to touch heaven or earth”
“That’s it!” I said to Neville coming out of the cinema, “That is the project!”
We had just seen a film directed by Tahani Rached, Soraida, a Woman of Palestine, in which a lady, Um Ali is sitting over coffee with her friends recounting a dream that she had had the night before. She describes how she saw hundreds of Palestinians being hung from laundry lines, like cloths hanging out to dry.
I had wanted to do an art work that could encapsulate the most detrimental part of Palestinian history, the 1948 forced exile of the indigenous population of its land. This was not a single event buried in the past, but a continuing source of catastrophe for Palestinians, the Middle East and indeed the wider world.
From the passive environment of my London apartment, a Scottish artist attempting to take on another’s trauma experienced second hand through reading or watching films seemed almost absurd. Besides I had never been to Palestine and back then the idea of entering a virtual war zone filled me with trepidation.
However the relentless news stories of violence and misery on our TV screens prompting facile words from banal politicians and a media hell bent on confusing the issues, the desire to do something remained unremitting. One thing was certain however, if I was going to do such an art work, it would have to be a monumental effort.
The words in Taham Um Ali’s dream struck an instant chord.
If land is pulled from under your feet, severing the roots that have maintained you over centuries, the unbound spirit with nowhere to go will remain trapped in limbo.
I began by brainstorming this state of suspension.
In the unexpected manner of the initial spark of inspiration, the wax figure came to me equally by surprise. I had been experimenting with boiling wax, and as a theatre designer I have a supply of model figurines from past productions. I began by dipping one of the figures into the wax and gradually after several immersions, no longer in my control, the figure started to take on its own form.
Wax, a visceral, emotional, ancient material gave it a uniquely poignant and melancholy appearance, quite different from anything that I had ever seen.
In the whimsical way of an artist’s fantasy, the figure spoke to me “I am it!” she said.
From then on the figures started to multiply. They would go on to symbolically represent thousands of people in a state of flight.
With the idea firmly grasped, I knew that the next stage would have to take place in Palestine . These figures did not represent my history; I was merely a catalyst undertaking a methodology creating empty shells. They needed a breath of life, to be given a soul, and if to be made with integrity and pathos then only by Palestinian hands.
Tentatively, not sure if my embryonic idea might even be an insult to a Palestinian, I sent an e-mail to the first gallery on my list, Al Hoash, The Palestinian Art Court, in East Jerusalem .
To my amazement I was answered almost immediately. Rawan Sharaf, the director, told me that she was not sure how they might accommodate such a project and certainly had no idea of how it would be funded, but they were definitely interested. Impressed by her speedy response and honesty I recognised a kindred spirit and decided to take the project no where else. The British Council in Jerusalem gave their endorsement by offering financial support ensuring that my first trip was secured. Over the ensuing months with the dauntless effort of project coordinator Fadi Shurafa a strategy was underway, by the time of my arrival in September the blue print was in place.
No matter how much one thinks one knows about Palestine , nothing can prepare you for the first visit. Occupation and displacement to be understood has to be felt using all five senses.
I soon realised that what I was about to undertake would be no ordinary art work, the final creation would pale in significance compared to the journey that I was about to embark on.
It has been a most humbling and rewarding experience empowered and enriched by the indefatigable spirit of the Palestinian people, truly a journey of a life time.