Exhibition at P21 Gallery offers an alternative view of Palestine

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Originally published in Middle East Monitor

Four days before the ‘Refraction: Moving images of Palestine’ exhibition is set to open in London, curator Shaheen Merali is describing a video from the show by artist Khaled Jarrar. “He’s walking through where he lives, in the occupied territory, wearing a wet suit, flippers and a snorkel, hailing a taxi,” he explains. “For Jarrar, that is maybe an act of trying to escape a landlocked society. The surrealism of living under occupation.”

The exhibition is made up of pieces of work which are the artists’ individual reflections on Palestine, how they view and challenge chaos, war and massacre in the region. “This notion of refraction is that, for me, when light goes through something, it kind of changes direction, it takes on another set of values. Those values are to do with the artists, and how they see their world,” says Merali.

The show will be the opening exhibition of P21 Gallery. When the space opens its doors it will exhibit visual culture, architecture, fashion and drama from the Middle East with a focus on Palestine. It is the right time to start concentrating on the region, Merali explains. “The Middle East has become very influential, it’s become very central to the ways that artists are thinking about the world and its relationship in terms of our global dependency, or lack of independency.”

There is a substantial amount of art currently in the Gulf area, Pakistan, India and Thailand, yet very little of it makes it to Britain. “There is a laziness attached to curating art from a global scenario or a global domain,” explains Merali. “The idea is that we should encourage things to come in as much as we are encouraging things to go out.”

The gallery doesn’t just feature artists from the Middle East. In this show there are several who are neither Palestinian nor Arab; who don’t speak any other languages; and who don’t live there. There are artists in the exhibition who live in Jordan, Canada, Britain, the USA and France, notes Merali. “Because of the relationship, which is a historical or personal relationship, or an idea, or influences, they’ve made work about it.”

Merali explains that for the artists, creating work about Palestine is not easy. “When artists are working from the theatre of war, or from an emotional space, like a space of a massacre, which leaves its residue with us, it’s much more difficult to evaluate how to do it, because we are so involved in the work in some way; culturally as well as emotionally.”

Images of, or references to, the occupation are often a central theme in the work. “One cannot escape that which weighs you down, but at the same time, there is a freedom, a sense of a visual expulsion, which happens when an artist creates a piece of work. Maybe it starts off with the occupation and then becomes something completely different,” Merali says.

He points out that seeing the occupation in artwork can be dependent on the viewer and what they bring to the image. “Palestine itself is so much in our head and minds and hearts as being the Occupied Territories. It’s become so conjoined with Israel that it’s difficult to separate them and talk about one of them without referring to the other. So we can also bring meaning to the works that might not be the easiest, or the one that we can fall into, which is about the relationship to the occupation, or the relationship to Israel.”

He explains that there are three works in the exhibition which can be interpreted as either about the occupation or about the artists’ relationship to architecture. “One can draw, and keep on drawing, and deduce from them different conclusions. What I think is really important is to allow all the work to breathe by giving it a space in London, to see how viewers react and see what they take away from this set of works.”

Some of the work could be offensive, and it takes confidence for the artists to put forward their perspective regardless. “In the end it needs to be said, it’s their personal truth. Vehicles that artists use in this exhibition are very personal attempts to evaluate what is going on in their lives.” That is, personal feelings are not always common values.

They also have the ability to shock. Take, for example, Laila Shawa’s Stealth Cross-Metamorphoses. A large, black cross with four rockets attached to the arms, some may query why the cross is being used to hold arms, Merali tells me. For others, the cross could also be a drone. “The possibilities for reading in this work are immense. It is symbolic of lots of the arguments we’ve had about what the Middle East is, and what is going on. How all of these different parties are involved – Israel, America, Palestine, Iran, Iraq – is complex.”

Mike Hoolboom’s work, Lacan Palestine, is a film made of fragments, which have been taken from Hollywood films to document that which has come out of the occupied territories; they are depictions of Palestine in cinematic and documentary history. “Bringing all these fragments together in a sense creates both an imbalance and a balance about what is the image of Palestine in cinematic and lens-based media.”

Each piece of work in the show offers a different way to look at the conflict, rather than through the lens of journalism, a medium that dominates in Merali’s opinion. “We’ve only really been able to understand Palestine through the media, and not this media, which is the media of the artists,” Merali points out. “We’ve learnt it from the political scientist and the economist and the journalist.”

He insists that it is good to inform a public, which is attracted at the moment to the region, to looking at the world through the arts, rather than just through journalism, “Because journalism itself has been tainted so badly in the way it hasn’t been able to evaluate the world for us in great clarity and honesty. Artists are looking at different ways to understand the world.”

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Art Exhibitions, Palestine and Israel