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In the Eyes of Our present, We Hear Palestine

Notes on In the eyes of our present, we Hear Palestine Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, UAE Old Al Dhaid Clinic December 23, 2023 - April 14, 2024


Khalil Rabah, In the eyes of our present, we Hear Palestine, installation view, Old Al Dhaid Clinic, Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, 2024. Photo: Ashik Zaman


The principal reason for a trip to the UAE and Sharjah, from which I returned only yesterday has been to catch this very exhibition. I prefaced it with; this probably and most likely being the single most important exhibition I will get to see this year. Rhetoric whys are redundant. You know why. An ethnic genocide is ongoing, sanctioned by the West, and is paralleled with a "cultural genocide" and a censorship of voices for the Palestinian cause, most depressingly evidenced in Germany. Perhaps among the most vocal editorial boards in the West recently have been the Los Angeles Times. Mid-last month a doctor by the name of Irfan Galaria reported from a trip to Gaza and shared; "There was only one local plastic surgeon left and he covered the hospital 24/7.”


I'm thinking also about how active Hyperallergic has been in reporting occurences relating to censorship of voices for a ceasefire. It was through Hyperallergic that I learnt that the University of Indiana at Bloomington cancelled a planned retrospective of Samia Halaby due to ”safety concerns”. Mais, c'est la cata! Halaby is a leading Palestinan artist (and political activist) noted for her abstract painting, with a career that spans over decades. It would have been the first retrospective of the 87-year-old artist’s work in the US. She was the first woman professor at the Yale School of Art to earn tenure. Consider that. A petition signed by 1000 + individuals to reinstate the exhibition suggested the cancellation as the result of Halaby’s since long vocal pro-Palestine advocacy. As for the "cultural genocide", Obour Hashash, the program manager at the Palestinian Museum in West Bank told the same platform that Palestinians “are losing our history, our dreams.” In the article by Hadani Ditmars, he went on; “Beyond the horror of the ongoing massacres, it was devastating for us in the West Bank to see the destruction of so much cultural heritage, historical places, art galleries, artifacts stolen and looted,”


In the eyes of our present, we Hear Palestine, Old Al Dhaid Clinic, Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, 2024. Photo: Ashik Zaman/C-print


There was a moment on the way to the deserty premises of In the eyes of our present, we Hear Palestine where I wondered; how much will I love it, like really love it? Suffice it to say, it's quite brilliant, both the art and the staging, hand on heart, and if you need, do bear in mind that I'm predisposed to a great deal of empathy for the Palestinian people. The off-site exhibition is held in two adjacent venues; of which one emblematically is a former medical prevention center (Old Al Dhaid Clinic) that has a white "Greek-Naxian" disposition. A hospital establishment! How do thoughts not rush to the Al Shifa hospital and the demolishing of Palestinian hospital operations? And meanwhile, on site here in the desert, colours and flowers triumphantly, and slowly begin to come to view as you do your strolls in and out of the compact, low-ceiling building units, as though finding a clandestine oasis or Marrakech garden (It's Marrakechic).


In the eyes of our present, we Hear Palestine,  Old Al Dhaid Clinic, Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, 2024. Photo: Ashik Zaman/C-print


You could think of it as though a sense of optism streaming out from the ”cracks” of the clinical white; dispensing an ode to Palestine. It’s arresting, and got even more so when a dainty, elegant white cat appeared out of the bushes, seemingly pregnant and calling incessantly for the attention of me and the editor of a Natal magazine, Miriam Bouteba, who I was joined by and enjoyed great camaraderie with. This is the sort of exhibition that is possibly a bonding experience. As much as you need and want to stay in your own headspace and process the myriad of impresions; the interest to catch the art also from someone else's emotional response to it might easily just override the former.


Interestingly, an uncanny sense of walking around the Giardini of the Venice Biennale finds itself (Apropos of which; No genocide pavillion at the upcoming biennale! And on that note; art institutions in Stockolm with ties to the upcoming bienniale this spring; have you addressed your stance? No, you couldn't be expected to - plead the fifth!) In terms of sculpture in the exhibition, Khalil Rabah pulls significant weight. To circle back to the spatial Venice biennale echo, his two large-scale outdoors sculptures shaping the numbers 48 % and 67 %, connecting to percentages of lost land since the Nakba and Naksa with their rusted "coating" in parts, definitely mark a sense of site-specific belonging, as though erected where they've always been. Meanwhile, they've previously been presented in a past edition of the Sharjah Biennial. With this being a temporary site, they certainly bestow on it a certain air of "permanence" as far as an ethos of art goes, adding to a sudden whiff of the Venice Biennale.


Khalil Rabah, In the eyes of our present, we Hear Palestine, installation view, Old Al Dhaid Clinic, Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, 2024. Photo: C-print


Inside, Rabah's sculptures are contrasted by sleek polished steel wall-mounted kins that offer the gradually increased numbers 93 % and 95 %. Rabah, you will learn, is a prolific figure in the Palestinian artist diaspora and beyond his practice as a conceptual artist, notably also for years served as the artistic director of the Riwaq Biennale; the first biennial in Palestine. The notion of that might strike you as very abstract in the present, but you'd be well-advised to look into its history. Inside, Rabah also presents Gaza Toys; a prim display in glas vitrine/aquarium of plastic animal toys. As intended, some of the views in the exhibition are incredibly amplified in light of the many harrowing images that have been hitting our daily lens since October, and this is among the fewer works in the exhibition that immediately prompts thought more specifically to this or that child whose account of their condition had you weeping, and sleepless for a whole night. I think of 11-year old Asem who lost both his parents and was told; "You are so beautiful, you will be fine. Don't worry!"


Khalil Rabah, In the eyes of our present, we Hear Palestine, installation view, Old Al Dhaid Clinic, Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, 2024. Photo: C-print


The late visual artist Tarek Al-Ghoussein who passed away last year at a mere age of 60, was born in Kuwait as a child of Palestinan exiles. His characteristic and noted photographic series of "interventions" dressed in the quintessential keffiyeh are presented extensively and I genuinely am shocked, about how in the this image-consumption-era where most of everything can be found on the Internetz, I've only ever seen a handful of these many images before. Some of them I'm really seeing a glimpse of the first time. And that goes for the work of several artists in the exhibition and takes me back to how this review, travelling from Stockholm to Sharjah even came about in the first place. I couldn't find reviews about the exhibition even though it has been on for a while, and my curiosity about the exhibition and the presented works really was not satisfied by the bits and crumbs available online. So, I got in touch with Sharjah Art Foundation and declared that I'd be happy to present an article, even if merely to present installation shots as to to make them available through our platform. A standout image among Al-Ghoussein's rich displays is a "muted" intervention where the artist aimlessly walks across an airplane that is being loaded on the runway. It's marked by such wry self-irony and a quiet confrontation with Islamophobia in a post-9/11-world.


Tarek Al-Ghoussein, In the eyes of our present, we Hear Palestine, installation view, Old Al Dhaid Clinic, Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, 2024. Photo: C-print


While in life, Al-Ghoussein spoke about how when making the series, he was made aware of how charged the keffiyeh as a scarf had become. "Even in the Middle East, it has become almost a symbol of terrorism.”, he said in an interview with Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism. His ties with the Sharjah Art Foundation stretches back to pariticipating in both the 2003 and 2005 editions of the Sharjah Biennial, and the first-ever UAE pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2009, and later representing Kuwait at the Venice Biennale in 2013 (And there you have Venice, again).


In the eyes of our present, we Hear Palestine,  Arts Palace, Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, 2024. Photo: Ashik Zaman/C-print


In the eyes of our present, we Hear Palestine,  Arts Palace, Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, 2024. Photo: Ashik Zaman/C-print


A stone's throw away at the second venue (simply named Arts Palace), which comes across as a well-kept but "defunct" former private residence, the spotlight primilarily is focused on Abdul Hay Mosallam Zarara, another artist who passed away in Jordan, still recently in 2020. He was known for intense relief-tableaus of depecicted Palestinian struggles with a technique involving sawdust and glue. Among the works on the walls are his inconic The martyr Abu Raja’a Abu Amasheh, made in 1976. It depicts the titular person Raja’a Abu Amasheh, who is believed to be one of the first women to die as martyr for the Palestinian cause.


I haven't had many chances to see his work and missed out big time last year when four of his artworks were on view in the 58th Carnegie International in Pittsburgh at the Carnegie Museum of Art, curated by Sohrab Mohebbi. Despite being in town, visiting Carnegie Mellon School of Art as a guest critic, I never got around to swinging by next doors which has been a big taxing regret ever since. His works were installed next to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ tribute to Palestine; Forbidden Colors from 1988. In hindight, that would have been so great to see. But this is more than just adequate solace for that loss.


Tarek Al-Ghoussein, Mona Hatoum, In the eyes of our present, we Hear Palestine,  Arts Palace, Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, 2024. Photo: Ashik Zaman


Before his passing, he was quoted saying; ”I have never sought to exhibit in order to sell. My works are related to the Palestinian cause and I keep most of them. I dream of one day collecting my dispersed works related to the Palestinian cause in a small museum in which I can document them in my own way for future generations, and so that my identity can be learned about through touring nations around the world.”


In a sense, the Arts Palace presents itself in line with that particular wish; if yet briefly and in a temporal fashion, the Arts Palace is that museum, within the scope of the exhibition.


Mona Hatoum, In the eyes of our present, we Hear Palestine, Arts Palace, Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, 2024. Photo:Ashik Zaman/C-print


On a global lens, the internationally most recognized artist in the exhibition and whose work is also found in the Arts palace; Mona Hatoum, has had a lot of presence in Stockholm, also recently, and most notably per way of Magasin III which recently came under severe scrutinty on the account of its second location in Jaffa, Israel. Born in Lebanon to displaced Palestinian parents who fled during the Nakba, the expression of "a post-memory" of Palestinians in the diaspora is said to be integral to her overall body of work.


To the extent that it's even fair to say, the big takeaway in the exhibition are the videos that make for tour-de-force moving imagery-making, and shift and range between documentary, zooming in on living conditions, to more poetic and visually lyrical renditions of accounts of Palestinian history. Such a case is Emily Jacir's Lydda Airport, which extracts its name after an aerodrome in Palestine built during the British mandate, and narrates a tale of an aircraft that mysteriously disappeared traversing the Gulf of Oman on its way to Sharjah.


Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, In the eyes of our present, we Hear Palestine, installation view, Old Al Dhaid Clinic, Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, 2024. Photo: Ashik Zaman


The exhibition actually starts with a literal "alarm", with Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s The Incidental Insurgents Pt III instilling jolts of electricity in your internal system with its pulsating electrictronic sound score, already before a black curtain as you enter the medical facility reception. Intense repetitions of words and phrases, allude to beating hearts, while accompanying at times ethereal landscape images. I sadly missed the noted duo's If only this mountain between us could be ground to dust, a 2021 exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago that looked at colonial narratives that enable the sustaining of the occupation of Palestine. In a rave review I found online, it was stressed how the exhibition without a doubt deserved more attention than the promotion provided by its host institution.


Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, In the eyes of our present, we Hear Palestine, installation view, Old Al Dhaid Clinic, Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, 2024. Photo: Ashik Zaman


If they amp up the intensity and immediacy, Basma al-Sharif rather works with shifts in mood and humorous ”fradulent deception”. In We Began By Measuring Distance, while overlaying images, she’ll have you wondering whether bodies are happy or distraught? You already will know the answer, and just like in a horror movie the inevitable revelation will come, but she prolongs it with an extended suspense. While I missed Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s exhibition, I did however see al Sharif’s work as an artist in a brilliant exhibition at once again; The Art Institute Chicago in 2022, called Capital. Memories have always been capital and currency in this world, if you ask me. The stuff that composes a certain wealth and exist to be cherished. At some point in her video the words; ”our memories will become significant in retrospect” emerge on the screen.


It really hits like a blow.



Basma al-Sharif, In the eyes of our present, we Hear Palestine, installation view, Old Al Dhaid Clinic, Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, 2024. Photo: Ashik Zaman


The invitable recurs with Sharif Waked’s video that connotes to those who choose the self-inflicted matyr role as the ultimate selfless, and yet most individual act you can think of. What's more is that To Be Continued…made in 2009, brings forth a string of the every other persons's prejudices per a ”white passing man” looking like a Dolce & Gabbana model, reciting what one would assume is The Quran (it appears not) in a staged setting alluding to the last moments before the sacrificing of the self. Aspects of shadism and otherism and empathy conditioned by aesthetics certainly appear brushed on. Anyone who has been targeted by ”random searches” at airports have in their mind raged against the whole skewed arbitrariness of it all and posed the question; what if ”the other” didn’t look like ”the other” but that guy over there?. The work indirectly taps into how the world still, in terms of a fundamental societal function such as security, operates on a schism of what ”us” and ”they” look like.


I mean hey, at 38 you still get; ”You don’t look very Swedish, I thought all Swedes were blond and blue-eyed?” It’s certainly getting rarer but stupidity leaks are dangerously real also in anno 2024.

Ashik Zaman


Artists: Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, Adel Abidin, Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri, Simone Fattal, Tarek Al Ghoussein, Shadi Habib Allah, Hazem Harb, Mona Hatoum, Emily Jacir, Najat Makki, Jumana Manna and Sille Storihle, Rashid Masharawi, Khalil Rabah, Mario Rizzi, Raeda Saadeh, Mona Saudi, Basma Al Sharif, Nida Sinnokrot, Sharif Waked, Kamal Youssef and Abdul Hay Mosallam Zarara

www.sharjahart.org






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