Space, Culture and Connection: Palestinian Artists on Acts of Resistance

Mona Benyamin, Emily Jacir and Larissa Sansour discuss the role artists play in responding to the Israeli occupation, from building international solidarity to shifting language and creating new iconographies

 

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BY Emily Jacir, Larissa Sansour, Mona Benyamin AND Amy Sherlock in Roundtables | 29 JUN 21

Amy Sherlock The escalation of violence between Israelis and Palestinians in recent weeks has provoked an outpouring of international response from artists and cultural workers in solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle. What role do artists have to play?

Mona Benyamin Personally, at this moment, being in Haifa and experiencing these aggressions first-hand, my identity as an artist was pushed aside. I think there should be as little mediation as possible between what is happening and what the world is seeing: even the media’s intervention seems unnecessary. Palestinians have taken media into their hands; they are the ones who are delivering the news. For so long, we have been silenced and talked over: it’s about time we tell our story from our perspective.

Emily Jacir I think it is important to unpack your question, Amy, and to look at how it sets up the frame here. It implies that there is a balance of power, but it is disproportionate: only the Palestinians are under military occupation by one of the world’s most powerful armies.

In terms of international solidarity, I see it as part of a much longer process that has been happening for decades and that many artists, in Palestine and internationally, have been working to build.

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Mona Benyamin, Moonscape, 2020, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Larissa Sansour This has been an ongoing struggle. I was born in Bethlehem under direct Israeli occupation. I’ve had guns pointed at me since I was a child. This informs my work, obviously. I often get asked if I think art can affect political change, and it’s a difficult question because the power that artists hold is difficult to measure. But I do believe in the potency of art.

EJ I have been building cultural and educational spaces in Palestine since the late 1990s. My work as an educator is an inherent part of my practice. I’ve been very involved in creating spaces of knowledge production and have been working with places like Birzeit University. I co-founded the Art Academy in Ramallah, along with many other colleagues, and taught there for ten years. When, [in 2014], my father, my sister and I decided to turn our family home into a cultural venue in Bethlehem, I saw it as an opportunity to create an alternative pedagogical space and a place to connect our present, past and future. To your question about what role artists have to play, in my case, the space I am running, Dar Jacir, was ransacked on 15 May by the Israeli army. Our role was immediate and urgent: ensuring the safety of all the artists and staff, securing the property, fundraising, repairing and rebuilding.

LS What Dar Jacir is doing is incredibly important. It’s so hard to have a space like this, especially in Bethlehem, where it’s right next to the Israeli wall. It’s trying to create something in a place you know is going to be bombarded over and over again. Conceptually, it’s an act of resistance – now, more than ever, when Bethlehem finds itself completely isolated because of the wall and the increasing settlements around the city. It’s very difficult to go to Ramallah, which used to be a 40 minutes’ drive. Now, it takes two hours – sometimes more, with all the checkpoints.

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Mona Benyamin, Trouble in Paradise, 2018, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Creating any cultural institution, throughout the history of Palestine, has always been an act of resistance. In the 1970s, my dad was put in prison for his role in founding Bethlehem University.

MB Palestinian cultural institutions contain two of the things that the Israeli government is most scared of. First of all, one of the most prominent ways in which Palestinians have resisted the occupation is by continuing to build houses, expanding the geographical space that they take, without building permits from the state. This phenomenon is something that the Israeli authorities could never really stop.

Also, intellectuals and people coming from the liberal arts are also very intimidating for the authorities. In 1976, there was a confidential Israeli government document entitled the Koenig Memorandum. Its strategic goal was to reduce the influence of ’48 Palestinians in shaping public opinion. One of the main points in the document was to direct their education towards ‘technical professions and physical and natural sciences’, which would leave them very little time for ‘dabbling in nationalism’. In addition to encouraging Palestinians to travel abroad for the purposes of education, while the Israeli state would continue to make it harder for them to return and find jobs, pushing them towards emigration.

You can tell the extent to which critical thinking has a role in the revolution by the fact that they’ve been trying to stop it ever since the state of Israel was founded.

EJ Larissa’s point about the isolation of Bethlehem is a crucial one. Bethlehem is now surrounded, completely encircled by settlements. All of Bethlehem’s green lands, agricultural lands, are now cut off from the people of Bethlehem.

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Emily Jacir, ENTRY DENIED (a concert in Jerusalem), 2003, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Paolo Pellion

One element that ended up becoming central to Dar Jacir is the green terraces around the house itself, which we are using for agricultural projects. Two of the first residents in my programme were urban farmers, Vivien Sansour and Mohammed Saleh, and it was really important to all of us to host workshops for our neighbourhood in which youth could learn about the land and what grows in it, because we have been cut off from our own land.

Going back to Mona talking about the importance of the space, the embodiment of Dar Jacir itself means something. This space, the structure and architecture, was built in 1880. Israel wasn’t founded until 1948. That matters. The house was built during a period of history when Bethlehem merchants had established a network around the world. Bethlemites were in Chile, they were in Colombia, in the Philippines and many other places, and they were going back and forth between Bethlehem and those sites. The house has always welcomed people. I often think about that, in terms of this project in which hospitality is key and where we are reactivating those links.

MB Israel has cut Palestinian citizens of Israel off from the rest of the Arab world by restricting our movement and making it difficult and even dangerous to be in contact with people in countries such as Syria and Lebanon, which Israel considers enemy states. There are many cases where Palestinian citizens of Israel have been detained and interrogated by the Shin Bet [Israel’s security services] under the pretence of having been in touch with so-called foreign agents. This tactic has been very efficient for the occupation: the systematic isolation of Palestinians over decades is part of a bigger goal to erase our culture, history and collective memory.

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Larissa Sansour/Soren Lind, In Vitro, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artist 

Actually, I hate saying ‘the Arab world’. I’d rather call it Narnia at this point. The names that have been imposed on our region are all problematic: either they don’t account for the diversity of ethnicities and languages (‘Arab World’), or they locate us in relation to the British Empire (‘Middle East’).

The nice thing about art institutions is that they’re a bit subversive in that sense. They can host artists from other places, even places that the country is officially at war with. It helps make a link between what is going on in Lebanon and Syria and Palestine. It’s something that is very important for our unity and for resisting the colonial structures that we’re fighting against.     

 EJ The systematic isolation of Palestinian communities is important to talk about. People from the West Bank and Gaza, which were occupied by the Israeli state after 1967, were very connected to the region, moving back and forth as guest workers, as students, for work, etc. throughout these periods. But step by step, day by day, these movements are increasingly restricted.

The term ‘Arab world’ is one that, for me, connotes a rich cultural heritage and embraces diverse communities and religions. It is precisely this term that the so-called West has tried to eradicate. After 9/11, in America, they completely dropped the term ‘Arab’ and began to use the word ‘Muslim’, which is a deliberate and political move to erase the richness and diversity of the Arab world.

LS This is incredibly important: ‘Muslim world’ obfuscates the reality of our region and its interconnection since ancient times.

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Larissa Sansour/Soren Lind, In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain, 2016, film still. Courtesy: the artist

MB It’s worth noting that the replacement of the term ‘Arab world’ with ‘Muslim world’ was happening in correlation with the rise of Islamophobia in the West, which also underlies the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, ongoing sanctions on Iran, US military support to Israel and other American foreign policies.

AS Are you at all optimistic for the future?

EJ In terms of what’s happening in the Israeli government [with the election of the hard-right former settler Naftali Bennett as Prime Minister on 13 June], it’s not changing anything for us.

MB At least, not for the better. If anything, it’s going to be for the worse.

EJ Exactly. One thing, however, about the events in May which does give me hope is that the resistance came from the people and not from any political parties. When I say ‘the people’, I mean Palestinians in Akka, Bethlehem, Gaza, Haifa, Jaffa, Jerusalem, Lebanon, Jordan, everywhere. This is really one of the most crucial points of what’s happened in the last month: it shows clearly the complete failure of the 73-year-old project to divide us.

LS It has been very different this time. Young Palestinian people from all over are speaking together. It’s a digital uprising. Even the vibe here in London is very different. I was surprised to see several solidarity posters around the city, saying ‘Save Sheikh Jarrah’. There are even watermelon posters at bus stops, in reference to the period after the 1967 war when Israel prohibited the display of the Palestinian flag and its colours in Gaza and the West Bank.

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Emily Jacir, Lydda Airport, 2009, installation view. Courtesy: the artist

I recently saw an interview with Sliman Mansour, where he describes an argument he had with an Israeli officer who had closed down an exhibition of his work in Ramallah in the 1980s. Mansour said: ‘What if I paint a flower in these colours?’ ‘No, you’re not allowed. You’re not even allowed to paint a watermelon.’ The reappearance of this symbol is part of a new iconography of Palestinian resistance.

It’s important that we shift the language we use when speaking about Palestine. We need to use words like ‘apartheid’ and not ‘conflict’. It’s really a very simple situation. The fact that, internationally, it’s described as being complicated is a dishonest way of dealing with what is essentially a continuation of colonialism and abuse of human rights.

MB Semantics are very important in terms of how we shape the way other people think about our struggle and our liberation, and the Israeli occupation. The problem is that, as Palestinians, we’re constantly being censored.

During this latest uprising, the Israeli authorities started a campaign called Operation Law and Order, where they announced that they would be arresting 500 Palestinians over the course of 48 hours because they had participated in protests or because of statements they had made on social media. During those days, me and many other Palestinians were sleeping in our jeans because we were scared that we were going to be taken out of our houses in the middle of the night. The threat was immediate, and we were terrified. That is the reality that we’re living in.

On 1 July, Habibi Collective are hosting hourly screenings from 16:00-21:00 of Emily Jacir’s letter to a friend (2019) at London's Chisenhale Gallery, with 100% of donations going towards rebuilding Dar Jacir. Reserve your place here

Main image: Emily Jacir, Untitled (SOLIDARIDAD), 2013. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Renato Ghiazza 

Thumbnail: Larissa Sansour, A Space Exodus, 2009, film still. Courtesy: the artist

 

Emily Jacir is an artist and filmmaker. Currently, her solo exhibition ‘Not So Long As The Night’ is on at Peola Simondi in Torino; her film ‘letter to a friend’ is in competition at Gabes Cinema Fen in Tunisia and she is installing a permanent work in Pietrapertosa in Basilicata. She is the Executive Director of Dar Yusuf Nasri Jacir for Art and Research in Bethlehem and is based in the Mediterranean.

 

Larissa Sansour is an artist and filmmaker. Her work centres on the dialectics between myth and historical narrative. In 2019, she represented Denmark at the 58th Venice Biennial. In 2020, she was the shared recipient of the prestigious Jarman Award. Sansour currently lives and works in London, UK.

 

Mona Benyamin is a visual artist and filmmaker based in Haifa. In her works, she explores intergenerational outlooks on hope, trauma and questions of identity, using humour and irony as political tools of resistance and reflection. Her recent works have been screened — among others — at MoMA, Another Gaze, Sheffield DocFest and Columbia University.

Amy Sherlock is deputy editor of frieze and is based in London, UK.

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