'I want to escape this image of victimhood': Palestinian artist's grief on display in new show

Jameel Art Centre's new series of Artist's Rooms are linked by themes of Palestine and the occupation

Installation view of Taysir Batniji's 'To My Brother' at Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai. Brent Galotera
Installation view of Taysir Batniji's 'To My Brother' at Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai. Brent Galotera

Taysir Batniji’s brother, Mayssara, had borrowed the artist's sketchpad on the day he was killed in Palestine. The sibling drew an image of a soldier shooting a gun, and hours later he was shot by a sniper. It was 1987, and the First Intifada was under way.

The memory of that drawing and the indentations it left on the page would come back to Batniji decades later, when he created his work To My Brother in 2012.

The piece comprises a series of 60 inkless drawings, or, more accurately, carvings onto white paper that resemble sculptural reliefs. The visuals are based on family photographs taken during Mayssara's wedding, which took place two years before his death.

At first glance, the framed works in the room appear blank. Viewers must step closer to see the traces. There are joyful scenes of guests dancing, family members embracing, and the bride and groom together.

To My Brother now fills one of Jameel Arts Centre’s new group of Artist’s Rooms, where it will be on view in Dubai until January 2021.

Batniji’s other range of works also deal with erasure, remnants of memory and presence. For example, his watercolour paintings Traces mimic the glue residue of tape placed on posters or pictures.

Born in Gaza, the artist moved abroad in 1993 and now lives in Paris, France. His work, though informed by Palestinian identity, goes beyond the politics and digs into the personal.

“I choose always to take things from another point, to evoke things in a very subjective way based first on my experience as a Palestinian, as a person, and it will reflect collective issues anyway," he explains. "In one way or another, your life overlaps with the collective story.”

It is also his way of taking on Palestinian identity. “I want to escape this image of victimhood. For many, the Palestinian is seen as a victim or, for others, a terrorist. Both cases are not productive. You are not seen as a normal human,” he says. “As Palestinians, we are human beings like others in the world. We have dreams. We have questions. We have other issues too.”

Taysir Batniji's 'To My Brother' (detail). Brent Galotera
Taysir Batniji's 'To My Brother' (detail). Brent Galotera

Batniji’s brother was 25 years old when he was killed, and those responsible for his death have not been identified. “There is no justice for Palestinians. Every day, Palestinians are killed,” he says, citing the death of Eyad Hallaq, an autistic man who was shot by Israeli forces outside of his special needs school in May.

Batniji links the Palestinian struggle with the longstanding fight against racism in America, seeing both groups involved as navigating and surviving systems of oppression.

I hope with this new movement, Black Lives Matter, and what is happening in the US will bring change in this sense

Taysir Batniji

“I hope with this new movement, Black Lives Matter, and what is happening in the US will bring change in this sense. The world is now compensating the killers more than the victims, but I hope this will change,” he says.

In the US, protests have been raging for weeks after the tragic death of George Floyd. “What is happening in the US, we as Palestinians support strongly. We all have to stand against racism,” Batniji says.

In creating To My Brother, the artist wants to compel people towards awareness and reflection. To compose his drawings, the artist traced the prints of film negatives, engraving the lines and curves with a dry pen on paper. “I want people to be involved in the work, to look at it. The viewer is obliged to move, to get closer, to see both sides and see the light to see something,” he says.

Even then, one never really sees the full picture. In this way, the work transcends politics, speaking instead of the emptiness of grief, but also its incomprehensibility. We can sense its depth, but our attempts to express it feel incomplete, inadequate. Like the engravings, loss is not always visible, but it lingers just beneath the surface.

Other Artist’s Rooms

In another Artist’s Room at the centre, Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s This Whole Time There Were No Land Mines barrages the senses with a deafening sound and video installation.

On two rows of screens, mobile phone footage of skirmishes from a 2011 incident in the Golan Heights, Syria play on a loop. The conflict took place in the “shouting valley”, a contested piece of land annexed by Israel in 1967 where family members often yell messages to each other at the border. On the day depicted in Abu Hamdan’s work, 150 Palestinian protestors were able to cross the border into the occupied territory.

The final Artist’s Room features Larissa Sansour’s In Vitro, a black-and-white science-fiction film initially presented at last year’s Venice Biennale, where it was shown at the Danish Pavilion. Set in post-apocalyptic Bethlehem, the film centres on two female scientists a generation apart. Both live in a bunker with an orchard of heirloom seeds collected as part of a plan to someday replant them in the ground above.

Dunia, the founder of the orchard, speaks to her successor, Alia, who has never been above ground. Their powerful and moving dialogue speaks of loss, memory and exile pertinent to the occupation in Palestine.

Still from Larissa Sansour's 'In Vitro' (2019) film. Courtesy of the artist and Lawrie Shabibi
Still from Larissa Sansour's 'In Vitro' (2019) film. Courtesy of the artist and Lawrie Shabibi

In an interview with The National last year, Sansour spoke about her distinctive use of the science-fiction genre. "It came out of a need … [to defy] expectations of a Middle Eastern artist and a woman,” she said. “Working with sci-fi is quite liberating, because I work with difficult issues … I like to contextualise these dialogues in a framework that is not really expected.”

The haunting film shot in monochrome considers the remaking of a national identity inflicted with generational trauma and loss.

Jameel Arts Centre’s Artist’s Rooms will run until January 2021

Published: June 15, 2020 09:02 PM


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