Real and imagined memories of four sisters from Palestine focus of exhibit

Using photographs, documents and recorded interviews, some of them staged, artists Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh and Rozenn Quéré tell the story of four sisters from Palestine who ended up on four different continents, writes Olivia Snaije

This image of Jocelyne peeking at the camera from a chaise longue is one of many in the exhibit Vies possibles et imaginaires (Possible and Imaginary Lives) which won the Grand Prize at the Festival Images in Vevey in 2012, and has just won the 2013 Discovery Award at the prestigious Rencontres d'Arles photography festival. Courtesy Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh and Rozenne Quéré / Images Festival
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There's a lot to be said about inspirational, strong-willed women. The artist Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh felt her four aunts had taken up so much space in her life that she had plenty of material to work with for a project about them. In collaboration with Rozenn Quéré, a friend and fellow artist she met at the Louis Lumière school in Paris, they set out to examine, document and imagine the trajectory of these four dynamic sisters who began their lives in Palestine and ended up on four different continents.

Their project, Vies possibles et imaginaires (Possible and Imaginary Lives) won the Grand Prize at the Festival Images in Vevey in 2012, and has just won the 2013 Discovery Award at the prestigious Rencontres d'Arles photography festival. The initial prize included a co-publication of a book linked to the exhibit, which is in French. An English version is forthcoming.

Even the aunts' names - Jocelyne, Graziella, Stella and Frieda - were "inspiring, so lyrical", said Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh recently at her exhibition in Arles. They belonged to another era - when colonialism was still present in the Middle East, and middle-class women might be educated in French, Italian or German schools. The aunts were born in Haifa and Jerusalem and left Palestine for Syria in a lorry filled with their furniture in 1951. The family eventually settled in Beirut. This much is true. They may have lived in a house with a garden filled with fruit trees in Ramallah, but in Eid-Sabbagh and Quéré's artistic process they left room for fiction "to allow the aunts to complete their dreams that didn't come true", said Quéré.

Although her aunts experienced political upheavals such as the Naqba, the mass expulsion of Palestinians by the Israelis in 1948, and the creation of Israel, the Lebanese civil war and the various political regimes in Egypt, these events are merely hinted at. What is important here is to show their chosen and particular paths; it is an "attempt to convey the eccentricities and the imagination of these women so as to give their imaginings the same status as reality. In other words, by combining old family photographs and text, we were not aiming to write their story, but to write their myth." Using photographs, postcards, documents and recorded interviews, all real, imagined or staged, Eid-Sabbagh and Quéré recreated the four women's lives spanning the 20th century: Jocelyne, who studied in Italy, was the only sister who married; she died shortly before the beginning of the project and had lived in Cairo. Frieda, the youngest sister, lives in Paris. Stella and Graziella are twins; the first lives in the New York, and the latter remained in Beirut. According to Eid-Sabbagh, her aunts had an unconventional outlook and felt no need to conform to social traditions such as marrying. As Frieda may or may not have said: "We were in the Middle East, but Papa raised us European-style. I wanted to come live in Europe. In France. Each of us had a choice, we each made our own life."

In the photographs, the late Jocelyne appears mostly as a spirit, her image made transparent or a mere shadow. Her sister, Graziella, is really the main character, said Quéré. Contrary to her twin Stella, who is logical and organised, she is described as someone who constantly twists reality, "a mythomaniac", and "an unreasonable person like a child", said Eid-Sabbagh.

Graziella worked as a shipping agent, but in the installation she opens her own company, Fast Delivery, and is the boss she had always perhaps dreamed she would be, responding to questions posed by a journalist on the company's 30th anniversary.

In one of the show's most evocative pictures, a postcard of Graziella and Stella is blown up to cover an entire wall. The sisters are at one of Beirut's beach clubs; Graziella is reclining in a lounge chair, while Stella looks out to sea. In the 1960s, a young German took the photograph, which became a postcard and was discovered by the sisters' brother, to general astonishment, one day in a shop.

Once Stella moved to the United States, her contact with Graziella became infrequent. The two sisters haven't seen each other in 20 years.

Although the installation's perspective on the sisters' relationship is playful, Eid-Sabbagh said that project was akin to family therapy. She and Quéré interviewed the aunts in Paris, New York and Beirut, and all of them "have a very particular relationship to reality", said Eid-Sabbagh. This played into their installation, allowing Frieda in the accompanying book to comment on photographs of a wedding that she claims have been altered: "This dress is not my dress, it's fake … these are not souvenirs. Photographs lie … what you see in this photo, it did not exist. This is made-up memory."

One of the most comical scenes in the book, which is written in the form of a play, has Graziella explaining how she lied on official documents about her place of birth because of the Lebanese prejudice against Palestinians during the civil war. In one of the final scenes, it is the year 2022 and Graziella, now 82, is entering the US, supposedly with her sister. The customs officer notes that they are born on the same day, the same year, but one in Haifa and one in Beirut. How is this possible, he asks?

"Well, we were born on a train going from Haifa to Beirut," says Graziella. "My mother delivered Stella when the train was still in the station of Haifa, and I was born when the train was arriving in Beirut."

Given that during the British Mandate in Palestine in the 1940s a rail line between Haifa and Beirut did indeed exist, Graziella's answer may not have been too far from the truth.

Vies possibles et imaginaireswill be on exhibit at the Rencontres d'Arles until September 22, and will open at the Beirut Art Center on November 6.

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris. Keep Your Eye on the Wall, a photography book she co-edited, will be published by Saqi Books in September.