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July 18, 2013
Not long after the Galerie Nationale de Jeu de Paume opened its doors in May to the Palestinian photographer Ahlam Shibli’s solo exhibit, Phantom Home, the battle lines formed around it. The museum has received strong reactions from pro-Israeli Jewish groups calling for the removal of what they deem is a glorified apology for terrorism. Even organizations like the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles got involved, with some going as far as traveling to France to join protests in front of the museum, against what people are calling a “Jihad in a Paris Art Museum.”
The exhibition, which runs until December 2013, was curated in part by Marta Gili, director of the Jeu de Paume, and features six photographic sets (or concepts) of what Shibli refers to as “the contradictions of home . . . its inaccessibility and evasiveness.” They include Palestinians (mostly Bedouin) who volunteer to serve in the Israeli Army; Polish foster kids who create “new homes” in orphanages; the everyday life of Palestinians in the Negev, whose villages are not recognized by the state; concentration camp survivors, deported by the French, who volunteered to fight France’s colonial wars in North Africa and Indochina; and LGBTs from Eastern countries who left their home countries to escape oppression, seeking “home” in a foreign place.
But it’s not until you get to Shibli’s most recent work, the last section of her exhibit, that you understand the complexity she’s asking us to acknowledge. In Death, we see pictures of martyr posters—posters of Palestinians, civilian or not, killed in Israeli crossfires or attacks—in both public and private spaces across the West Bank. (Of how, in the artist’s words, Palestinians “preserve the presence of the martyrs.”) In photographs of Palestinian homes, the posters are shown framed, sometimes hanging over makeshift altars. On the streets, posters are glued on walls like wallpaper, colors muted and timeworn. Sometimes Shibli photographs graffiti, maybe even in mural form, but her real interest is the posters.
Photo captions offer details of the martyrs: their names, where they came from, sometimes whether they were killed as a result of hostilities with Israel, or whether they were suicide bombers and militants who died throughout the eight-year course of the Second Intifada (from 2000 to 2008). It is this unapologetic use of the term martyr that has sparked the objections.
Yet despite all the controversy surrounding the photographs, the museum’s director—who, along with her staff, received over 200 calls to the museum, including death threats directed at herself and staff, and threats to bomb the museum—continues to defend Shibli, citing the artist’s right to freedom of expression. Later, France’s Ministry of Culture asked the museum to put up disclaimers for visitors. On nearly every wall of the exhibit room it reads: “To avoid misunderstandings, the Jeu de Paume wishes to make it clear that the artist Ahlam Shibli’s series Death, a work centered on images, is neither propaganda nor an apology for terrorism.” The warning signs also remind visitors that Shibli’s photographs are accompanied by texts (captions) written by the artist—texts which are inseparable from the images.
Prior to the Paris exhibit, Shibli’s exhibition was shown in Barcelona without raising any controversy. Even one who has been in Paris for as short a time as I have know that those who give Palestine a platform or narrative commonly get such reactions. The Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan says it’s now impossible to get a space in Paris to exhibit work since his his celebrated 2004 documentary Route 181, which was censored by the French Ministry of Culture and subsequently pulled out of France's largest documentary film festival, Le Festival du Cinema du Reel, held at the Centre Pompidou. Later, Sivan filed a libel suit in Paris courts against philosopher Alain Finkelkraut (Sivan v. Finkelkraut) for the latter's claim that Route 181 was a "call to murder Jews" and that Sivan himself was representative of a "particularly painful, particularly frightening reality—Jewish anti-Semitism."
Perhaps it’s true that Shibli’s exhibit can be perceived as provocation or a banal popularization of history, since the photos don’t seem to offer any particular position to those unfamiliar with the realities of life in occupied Palestine. Whether we are supposed to be moved by the people in the picture who are doing everyday things around martyr posters of their dead friends and relatives is uncertain. No doubt, Shibli is giving us a chance to see the intimate experiences inside people’s homes, of what the representation of martyrdom looks like from their perspective.
But the battle of Shibli’s work is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. The ritual of martyr commemoration in Palestine carries its own tradition of memorializing. In public spaces of Palestine, there are very few sculptures or sites such as you’d find in other countries, which serve to remember the lost. (Though in 2005 Ramallah embarked on a project to rename a total of 210 city streets with the names of political figures, fighters, and cultural icons). What remains are posters of the dead—of people who died resisting the occupation or were killed as a result of it—stuck on walls wherever you walk.
The poster itself is not an act of commemoration but an act of resistance, or of the hyper-remembrance of struggle, a consequence of the Palestinian people’s reality of living under Israeli occupation. As Shibli notes: “To call people . . . ‘martyrs,’ even the ones who used their own bodies to carry out a bombing attack, is adopting the language commonly used by the Palestinian people. It implies the refusal to use the language and rationale of the powers that support Israeli hegemony, and especially the language of the colonial occupation force itself. It implies the request to take account of the Palestinian situation as it presents itself to the Palestinian population.”
And so this shared practice of commemoration is not necessarily one that remembers a loss—a son, a daughter, a father—but embodies in itself an act of resistance, just as the political insistence on the right of return can also be seen not as a political objective as much as a demand that the story of expulsion not be erased.
The posters, then, serve a purpose that has been misunderstood in the reaction to Shibli’s work: they don’t celebrate heroism and violence, but affirms the existence of the Palestinian people, a struggle that is in itself an act of resistance.
Photos courtesy of the artist, Ahlam Shibli, and the Galerie Nationale de Jeu de Paume
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