Here’s How Palestinians See Themselves

New exhibit explores the landscape of Palestine under occupation — and ways to move forward.

Zeina Barakeh. Detail from the series Holy Land , 2019. Courtesy of Artist

Just 40 miles or so separates the Palestinian town of Birzeit in the West Bank from the Israeli port of Jaffa. The distance virtually disappears at 3 a.m. when Jaffa is bathed in light and Birzeit is smothered in darkness from an Israeli-imposed power outage, as Palestinian visual artist Yazan Khalili discovered in a photo series that he calls “Landscape of Darkness.” In Khalili’s images, which are on view in the San Francisco exhibit “Preoccupations: Palestinian Landscapes,” Jaffa seems so close you can touch it. You can even make out distinctive buildings.

Birzeit, though, is practically indecipherable — as is the other nearby land where Palestinians live under Israeli control. No buildings. No real roadways. Just darkness — which Khalili says is oddly liberating for him. 

The lack of light becomes a space that cannot be represented through images and through ideologies of representation,” Khalili tells SF Weekly in a Skype interview from the West Bank city of Ramallah. “Landscape is a product of certain representations, and it contains the structures of occupation and colonization.”

Even Khalili’s camera-driven light adjustments reflect the imbalance of power that exists in the Holy Land, Khalili says.

“The camera tries to balance the light and make the correct exposure of what’s the ambient light around it,” he says. “The light of Israeli settlements or Israeli military posts or Israeli cities have more light than that of Palestinian villages and Palestinian inhabited areas. So the camera somehow reproduces the same power structure of light. It makes its exposure according to the Israeli power — the power of light. And all the Palestinian spaces, because they have less light, they become underexposed. And they go into darkness. They fail to be represented. They fail to be able to speak through imagery. It’s a landscape that escapes the power structure.”

Khalili is one of seven Palestinian artists in the Minnesota Street Project exhibit, which interprets the Palestinian experience through a motif that’s central to Palestinian life, even for those in the Palestinian diaspora. Of the world’s estimated 13 million Palestinians, almost 3 million live in the West Bank, almost 2 million reside in the Gaza Strip, and 1.5 million live in Israel, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics — meaning half of all Palestinians live in exile from historic Palestine. On Israel’s founding in 1948, more than 700,000 Palestinians were forced from land that’s now part of Israel, and the Palestinian right of return is an ongoing matter of international debate — and a subtle theme in “Preoccupations: Palestinian Landscapes.”

In Lingering Presence, artist Mary Tuma — who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina — stitches together map fragments of the southeastern United States that surround a blank area shaped like historic Palestine. The surrounding fragments are stitched over in places, papered over in places, and turned every which way — so the gridded art piece is mostly a map of disorder and disconnections, with Palestine as an unformed state that exists in theory but not in practice.

In theory, East Jerusalem is the future capital of a bona fide Palestinian state. In 1947, the United Nations envisioned Jerusalem as an internationalized city, neither a part of a Jewish or Arab state, but realities on the ground after Israel’s founding — when Israel and Arab states immediately went to war — divided it into a West Jerusalem that became Israeli and an East Jerusalem that became part of Jordan. With Jordan’s defeat in the 1967 war, Israel took over East Jerusalem, too – but international legislative bodies, including the United Nations, consider Israel an occupying force there. In the late 1970s, just a few years after another Israeli-Arab war, Palestinian photographer Najib Joe Hakim attended Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and took the photos of bus-riders, pedestrians, and landscapes that are in “Preoccupations: Palestinian Landscapes.” We see Palestinians at a crucial moment in time — before the first Palestinian intifada that roiled the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel; before the Oslo Accords that stirred up hope for a two-state solution; and before Israel’s West Bank wall that has become a monumental incursion into Palestinian lives. Hakim’s triptych of bus images, centered around one of a young boy looking almost directly into the camera, is special — a glimpse into the kind of everyday lives that have been missing for decades from the news headlines dominating American perception of Palestinian life.

Even though no people exist in his “Landscape of Darkness” photos, and barely appear in his Blindness of Love snapshots video that’s also at Minnesota Street Project, Yazan Khalili does this same kind of humanizing — but it’s what he’s not showing that buttresses his artwork: There’s no West Bank barrier anywhere to be seen. “When we see the images of the wall,” he says, “more and more we see as if we’re looking at Palestine — but the wall is actually an Israeli architecture, so in my refusal to use this image, I’m refusing it.”

Blindness of Love whips through all its images and wording, so we’re barely able to grasp the fleeting photos of rocky hillsides, tucked-in villages, an animal flock, Palestinians tending the land, and other scenes. Blindness of Love is an odd antithesis of “Landscape of Darkness”: The light in these photos reveal Palestinian life and landscapes, but it’s more a tease than a definitive account.

Even before 1948, the land that’s now Israel and the Palestinian territories was fought over for centuries, as Zeina Barakeh indicates visually in her Holy Land series of collage-ish inkjet prints, where jumbled legs, horse heads, and panoramic land are shoe-horned into scenes of chaos and instability. Barakeh twins those scenes with wording from the United States Department of Defense Law of War Manual that she’s stylized into calligraphic writing. The presentation makes Barakeh’s artworks seem like biblical parchments, but the “commandments” on how occupying powers should treat captured land and citizens (“because sovereignty is not vested in the Occupying Power, the fact of occupying does not authorize the Occupying Power to take certain actions”) seems a clear rebuke of Israel’s continuing illegal settlements and other Palestinian policies.

Curated by Kathy Zarur and presented by a San Francisco nonprofit called the INSTITUTE OF advanced UNCERTAINTY, “Preoccupations: Palestinian Landscapes” is not an angry art exhibit. Not at all. It’s a thoughtful one that encourages visitors to hang out and read from a small library of books that includes Edward Said’s memoir, Out of Place, and Kamal Boullata’s Palestinian Art: From 1850 to the Present, which is the most definitive account of Palestinian art in English (and well-worth the read). When the exhibit closes on Saturday, Aug. 24, Lebanese-American vocalist Naima Shalhoub will perform from 4:30 to 6 p.m. in what Zarur says will be a celebration of the exhibit and a celebration of what’s still possible in the Middle East and elsewhere.  

“It’s a celebration in that art and culture can uplift at the same time that it motivates and pushes us to move forward and work hard despite the challenges,” Zarur, who’s a Palestinian-American art historian, lecturer, and curator, tells SF Weekly. “It’s celebrating that Palestinian artists are working regardless of the challenges. A lot of the artists in the exhibit are emerging — and it’s the first time they’ve shown in such a high-profile art space . . . We should integrate celebration into many forms of resistance, including cultural production.”

While a single gallery exhibit can’t possibly address every issue that relates to Palestinian landscape or the Palestinian people, it can — at least for its run — offer the perspective of artists who let us see a Palestine that was, a Palestine that is, and a Palestine that could still be.

“Preoccupations: Palestinian Landscapes”

Through Aug. 24 at Minnesota Street Project, 1275 Minnesota Street, S.F. Free; minnesotastreetproject.com

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