Imagine you are seven years old and you wake up in a white tulle tent and don’t know how you got there. You’re lying on a mattress on the floor surrounded by a fallen forest of balloons. Some are white and some are clear with photographs inside, though you can’t make out the images. Hanging from above are floating halos, crudely shaped discs of white tulle, edged in barbed wire.
I was witness to this startling moment in which an indelible mark was etched into a child’s consciousness. Last May, just outside of Paris, I went to the GALERIE MUNICIPALE JULIO GONZALEZ to see Rana Bishara’s richly textured exhibit, “Homage to Palestine.” The little girl’s grandparents, friends of the artist, had brought their still-sleeping grand-daughter with them on a visit to the gallery. Watching her disorientation turn to delight also delighted us, the smiling adults. At seven all the world is magic, and when events combine to support this perception it can take on mythic proportions.
If this little girl had crouched to get a closer look at the photos inside the balloons she would have seen other pivotal moments fixed in the memories of other children half a world away. She would have seen her peers in Palestine facing hostile adults in uniform, maybe staring into the wrong end of a gun, or gazing, with the rapt curiosity of children, at the small lifeless body of one of their own. We were all silently glad she didn’t. She rubbed her eyes and was returned to the safety of her parents’ assurances that all was normal and the world a safe, relatively predictable place where surprises are generally a source of wonder.
The installation, “Homage to Childhood,” is part of the larger exhibit, which displayed a warning sign that some of the imagery might be disturbing. When speaking about it she told me, “Children’s lives are hijacked every day.” She explained that this is true, not only in the death and physical injury suffered by these children, but by the fact of their inability to freely develop an imagination that is not colored by fear, destruction and victimization as identity. Bishara places these images in a context, which is both playful and threatening― What becomes of innocence that is framed by danger? If a balloon comes in contact with a barbed wire halo―illumination of the sacred―what truth will spill out? “You have to tip-toe around,” she says, “―be careful.”
These images are not just pictures. They’re images of childhood in check, in terror―ruin beyond the rubble of destroyed villages and uprooted olive groves. Densely programmed beings that we are, the “I” is not regenerative. Terrorized. Terrorist. Maybe terror has to make a friend of death.
One of Bishara’s preferred materials is chocolate. “Memory is like a stain,” she tells me. In a series of photo silks on transparent glass, “Blindfolded History, she uses chocolate as her printing medium. ”It’s the same color as dried blood," she explains. Suspended from the ceiling are a series of glass panels, each with a chocolate photo silk of a news photo gathered from sources like Al-Jazeera, and other human rights websites. One picture shows an Israeli woman and her son in Hebron. The woman is pulling on an Arab woman’s headscarf while her son kicks the woman’s legs. It’s a tragic image of hate being transferred from one generation to another by example and consent. In another a toddler is crawling on the ground, looking up at an Israeli soldier. The soldier’s rifle is slung over his soldier, the barrel carelessly pointing at the baby, a portrait of lethal indifference.
One of the stated reasons Bishara prefers chocolate is that it’s a substance that is both beloved and bitter― what Palestine is for its exiled peoples. She explains that this includes those Palestinians living within the Israeli state, where they are obliged to sing the national anthem and honor the flag of what they experience as a country of occupiers. Essentially, Israeli citizenship is a state of internal exile for Palestinians who are treated as second-class citizens. It is tantamount to being under house arrest. Bishara speaks of Palestine with pride. Speaking of the seacoast, the hills, the palms, she adds, “My country is beautiful―there is sweetness, but you can’t get to it.” Even much of the coastline is off limits to Palestinians, she tells me, who are forbidden to wear or paint with the color of the Palestinian flag for fear of being arrested. One series, “The Patience of Cactus” includes a piece called, “Sweetie.” The artist has enrobed the bottom half of a cactus in chocolate. “The word cactus, in Arabic, means patience,” she explains.
On the opening night of the exhibit, Bishara performed “Bread for Palestine.” She sat on the floor wearing a traditional Palestinian garment, and for twenty minutes, stuffed one hundred pita breads with cotton wadding and then sewed them shut, leaving a small opening for coins, ’like a piggy bank," she explains. Here she rendered nourishment indigestible, left on the ground, all present being starved in the presence of food.
But art is something beyond the context of what motivates it. (Period, not question mark.) A fully formed artwork transcends its own agendas and arguments. While the artist is closest to her own motivation, the viewer should be able to share in its viscerality without being steeped in its context. Thus, although the conceptual pieces, performances and installations often have a striking beauty, they rely heavily on metaphor and the symbolic interplay between material and image. Yet, the artistic frisson of Bishara’s vision is most eloquent as she takes her pleasure in the abstraction of color and the movement of line. In one painting, a hand painted grid of three by three rectangles. she creates nine portraits on an orange field with translucent colors layered in green, brown and red forming distinct, but embryonic features. The layers of translucent color are like delicate skins under which she searches for definition. The unformed identities of the faces, brushed with broad, tentative strokes, contain the basic emotional honesty that is often revealed in children’s artwork. A lithograph in black and gray, four rows of four squares, displays sixteen abstract vignettes. Their simple execution shows complexly animated relationships between human forms, reflecting one of Bishara’s major influences, the Palestinian artist/cartoonist, Naji Al-Ali. Naji was born in1936 in Al-Shajara―one of over five hundred villages destroyed by the Israelis. He was assassinated in London on August 29th 1987. According to Bishara:
“(Naji Al-Ali) was an uncompromising critic who openly criticized Arab leaders as well as Western policies in the Middle East. As a Palestinian, he represented a generation of resistance through his cartoons, specifically his signature Handala ―one of his personal iconic creations ―the little boy he gave birth to when in exile. As a teenager, I was fascinated with Handala.”
She also cites Joseph Beuys, Mona Hatoum and Oscar Monuz as important conceptual influences on her work, particularly concerning the installation “Blindfolded History.”
Bishara is effective in whatever form she chooses to formulate her concepts―painting, performance or installation. For some, she may appear obsessed with the effects of war, specifically in the context of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. In this regard, her exhibit provoked a strong reaction from the local Jewish community leaders in Arceuil, a largely Communist town. They wrote scathingly of her work on their website, becoming quite personal in their accusations, even phoning the mayor of Tarshiha and stirring potential difficulty in her home town.
In answer to accusations of ingratitude toward the state of Israel, who some claim financed much of her art education while allowing her relative freedom of expression, she answers: “The state of Israel never financed any of my education, my family and I financed my education. I was working from day one of my study for my BA degree. Therefore I do not owe them any thing.”
But that is basically beside the point. No matter who paid for her art education, the important issue here is, considering the limitations of living as a Palestinian in Israel, what is her indebtedness to a state under which she experiences life as a second class citizen? As she points out―Israel occupies land where her ancestral lineage reaches back thousands of years.
One cannot speak of Palestinian art, or the Israeli/Palestinian conflict itself, without addressing exile, longing and humiliation. These are the emotional underpinnings on both sides in a complex relationship between the Zionist desire for return to a safe homeland, where habitation was interrupted by the Diaspora, and its interface with other indigenous peoples who have lived on the land with more continuity. Early Zionist writings from the turn of the 20th century often have a naïve, if not patronizing tone in their appeals to the Palestinian people as fellow Semites and brothers in a common ancestral land. Some prophetic political analysts, even a prominent rabbi from Chicago, predicted a disastrous outcome at that time. Reading some of these warnings from a distance of more than eighty years, it seems now that the early Zionists, understandably searching for safe haven, were tragically unable to see beyond the simplistic nature of their hopes for peaceful co-existence. They attempted to apply an essentially western socialist ideal to a culture that had no interest in such intellectualized notions of economy and trade. Much faith was invested in the benefits of what they saw as an irrigated paradise, with much confidence that the Palestinian people would welcome the benefits, sharing in the wealth of the land, in a geographical environment where nomadic and desert people had managed to survive for thousands of years without such benefit. Not all Palestinians were “desert people,” or nomads. Many lived in long-settled villages, on what is now occupied Israeli land. The early Zionists attempted to create a piece of Europe in different geography, where adaptation and traditional ways of life had evolved over millennia. While so much of the Israeli experiment began with noble intentions and generated results bordering on the miraculous, so many, on both sides, have suffered in its wake.
Bishara’s work intends to illuminate the effects of these miscalculations on her people. In this regard she told me, “Give me a gun and I well give you flowers―I will give you my art.” And with the images and materials of her country and its people she has devised a rich artistic language, which can be a source of meaningful dialogue.
- “A Jewish Manifesto to the Arabs” in The Nation" Dec. 13, 1922 Vol.115, No. 2997 p. 64
- “Churchill and Palestine” in The Spectator, June 18, 1921
- “Dreams of a Jewish State” in Current Opinion, March 1921, Vol. LXXX, No. 3 (Zionism and Anti-Semitism.)
- “Germany and the Jews” in Harper’s Weekly, Feb. 6, 1915
- “Palestine is Flourishing Under the British Mandate” in Current Opinion, Jan. 1922
- “The Case Against Zionism” in The Literary Digest for June 14, 1919