Vandalism of Christian sites in Palestine inspires London art show

18 April 2013

130418-dor-guez-still.jpg

“Samira in her wedding gown, the first Christian wedding in Lod, after 1948,” from the series Scanograms #1, 2010, manipulated readymade, archival inkjet print.

(Dor Guez)

Around the walls of the main gallery at London’s Mosaic Rooms hang images of broken graves, bearing inscriptions in Arabic. On some, the headstones have been smashed to pieces; on others, the covers of tombs have been removed or cracked so that skulls, limb bones and ribcages are visible.

This is the destruction left by one of several incidents of vandalism at the Christian Palestinian cemetery in Lod in present-day Israel. This was once the important Palestinian city of al-Lydd, birthplace of the late Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader George Habash and the rap group DAM. Now Lod/al-Lydd is notorious for the walls which confine its Palestinian communities and discrimination against them in providing basic services such as garbage collection.

The images were taken by the late Yaqoub Monayer — like Habash, a Palestinian Orthodox Christian from al-Lydd — who reported the desecration to the police. When no culprits were found, he was given his photos back, and he left them in a kitchen drawer.

The photographs were almost thrown away by Yaqoub’s wife Samira, but instead her grandson, artist and filmmaker Dor Guez, found them and added them to the digital archive he is assembling, a huge chronicle of the Christian community in Palestine. The images featured in the Mosaic Rooms exhibition, Dor Guez: 40 Days, originate from this archive. 

The archive holds thousands of images, although Guez confines himself to scanning them and then returns each photograph and object to its owners. “I’m not interested in conserving objects,” he said, but admitted that he does “preserve” meaning and memory, if not material items.

In cases set around the room, more items from the community’s past are displayed — passports and identity documents issued by the British and French Mandate authorities who ruled Palestine, Lebanon and Syria in the 1920s and ’30s. The mixture of European languages with Arabic and Hebrew scripts on the documents, and the resonant dates — identification cards marked “Palestine” and “expiry 1951” — are a reminder of the colonial power struggles which tore the region apart. Next to each item are snippets of dialogue from the owners or their descendants. That these are given only in Arabic makes for a very different encounter for different audiences.

Accompanying the photographs and objets trouvés are two films by Guez, again revolving around his family and their community. The first, Watermelons Under the Bed, shows snippets of daily life for Guez’s elderly grandparents.

As they discuss the impacts of the Israeli state on their lives, Yaqoub is seen peeling prickly pears and testing a watermelon for soundness. Both fruit are imbued with symbolism for both Palestinians and Israelis, and the film is laden with memory, nostalgia and the ongoing issue of belonging and identity for Palestinians who grew up in the State of Israel. They had to “dance between the drops,” as one family member puts it, afraid that talking publicly about “politics” will lose her son his job.

Intimate moments

The multi-channel video piece and photographic series 40 Days, meanwhile, is a homage to the aforementioned Yaqoub Monayer, showing a few intimate moments from the last days of his life and his funeral, before turning to the ceremony held 40 days after death in the Orthodox church. Here, the domestic detail of Watermelons and the earlier section of 40 Days are contrasted with the grandeur of the church service, with its incense, golden ornaments and crimson robes. It evokes a deep sense of the ancient traditions within which the daily life of this community is embedded.

We also see the bright wreaths of Yaqoub’s funeral rotting on his grave, and witness the high concrete walls and fencing which surround the graveyard in which he is buried, to protect it from the same vandalism which his pictures documented. And we see Samira sorting the photographs of that vandalism, tearing them apart where they have gotten damp and stuck together. As she goes through them, the closeness of the diminished community to which she belongs is emphasized as she recognizes the graves of her mother and other relatives. The destruction becomes deeply personal as well as culturally and politically tragic.

“Minority within a minority”

“We are a minority within a minority,” says one of the speakers in Watermelons about Christians in the Middle East. “Nobody would think twice if we were massacred. We are the weakest people in the region.”

This seems to fuel Guez’s desire to record and preserve images and memories — although he is half Sephardic Jewish, he identifies primarily with the remnant of Christian Palestinian society he grew up in. “It’s a culture, not just a faith,” he said, which is why he has chosen to concentrate on this aspect of his family history. “The Jewish community have enormous amounts of archives. We don’t.”

Although the show has been promoted by organizations such as the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, work such as this, which is sponsored by the Israeli Film Institute, could be met with disapproval from some supporters of the cultural boycott of Israel. Although the boycott doesn’t target individuals, works like this intersect with debates about how galleries approach pieces funded by the liberal end of the Israeli cultural elite.

Are these works — moving and thought-provoking as they are — propaganda for an Israel that wants to be seen as diverse and tolerant, or just a reflection of the fact that Palestinian artists in Israel need to live, just like everyone else? With such arguments affecting even highly-publicized films on Palestinian struggles, such as Five Broken Cameras, there’s no doubt that the Mosaic Rooms have taken a political risk in putting on this show. “Their openings are usually packed,” one guest at the sparsely-attended launch night commented. “Is it because he’s Israeli?”

Guez himself seems familiar with, and somewhat despairing of, the political tightrope he has to walk. “My best friends are Lebanese,” he said in conversation at the opening night, “but I can’t visit them because I have an Israeli passport. I’d love to show this work in Amman [Jordan], but although I can visit, no one would put this on. In Israel, I’ve never had my work censored, but in every gallery or museum, it’s the first show they’ve ever put on that deals with the Nakba.”

The exhibition is on display at the Mosaic Rooms (www.mosaicrooms.orgin London until 31 May. It will also be showing later this year in Berlin.

All images courtesy of the Mosaic Rooms.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs.

Comments

Thank you very much.
Very interesting article about an artist that I didn't know. And thank you for mentionning the dilemma of the cultural boycott.
An interview with Dor Guez:
www.youtube.com/watch?v=Al7iwO...
Watermelon under the bed
www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HjpCX...

Well don Dor .
Its important that people like you preserve and put in focus the Christian palestinian issue , memories history and present difficulties

The Zionist propoganada machine attempts to portray all residents of the occupied territories except themselves are terrorists. Prior to the establishment of Israel Chiristians and other religious groups were very friendly towards one another.

Thanks for publishing this review but please note the following.

You write that "Although the show has been promoted by organizations such as the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, work such as this, which is sponsored by the Israeli Film Institute, could be met with disapproval from some supporters of the cultural boycott of Israel. Although the boycott doesn’t target individuals, works like this intersect with debates about how galleries approach pieces funded by the liberal end of the Israeli cultural elite." Please note that the show is entirely funded by the Mosaic Rooms and the AM Qattan Foundation and has nothing to do with any official Israeli bodies or the "liberal end of the Israeli cultural elite" whoever that might be. If you are referring to one of the films in the show, that was indeed produced a number of years ago and did receive support from various funding bodies, including the Israel Film Institute. However, it is worth reminding your readers that a number of Palestinian films have received this funding, including films made by ardent supporters of the boycott campaign. Moreover, Dor Guez is himself an Israeli citizen and tax-payer and believes it is his right to benefit from public funding provided by that state to the arts. That is his personal decision and not one in which the Foundation gives itself the right to make judgements or to interfere. What is important for us is the quality of the work and the debates and reflections it provokes, none of which, in our opinion, serves official Israeli policy.

For the Foundation, what matters above all is the intellectual, human and historical journey on which the show takes its audience and we believe that this show in particular allows visitors to discover aspects of the Palestinian experience which are rarely explored. It also touches upon themes that we think are of concern to the whole region - for example the place, rights and expulsion of ethnic and confessional minorities, the disappearance of diverse urban realities, the vulnerability - but also the courage and importance of - mixed marriage couples and so on.

For you to then speculate whether these works are "propaganda for an Israel that wants to be seen as diverse and tolerant, or just a reflection of the fact that Palestinian artists in Israel need to live, just like everyone else?" is neither here nor there since this is not a show organised by an Israeli organisation but instead by one of Palestine's most important cultural institutions, to honour a young Palestinian-Israeli artist broaching difficult but critical themes. We have supported Palestinian artists, regardless of their official nationality, since we were founded more than fifteen years ago and will continue to do so if their work merits such support intellectually and artistically.

You also suggest that we are "no doubt taking a political risk" by putting on this show and that somehow the relatively low attendance to the opening reflects this. First of all, to be very frank, the only controversy we anticipated was the potential reactions from Israeli or Zionist bodies or individuals in the UK. Online reactions to the CNN online review (http://edition.cnn.com/2013/04...) of the show have lived up to this sadly. As for the poor attendance at the opening, this is purely speculative since attendance at openings tends to vary depending on the time of year. You will be happy to hear that visitor numbers since the opening are above average and that Dor's artist talk last Saturday was full.

Thanks again.

Omar Al-Qattan
Trustee, AM Qattan Foundation and currently responsible for the Mosaic Rooms' programme.

Dear Omar,
thanks for this long and thoughtful response; I'm sorry you felt the need to react so defensively. My take on the exhibition was informed by a number of people to whom I had mentioned the fact that I was reviewing it, and whose first reactions centred on this issue of the possible controversy surrounding its source. My intention was to give a broadly positive review which also acknowledged that some people were questioning this and that to some extent this puts the exhibition at the frontline of debates about what does and doesn't fall under the BDS rubric. For me, this is an important exhibition which needs to be seen because of its content, but it is also important in that it illustrates just how complex the boycott issue can be, and how unclear campaign lines can sometimes become when it comes to the arts. I think one of the comments I made which you quote - that Palestinian artists living in Israel 'need to live' - agrees completely with your point that "Dor Guez is himself an Israeli citizen and tax-payer and believes it is his right to benefit from public funding provided by that state to the arts. " You also demand that I should "remind[] your readers that a number of Palestinian films have received this funding, including films made by ardent supporters of the boycott campaign." - this is something I point out, with specific reference to 5 Broken Cameras, within the article you're critiquing. And you seem to assume that my statement that the Mosaic Rooms is taking 'a political risk' is intended to be negative - far from it. Political and artistic risks have to be the lifeblood of movements, or they stagnate, and I commend the Mosaic Rooms on taking this stance. I think, if you read the article more carefully, you'll actually find our positions to be far closer than you currently think.
Best wishes,
Sarah Irving

Thanks Sarah. V useful and clear.