When Muhammad Bouazizi set himself on fire almost two years ago, the Tunisian street vendor catalyzed a wave of protests in Arab countries. His now iconic image has also captured the imagination of Palestinian artists, judging by a recent exhibition in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah.
A collection of nine embroidered faces of Bouazizi by the young Palestinian artist Majd Abdel Hamid was particularly striking. Brightly colored and in grid format, the piece is referential to Andy Warhol’s silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe.
One day, unannounced, three men entered the gallery at the Franco-German Cultural Center and began praying together in front of Hamid’s work. The anecdote was described by Hamid at talk last month, during which he showed a dramatic photograph of the three men with their heads to the ground, facing East toward the wall to the right of the work. Instantly, the art space was transformed into something new, a place of prayer.
Titled “Muhammad Bouazizi,” the piece is described by Hamid as a collaboration between him and eight women from Farkha, a Palestinian village near the West Bank town of Salfit. Hamid commissioned the women to embroider eight of the faces, completing one himself.
The piece was one of ten winners of the biannual Young Artist of the Year Award, organized by the AM Qattan Foundation. The Young Artist competition not only breaks ground by showcasing young and innovative Palestinian artists, but elicits interesting questions about the intersections of contemporary art, religion and tradition in Palestine. A number of the selected young artists’ pieces were displayed at five different locations in Ramallah during the first two weeks of this month. An exhibition was also held in Gaza.
The Young Artist of the Year Award was initiated in 2000. It is now named after Hassan Hourani, the talented young Palestinian artist who won one of the first award recipients in 2000 and died in a tragic drowning accident in 2003. The award is open to any Palestinian artist between the ages of 22 and 30.
This year, the show’s installation throughout five galleries in Palestine was inspired by a deliberate attempt to incorporate the show into the physicality of the city. The exhibition’s beautifully designed catalog lays out three possible routes between the spaces on a map of Ramallah. Each route has different intention: one is meant to attract passersby off the street into the galleries, one to highlight “forgotten hiding places within the noisy city.” Meant to bridge the gap between art and public space, the map and the routes create an exhibition that is both interactive and integrated into the city.
Hamid’s portraits of Bouazizi inspires a discussion on religion and ritual through a series of processes and events — both the act of embroidery and the reaction of the public. Similar themes are dealt with in Inas Halabi’s work “Safi.”
Halabi’s simple but elegant wax sculpture of life-size white pants refers to those worn by male religious figures. Standing starkly in the middle of the stone room in Ramallah’s Khalil Sakakini Center, the pants are defiant but empty. Halabi writes on the exhibition’s blog that the work is “simultaneously a reflection of human rituals, and a reflection of loss” (“Young Artist of the Year Award 2012”).
Most of the pieces on display were installation and video works, an illustration of the exhibition’s intent to consider the physical spaces that art exists in and their relation to the public. This is perhaps most tangibly evident in Dia Azzeh’s interactive untitled video work. Shown in Al Mahatta Gallery in Ramallah, the work projects an animation of two black figures beating a white figure as it lays on the ground. In the middle of the room is an illuminated red line.
The beating continues until a viewer crosses the red line, which activates by sensor the sound of an alarm and a shift in the animation. With the help of the audience’s intervention, the beaten man is able to stand up. Pulsating to the sound of a heartbeat, the figure becomes alert and then multiplies as its attackers flee.
The work is a fascinatingly literal inquiry of the role of the observer in both art and in political situations, especially the situation of Palestine. While the line between passivity and action is not always as clear, the work seems to prove that it always exists, whether we choose to see it or not.
In the same gallery, Shada Safadi’s work “Promises” involves a more somber mode of audience interaction. The work fills a large room with hanging pieces of plexiglass, on which are etched the abstracted shapes of bodies. Some are childlike, many are of adults, and all of them are somewhat abstractly deformed.
Light cast on the stilted forms creates eerie shadows that the viewer alters and becomes part of as they walk through the panes. Safadi, born in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, uses the forms to represent those lost in the Syrian uprising. Her piece makes the viewers one of them. She writes in the catalog, “You still exist and we were meant to stay alive, but our freedom is still incomplete; you are dead and we are the dead too.”
There’s a strong sense of melancholy, too, in Mirna Bamieh’s video work “This Mined Land of Ours.” Exploring the boundaries and realities of physical space, Bamieh used footage from last year’s Nakba Day, when Palestinian refugees in Syria marched in protest and crossed a border into the Golan Heights on the day that Palestinians mark the catastrophe that dispossessed them of their homeland. In Bamieh’s version, the land in the background is erased, so that the figures are marching away and towards nothing. They descend an absent hill, all the time chanting that they will return to Palestine.
Rather than negate what was a revolutionary moment, the video seems to question our ideas of the physicality of land and our ownership of it. Or perhaps it questions the worth of the land that the refugees are attempting to return to, now after 63 years of absence. Yet the refugees remain defiant even when marching on an empty abyss.
The first prize was won by Jumana Manna’s installation “Imagined Cities,” which was screened at Idioms Films, an audio and video production space in Ramallah. The piece is a tableau vivant, meaning “living picture,” of a 1930s photograph of a masquerade in the house of Alfred Roch.
Roch was a wealthy Palestinian living in Jaffa before the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine who attended parties in London and attempted to recreate them in his Jaffa villa. The film shows a modern staging of the photograph, some 60 men and women dressed in costume and makeup. The performers recreate an early attempt at Western modernity, one that satirically portrays them as clowns.
The figures in the film sit in their poses tentatively, awaiting an action that never seems to take place. The artist narrates over the film, “No other animal likes to embroider the facts as much as we do. Still if you live long enough, the facts will eventually stand up for themselves.”
Massive egg installation
Photographs and video footage of Abdullah Ruzzi’s installation in Gaza were shown at the Franco-German Cultural Center in Ramallah. Titled “Womb,” the installation is a massive and luminescent egg with a fetus floating inside.
Ruzzi has written that the work was based in the ability of technology to access “the inner world of the fetus and all that happens in that private vacuum world of sounds, lights, and other happenings.” Perhaps it draws some parallels to the situation in Gaza and our own ability or lack of ability to access his own work through technology. The images and video were severely limiting, because of course, the work cannot be properly appreciated without seeing it in person.
The Young Artists of the Year Award is a significant and successful showcase of contemporary art created by young Palestinian artists. While diverse in their themes, collectively the works weave together narratives of Palestinian and Arab culture and traditions into new and innovative forms of display. By doing this, the works question what space art inhabits in Palestine and how the public interacts with it. While this question remains hard to answer, it is at least tested in anecdotes like that of three men praying while the embroidered faces of Muhammad Bouazizi looked on.
Daryl Meador is a recent graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago who is currently living and volunteering in Nablus.