Palestinian artist Emily Jacir awarded top prize

Artist Emily Jacir, 2007. (Sarah Shatz)

On 13 November Palestinian conceptual artist Emily Jacir was awarded the prestigious Biennial Hugo Boss Prize. Established in 1996 in conjunction with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation to “recognize significant achievement in contemporary art,” the prize includes a $100,000 award and a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum New York in 2009. The prize’s international jury said of their selection: “Emily Jacir combines the roles of archivist, activist and poet to create poignant and memorable works of art that are at once intensely personal and deeply political. It is the refined sophistication of Jacir’s art and the relevance of her concerns — both global and local — in a time of war, transnationalism and mass migration that led us to award her the 2008 Hugo Boss Prize.”

Born in Bethlehem in 1970, Jacir attended the University of Dallas, Irving, the Memphis College of Art and the Whitney Independent Study Program and has been living and working between New York and the West Bank. Arguably the foremost Palestinian artist working today, she has received a number of prominent awards. In 2007, she was the recipient of the Prince Claus Fund Cultural Award and the Golden Lion award for the artist under 40 category, one of the highest honors given to participants in the Venice Biennial.

Her win in Venice was for her ongoing project “Material for a film” (2005- ), a haunting multimedia installation that looks at the 1972 assassination of Palestinian writer Wael Zuaiter, killed near his home in Rome by Israeli Mossad agents. “Material for a film” is a profoundly detailed exploration of the endless calculated attempts to thwart the work of intellectuals striving to bring international attention to the Palestinian cause. Of the work, Jacir has said, “the subject of the 13 Palestinians murdered by the Mossad on European soil between 1972-73 is something I have been working on for a long time. I have been gathering information for years — books, articles, photographs, details, archival materials — and had many projects in mind regarding this subject matter … In Wael, you can find the world. Wael embodied poetry, music, literature, books and all the incredible people he knew, the places he lived, the things he believed in, his efforts in fighting for justice for all Palestinians” (Murtaza Vali, “All That Remains,” Art Asia Pacific Magazine, July/August 2007).

An ardent advocate of Palestinian rights, Jacir has also been instrumental in a number of political actions aimed at drawing international attention to the Israeli human rights violations, most recently with the 2006 call for a cultural boycott of Israel, which was initiated by a number of prominent artists, filmmakers and intellectuals in reaction to Israel’s bombing campaign in Lebanon and siege of the Gaza Strip. Her recent success is paramount to the inclusion of the Palestinian narrative in the contemporary art world, particularly in the US where the subject of Palestine is strategically avoided or censored.

Due to its forthright representation of the Israeli occupation, her work has ignited controversy in the past. In 2004, when exhibited at the Whitney Biennial in New York and the Ulrich Museum of Art in Kansas, the artist’s “Where We Come From” (2003), a series of photographs and text articulating the restrictions imposed on Palestinians living under Israeli occupation as well as those in exile who are unable to travel to their homeland, was protested by outside parties threatening to shut down the exhibitions.

Nevertheless, Jacir’s work can be found in major international collections such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the National Museum of Contemporary Art-EMST, Athens — a testament to the power of cutting edge work that pushes the conceptual and political boundaries of contemporary art and defies national borders. Earlier in November, Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art acquired “From Texas With Love,” a purchase which Katrina Brown, the co-curator of acquisitions, described as a “coup.” “[Jacir] is a brilliant artist with a great international reputation who is not being collected at all by museums in the UK yet,” Brown said. “Palestine is so often in the news, but what Emily has done is see a more day-to-day human side of it. And that’s a really important job of art.”

Since the 1990s, Jacir has used photography, performance, installation and video to create a large body of work that bears witness to the tragic yet defiant existence of a nation that remains physically fragmented by occupation but spiritually, intellectually and culturally bound by resistance. Featured in the Station Museum’s groundbreaking group exhibition Made in Palestine, “Memorial to 418 Palestinian Villages Which Were Destroyed, Depopulated and Occupied by Israel in 1948” (2001), consists of a United Nations refugee tent with the names of Palestinian villages lost during the Nakba sewn on to its exterior. The installation was created through collective efforts of volunteers who assisted the artist with the embroidered feature of the piece. With its imposing presence, the memorial stands as a reminder of the attempted erasure of a people, while evoking the traditional art of embroidery which serves as an important aspect of local heritage and an assertion of Palestinian identity.

A number of Jacir’s projects have been collaborative efforts, mainly interventions that are often political actions and performances in tandem. Especially subversive, is “Sexy Semite” (2000-02), a tongue-in-cheek work executed with the help of 60 New York-based Palestinians who used the right of return as a basis for personal ads soliciting Jewish mates for marriage as a means of returning home to Palestine. One such ad read “Leggy Palestinian Semite seeks Jewish hunk to create our love shack settlement in Tiberias. Let’s take turns with hummus as body paint and explore …” while another exclaimed “YOU STOLE THE LAND, MAY AS WELL TAKE THE WOMEN! Redheaded Palestinian ready to be colonized by your army. You: Jewish, Hot, Strong. U take me home + I’ll let you win.” The result was what Jacir described as “the polluting” of New York City’s The Village Voice personals page, an evocative exploit working to challenge the notion of the right of return and American understandings of “Semite” with wit, humor and the clever manipulation of a media that all too habitually assaults Palestinians. A handful of publications subsequently took note, citing US officials’ warning of a possible terrorist plot.

Emily Jacir’s solo exhibition at the Guggenheim will run from 6 February through 15 April.

CORRECTION: A version of this article originally stated that the “Material for a film” multimedia installation included “1,000 blank books ridden with bullet holes shot by the artist with a .22 caliber gun” but this is a different piece by the artist. The article also has been corrected to include that “Where We Come From” involved the participation of Palestinians living under occupation as well as those living in exile.

Maymanah Farhat specializes in modern and contemporary Arab art. She is based in New York.