Palestinian artists take on identity and politics with humor in “Subversion” exhibition

View of Larissa Sansour’s “Palistinauts”

They may be subject to siege and invasion, cowardly corporate sponsors and the everyday racism of Israeli society, but Subversion, an exhibition at Manchester’s Cornerhouse gallery, shows that young Palestinian artists are at the cutting edge of contemporary Arab art.

Subversion, described by curator Omar Kholeif as “illustrating fragments of the distorted imagination that often preoccupies interior and exterior visions of the so-called Arab world,” features eleven artists from Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq. Of these, four are Palestinian — Larissa Sansour, from Jerusalem; Sharif Waked, from Nazareth; and Gaza twins Mohamed and Ahmed Abu Nasser, who work under the names Tarzan and Arab.

Entering the first of the exhibition’s three floors, the visitor encounters Larissa Sansour’s five-minute film A Space Exodus. Playing with images from Stanley Kubrick’s classic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, a space-suited Sansour calls out: “Jerusalem, we have a problem,” before announcing that “the Sunbird has landed” — a reference to the national bird of Palestine. Sansour plants the Palestinian flag on the moon before drifting into deep space, repeating a plaintive “Jerusalem … Jerusalem …?”

Continuing the playful tone of many of the exhibits, the room surrounding the movie screen and outside into the foyer are crowded with the (frankly cute) foot-high figures of Sansour’s “Palistinauts,” little white space-figures with Palestinian flags printed on their bellies. This is art which pushes the imagination, but also refuses to take itself too seriously.

A futuristic West Bank located in a skyscraper

Elsewhere, Subversion previews pieces from Sansour’s “The Nation Estate,” probably her best-known work after French fashion brand Lacoste tried to censor it, throwing Sansour out of the 2011 Elysee Prize.

The work shows a futuristic West Bank where, under pressure from Israeli settlements, Palestinian life takes place on the floors of a giant skyscraper. Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah, complete with life-size models of their cultural and religious sites, occupy floors of the tower, linked by elevators which bypass the checkpoints.

In one image, Sansour’s own figure stands, watering an olive tree which grows through a cracked concrete floor. The sense of unreality mirrors the incredulity and disbelief with which one must witness the unchecked spread of Israeli settlements.

View of Tarzan and Arab’s “Gazawood Project”

Defying assumptions

The second Palestinian contribution is Sharif Waked’s “To Be Continued …” Walking into the screening room, a viewer with no knowledge of Arabic would be forgiven for assuming that he or she was seeing a martyrdom video. A serious-looking young man in a black hooded sweatshirt, a khaki combat jacket and a knitted cap sits in front of a green banner emblazoned with Arabic calligraphy and the outlines of AK47s. An automatic weapon rests on the table in front of him as he intones at length in a formal, recitational style. But listen — or read the subtitles — and one finds that he is talking about princesses and viziers, djinns and ifrits, sea voyages and miracles. He is not giving his farewell speech before carrying out acts of warfare, but reading from 1,001 Nights.

Assumptions about what a young Arab man sitting in front of a video camera might be saying are defied; indeed, if it wasn’t for the subtitles, most Western viewers would have no idea that their stereotypes were wrong. The clues are there — the unexpectedly emotional, pensive style the reader adopts at key points in the text — but as the exhibition catalogue notes, the “mainstream media has conditioned audiences” into a strongly-ingrained set of expectations, to which this piece is a resounding challenge.

View of Tarzan and Arab’s “Gazawood Project”

Gaza parody of action movies

The final Palestinian contribution is “Gazawood,” by twin al-Aqsa University students known as Tarzan and Arab. In a mocked-up cinema — by the look of it using seats from the Cornerhouse’s own movie theaters downstairs — a short film juxtaposes close-ups of an artist painting in thick, bloody red oils with a parody of action films.

A grimy, sweating fighter in fatigues hears the electronic message that “everything is over — finished,” and sets off through the bombed-out concrete of Gaza to the top floor of a half-destroyed building. There, he encounters his double — are the twins playing on their identical features to comment on internecine warfare between Fatah and Hamas? The overblown soundtrack, worthy of a Bruce Willis or Steven Seagal action flick, merges into the whirling, chaotic sound of a helicopter.

Meanwhile, along the back wall of the “cinema,” the twins’ features reappear in a series of posters, ostensibly for similar action films, but all with the names of Israeli military operations against Palestine and the Palestinians — Spring of Youth, Cast Lead, Autumn Clouds and so on. The Abu Nasser twins may have grown up in a Gaza without cinemas, but they twist Hollywood’s own tropes deftly and wryly to comment on the violent environment in which they have grown up.

Irreverent humor

The Palestinian contributions represent only, of course, one-third of this exhibition. Other high points include Egyptian artist Khaled Hafez’s high-energy take on politics in his country. In On Presidents and Superheroes, a muscular figure of the ancient Egyptian god Anubis swaggers past half-completed buildings and lines of riot police to a thumping techno soundtrack. Passing a banner reading “presidential elections,” he flicks one letter to make it read “presidential erections” (the joke almost works in Arabic) before heading into a polling booth.

And in the replica of a tatty Internet cafe — one screen reading “out of service” in Arabic — Wafaa Bilal’s “Virtual Jihadi” is set up on three computers. In a comment on the invention and re-invention of art and identity, a US computer game involving the hunt for Saddam Hussein became, re-designed by al-Qaeda, “The Night of Bush Capturing,” and then in Bilal’s hands was hacked to again change its theme and meaning. On one wall, a small TV, held together by packing tape, shows footage of the work’s showing in the US, where “anti-terrorism” protesters failed to get the joke.

What ties Subversion together is an overall sense of irreverence combined with real thoughtfulness. The artists make full use of humor to examine identity and politics, but this doesn’t mean they let the viewer off easily. Preconceptions and stereotypes are parodied and challenged; mainstream tropes are subverted and re-appropriated. It’s a lot of fun, but it makes you think.

All images by Paul Greenwood, courtesy and copyright the artists and Cornerhouse, Manchester.

The Subversion exhibition runs through 5 June at the Cornerhouse gallery in Manchester, England. More information can be found on the Cornerhouse website.

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 the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs. Her biography of Leila Khaled will be published in May 2012.