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Zones of Contention: After The Green Line. 8 February – 3 May 2015. The Bob & Lissa Shelley McDowell Gallery, Weatherspoon Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
In March 2015, I delivered an invited “Point of View Talk” at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s Weatherspoon Art Museum on Zones of Contention: After the Green Line, an exhibit of works by Palestinian and Israeli artists, including a piece by Belgian Francis Alÿs, from which the exhibit draws its title. The museum’s Point of View Talks are intended to “amplify aspects of an exhibition through the perspectives of scholars from diverse fields.” My own particular point of view was shaped by two important factors: my identity as a Palestinian and my vocation as a teacher and writer. To me, these two elements are inseparable—they complement each other, inform each other, feed and bleed into each other; many times, they grate against each other, conflict, do bloody battle. I am at my personal best, however, when these two selves hold each other accountable.
As a Palestinian, I want to be an activist. I want to be blunt and forceful. I want what I say, how I say it, and what I mean to brook no confusion, suffer no interpretation, excuse no ambiguity. As a teacher and writer, however, I want to dwell, and make others dwell, in ambiguity, hand over agency to my students and to my readers, offer my craft at the altar of their vision, their experience. I want to facilitate, not dictate, to show you so that you can tell me. But as a Palestinian, I want to tell you how it is and what you need to do about it. Both of these impulses effect, hopefully, a kind of transformation. So when I experienced this exhibit, it was both as a Palestinian and as a teacher and artist.
There were times, at this exhibit, when these two selves concurred. For example, Yael Bartana’s A Declaration didn’t sit easily with either one. Clearly, A Declaration is, among other things, critical of the violence of the Israeli state. After all, it makes a point of, indeed dramatizes, replacing the symbol of the nation, the Israeli flag, with an olive tree, a powerful symbol for peace and the uprooted Palestine, both literally and figuratively. But I struggled with the film’s lack of awareness of the freedom with which an Israeli can get on a boat, paddle out to Andromeda’s Rock, and remove the Israeli flag with such ease, such self-assurance, such security. (Do note, however, how very gingerly he handles it, rolling it with excruciating care to be placed in the boat). A Palestinian would not have been allowed to perform such an act. He or she would have been most likely killed on the spot. The deep imbalance of power that is at the root of the Palestinian condition vexes me as a Palestinian. The film’s failure to acknowledge it vexes me as an artist. The piece seemed to be blissfully unaware of this asymmetry; there was not the necessary self-reflectiveness and self-consciousness that a piece funded and sanctioned by state agencies—the same state whose flag was being replaced—ought to have.
[Still image from Yael Bartana, "A Declaration" (2006). Courtesy of Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam and
Sommer Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv. Image provided by the Weatherspoon Art Museum.]
As a Palestinian, I frequently think about bodies being prohibited, admonished, imprisoned, bordered, rejected, victimized, vilified, dehumanized—all the injustices that happen to Palestinian bodies in the zones of contention. Hence, I am especially fascinated by the idea of posing and sneaking, by how the proscribed body, in negotiating these injustices, pretends to be other things, masquerades as other things—intentionally, forcefully, forcibly, unknowingly.
In the exhibit, the most obvious examples of this are Dor Guez’s filmed interview “Sa(Mira)” and Sharif Waked’s film “Bath Time.” Samira, the young Arab woman waitress interviewed in Guez’s film, is struggling with being asked by the restaurant’s manager to “pose” as a Jewish Israeli after customers complain about her being an Arab. The giveaway is her name, so she is asked to change it from the very obviously Arab “Samira” to the more Jewish “Sima,” though they finally settle on the compromise of “Mira.” Ironically, Samira has already been “posing,” or rather has been “posed,” by her inevitable condition. The way she looks, the way she speaks, allow her to “pass” as a European Jew, but only for so long. She recounts how angry the boys interested in dating her become when they find out who she really is: “How come you are an Arab? You deceived us!” “If you weren’t Arab I would have gone out with you.” Of course, Samira is not trying to deceive anybody. She is so humiliated by the request to change her name that she ultimately decides to quit her job. But while Samira doesn’t want to sneak or pose and wants to be accepted on her own terms (“I don’t want to change my name. It’s part of who I am”), she is clearly a creature of the in-between in a way that most Diaspora Palestinians cannot even fathom, let alone relate to. Identifying both as Arab and as Israeli, proud of her Arab name but wanting so desperately to be accepted by Israeli society, she is caught in the middle.
Sharif Waked’s “Bath Time” is shown, appropriately, on a screen just on the other side of the wall where Samira continually tells us her story. Like her, the creature of “Bath Time,” a donkey painted as zebra (like those purportedly painted for the Gaza zoo when it lost its zebras to Israeli shelling) is also perpetually stuck in a liminal state, a state of in-betweenness. Waked’s video is on a loop of a portion of the donkey’s bath time; we never see the donkey as a fully realized zebra, nor the zebra fully unmasked as a donkey. This donkey, too, is posing—or rather, like Samira, is “posed” by others (for what does a donkey know about posing, and what does Samira have to do with the decades of history that have forced her into this critical moment of having to choose between posing and not posing?). They are both caught in the middle of deeply racist systems and structures. The Arab body, like the donkey of “Bath Time,” is forced to pretend, to become something else, something “better,” to be able to survive. “What’s the worst that can happen to me?” asks Samira, seemingly thinking that not getting a job or an apartment could be the worst. Neither she nor the donkey seems to realize the fatal weight of the “othered” body.
[Still image from Sharif Waked, "Bath Time" (2012). Courtesy of the artist. Image provided by the Weatherspoon Art Museum.]
Yael Bartana’s other exhibited work, “The Missing Negatives of the Sonnenfeld Collection,” also epitomizes this sneaking and blurring of identity. German Jewish photojournalists Herbert and Leni Sonnenfeld documented the settlement of Jewish youth in 1930 and 1940s Palestine. Bartana re-stages select images from their vast collection “using young Arabs and Arab Jews, who are currently residing in Israel.” The caption at the exhibit also tells us that the “youths whose religious or ethnic affiliations are not identified…express a shared hope for a better future.” To me, however, the inability to distinguish one from the other, the “Arab” from the “Jew,” illustrates starkly the problematic ways in which “racial lines” have been politically and artificially drawn, thus opening up the possibility of one sneaking, posing, as the other.
Yet while Palestinians and Israelis, Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Arabs might be so intimately connected that we can, on the face of it, confuse them with each other, we must always remember that right now, even though they might be “copies” of each other, one is still a “negative” copy of the other. These copies, these mirror images, are highly asymmetrical since the Palestinian is often powerless, without privilege. This is blatantly, but unconsciously, illustrated in Bartana’s “A Declaration.” The man in the boat does not need to sneak, to lie low in his vessel. He can row it proudly, in plain view and highly visible, get up on that rock in his masculine bulkiness, take off his shirt, and remove the Israeli flag. For the Palestinian, in-betweenness is a mode of survival. Only the privileged and powerful can afford to pose, like those in the “Sonnenfeld Collection,” as an emotional gesture, highly important though it may be, of solidarity.
Nira Pereg’s “Sabbath,” which “documents the closing down of the ultra-orthodox neighborhoods in and around Jerusalem on the eve of the Sabbath” by neighborhood residents who use metal street dividers, leaves us with the possibility of “sneaking” across the rickety barriers. Though we never see this sneaking, it seems to be a distinct, almost inevitable, possibility. The film hints at it in the shots of cars approaching the easily moveable roadblocks. The desire to be on this side and not that side could easily motivate someone to get out of his or her car, when no one is watching, move the barrier, drive the car through, and then move the divider back.
All of the exhibit’s references to sneaking and posing suggest two important things. The first is that these highly dangerous, volatile, and asymmetrical borders, barriers, and dividers are not impenetrable to the powerless. The second is that the nature of the conflict imposes on the powerless certain ways in which they can deal with such borders, negotiate them, survive them—for example, by sneaking through or posing as somebody or something else. These methods include great risk to the Palestinian body, where the mask is an incredibly fragile thing.
Sneaking and posing come through powerfully in one of the strongest pieces of the exhibit, Francis Alÿs’ “The Green Line: Sometimes Doing Something Poetic Can Become Political and Sometimes Doing Something Political Can Become Poetic.” The seventeen-minute film, in which Alÿs walks the path of the Green Line with a dribbling can of green paint, is accompanied by eleven distinct commentaries; there is also one silent, commentary-free version. In Rima Hamami’s commentary, for example, she says that Alÿs looks like a Palestinian man walking because he appears to be “sneaking.” She adds: “Your pose here is exactly like a Palestinian….When you cross over there, you always feel like a sneak…you can’t just be relaxed and natural…because as a Palestinian here now you are always a criminal…illegal…you have to be undercover....Young Palestinian men have to be so buried deep in themselves to walk across that line, to go west, they have to pull their whole being deep down into themselves.”
Hamami’s commentary echoes the ways in which Palestinians have to sneak, to carry a certain pose. One can argue, of course, that Alÿs is the ultimate poser. He is an outsider to the conflict, and another commentator, Michel Warschawski, believes that Alÿs’ gesture is even more powerful because he is an outsider. What interests me about Hamami’s comment, however, is that it is so patently untrue about Alÿs in the film. In fact, he walks with a swagger, a sense of ease and comfort. Most of the time, he is walking in the streets. Only a secure person can claim space like that. And of course, he isn’t actually sneaking. He doesn’t need to. People make way for him as he walks. He owns the Green Line on which he strides, so that it actually becomes a part of him—his pants and shoes are covered in green paint. A small part of me initially read this as an act of littering, and hence destructive, as a signifier of “I can so I will” that replicates the actual green line. Several Palestinian men in the film, especially one Palestinian boy, seem dismayed at his actions, his being in the street, being in their way and dribbling paint. It is a proprietary gesture that initially irked me.
This kind of power, the power not to need to pretend, the power to be oneself completely, is replicated in the words of another commentator, Yael Dayan, who refuses to talk about her father’s experience of drawing the Green Line. In the film, Rachel Jones asks Dayan whether she remembers her father, Moshe Dayan, talking about the process of drawing the green line. Yael says: “No, no, I really don’t want to. I really don’t. I was not there present and it….and he did not give it importance in the sense of a future agreement.” This absolute authority to refuse to engage, to refuse to remember, to refuse to even discuss is the kind of authority that we see in A Declaration. It is confident. The Palestinians cannot do anything but remember. It is this kind of authority that permeates much of the work in this exhibit. It is self-confident, it is assured, it owns the space it inhabits.
However, sometimes the powerful sneak as the powerless as a political gesture. Commentator Yael Lerer says: “Always when I pass a checkpoint, in one sense, I feel Palestinian because I try to hide my Israeliness. Otherwise I cannot pass the checkpoint. Because as an Israeli I'm not allowed to enter Ramallah or Jenin. But I do go. I can make myself part of the crowd enough. But at the same time, I feel that I'm the soldier. I'm the Israeli. I'm responsible for this checkpoint, and for this occupation.” And sometimes, the powerless also pose as the powerful as a political gesture. Commentator Nazmi Jobeh recounts a time when he confronted a soldier at the checkpoint who was separating the waiting people, based simply on looking at them, into a line for the Palestinians and one for the Israelis. Jobeh asks him: “‘Why did you send me to the left side? How did you recognize that I'm a Palestinian? Do I smell like a Palestinian? How can you differentiate between me and a Moroccan Jew?’ The soldier was shocked. He didn't recognize that what he was doing was pure racism. How could you recognize identities just looking at people driving a car, you know, from far away?” But again, these two striking examples of posing at checkpoints are not symmetrical. Jobeh poses for survival, even if that means generously illuminating the powerful’s errant perceptions. Lerer does it out of a deep sense of accountability and guilt. In both cases, the Israeli body is safe, the one whose wellbeing, whose emotional, moral, and psychological state, is being attended to.
[Still image from Dor Guez, "(Sa)Mira" (2009). Courtesy of the artist and Dvir Gallery, Tel Aviv.
Image provided by the Weatherspoon Art Museum.]
As a teacher and as a writer, I was especially attuned to the moments in the exhibition where the artist struggled with the “usefulness of art” in situations of deep despair. As the Moroccan writer Khannata Bannouna has said: “I have questioned many times what the sense of literature is within a world that suffers from so much destruction—where there are tortures and rivers of blood? Will literature have a purpose?” I think about this question all the time as a teacher, especially when teaching politically charged material during politically charged times. So it went with this exhibit, especially after the bloody summer of 2014 where over two thousand Palestinians, many of them small children, were brutally slaughtered by Israeli aggression.
Francis Alÿs is motivated by this question. We see it, of course, in the title of his work, but it also comes up many times in the course of the various commentaries. When Albert Agazarian asks him: “What is the purpose of this [walking the green line with the green can of paint]?” Alÿs responds, “As an artist, I am questioning the relevance of a poetic act within a situation of a sustained political religious military crisis.” Alÿs also asks Michel Warschawski: “Do you think a poetic language could open up some other kind of perception or that an artistic action could have some kind of relevance in a situation like this?” An important and related question is articulated by Jean Fisher, who asks: “How can one think of art as political without falling into the trap of propagandist/activist kind of strategies? I mean where does the poetic intersect with the political, in a way that is not banal?” Her response to her own question is that it is “when the art illuminates, provides an insight of a situation, allows you to see something rather differently such that it has the potential to open onto a political thought.” For Warschawski, “For those who are oppressed, those whose territory has been occupied...the artistic creation is a form of resistance. Art affirms an existence which is an act of resistance.”
Such art (I mean art produced about, within, and against deep political despair) is also useful when it lays itself bare—when the art opens itself and its creator up to scrutiny and critique. Alÿs succeeds at this. He crucifies himself as an artist, for on a very basic level the commentaries are not there simply to inform. These commentaries hold Alÿs accountable. They dissect the artistic act as well as its relevance and the relevance of the artist. I believe this to be the point of his film. These commentaries show us the artist questioning himself; they do not allow Alÿs to get away with anything. Indeed, he reproduces criticism of himself as an artist and of his work (which he could have easily edited out) so that, most pivotally, the viewer can see, not only Alÿs’s shortcomings, but also the artistic mechanism and process, and as a result not fetishize or romanticize or dehumanize the real people, places, history, and injustices with which this art engages. Another commentator, Ruben Aberjil, says: “Seeing you make this line with a can of paint puts me in a playful mood. Let’s draw a line and have some fun with it. Of course, the line would be funny were it not for the walls in people’s hearts. Were it free of the traces of the longing for an unending occupation….Because in my mind, the line needs to be erased; erased from the Israeli collective consciousness. When I see Francis playing with these lines, I see him as a child playing with a reality that is not local to him. If he understood Israeli reality and the Israeli soul and politics, he would understand that such a reality is impossible.” Eyal Weizman declares: “The problem, the ease with which you make the line, no resistance, that a line could be created, reified, that is inadvertently accepts manipulated, highly unnatural borders of the city of Jerusalem….And I think that the facility and the ease within which you have seemingly offered to repartition Jerusalem—according to a very arbitrary line (line of cease fire and exhaustion), is rendering somehow little service in the understanding of urban geography as well as the geography of the conflict.”
To me, art is useful when it leads us to deeply question the role of the artist; by this I do not simply mean to doubt, but quite literally to interrogate, to tease out, to figure out, to dive into. This is especially true for the outsider artist (like Alÿs) or the politically powerful artist (like many in this exhibit). Alÿs does this consciously. In including the eleven commentaries and the one silent version, and juxtaposing them with the images in the film and with each other, he does so openly, powerfully, usefully, and artistically.
For example, in one scene, as Alÿs is walking with his can of green paint, two Palestinian women make way for him to pass. It is a pivotal moment, shot from below, as we see the women concede space to the European white male. In Weizman’s commentary, this is the exact moment when he begins to say: “Walking being a form of design, there is no neutral walk. And especially when you walk with the paint, you're designing, you're making a gesture, you're drawing a line and this implies, for me at least, that you request two kinds of spaces on two sides. You request a difference between the right and left side of the line. You project a difference. And it's a legal difference.” In Amira Hass’s commentary, this is also the exact moment where she critiques Alÿs’ project as too unsatisfactory to be called “resistance”; at best, it is “resilience”—“art that dwells in the privileged places, [that] does not reach the lower strata, the refugee camps for example.” It is “asymmetrical.” As she is speaking about lack of symmetry, the women make space for Alÿs so he can walk with his littering can of paint.
That moment thus becomes totally different in those two commentaries. It is a visual representation of asymmetry, an imbalance that is represented, but unquestioned, in this exhibit as a whole. Hass goes on to say: “The only bridge between Israelis and Palestinians now, is rejecting the occupation. This is the only bridge possible. All the other gatherings of Israelis and Palestinians, are for me sort of collaboration with occupation, if they look at both sides as symmetrical…so if you bring Israeli artists and Palestinian artists when it’s clear that the Israeli artists are working against occupation, and not only in one exhibition per year, but on a more regular basis, this is what I call a bridge.”
I am not sure this exhibit is that kind of bridge; however, including Alÿs’ work is an important gesture that allows us to recognize that and to hold this exhibition and its artists accountable.
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