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Aesthetics and nostalgia: Remembering Palestine

Thin sheets of muslin cloth hang, tendril-like, from small wooden rods; suspended, floating, in front of the large floor-to-ceiling windows of the long gallery. The light from the windows filters through the translucent material, illuminating the intricate whorls of Arabic script embroidered onto the cloth. These are the names of 30 individuals killed during Israel’s offensive on Gaza last summer; a fragment of loss in a wider spectacle of death.

“I was looking at how mourning rituals change in the Arab world in the context of war,” explains artist and spatial designer Dia Batal, “I wanted to explore what it meant to not have the space to mourn for your loved ones.”

The piece, entitled Playing on the Beach is a Dangerous Course, is based on the basic concept of a traditional mashrabiya, a window screen customarily wooden and ornamental in form. But the delicate and fragmented nature of the floating embroidered panels gives it more of a transient nature. Dedicated to the four boys killed on the beach during an Israeli incursion last summer, Batal says she wanted the physicality of the piece to reflect the temporality and precariousness of life, and of death. “Visually, I wanted to create a fragile aesthetic,” she says, “it creates a space in which to remember, to mourn.”

This is not the first time Batal has endeavoured to create mourning spaces through her work. As part of the 2012 London Nour Festival of Middle Eastern art, she painstakingly covered the wall-to ceiling tiles of the intricate Arab Hall at Leighton House Museum with the names of individuals killed during the Syrian conflict, rendered in spidery black Arabic script.

“In the Arab world, we have certain rituals of mourning after someone dies; first people come to the families of the deceased and pay their respects for three days and then again after 40 days. But in times of war people are unable to complete such rituals,” she says. The fluttering names of the mashrabiya, built using traditional fishing rods in recognition of the fact that the four boys who were killed all came from fishing families, is part of her attempt to reconcile this sense of loss with the inability to mourn in the usual way.

Playing on the Beach forms part of a larger exhibition of Batal’s work currently being showcased at London’s Mosaic Rooms. Tracing Landscapes uses the physicality and aesthetics of Arabic calligraphy to explore the themes of nostalgia, loss and memory – a personal reflection on the meaning of Palestinian identity.

“What happens when places we belong to don’t exist anymore?” asks Batal. “What does it mean to belong to a place but no longer be there in any physical sense?”

Born and brought up in Lebanon, Batal studied interior architecture in Beirut before moving to London in 2007 where she met the father of her two-year old daughter Leila. Shadowing her mother, Leila is all bright blue eyes and golden ringlets, chatting away happily in English in response to Batal’s questions in Arabic.

“As an Arab living in the UK, I wanted to make things that I could use to teach my daughter about her heritage,” Batal tells me. “When I had Leila, all of a sudden I felt like I needed to say things and explain things.”

Many of the pieces in the show were a response to this motherly instinct to educate, she explains, and especially to ensure the endurance of Palestinian memory and identity in the next generation. One of the most striking pieces on display, for example, covers an entire wall with the black spidery shapes of the Arabic alphabet, flanked by their Latin equivalents. Directly underneath, a box of coloured pencils sits on a small white cube, above which a sign reads: “Viewers are invited to write in pencil the name of a significant real or imagined place under the relevant letter/sound to form a collective reflection of sites of belonging.” Pencil scribbles dot the wall, written in several languages and naming a variety of places, some imagined (“paradise”), some real (“Iraq”; “London”; “Sweden”; “Syria”).

And this is not the only interactive piece; Batal says she often wants the viewer to collaborate in the artistic experience, creating their own version of meaning from the materials she provides. Another piece features a huge, wrought-iron sculpture suspended from the ceiling – a calligraphic excerpt from a Mahmoud Darwish poem on identity and the meaning of home. The tip of one of the letters is painted bright yellow, in stark contrast to the black of the rest of the piece, and on the floor directly below the jumbled letters four large orange dots mark out the points of the compass. A sign on the wall invites viewers to rotate the sculpture using the yellow section as a handle so that it is oriented in the direction of their home. For Batal, such a piece is as much about the aesthetics of the lines as the meanings brought to them both by the input of viewers and by the words themselves.

“I use Arabic calligraphy both because it’s beautiful to look at and also because of the meaning of the specific words,” she says. “So it’s both aesthetically pleasing and used as a medium to say something.”

While the curved lines and intricate patterns of the calligraphy suggest a sense of playfulness, the subject matter conveyed by the words themselves is often reflective and searching. Batal’s work may explore a number of difficult and ambivalent topics, but the manner in which she achieves such subjective reflections are deceptively simple – and that, perhaps, is her ultimate triumph.

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