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Stepping into the life of displaced refugees

London’s P21 Gallery is presenting a group exhibition entitled “Jerusalem//Home”, bringing together the photographic works of four young photographers from Jerusalem, ceramic works by two London-based artists, and digital artworks by a US-based Palestinian American artist.

On entering the gallery, the viewer encounters a set of beautifully-captured photographs of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, relaying a sense of sacredness and sanctity of the holy city, and another set of eye-catching Jerusalem-themed digital productions on the opposite wall. One digital art piece by Manal Deeb capturing refugee memory seemed to attract the attention of the viewers with its “very exact” superimposition. “It’s not melodramatic,” Andy Simons, a retired book curator at the British Library, told MEMO, “it’s just very honest, seeing what the subject is thinking through the other image within it.”

In the glass hallway leading downstairs hangs another collection of very serene and beautiful photographs that the Palestinian artists produced of Jerusalem’s Old City. According to P21 Gallery, art activity, such as this exhibition, is part of a much wider movement to protect homes inside the Old City and that it ultimately “aims to highlight the danger of dispossession that exists in every square inch of Palestinian life and property in the metropolitan Jerusalem area.”

“What we are trying to achieve with this exhibition is a kind of reflection on the idea of home as well as Jerusalem,” the curator of the exhibition, Sara Foryame, told MEMO. Indeed, home and displacement were very central themes to this exhibit.

Haunting ceramics

As the viewer descends to the lower floor of the gallery, they are instantly gripped by Marcella Mameli-Badi’s collection of tiny ceramic children’s shoes and sandals. In memory of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee whose body was washed up on a Turkish beach last year, the shoes bear witness to children’s harrowing journeys of displacement. Anyone with a fragment of imagination who lingers to look into the shoes would walk out with a heavy heart.

“That is something that we frequently see in the news nowadays; people leaving their homes because of conflict, wars, and oppression,” artist Marcella Mameli-Badi said. “This boy’s story touched everyone, but unfortunately he is not the last. These shoes are a tribute to him and to all the children who have to live through wars and conflict.” Marcella said the shoes were also a tribute to the children who lost their lives in Gaza. “It was really terrible to see broken children’s shoes full of blood on the news, and plastic bags filled with children’s shoes, “ she said. “It really moved me to think that that was the end of those children.”

Describing the detail of those ceramic shoes as “exquisite”, the British Library’s Andy Simons said he could not keep away from them, and that he was most moved by them. “Each shoe is distressed,” he said, “the child it represents must have died in its own horrible way or lost its family in its own horrible way.” The shoes are placed on a small table only a hand’s-length above the floor, “I spent about ten minutes kneeling at it from all angles,” he told me. “You look into the shoes and in a way look into the souls of the children that those shoes represent.”

Innocent Game

I was drawn into a separate side room downstairs where a perfectly completed ceramic football rests on a pile of sand and you can hear echoes of children in the room, laughing and playing as waves soothingly hit the shore. As you walk around the ball you can also see children’s footprints faintly visible in the sand. You will instantly remember the Bakr boys, Ahed, Ismail, Mohamed, Zakariah, who were killed in Gaza during Israel’s war on the Strip in the summer of 2014 as they were playing football on the beach.

The artwork as a whole, from the lighting to the surrounding voices of children, speaks of a tragedy that can be forcefully felt whether or not you have lived through war; only a football remains to tell of the tragic end of little boys whose lives were cut short and they simply ceased to exist.

Marcella speaks of the Bakr boy who survived the beach bombing in Gaza. “He has flashbacks of what happened and undergoes severe trauma,” she said. “It is really sad to see the children go through this, and we should really protect them.” Shahd Abu Salama, a Palestinian viewer, said this piece also reminds her of another Palestinian child, Huda Ghalia, who lost her entire family in an Israeli bombing at the Gaza beach.

The powerful artworks and compositions of Mohamad Abdeen, Manal Deeb, Ranjena Gohil, Abdullah Hawash, Obayda Jamal, Marcella Mameli and Khaled Salem collectively reflecton the notion of “home”.

“The ‘Salam’ piece by Marcella Mameli-Badi was particularly interesting to me,” Sarah Chaudhry, a visitor from Oxford, said, “because it reminded me that home is a virtuous place, a place of peace, calm and safety. No matter who we are, we all deserve this.”

Jerusalem//Home is running at the P21 Gallery until 20 February 2016.

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