Abdulrahman Katanani was born in Sabra refugee camp just after the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre when 2,000 Palestinian refugees were killed by Lebanese Christian militia in collaboration with the Israeli army. Despite the fact that his artwork has received international acclaim, Katanani still lives in the camp, in a disused hospital that used to house former PLO fighters.
In "Girl with a parachute", a new piece of Katanani's work that was commissioned for Chapter 31, the artist has used foraged material from Sabra – fragments of corrugated iron roofs and discarded bottle tops – to sculpt a child sailing back to Palestine from Sabra. "The innocence of the work belies the materials he uses which are often very, very sharp," says Nadia Jaglom, the co-curator of the exhibition. Pointing to the work she adds: "This is made of metal which could literally slice your hands open."
The young girl may have been constructed of harsh material but as she hangs mid-flight on the wall of the gallery she is, for a few moments at least, free of borders and the occupation – ultimately, she represents the Palestinian dream of the right of return.
Katanani is one of a collection of artists who have been commissioned to show their work as part of "Chapter 31: An odd piece of research on the many virtues of the oriental imagination" at the P21 Gallery in London. The aim of the exhibition is to explore the future of Palestine; a topic the curators and founders of the Sarha Collective admit can be painful to consider and yet is so necessary due to years of failed leadership and the lack of a political solution. As they point out in the catalogue: "History has undoubtedly failed Palestine, but the future remains undetermined."
The French architect and writer Léopold Lambert has contributed the most literal interpretation of the exhibition's theme, producing a bi-national, post-occupation map which has reinstated all the towns and villages that were demolished during the Nakba. A train map envisages open borders and free movement, whilst a series of postcards depict a Nakba museum, a Bedouin university and a camp for returning refugees – Lambert has memorialised the horrors of the past, "to begin a discussion about what relics and architecture might appear in a post-apartheid, post-occupation landscape and how Palestinian people would begin to rebuild, recover and commemorate," says co-curator Iman Hamid1.
The exhibition has been split into two parts. Upstairs the artists are loosely grouped around the theme of utopia and most of the work here is nostalgic and looks to the past and the role memory plays in the Palestinian struggle. To do this the artists have considered the role of female fedayyeen, staged domestic scenes and made references to pre-occupation land rather than producing literal depictions of the future embodied in images of high-rises and spaceships that the curators were expecting to see. "Interestingly, the case of Palestine moving forward often involves looking backwards in some way – how people envisage the future is shaped by their past," says Hamid.
On the way out of utopia is the work of Ayham Jabr, one of two Syrian artists that have been included in the exhibition. "For us there was such an obvious and natural parallel between the Syrian and the Palestinian struggles," says Jaglom, explaining why Jabr's work has been included in a show on the future of Palestine. "The fallout of occupation has been so enormous that the impact it's had on the region as a whole means that the fates of people in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon – the entire region – are inseparable in many ways."
Jabr still lives in Damascus under aerial bombardment, with little access to the internet and constant power shortages. His work is a collection of hand-cut, digital collages inspired by walks he takes around solitary ruins in the Syrian capital – each explores a possible future for the Middle East and the result is often quite surreal contrasts that merge images of Syrian daily life with floating spaceships or the solar system. The works on display are actually printouts rather than Jabr's original work because it's impossible to smuggle art out of Damascus.
Transporting works out of the Middle East and shipping them on to galleries in London is a common problem curators face when organising exhibitions like this. Rafat Asad is based in Ramallah but as DHL Israel will not officially transport artwork out of the West Bank his painting had to be smuggled in the back of a car to Jerusalem. Anas AlBarbawari, who lives and works in Talbieh refugee camp in Jordan, had to deliver his work to Amman first before the shipping company would send it on to the UK. "There was this blasé attitude that these were no-go areas, they were hinterlands," says Jaglom.
Downstairs the artists are drawn together under the theme of dystopia. On this floor most have looked to the present for inspiration and consequently the work harbours much darker themes, like the reality of remaining in exile or under close surveillance indefinitely. "We have found that for many Palestinians, one of the things that scares them about the future is an exacerbation of the techniques and mechanisms that are in fact already present and being used on a very large scale," says Hamid.
This fear is encapsulated by a video installation in which a woman moves her head into different positions and covers her face with her hands to avoid being detected by facial recognition software. The piece by multi-media artist Yazan Khalili, who now lives between Palestine and Europe, is a comment on the wide-reaching surveillance and military presence Palestinians are subject to, and more specifically on the 2014 launch of Faception, technology its creators say can analyse a Palestinian's face and identify whether or not they are "terrorists" with 80 per cent accuracy.
"I don't know how the Israeli security services are able to determine who a terrorist is but they're certainly not doing it with any accuracy now," says Jaglom. "The entire Palestinian people seem to have been designated as terrorists – I'm not sure if facial recognition technology is equipped to deal with that."
"We began by measuring distance" is the creation of Basma Alsharif, a Palestinian artist living in Los Angeles. The video depicts an anonymous group who are suffering from what the artist describes as the "worst of all evils – boredom". They have invented a game to pass the time in which they measure the distance between countries and places that are of significance to Palestinians, like Gaza and Jerusalem and Madrid and Oslo. But whilst life under occupation can be monotonous it also promises regular episodes of violence, which leaves Palestinians "awaiting violence yet enduring interminable boredom," Jaglom explains.
When preparing for Chapter 31 Hamid explains that it was important for many of the artists to know that they were not being approached on the virtue of being Palestinian or Syrian alone, or for being spokespeople for their struggles. "At times there can be a pornographic interest in reducing Syrian artists – and this is also a problem for Palestinian artists – to spectacles and relics and survivors," explains Jaglom. "They want to talk about the violence and the oppression they've undergone but we are really trying to challenge the orientalism with which Palestinian and Syrian artists have been presented. They've been sort of fetishised in the art world."
"We don't want anybody to feel sorry for any of the artists in the exhibition or to clap for them just because they're Palestinian," she adds. Instead, the curators want the artists in Chapter 31 to be appreciated for the quality of their work and what it has to say about colonisation, exile and the subject of the future.
Chapter 31: An odd piece of research on the many virtues of the oriental imagination will be on show at the P21 Gallery until 3 September 2016
1. On 27 February 2021 at 15.30 GMT the original name was changed to a pseudonym.