In a country witnessing unprecedented displacement, murderous religious extremism and belligerent nationalism, arts has played an important role in the creation of a culture of human rights for the Palestinian people.
As Israeli industry advances, threats remain against the human rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up 20 per cent of its population.
“Palestinians living in Israel with Israeli identity face both institutional and everyday racism, the Jewish Israelis make life for Palestinians as difficult as possible.” says the dissident Arab-Jewish artist Gil Mualem-Doron.
In 1948, at least 800,000 Palestinians were made refugees. Zionist forces had taken more than 78 per cent of historic Palestine, ethnically cleansed and destroyed about 530 villages and cities, and killed some 15,000 Palestinians in a series of mass atrocities, including more than 70 massacres
Since 1967, Israel has demolished over 25,000 Palestinian homes in Gaza and the West Bank, displacing over 160,000 residents and has uprooted over 800,000 olive trees to disrupt the economic livelihoods of some 80,000 families who rely on the harvest for their income.
A more recent and egregious effort to further cement this reality of discrimination came in 2018 with Israel’s passage of the Nation-State Law, which denies non-Jewish people “the right to exercise national self-determination.”
Mualem-Doron’’s online exhibition “Cry, the Beloved Country”, showcasing ten years of art, launched online last week to commemorate the 72nd Nakba day, acts as an indictment against the homeland. A homeland, he states, “that violated the holy oath of providing equal rights to all its citizens.”
Based in the UK, the 50-year-old artist is known for tackling the Israeli occupation and looks at the hostility and racist attitudes between much of Israel’s Jewish majority and Arab minority in his work.
As Israeli Jews celebrated Independence Day, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians from annexed East Jerusalem protested at the site of a Palestinian village that was demolished in the war.
Under the slogan “Your Independence Day is our Nakba”, demonstrators gathered near the northern Israeli Arab town of Umm Al-Fahm where they held Palestinian flags and sang the Palestinian anthem.
“A lot of the population in Umm Al-Fahm originated from a village called Al-Lajoun. In 1948, this village was bombarded by Israeli soldiers during the war, so the people from the villages escaped to the fields closeby. But the occupying forces forbade them to come back to the village, which was destroyed the following year.”
Israel has since refused to countenance any recourse to justice for the Palestinians left stateless in 1948. Refugees were expressly denied return, their properties were confiscated by the state and doled out to new arrivals from Europe.
Even those who were internally displaced lost their properties and were categorised – incredibly – as “present absentees”.
Mualem-Doron believes in a country where Israel colonialism and patriarchal narratives dominate public spaces, art is a powerful device that can generate resistance, reflection and understanding by leading people to discuss these complex issues.
He invited local residents to a photoshoot in which their photographs were taken against the background of historical photos of Al-Lajoun, taken from the Umm Al-Fahm Gallery archive.
“A big part of colonial imagery which is both in the Middle East and in Africa is displaying the colonised spaces as empty. And with Zionism particularly, the colonial imagery depicts Palestine as an empty space.”
However, Palestinian cultures never existed in isolation, and Mualem-Doron is decolonising that art history.
“It’s not only Zionists forcing this imagery, you have Christians who visited in the 18th and 19th century – even Mark Twain, the famous American writer who visited Palestine, and always depicted it as some biblical, empty land,” says Mualem-Doron.
He therefore curated the photography series as a performative provocation inviting viewers to refocus the colonial gaze. It challenges the ongoing policies of land confiscation and practice of occupation depriving Palestinians of their basic rights.
Through such artistic techniques, Mualem-Doron’s work becomes a rich source of knowledge, documentation and insight into the inner workings of an oppressive state formation.
“It’s in a way, projecting the reality on the colonial imagery of emptiness,” he says. “And holding it are the Palestinians who used to either live there or their daughter and sons, and they hold it very proudly.”
The series, consisting of Palestinians of all ages, the children and the elderly, forces viewers to see more into the emptiness – the movement, the trade, the life that once stirred.
It sends the audience on a journey of their own consciousness, to pay particular attention to the feelings and thoughts the Palestinians in the pictures could be experiencing.
With so many important things to say, the intriguing series of photos at times does more telling than showing.
Colour is important in Mualem-Doron’s work. Inspired by the natural surroundings of conflict in Palestine, naturally, darkness dominates most of them.
Therefore, his approach to the annexing of the last fragments of the occupied territories, destroying any hopes of a Palestinian state, are set on rustic coloured rooftiles smashed and stencilled with broken Palestinian embroidery patterns which would have been seen in many of the bombed houses.
“This exhibition is not easy. This is a really difficult subject not only for the Palestinians, but for anybody who sympathises with Palestinians, as well as for myself as an ex-Israeli and therefore see it as part of my responsibility.”
He notes that while art can provide some comfort to victims, and even the creators themselves, that comfort does not undo human rights abuses.
If you believe in a Jewish state, in the end you’ll have to kill or kick out the Arabs from that state. There is no middle ground. You either give full equal rights to everybody and it’s a normal state or it’s going to very, very dark places.
“I see Palestinian cultures as part of my culture. I’m from what’s now called Israel, but it was Palestine,” he explains.
The exhibition at P21 was originally planned for April 2020 but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. It will now be open to visit on 24 September 2020.