According to The Station, "Made in Palestine" is the first exhibit of contemporary Palestinian art ever displayed in the United States. The 23 artists represented live in the West Bank, Gaza and parts of Israel. With tensions in the region high, it should come as no surprise that not all of these artists were able to attend the Houston opening last month. "It was a small problem we ran into," says curator Tex Kerschen, "but a big problem for them."
Artist Jawad Ibrahim, according to Kerschen, "secured his paperwork and went through the various checkpoints to get to the airport in Jordan, but was turned back for no reason." Another artist, Ashraf Fawakhry, a Palestinian Arab living in Israel, successfully shipped his installation piece Line 13 to Houston, but failed to deliver himself. "He succeeded in getting visas to enter the U.S.," says Kerschen, "but was denied visas to leave Israel." Rula Halawani's photograph series Negative Incursion, a series of black-and-white negative prints depicting the aftermath of skirmishes between Palestinians and Israelis, is also on display. She, too, was denied exit from Israel to attend the opening. Kerschen chalks it up to bad timing. "A bunch of violence erupted around the time she was leaving," he says.
Frustrating as it sounds, the day-to-day hassles of travel within the region seem trivial when juxtaposed with the deep injustice many of these works convey. "Made in Palestine" is concerned with issues of life and death. Emily Jacir's piece, Memorial to 418 Palestinian Villages which were Destroyed-Depopulated, and Occupied by Israel in 1948, is a refugee tent with the names of those villages printed on its sides and roof. It represents a ghostly sanctuary to the lost souls of Palestinian history. Another work, Suleiman Mansour's I Ismael, depicts a man deteriorating from a healthy state into malnutrition, echoing the Palestinian state of crisis and decay.
Particularly engaging is Abdel Rahmen Al Muzayen's drawing series Jenin. In one, a Canaanite woman is kneeling with both arms poised to throw two stones simultaneously. On her scarf, hanging behind her at her heel, is a drawing of decimated buildings and rubble. The look on her face isn't one of anger but rather triumph. Of course, the piece is a reference to the Jenin massacre, a result of Israel's 2002 invasion. While the subject matter is horrific, the drawing exudes calm. An act of violence is transformed into worship. It's a fascinating, if disturbing, piece that could be construed as Palestinian propaganda.
"The exhibit conveys the humanity of the people," says Kerschen. "It illustrates the Palestinian struggle -- the human rather than political." He's right. The works do resonate with emotion and humanity, but for Palestinians, those emotions are tied inextricably to political struggle.