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Peace Through Art

"Made in Palestine" humanizes the Middle East conflict

When the Art Car Museum presented the thought-provoking exhibition "Secret Wars" shortly after September 11, 2001, it had the FBI dropping by to search out supposedly un-American activities. Now The Station, a sister space to the Art Car Museum, may be angling for a visit from the Israeli Secret Service with "Made in Palestine," an exhibition of contemporary Palestinian art. (Let's hope the Mossad isn't as paranoid as Ashcroft.) But visits by security services are unwarranted; the only plot of show organizers Gabriel Delgado, Jim Harithas and Tex Kerschen is to use contemporary art to generate dialogue. The three curators spent a month in the Middle East to meet artists and create an exhibition with works that grow out of the culture, experiences and strained political climate in which they live.

Memorial to 418 Palestinian Villages Which Were Destroyed, Depopulated and Occupied by Israel in 1948 (2001) by Emily Jacir is a tan canvas refugee tent on which Jacir laboriously embroidered the names of all the lost villages. She was assisted in the project by more than 140 others, including "lawyers, bankers, filmmakers, dentists, consultants, musicians, playwrights, artists, human rights activists, teachers, et cetera." Over a two-month period they came to Jacir's studio "as Palestinians (some of whom come from these villages), as Israelis (who grew up on the remains of these villages) and people from a multitude of countries." Their time-consuming act of passing a needle and thread through heavy fabric mourns while it memorializes.

Inside the tent, the stray threads of the embroidered names dangle down like the lost threads of countless lives in communities with unfamiliar names like Al-Hamra, Kafra, Yasur. Imagine for a moment leaving everything you have behind to live in such a makeshift, primitive shelter.

Rula Halawani's Negative Incursion captures a Palestinian woman surveying damage in the city of Ramallah.
The Station
Rula Halawani's Negative Incursion captures a Palestinian woman surveying damage in the city of Ramallah.

The moving piece is especially topical considering that since the late 1980s there has been a movement among some Israeli historians to revise the popular view of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and subsequent exodus of between 600,000 and 700,000 Palestinians. Most Israelis grew up being taught that the Palestinians had left of their own accord. But this was the exception far more than the rule, and Israeli scholars are refuting this account of events to deal with the vast numbers who were driven out or barred from their homes. The tent is, suitably, a refugee memorial, not of granite and bronze but of cheap, portable canvas and aluminum poles.

Negative Incursion (2002) presents the bleak vision of Rula Halawani, who lives in Jerusalem and teaches photography in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, where she was present on March 28, 2002, when the Israeli incursion occurred. Drawing on her press credentials, she took photographs of the devastation. The photos are printed large-scale and in the negative, heightening the scenes' sense of the inhuman and otherworldly. The disorienting images do not allow us to dismiss them as just some newspaper photo from somewhere. A family huddles next to the rubble of a demolished building under a rigged-up tarp. A woman stands in white in the foreground of an image while a field of destruction fills the background. An ambulance rests in a street with its door blown off. A crumpled body lies dead on the sidewalk next to a tank, a small bright pool of blood next to its ankle.

Working with existing media images, Rana Bishara transforms them into frail and ephemeral pictures by printing them on panes of glass that she suspends from the ceiling. For her printing medium she chose not ink but chocolate, which has the dusty look of dried blood. The fragile panes of glass hang densely in the room, and visitors must carefully navigate the suspended panels and their images of grief and violence: two soldiers posing for a picture over the body of a dead man, women crying, a man holding a child, the faces of the dead.

Rock throwing is an icon of conflict in the occupied territories. Nida Sinnokrot created a series of tiny sculptures using rocks half-dipped in rubber. These are smooth, tactile and visually appealing objects with sinister undertones. Lined up along the baseboards of the galleries, they appear as a weapons stockpile or like tiny stand-ins for individuals. The rubber alludes to the rubber bullets shot by Israeli soldiers against Palestinian civilians. In a sad twist on the story of David and Goliath, the stones refer to the rocks and chunks of rubble thrown by Palestinian children against Israeli tanks. Rajie Cook's Ammo Box (2003) takes a similar tack with a pointed commentary on U.S.-sponsored militarization: a giant replica of a United States military ammunition box filled with stones.

Also by Sinnokrot, Al Jaz/CNN (2002) presents satellite streams from Al-Jazeera and CNN side by side. Each channel presents male and female anchors in suits with an up-to-the-minute scroll of text moving across the bottom of the screen -- except the Arabic of Al-Jazeera flows for right-to-left reading. In viewing the piece, non-Arabic speakers rely on visual juxtapositions, although comparing the dialogue would be especially intriguing. The piece changes with each network's programming and responses of news events. We compare spin to spin.

Other works present personal, individual experiences. The works of Zuhdi Al-Adawi and Muhammad Rakouie were created during their imprisonment by the Israelis. Both men now live in refugee camps in Syria. The finely detailed images created in crayon on cut pillowcase linens have the visual aura of "outsider art." They present images that range from the poignant -- an inmate on a hunger strike -- to the surreal, to the nationalistic. The images using the colors of the Palestinian flag and depicting struggle for independence were prohibited by authorities and had to be smuggled out of the prison.

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