John Halaka's "Portraits of Denial & Desire" Tell a Palestinian Story

Umm Hussein
Umm Hussein
Photo by John Halaka

Activist artist John Halaka, of Palestinian descent, was born in Egypt and has roots in Houston; after graduating from the University of Houston he went on to teach at UH, North Harris County College, The High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and The Glassell School of Art.

His current exhibit at Rice University, "Portraits of Denial & Desire," focuses on displaced indigenous Palestinians and their stories of exile, resistance and survival. He has enlarged his photographs, stripped them of color and printed them in triptych form on oversized blankets, which serve as both a symbol of protection, as well as an illustration of the temporary nature of refugees.

Each piece includes a short narrative, enhancing these stories of sudden, catastrophic and repeated loss. For example, Abu Ghazi, who now lives in a refugee camp in Lebanon, stares mournfully at the camera; the next image shows the bomb-riddled ruins of his former neighborhood, which was reduced to rubble after 33 days of shelling; his wife died soon after.

Ibrahim Essa is flanked by the crumbled ruins of a one-room schoolhouse and other structures overgrown by vines. He is proud, almost wistful, holding sticks in his hand. His family had lived in the same village for 700 years, tracing their connections back to the early Christians of Galilee.

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Contemplative eyes, a hatchet and a tearful frown tell the story of Umm Hussein, whose husband and two sons were slaughtered in the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982. The tragic irony is that she and her family were not Palestinian; she was born into a Maronite Christian Lebanese family - the same sect as those who killed her family; her misfortune was that she was so poor she lived in the ghetto closest to the Shatila refugee camp.

Elias Wakim stands in front of a church, between images of fragmented bones and overgrown cacti; his village of El Bassa was almost completely destroyed. He watches over the village cemetery, where once decorated mausoleums are now desecrated. He is unable to leave this place, as the bones of his father are here, albeit now mixed with trash and the strewn remains of other graves.

Gazing upon the face of Umm Aziz reveals a gentle sweetness; those who know her in the camp testify to her amazing kindness. She displays a poster of four of her sons, who disappeared in 1982 when hundreds of men were herded into trucks and taken away. She still searches for her boys, who would be middle-aged men by now, she herself trapped in the unknowingness of their fates.

Not all stories are sad, however; Rasha Khalil is a young creative arts instructor in the refugee camps. As a third generation Palestinian refugee born and living in Lebanon, she has never visited Palestine. In an effort to teach the younger children about their history, she founded a small puppet theater in the camps. The images of her stylishly made-up face and intertwined manicured hands surround an ascending staircase, representing the bridging of the past with the future.

I was surprised to see the piercing, alert eyes of a very sharp-looking man with handlebar moustache who almost seemed to be smiling. Hamed Moussa, who was born around 1910 and lived more than 100 years, was one of the few Palestinians who was not displaced from his homeland, and who was permitted to farm his ancestral land. He never felt that the land belonged to him but rather that he belonged to the land.

It is interesting to note that Halaka collects small plastic bags of Palestinian soil and offers them as gifts to those living in the refugee camps. For many, it is their first time to touch the soil of their ancestors. Portraits of Denial & Desire continues through March 13, at Rice University's Department of Visual & Dramatic Arts, Media Center Building, 6100 Main Street, Campus Entrance #8 (University Blvd. at Stockton), open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., 713-348-4882, arts.rice.edu.


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