Reflections on Invisible: An interview with Rehab Nazzal

| July 8, 2014
Photo: Rehab Nazzal

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Rehab Nazzal is a Palestinian-born multidisciplinary artist based in Toronto.

Her video and photo exbibition Invisible was held in Ottawa and will be exhibited in other locations across Canada.

Rehab Nazzal agreed to be interviewed by rabble.ca about the exhibit and about her experience. The exhibition, Nazzal said, raised important discussions on the role of art, government and censorship. She added, "I ended up with enough material for a new exhibition about this whole experience."

Looking back at your exhibition, what do you hope people gained from it?

The exhibition Invisible was intended to foreground the largely silenced and obscured narratives of human rights violations in occupied Palestine. I hoped to share my experience and perspective through universal artistic language, but attempts by the Israeli ambassador and the pro-Israel lobby to censor the exhibit constituted a major distraction from my original objective. These interferences diverted attention from the aesthetic and critical content of my artwork, notably, the illegal and criminal occupation of Palestine. Ironically, the attempts to censor the art show backfired. In seeking to remove the exhibit from the public's eye, the pro-Israel lobby ultimately raised the profile of Invisible and gave it an exceptional visibility, a prominence extending well beyond Ottawa, and indeed beyond Canada itself.

Insofar as my exhibit withstood a month of relentless assaults, I believe that its presence at the Karsh-Masson Gallery will have left its legacy -- the message that art cannot be circumscribed by state power and by dominant political interests, and that significant art is indispensable especially in times of injustice. Art offers a rich field of debate where challenging questions are asked and where suppressed issues are brought to light. In retrospect, I can say that this was the outcome of my most recent art exhibit.

What are the subjects that inform your work?

My work in general focuses on the devastating effect that the violence of war and colonialism has had on civilians. In particular, my work addresses the effect of the Israeli colonialism on the Palestinians: e.g., the experience of dispossession, the expulsion of people from their homeland, the punitive measures of military occupation, the destruction of economy and landscape, the restriction of movement and confinement of the civilian population, living between massive concrete walls and amid military machines. I grew up under the occupation, and that reality has fundamentally shaped my art and life.

In Invisible I employed archival documents, found and directly recorded images to express the invisibility of various aspects of the Palestinian struggle for justice and freedom. The works exhibited reflect Israel's extrajudicial assassinations, the indiscriminate imprisonment of tens of thousands of Palestinians and the violent repression of peaceful demonstrations.

Why media art and not documentary?

The Palestinians' ongoing struggle for freedom, for self-determination and for the right of return is not an easy subject to represent. A documentary representation of such a seemingly endless struggle -- one that has a beginning but no end in sight -- is very difficult. The first obstacle one faces is the trauma experienced by millions of victims. It is almost impossible to express it. It took me many long years of silence and much courage before I was able to speak about my experience under military occupation. Another obstacle is the Zionist distortion of the Palestinian collective experience and the privileged space that the mainstream media affords that viewpoint. In daily news reports, the Zionist narrative typically trumps the Palestinian story; the colonizer's story drowns out the voice of the oppressed. This presents significant challenge for the documentary artist.

By contrast, in media art one can seek universal forms to resolve the difficulty of Palestinian self-representation: i.e., the difficulty of depicting the adversities that Palestinians have been enduring for 67 years, ever since the expulsion in 1947-1948 of half of the Palestinian population (800,000 people) from their homeland, (who currently constitute over seven million refugees scattered across the world). In short, my formal choices reflect the limits of representation: i.e., the narrative of Palestinian suffering is known only in fragments, in pieces of evidence, shards of memory and in documentation scattered over time, or held by the occupiers, or constantly contested. The dark or black screen that I employ in many of my videos represents the unknown, the unseen, or the suppressed. Sometimes mask the image and allow the viewer to see only glimpses of it, which may register in the viewers' unconscious. At other times I use an image without sound or, conversely, a sound without image. My aesthetic choices are based not only on showing the forbidden truth about Palestinian suffering, but they also depend on foregrounding the limits of what can be seen.

Was the response that you got to your artwork what you imagined? Why or why not?

The opening of the exhibition on May 8, 2014 was successful and well attended. People got engaged in the work as anticipated. I expected to receive a diverse range of views, reflective of Ottawa's variegated community. In my other exhibitions there has always been rich debate. There have been discussions about subjectivity and about the formal properties and content of my artwork.

In Ottawa, however, I encountered some unexpected happenings. I was shocked by some of the reactions to Invisible, notably, the allegations that I was "glorifying terrorism." These claims were uttered on May 22, 2014 by the Israeli ambassador, Rafael Barak. He attacked the exhibition and not only violated my right of expression, but also made me feel that the Israeli occupation had extended to Canada. Soon after, the same accusations were repeated by the Jewish Federation of Ottawa and by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. The Jewish Federation of Ottawa demanded that Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson have the exhibition closed down; it called for restrictions on the gallery's art selection process to prevent artworks such as mine from being shown to the public. Further, three conservative members of the Canadian Parliament and the Senate denounced the exhibition and repeated the Israeli Embassy's accusation instead of defending my right of expression as a Canadian citizen.

The accusations leveled at my work reflect an extraordinary measure of denial -- the denial of a horrific truth about the Palestinians' suffering. The truth that the Palestinian people have no army, locked up in open-air prisons and facing one of the most militarized colonial states in the world, and are continually subjected to daily assaults inflicted on them by the colonial power of Israel. And the Zionist lobby is willing to go to great lengths to thwart any disclosure of such violence. The attempts to censor Invisible are a case in point.

The accusations cast on my exhibit have an even more far-reaching significance: they set a dangerous precedent for the future of critical art. We all know from history that censorship of political art is dangerous and very much associated with oppressive powers. These powers are quick to spread misinformation and to generate a climate of fear and prejudice among their followers. Critical thinking and questioning of the status quo are then criminalized and held behind bars. This, indeed, is how I experienced the inflammatory reactions to my artwork. I felt that hostile outcries sought to capture my voice in the cage of a false narrative, a narrative that intruded on my exhibit and haunted it with the watchful eyes of colonial occupation.

In effect, over a matter of weeks, claims by the Zionists that my artworks were an endorsement of "terrorism" escalated in intensity. I was first accused of "glorifying terrorism," then of "celebrating terrorism," and finally of "memorializing terror." This misrepresentation, indeed, this vilification of my art was staggering. For if the essence of my visual works was to renounce violations of human rights and non-compliance with international law (including extra judicial assassinations), how, I wondered, did this amount to a "celebration of terror"? I was not the only one enraged by this double-speak, not the only one by this mangling of my artistic intentions. Many other Canadians were horrified by it as well and they offered me their warm support. I am grateful to them for that.

The exhibition for those who haven't seen it is in fact a condemnation of terror, the terror that has been inflicted on the Palestinians by Israel's military power. In order to dispel the false allegations leveled at my work, it is imperative that I briefly describe the nature of my visual display.

There are four videos and 1,700 photographs -- the only photographic prints in the show. The most recent works are Frames from the Negev Prison photographs and a Military Exercise in the Negev Prison video. These are about Israel's special forces attacking Palestinian political prisoners in the Negev prison, located in Israel. They are based on censored footage, obtained by court order, of a military training exercise, carried out after midnight, while the prisoners were asleep. The source footage of these two works was aired in the Israeli media and shown to the Israeli public in April 2011. (It should be noted that the Israeli occupation of Palestine is openly criticized inside Israel; in Canada, however, that is scarcely the case. Here, critical commentary, even in the form of an artistic representation, is subjected to horrendous assaults and accusations.) 

Another video, Bil'in, is about my experience in the village of Bil'in where Palestinians and members of international solidarity movements were physically attacked by the occupation army during of the weekly peaceful protest against Israel's confiscation of village land. While the sound of the attack was kept intact, I reconstructed the image to represent the feeling of being suffocated and blinded by tear gas.

The third video, Mourning, is based on footage of the funeral of my brother who was extra-judicially assassinated in Athens in 1986. He was but 38 when he was shot and riddled with countless bullets. In 1967, he was a university student in Jordan when Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Considered a non-citizen by the occupying power, he was denied the right to return home. His fate was similar to that of thousands of Palestinians who happened to be outside the country during the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The same occupation power that denied my brother his right of return in 1967 also denied him the right to be buried in our hometown. It took me 25 years to be able to look at footage of his funeral, an event I could not attend at the time. In that footage, I found a strong connection with the ongoing struggle of Palestinians, since funerals and collective mourning for the assassinated and murdered, continue unabated to this day.

Working on Mourning led to the fourth video, Target. My research revealed horrifying information about Israel's policy of targeted assassinations. These executions have resulted in a tremendous loss of distinguished Palestinian men and women from all walks of life. Overall, this has had a devastating effect on the Palestinian society. Target, a subject that echoes the recent attacks on Invisible, consists of over 127 flashing images of leaders, artists and activists who were assassinated across the world or in occupied Palestine. The main source of these images is photographs of posters that I captured from the streets of the West Bank during the past several years. The images appear and disappear before the viewer can see their features, leaving permanent traces throughout the screen. This formal choice represents the way the lives of these individuals were cut short (mostly in secret operations) and the traces they left in Palestinian collective memory and history.

How do you feel about the response you got from the city?

The Mayor of Ottawa, Jim Watson, and the City manager Steve Kanellakos defended the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and protected my right of expression. However, I feel that the art selection process in the Karsh-Masson Gallery, which Mayor Watson ordered to be reviewed, should remain autonomous. Elected politicians should not interfere in decisions about which art the public should or should not see.

Did you have any specific memorable or important moment of the exhibition and why?

The most memorable moments pertain to the tremendous support I received from the public in Ottawa and from Canadians across the country. This made me feel that I belong to a strong and indeed growing progressive community. At the same time, I had the bitter experience of receiving extremely hostile reactions to my work. Among the most agressive responses was that made by Senator Linda Frum. In an offensive statement published in the National Post, she described my exhibit as "a shameful tribute to terror masquerading as art." I found her language, and her ignorance of the exhibition and the subject it depicts, both offensive and provocative. Listing the names of some 20 Israeli casualties from the 1970s, she attacked Invisible with a rhetoric saturated in denunciation and outrage, intended, I assume, to rouse her Zionist sympathizers into further indignation and hate. By her account, it would seem that only the loss of Israeli life is worthy of commemoration. Really? How quickly history disappears from public consciousness. How quickly the Zionist mind eclipses the loss of Palestinian life and consigns it to oblivion.

What of the countless Palestinian victims that have been, and continue to be, assassinated, starved, bombed or tortured daily? If I wanted to list the names of the Palestinian civilians killed by the Israeli forces, I would need several museums, galleries and memorials to do so. If I sought to list names and numbers, where would I start and what would I cover of the past six decades? Should I begin with the Nakba (which incurred 800,000 expulsions, the death of 9,000 prisoners, and countless other deaths)? With the Deir Yassin massacre (which caused the death of 250 people, including women and children) or with Kufr Qasim (which caused 48 deaths, including six women and 23 children), or with the events of the 1953 Qibia massacre (which caused 69 dead including 48 children and women), or with the victims of 1967 or the 1982 massacre of Sabra and Shatilla (incurring 3000 dead), or perhaps with the 2002 Jenin massacre, or more recently with the 2008/2009 war on Gaza, where white phosphorus munitions and Flechette missiles were used on civilians, schools, hospitals, animals and infrastructure? Entire families were wiped out, with a total loss of around 1,400 Palestinian lives including 430 children and 17 Israelis, four of whom killed by friendly fire. Finally, it should be noted that over one quarter of the Palestinian population has been imprisoned at least once in their lifetime. By contrast, the number of Israeli prisoners in Palestine is nil.

I wonder how Frum would respond to this extraordinary disparity in numbers, which speaks of lost Palestinian lives and of Israel's daily violations of human rights, international law and humanitarian law.

Disappointing in all this was that most of my efforts to respond and defend my art in some mainstream media, were met with no result. One media outlet proposed to have an article I submitted radically modified. The article was cut in key areas and recast to suit the editor's political views. I refused to sign my name to it and withdrew my submission. Another news outlet claimed that I had declined their interview, which was not true. After these rejections, I felt that my views and work had been slaughtered by repeated accusations and that my efforts at self-defense were continually being shut down. The whole situation spoke volumes about power, politics and the mainstream media. Still, other media outlets did give me a voice in this imbalanced situation, however limited; and I am thankful for that.

How did you feel by the end of the exhibition when you were bringing your artwork home?

By the end of the exhibition I ended up with enough material for a new exhibition, one born of this whole experience. In looking back over the past month, I can see that, in spite of controversy and heated attack, Invisible had an important social impact. It generated extensive exchanges and debates about the relationship between art and the state, political art and censorship, and between art and the public sphere. These are crucial questions to ponder in dark times such as our own.

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Miriam Katawazi is a fourth-year journalism and human rights student at Carleton University and rabble's news intern. She has a strong passion for human rights and social justice in Canada and across the world. Her writing focuses on health, labour, education and human rights beats.

Photo: Rehab Nazzal

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