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Palestinian art exhibit under siege seeks free expression

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Photo: Michelle Weinroth

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How we define and judge the agents of war largely depends on our point of view. Resistance fighters are deemed martyr heroes on one side, but terrorists on the other.

In North America and Britain, the Allied pilots who bombed Dresden and Hamburg during World War II were celebrated as heroes; and yet, they killed thousands of innocent civilians. Today, the descendants of these victims would most likely regard this bombing as a brutal destruction of human life.

Seen objectively, all wars, whether waged by the state, by underground movements or by individual rebels, are grotesque. The human cost is invariably high, and the fallout, both ideological and environmental, is toxic. But however great the loss of life might be on each side, its extent is not symmetrical.

If there are clear victors and losers, the latter's grief can never be annulled by a sense of retributive justice. War binds the defeated to the recollection of unspeakable tragedy, so unspeakable that it is often silenced by public discourse. Still, in spite of such suppression, collective memory resurfaces in the interstices of aesthetic culture. In art and music, in theatre and dance, the story of war's victims is revived.

In her exhibit, "Invisible," now showing at Ottawa's Karsh-Masson Gallery, Rehab Nazzal offers an artistic perspective on the legacy of Israel's longstanding occupation of her native country. As a Palestinian-born Canadian, Nazzal has inherited bitter memories, but has also borne witness to war's cruelty, notably in the form of colonial repression: checkpoints, military surveillance, intimidation, assassinations and more.

Her art is suffused with images that reflect the fragmentation and imprisonment of her homeland by foreign rule. In "Invisible," she assembles shards of collective memory, shots of political actors, scenes of funereal grieving and photographic images of Palestinian prisoners, derived in part from Israeli sources. This is the visual substance of her work.

If art shows typically generate diverse and conflicting receptions, they should never be under siege. Recently construed by the Jewish Federation of Ottawa as a glorification of terrorists, Nazzal's exhibit was also denounced by the Israeli Embassy as reflecting "a culture of hate and incitement." Such a reductive (and inflated) reading can only be the result of obdurate preconceptions or hasty judgment.

Look again: "Invisible" calls for dialogue, not dogmatic division.

"Target," the first item in the installation (fittingly titled, for it is now under considerable scrutiny) is a video displaying photographs of Palestinian men and women, images of political figures that come into view with minimal biographical detail. These individuals were assassinated, specifically targeted for their activism. But Nazzal neither glorifies them as freedom fighters nor defines them as terrorists; she calls them activists, leaders and writers. Her aim is not glorification, but representation, and representation of ghosts who populate the collective consciousness of many Palestinians.

The photographs in the video appear as fleeting visual moments, symbolic of interrupted lives. One by one, the pictures of these individuals dissolve; and together they fade into the image of a floating spectre, suggestive of their obscured, indeed censored, legacy. Few of us in Canada really know these individuals; the genesis of their actions and the fuller picture of their lives has, for the most part, been consigned to oblivion or shackled to the label, "terrorist." 

At the heart of Nazzal's exhibit on invisibility lies a recurring motif: imprisonment. It is the subject on which her exhibit dwells most explicitly. In a wall-to-wall display of the Negev prison, and in a video of a disciplinary exercise held there (causing loss of life and numerous casualties), she exposes the brutal incarceration of Palestinian men. The theme of imprisonment is also evident in the silencing of the Palestinian experience. 

Mainstream appreciations of Nazzal's message are thus sadly "incarcerated" -- shut up within the walls of public ignorance and denial. Her work in this sense is self-reflexive. With images that evoke blindness, she paradoxically makes us look and see differently, beyond labels and dogma. We are encouraged to recognize the stuff of history that has been made invisible, locked up in cells of obscurity. 

The Nakba (1948), the expulsion by Israeli forces of some 800,000 Palestinians from their land is one such forgotten moment; yet its lingering trauma underlies the actions and motivations of the political actors exhibited in "Target." An episode of atrocity (linked to the founding of Israel), the Nakba has largely been held behind bars. It is a prisoner of censorship, darkened by disavowal. 

Today, as we read the papers, we realize that Nazzal's art work, like the subject she portrays, has become a prisoner itself, caught between the lines of press releases and subjected to surveillance. The watchtowers of her occupied Palestine have come to haunt her here, to scrutinize her every gesture. But as a Canadian citizen, on Canadian soil, she must be allowed to air her views openly and freely. That is her artistic and civic right.

Open letter signed by 125 artists and cultural workers from across Canada in support of Rehab Nazzal’s exhibition, "Invisible"

Open letter signed by 250 concerned Canadians in support of the decision to uphold the principles of the Charter of Rights andFreedoms and of free expression

Michelle Weinroth is a writer, translator, and teacher living in Ottawa.

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