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I AM (FROM) PALESTINE: A VISUAL NARRATIVE OF EVERLASTING STUBBORNNESS

The declaration of war by Israel on October 7th of last year marked the beginning of a new phase within a conflict that has endured for at least 76 years. The Palestinian people have faced unprecedented genocide: aggressions, bombings, acute shortages of essential supplies, and numerous other violations of their human rights. In such a challenging context, the aspiration for freedom may seem distant, but art endures as a realm of unwavering resistance. Paintings, drawings, collages, installations, and performances encapsulate the rebellious and tenacious identity of the Palestinian people.


Aml Nakhla, War diaries. Courtesy of the artist

«WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK,» Aml Nakhla asks herself, scribbling the helpless words on one of the pages of her war diaries. She uses a worn-out notebook, the pictures of which she shares on her Instagram account, exposing the constant and massive death threats she has fallen victim to. The page, dated November 4th, recounts that the day before, Israeli forces had bombed three hospitals. These spaces, intended for sick civilians, were among the main targets of Israel after declaring a State of War on October 7th, following Hamas’s- led Operation Flood Al Aqsa.

On October 14th, Israeli authorities reported that the total number of deaths was 1,400, a figure that was reduced to 1,139 after a review by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the case of Palestinians, the death toll has now reached 33,667, with the majority of them being civilians, particularly women and children. Equally brutal is the fact that the main targets of the Israeli offensive have been hospitals, clinics, and ambulances, tactics condemned as war crimes by international organizations. They have publicly denounced sexual violence, organ theft, the use of hunger as a weapon of war, and forced displacements, all of which have been documented by Nakhala in her diaries.

The drawings accompanying the handwritten entries are swiftly scrawled with a pen. Their raven-black ink depicts anonymous characters in desolate environments, victims of the impact that destruction has had on their living conditions and emotional well-being. The uncertainty about the fate of their homes, the experience of being forcefully displaced multiple times in a single day, and similar experiences become even more disheartening in the absence of effective actions from the international community. That is, measures beyond mere displays of compassion.

In addition to the illustrations, Aml also shares photographs depicting the environment in which she survives on a daily basis. Images of Aml’s younger sister smiling in a bombed area, empty shelves revealing shortages, and lines of hopeless Palestinians waiting to buy bread are some of the scenes captured by the lens of this young survivor from Gaza.

Aml Nakhla, War diaries. Courtesy of the artist

Approximately 93 kilometers away, photographer Maen Hammad documents the experience of another territory occupied in Palestine: the West Bank. His photographs capture both the desolation of everyday environments and the most brutal impacts of the violence caused by the Israeli occupation, providing a comprehensive insight into the harsh reality faced by the Palestinian people.

In documenting such a violently dynamic landscape, Maen had to face the challenge of carefully selecting the denounced atrocities his compatriots have uncovered on social media. Although he is aware of his limitations in addressing all perspectives, the photographer persists in capturing the struggle to the best of his ability. Vivid shots of marches in the streets, the constant threat of Israeli surveillance, and the sometimes-fatal injuries on the bodies of his fellow citizens make up some of the visual chronicles he has managed to immortalize.

— Being part of the funeral processions and sharing the power and beauty of the life that Palestinians held felt really important to me. Otherwise, they would just be numbers or a name in a report that will be released five years from now, so having their stories at least told is crucial.

Maen’s interest in capturing Palestinian resistance dates to 2014 when he embarked on a journey to his homeland with the purpose of learning Arabic and reconnecting with his roots. When packing, the first two things he considered essential were his camera and his skateboard. Upon arrival, encountering a group of young people practicing tricks on the street became his gateway to the skate scene in Palestine.

In 2015, he produced the documentary Kickflips Over Occupation, which portrays the local skate scene—a small yet tightly-knit community whose passion for this sport has become a form of resistance against daily violence. Six years later, he initiated the photographic series Landing, which is set to be published in book format. The project has gained recognition and has been featured in multiple group exhibitions worldwide, including one late last year at a museum in Florence.

His participation in this exhibition, however, was not without controversy. The museum asked Maen to remove the word ‘apartheid’ from one of the texts accompanying the artworks, which referred to the systematic Israeli racial segregation. This act of censorship led him to threaten the organizers with the removal of his photographs. Fortunately, thanks to the intervention of Maen’s representative, the artist managed to maintain the original text. Regrettably, not everyone has been as fortunate when facing censorship, and some artists have been forced to cancel their exhibitions.

Photography by Maen Hammad. Courtesy of the artist

Photography by Maen Hammad. Courtesy of the artist

Since October 7th, many exhibitions have been canceled because participating artists expressed their support for the Palestinian cause on their social media platforms. Among the most well-known are Candice Breitz, Samia Halaby, and Ai Weiwei. One of the most scandalous controversies involved the legendary DOCUMENTA, which faced a mass resignation of its six Selection Committee members. One of them was accused of signing a letter in 2019 comparing Zionism in Israel to Hindu nationalism in India.

The Venice Biennale also encountered a series of controversies after rejecting a proposal from the Palestine Museum US. The request aimed to organize a collateral event featuring 23 Palestinian artists, some of whom currently reside in tents in Rafah, Gaza. The institution expressed its disagreement with the Biennale’s decision, highlighting a radically different approach taken towards Ukraine, with the country receiving full support during the Russian invasion.

In late February, over 12,000 artists signed a letter calling for the exclusion of Israel from the Venice Biennale. This appeal was based on the current situation in which Israel is being tried in the International Court of Justice for «plausible genocide» against Palestinians in Gaza. The letter highlights that «art is not produced in a vacuum, and it cannot transcend reality. Euphemisms cannot erase violent truths. Any work that officially represents the State of Israel appears as an endorsement of its genocidal policies.” However, despite this massive objection, the Biennale’s determination remained unchanged.

Rasha Al Jundi and Michael Jabareen, from the series «It’s so Berlin», digitally intervened photograph. Courtesy of the artists

While the event organization rolled out a red carpet for the Israeli government pavilion, the Palestine Museum US chose to present its proposal, titled ‘Foreigners in their Homeland,’ at the Palazzo Mora in Venice, from April 20th, until November 24th.

Despite the experienced tensions, the Biennale accepted another Palestinian proposal organized by the NGO Artists + Allies x Hebron, created by the artist Adam Broomberg and activist Issa Amro, which will feature the participation of a highly recognized and admired Palestinian artist in the West, Emily Jacir, winner of the Golden Lion at the 52nd Venice Biennale (2007).

The art world’s political censorship is precisely the phenomenon that the artist duo Rasha Al Jundi and Michael Jabareen criticize in their piece Canceled Remains, an intervened photograph that satirizes the censorship experienced by the Palestinian and pro-Palestinian artistic circuit in Germany. The image showcases a scene featuring a fox and a group rats, wild animals commonly seen in Berlin’s urban landscape. With arrogance, they comment on an «artwork,» the pair of blood-stained shoes of a Palestinian “anti-Semitic» artist annihilated (canceled) by the city’s art judges.

Canceled Remains is the second image in a collection of ten satirical scenes titled It’s so Berlin! The series is a collaborative effort, blending Rasha’s photography with Michael’s illustrations. Through this artistic partnership, they aim to shed light on the frustrating situations they have frequently encountered in Berlin. Another piece, Shit, is inspired by a comment made by a protester to a journalist during an anti-Zionist protest in the US: «You’re full of shit!»

Rasha Al Jundi. When the Grapes were sour. Embroidery on photogram (still from video) printed on canvas. Courtesy of the artist

BOUND BY BORDERS

Rasha waited for nearly five months, enduring over 150 days of profound nervousness, as she awaited approval for a special permission that would grant her the chance to visit her homeland—a procedure she was compelled to undergo despite holding a Jordanian passport. Having this credential officially certified by a government was an advantage to her. In contrast, other Palestinians who were forced to move into nearby countries, only managed to receive travel documents. Even so, the passport didn’t work by itself and asking for a special permission was an obligation. Upon arriving in Palestine, she captured approximately thirty photographs, which later became part of the project I Just Want to Kiss the Earth, described as a «visual diary in occupied Palestine.»

Another of Rasha’s projects is When the Grapes Were Sour, a series of testimonial videos featuring Palestinian exiles. After registering the interviews, the artist prints the resulting images on canvas and intervenes them with traditional natural motifs from Palestinian embroidery, such as the cypress tree, palm, olive — symbolic depictions associated with the identities of various Palestinian communities.

Through embroidery, Rasha celebrates the primordial beauty of the lands that have fallen a victim to Israeli destruction. This practice represents not only an act of resistance but also a medium to rescue the artistic manifestations of the land she yearns to return despite the painful damage. In a potent final reflection, concluding her project I Just want to Kiss the Earth, the artist asserts: «I cried because I didn’t want to leave. But they didn’t want me to stay.

Unlike Rasha, Michael has a Palestian Authority passport, or green ID, that slightly facilitates his entry and exit from Palestinian territory with relative ease. His mobility is exclusively limited to the occupied West Bank, as accessing other areas of the country requires a blue passport, which is only granted to Palestinians considered Israeli citizens. This situation reflects one of the most precarious conditions for Palestinians, highlighting the discrimination and restrictions imposed by Israeli authorities, who do not want Palestinians to inhabit Jerusalem.

Photographs by Safaa Khatib

Another artist who has experienced firsthand the movement restrictions imposed by Israel is Safaa Khatib, even when holding an Israeli passport. While she has been able to enter and exit Israel frequently so far, the situation is different for her father, who has served as one of the leaders of the Islamist movement.

In 2021, Sheikh Kamal Al-Khatib was detained for 45 days on what Israeli authorities alleged to be «incitement to violence on his social media.» However, none of the reported posts made an explicit call to violence. In reality, two of the posts merely showed solidarity with the victims of Israeli aggression, while another simply emphasized the concept of resistance linked to the city of Jaffa.

Accompanying the arrest warrant against him, Sheikh Kamal Al-Khatib was also subjected to a travel restriction preventing him from attending his daughter’s graduation in Florence, where she will receive her Master of Restoration degree. This situation has brought tears to her eyes recently, as it recalls the painful memory of her father’s absence at her own bachelor’s degree graduation years ago.

Safaa was particularly pained by this absence, as Kamal al-Khatib had helped her immensely in preparing her final project: an installation simulating the celebration of the 2034 FIFA World Cup in Palestine. In her vision, a children’s soccer team from Palestine would emerge as the winner of the World Cup. The project included a trophy and customized outfits for each child, as well as an audio recording by a famous sports commentator narrating Palestine’s victory. Safaa was proud of her project, but unfortunately, her father could not see it.

Safaa Khatib

EXHIBITIONS, AID INITIATIVES AND COPY BOOKS

Hidden among the pages of a magazine were the braids that Leena Jarbouni had carefully tucked away, seeking to distance herself from memories of her time in an Israeli prison. In 2018, a year following her release, she entrusted them to Safaa Khatib. Leena felt it was the opportune moment to honor the pledge she had made to her thirteen fellow cellmates, who had also cut off their own braids in a display of solidarity and compassion amidst confinement. Their collective action had its origins in a radio broadcast that called for hair donations to benefit cancer patients, a cause they all supported by sacrificing their hair.

The story moved Safaa so much that she decided to incorporate it into her research on young women incarcerated in Israeli prisons. Instead of displaying the image of the braids in a conventional manner, the photographer chose to photocopy them, aiming to evoke light amid darkness.

In 2023, just a few months after the release of all the young prisoners, Safaa showed the piece in What Palestine Brings to the World, an exhibition organized by the l’Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, which brought together works by modern and contemporary Palestinian artists, including some photographs from Maen Hammad’s Landing series.

This space was not the only institution organizing exhibitions featuring works by Palestinian, Arab, and artists from other nationalities who support and advocate for the cause from various fronts. Between September 2023 and February of this year, the Casa Árabe in Madrid presented Tadafuq / Flow: Palestinian Artists in Motion, an exhibition featuring 15 Palestinian artists from Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem, and the diaspora, including Michael Jabareen and Aml Nakhla.

Alongside initiatives aimed at raising awareness of the genocide through art, projects focused on fundraising for medical personnel in the field have also been carried out through the sale of artworks. Prints for Palestine and Pictures for Palestine are just two examples of these kinds of initiatives. In the latter, renowned artists such as Cindy Sherman, Jet Swan, and filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos participated. The charitable campaign inspired Chilean individuals Andrea Aguad, Milá Belén, and Inti Gajardo to replicate the initiative in Chile, a country that hosts the largest Palestinian community in the world. Therefore, the idea for Cien Fotos por Palestina (One Hundred Pictures for Palestine) was born.

Rafael Guendelman Hales, The Aliyah, Yeridah Project. Video and artist book. Courtesy of the artist

Rafael Guendelman Hales, The Aliyah, Yeridah Project. Video and artist book. Courtesy of the artist

Rafael Guendelman Hales, a Chilean artist with both Arab and Jewish roots, has devoted years of his career to exploring the Palestinian-Israeli struggle, examining how it can relate to the Chilean experience, and delving into themes of migration, identity, and memory. From the beginning of his artistic career, he has focused on investigating the impact of territorial structuring on its inhabitants. However, it was during his first trip to Israel that he realized the complexity of the struggle and its broader implications, shedding new light on the phenomenon he had previously begun to address in his homeland.

During his months in Israel, Rafael took the opportunity to gather photographic material. Upon returning to Chile, he used the videos as input for the exhibition Sin Tierra (No Land / Landless), which approached the Arab-Israeli struggle based on its similarities with recent Chilean history.

Seven years later, he unveiled his project Aliyá (ascend and migrate to Israel), Yeridá (leave Israel and descend), in which he delves into the Israeli identity through personal narratives of his family. A pivotal moment for this artwork was the discovery of his grandmother’s notebooks, in which she had diligently learned Hebrew. Within these pages, he unearthed the words that would title the exhibition: two antagonistic concepts, «Aliyá» and «Yeridá,» which complement each other in the construction of the Jewish identity.

Gloria Belén (Gloribel) Delgado, Reza por Gaza (Pray for Gaza), textile book. Courtesy of the artist

Gloria Belén (Gloribel) Delgado, Reza por Gaza (Pray for Gaza), textile book. Courtesy of the artist

A similar comparison can be made with Puerto Rico, whose status as a commonwealth associated with the United States mirrors the colonial dynamics between Israel and Palestine. This situation has prompted Gloria Belén (Gloribel) Delgado to remain vigilant about news from Palestine for years. Up until now, the Puerto Rican artist had written several pieces about the situation in the Middle East. However, following the attacks on October 7th, she resolved to broaden the artistic language through which she expresses herself about the situation.

In late February, Gloribel participated in Codex, one of the most important artist’s book fairs in the United States, with her piece Reza por Gaza. (Pray for Gaza). This textile book presents a prayer on each page: pray for the children, for hospitals with medicine, and for truth to prevail, among others. The artist came up with the idea after having a dream in which she saw herself as a temple sheltering women and children. Like a sacred sanctuary, the textile book serves the purpose of providing refuge for those in need.

Reza por Gaza is also a performance that involves three actions. Firstly, the act of reading, where one body activates the work in relation to another, the book. Secondly, the act of praying, linked both to the content of the ten prayers for Gaza and to the format of the book, as its dimensions coincide with prayer rugs. Finally, it serves as an enveloping element, offering shelter and protection to those who wrap themselves in its fabric, symbolizing not only physical comfort but also spiritual solace in solidarity with the prayers for Gaza.

Mahdi Baraghithi, How to survive in Europe. Courtesy of the artist

SURVIVALIST MENTALITIES

The memory of an M16 firearm pointing directly at his face continues to haunt Mahdi Baraghithi. The Israeli soldier on the border carrying the weapon bombarded him with questions, to which Mahdi tried to respond as calmly as possible. To reach that point, the young man had to move strategically. He left his house at six in the morning and quickly headed towards the Jordanian border, managing to arrive in less than an hour, just before its closure.The journey involved navigating through clashes between dozens of soldiers and freedom fighters. These confrontations, where one side was significantly larger and more powerful than the other, had been ongoing for years, but they intensified in the streets after Israel declared war on Gaza.

The artist departed Palestine «with a heavy heart.» Amidst the chaos unleashed by the violent events of October 7th, Mahdi found himself compelled to travel to Jordan to catch a flight bound for Switzerland. Despite the heightened risks in that context, Mahdi was reluctant to leave. His journey was solely for the purpose of participating in the Gästeatelier Krone residency, and the thought of being nearly three thousand kilometers away from his family weighed heavily on him.

Mahdi Baraghithi, How to survive in Europe. Courtesy of the artist
Mahdi Baraghithi, How to survive in Europe. Courtesy of the artist

Shortly before his departure, his mother confided in him, expressing her preference for his departure from the country. She stated that if at least one of them could find safety, it would be better that way. Mahdi couldn’t help but cry daily once he arrived in Switzerland. In those circumstances, making art was the last thing he could concentrate on.

Weeks later, despite still grappling with the profound impact of the recent events, he managed to channel his emotions from pain into proactive measures. Recognizing the challenging circumstances, he became convinced that creating art was the most impactful action he could take. Although the specifics of his upcoming project remain unclear, Mahdi is certain it will center around the concept of masculinity.

Unlike the focus he had previously worked on, delving into the toxic construction of masculinity in Palestine and confronting the racist stereotypes surrounding Arab men, during this residency, Mahdi plans to explore the concept of Zlammna (our men). The project involves researching and creating a body of work that examines the dehumanization of Palestinian men as a means to justify violence committed by Israeli colonizers, including their kidnapping and killing civilians.

His series of collages titled How to Survive in Europe, formatted as an instructional, replicates the infographics distributed in France during 2018, while the artist pursued a master’s degree in Bourges. In response to the escalating number of terrorist attacks in the country, the government chose to distribute guidelines on how to react during such incidents. However, the depictions of the terrorists in these materials left Mahdi feeling outraged, as he recognized features of his own identity—such as his skin tone, eyes, and beard—depicted in the figures.

— I believe the media has spent decades dehumanizing Palestinian men. As a result, people no longer feel a strong connection to the numbers of men, women, and children being killed in Palestine every day.

Despite the neutral features of the human figures in Mahdi’s instructional papers, the French police deemed it necessary to visit the artist’s school and request their removal. They claimed the pieces could be offensive to French people, as they depicted them as part of a racist society. Although the artist did not resist, he was surprised to realize that many of the pamphlets had already been removed, destroyed, or vandalized. Despite these setbacks, Mahdi continues to distribute the poster to those who request it. For him, this action serves as a reminder that the Palestinian people continue to face hostilities that require a constant struggle for survival.

Performance by Areej Kaoud. Courtesy of the artist

Drawing by Areej Kaoud. Courtesy of the artist

His compatriot Areej Kaoud, speaking from England, believes that being Palestinian involves an intrinsic condition of survival. In fact, that’s the first word that comes to mind to describe her parents’ mentality, as they have been displaced from their home on multiple occasions. From the moment they were born, Areej’s parents instilled in her and her siblings the need to always be prepared for the worst. This attitude resonated with Areej so deeply that most of her artworks stem from catastrophic scenarios and the mechanisms to confront them.

After years of researching this topic, the artist concluded that one of the most effective survival mechanisms is anxiety. Although this state commonly carries a negative connotation, she refuses to avoid it. Inspired by this mindset, in 2017 she had golden helium balloons made, bearing the words Anxiety is a Present of the Present.

—It’s my rejection of Western therapy ideas that suggest you need to be individualistic, always happy, and constantly striving to get rid of negativity, as if it’s not an essential part of shaping who you are.

The artist is currently working on a series of paintings addressing the genocide in her homeland, all the while maintaining her interest in the psychology of the Palestinian exile  and diaspora. She delves into this subject through various mediums, such as an installation featuring a carpet suspended from a tree in a park, evoking the tranquility of listening to one’s mother tongue, or a performance where she encourages the audience to partake in eating watermelon.

The artistic action is complemented by the painting of a watermelon, beneath which she writes «bideesh batikh,» which translates to «I don’t want watermelon.» However, the phrase takes on a different meaning when considering the colloquial meaning of «batteekh,» equivalent to «bullshit,» effectively conveying «I don’t want your bullshit.» From a different perspective, yet equally courageous, she later produced Resistance is the Deepest Form of Love, a piece on cotton paper displaying the phrase in both Arabic and English.

— I find it incredibly frustrating that the world has overlooked the fact that resistance and fighting back are fundamentally acts of love. It’s about the desire to safeguard your home and community. That’s why I’m constantly in the studio creating, not merely in response to current events. I don’t just support the Palestinian cause – I embody it.

Areej Kaoud, La ansiedad es un regalo del presente, 2017. Instalación con globos. Cortesía de la artista

Areej’s sentiments strike a chord with one of Michael’s earliest memories from childhood. At the age of three, his very first drawing depicted a green vehicle carrying a Palestinian flag.

— The fact that my three-year-old self chose to draw a flag speaks volumes to me. It encapsulates everything. I constantly remind myself that ‘hayati ‘uchiha lifilastin,’ which means my life is dedicated to Palestine.

For Michael, going back to his homeland isn’t just a casual wish; it’s a firm goal. He emphasizes that once he completes his planned goals upon finishing his master’s degree, Palestine is where he aims to be. This sentiment is echoed by Maen Hammad, the photographer, who eagerly anticipates the conclusion of his wife’s master’s degree, also a Palestinian, so they can return home together.

— Many people are attempting to leave, but I think what confuses them more often is that I want to return. Like, what the hell?! You left America to come back here?! It’s a question I get a lot.

Maen considers that staying in his current country of residence would be dreadful, as the future he envisions there embodies everything he has strived not to become. Palestine’s future seems much more appealing to him: a place where he can better know and recognize himself, surrounded by compatriots fighting collectively for liberation.

Rasha acknowledges that her situation may differ, but she admits that she would rather be in her homeland than in exile, even if it means being amidst struggle.

— The main reason for me to go back would simply be to be home, in a place that looks like me and smells like me.

Victoria Abaroa

Licenciada en Comunicación Social por la Universidad del Desarrollo (UDD - Chile), donde se desempeñó como ayudante de Periodismo Interpretativo. Cuenta con una especialización en Social Marketing de Northwestern University, y ha realizado múltiples cursos sobre comunicaciones en el campo de las artes visuales dictados por Node Center for Curatorial Studies (Berlín). Sus textos han sido publicados en Artishock y en la Revista Ya.

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