Art

Making Art from Life in Palestine

Installation view, 'Rehab Nazzal: Visible' at the Art Gallery of Mississaugua, with "Frames from Gaza" at left and "Bil'in" (2010) in back right (image courtesy Art Gallery of Mississaugua)
Installation view, ‘Rehab Nazzal: Visible’ at the Art Gallery of Mississaugua, with “Frames from Gaza” at left and “Bil’in” (2010) in back right (image courtesy Art Gallery of Mississaugua)

MISSISSAUGA, Ontario — Rehab Nazzal’s exhibition Visible, curated by Stuart Keeler at the Art Gallery of Mississauga (AGM), had me sitting and crying for hours. The solo exhibition by the Palestinian-born Canadian artist features three pieces that uncover and highlight narratives of the Palestinian people under occupation that rarely trickle into the mainstream — to the extent that their showing earlier this year in a related exhibition at Ottawa City Hall sparked a mini diplomatic crisis. Nazzal engages the audience through several mediums including still imagery, immersive sound installation, and video.

As visitors enter the AGM, they nearly run into a wall covered in 1,500 photographs of Gaza from summer of 2014, collectively titled “Frames From Gaza.” From afar, the pictures coalesce in an overwhelming mosaic, colorful squares interlaced with scenes of devastation and despair. Walking closer it becomes evident that each small photo is worth contemplating on its own. The images evoke a spectrum of feelings: sadness, anger, hope, awe, disbelief, anguish, solidarity. All of them were sourced from social media, personal emails, and other parts of the internet, with Nazzal reimagining tragedy to home in on the collateral damage of war that we rarely see firsthand. This damage goes beyond the physical destruction of infrastructure and landscapes; it is the oppressed people lurking on the margins of news reports, numbers, and commentary.

Rehab Nazzal, "Frames from Gaza" (detail), 1,500 photographs, 15.24 x 15.24 cm each (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Rehab Nazzal, “Frames from Gaza” (detail), 1,500 photographs, 15.24 x 15.24 cm each (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Nazzal’s digital video “Bil’in” (2010) plays on an opposing wall. It features a recording of a protest in 2010 in the West Bank village of Bil’in; residents have organized weekly protests there since 2005. The screen shows a blurred stream of white with repeating flashes of red — a simulation of being teargased and shot at during a protest. The sounds of bombs and gunshots echo throughout the gallery, making for a chillingly immersive experience.

A separate room holds the riveting video “Military Exercise in the Negev Prison” (2012–14). The work consists of an audio recording of a 2007 Israeli military exercise in which Palestinian prisoner Muhammad Ashqar was killed, along with bold white translations of the dialogue streaming across a black screen. Without any visuals, we hear (and read) the guards ordering prisoners and intimidating them; we hear the news that a prisoner has been shot in the head, followed by orders to take photos of him. There’s something eerie about the lack of visuals that makes us fixate on the anesthetized nature of the dialogue. The dark room envelops us and seems to places us in the prison, but with the benefit of leaving the space unscathed, hyperaware of the safety and stability of life in North America.

Rehab Nazzal, "Frames from Gaza" (detail), 1,500 photographs, 15.24 x 15.24 cm each (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)
Rehab Nazzal, “Frames from Gaza” (detail), 1,500 photographs, 15.24 x 15.24 cm each (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Oddly, the gallery has included in the exhibition a tablet with a collection of video news clips about Gaza under the title “How Do We See Gaza?” The wall text states that the “project was not created” by the artist but “is offered to provide a context within which to engage her work.” It seems conceivable that the gallery included the clips due to the prior controversy over Nazzal’s work, and they do offer a more complicated and nuanced perception on Palestinian personhood. But the inclusion also seems odd and unfair; why does this specific artist, her narrative and identity, need “context” more than any other?

That decision may speak to the need for exhibitions like Visible and artwork like Nazzal’s even more — work that ponders the stories that the media does and doesn’t tell us, as well as the lives ravaged by conflict. Nazzal offers intimate glimpses of Gaza, the Negev Prison, and the West Bank village of Bil’in, all of them adding up to ask the question posed by Keeler in the exhibition’s brochure: what about the aftermath?

Rehab Nazzal: Visible continues at the Art Gallery of Mississaugua (300 City Centre Drive, Mississaugua, Ontario) through January 1.

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