RAMALLAH — “For everyone it was very strange to see my grandmother in the newspaper!” says Inas Halabi, laughing and taking a moment to reflect on family life since winning the AM Qattan Foundation’s Young Artist of the Year Award. In the opening scene of Halabi’s video work “Mnemosyne” (2016), her grandmother sits on a cream-colored couch and directly addresses the camera, calmly and succinctly telling the story of the scar that marked her husband’s forehead.
“Mnemosyne” took the top prize in the 2016 edition of the YAYA, as it is affectionately known, which called on Palestinian artists under 30 to submit works related to the theme of “pattern recognition.” Halabi, who is based in Jerusalem and often works with archival and found imagery, filmed members of her mother’s extended family in her grandparents’ village of I’Billin. Each of them was asked to explain the scar on her grandfather’s forehead.
Halabi knew the basics — her grandfather had been grazed by the bullet of an Israeli soldier around the time of the Nakba, in 1948. But the story begins to shift and stretch as each family member tells their own version, rotating in and out of the same set: the couch outside her grandfather’s old farming barracks.
The YAYA exhibition was held in October in Ramallah’s Dar al Sa’a, where viewers could sit on the same couch as Halabi’s family members and ponder the complexities of history and memory by way of this single story. With the work now traveling to London, Halabi and I sat down in a busy Ramallah café to discuss family folklore, memory gaps, and how she is trying to tell Palestinian stories in new ways.
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Mary Pelletier: What initially drew you to the story of your grandfather’s scar?
Inas Halabi: The first time I heard the story was about six years ago, from my mom. My grandfather passed away about four years ago, and the thing was that I never heard the story from him, and I never actually saw the scar — it was very subtle. When I first heard the story, I wasn’t thinking I could make a piece from it, but in my mind, I kept going back to it.
MP: What sparked the decision to explore the story through all of these different family members?
IH: I was looking through the description of the YAYA open call, and it was all about pattern recognition and rhythm. So the thought that came to my mind was the Chinese whispers game, or the telephone game, as we call it in Arabic, where one word is said to a person and passed on to another person, either changing or remaining the same. In my work, I’m very interested in storytelling and narratives related to personal and collective memory. I’m also interested in power structures and the relationship between memory, history, and myths. The three are never transferred identically and always undergo some kind of metamorphosis. All of these things are in there, in “Mnemosyne,” but this time it involved my family.
MP: You’ve worked with video many times before, but often with archival footage. Here, 9 or 10 family members are telling their versions of the same story — to me, it seems like they are your own family archive. How was preparing for this work different for you?
IH: In the rest of my work, the process is very different — the starting point is generally a historical event or a certain individual I am interested in exploring, and the process involves a lot of archival research and collecting. These stories are generally related to Palestine or to the Arab world. I would describe them as forgotten or hidden histories. “Mnemosyne” is very different, both in its structure and its process, because I’ve never involved my family directly in this way before. I filmed 17 family members, including myself and cousins. I knew a lot of things were out of my hands, so the things I tried to control were the space, the location, and the framing of the filming. I also asked each family member to drink from the glass of water once they were finished telling their story. In each frame there was the couch, a glass of water on the floor, and the three questions: “What do you know about the scar on my grandfather’s body?” “Where was the scar exactly?” And I would ask if they could point to it. The third question was, “Who told you? How do you know about this story?” It was very important to me that I asked these questions only when we reached the location and right before I started filming. I didn’t want it to turn into a sort of interview or documentary.
MP: In the work, we see your family members answering these questions in slightly different ways, with distinct details and gestures. What have you learned from this process about storytelling? Has it informed the way you will go on to tell stories, as an artist?
IH: I feel, as an artist, it’s very subjective from my end. I’m the one who’s making the decisions, what language and words to use and what visuals will go along with that. The stories in “Mnemosyne” weren’t my stories, and during the process of making the work, both my family members and myself were somehow forced to take on the role of historian. From the start I was interested in how that would play out, when the source of the scar’s story, my grandfather, is no longer present. Storytelling includes a lot of repetition, issues of metamorphosis, of things shifting and becoming something else. With the editing, there were parts of the stories I did not include — that’s part of the decision-making power that I have as an artist over the work.
MP: The title of the piece, “Mnemosyne,” refers to the Titan goddess of memory, and it seems your family members show how elastic memory can be, how stories evolve.
IH: I feel like the story became longer and more complex, and at the same time, while some gaps were filled, a lot of gaps were created. I could have explored this with another story, but I was specifically interested in this story because the scar is another kind of memory — a physical one that is literally embodied. I’m interested in how that sort of physical memory is possible as well. I think what happened around the scar — it’s a personal history, but it’s also a collective history. And that’s what really matters. The same thing was happening to other people at the same time.
MP: Speaking of collective memory, do you see this work as relating to a larger Palestinian narrative?
IH: Definitely. It’s a personal family story, but it’s directly related to the narrative of what happened in 1948, with the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, because the scar happened at that time. In terms of the visuals, I didn’t want to have olive trees or the typical landscape that would go along with this kind of Palestinian narrative. I didn’t want to romanticize it. Also in terms of the Nakba, a lot of these stories have been perhaps told too much in the same way, where we aren’t able to process them anymore.
MP: As part of the Young Artist of the Year Award, the work is travelling to London. How will it change for you when it is shown outside of Palestine?
IH: I wanted to bring an object from the video, to place the viewer physically on the same couch or in the same space as the person sitting in the frame. This was how “Mnemosyne” was installed in Palestine during YAYA 2016 — the couch was brought over from the north of Palestine, to Jerusalem and then to Ramallah. Unfortunately, the couch won’t be reaching London for logistical issues, which changes the work for me. But these changes are OK. There are going to be new pieces that I will show in London as part of “Mnemosyne,” embroidered works on paper of family members and other visuals which I think will activate the space and the video in a different way.
Inas Halabi’s “Mnemosyne” will on view in Pattern Recognition, the AM Qattan Foundation’s Young Artist of the Year Award 2016 exhibition at the Mosaic Rooms (Tower House, 226 Cromwell Road, London) from January 20 to March 18, 2017.