Taysir Batniji’s portraits of his cousins, their extended families, and even neighbors, in their new homes in the United States, develops a visual record and theme of contrasting experiences of life in the diaspora. While in his previous work, Palestinian French artist Batniji has used photography as a departure point to build politically oriented installations, Home Away from Home depicts personal life experiences in a foreign place. The seemingly comfortable lifestyle of a family member with a large villa and swimming pool is contrasted with images of a cousin who runs a bodega in a marginalized neighborhood. Regardless of class divide, an interesting constant runs through the images. Each cousin has chosen to live in a climate that resembles home, that feels like Gaza: warm, dry, and close to the sea. The shared look of these landscapes, expanding into the horizon, suggests that they are still in Palestine, gazing over the hills of occupied land, decorated with planned Israeli settlements.
This exhibition is accompanied by a book sharing the same title. Mainly composed of photographs, which Batniji took while visiting the United States, the book also includes interviews and watercolors, together imagining an aesthetic for describing the concept of diaspora. “Drawn by the American dream? Or pure chance and whim? I met them [my cousins] all before, briefly. When I was a child, they often came to spend the summer in Gaza, and once or twice they travelled through France,” Batniji explains. “Exile, displacement, and mobility are themes that have driven my work for many years. For this reason, I decided to focus on my cousins Kamal, Khadra, Sobhi, Ahmed, Samir, and Akram, and their American experience.”
The first impression gathered from Batniji’s work is that you are wandering into the private spaces of strangers. A neatly folded nightgown on a freshly made bed, a jacket left hanging behind a chair, or a half finished cup of tea; all refer to the daily routines of people we have never met. The images are not restricted to the domestic.
Visual references nod to life outside the home. Some of these images are unsettling, such as a handgun stored behind the counter of a grocery store in a troubled neighborhood.
Bantiji states, “I wanted to explore their desire to be where they are, and their desire to remain connected or return to their origins.” The dilemma of wishing to be in more than one place at a time is evident throughout this work. Photographs of old letters, invalid passports, certificates of education, and family albums, describe a course of migration, a life between places that has yet to end.
“Once I finished my travels in the United States,” writes Batniji, “I felt that I wanted to turn again toward Gaza, where everything had begun. I wanted to see what was left of our memories—my cousins’, as well as my own—and assess the current situation.” Since he could not travel himself, he asks a cousin, Rehaf, to photograph his childhood home. These pictures are included in the gallery and they are equally captivating. They show a home that Batniji and his cousins grew up in. Their houses were adjoined. Batniji says that he cannot remember if the courtyards had doors at all. And if there were doors, they must have been kept open at all times, because everyone came and went as they pleased. Today, “the house appears to be in a state of further deterioration” writes Batniji, “Family photos that once hung on the walls have disappeared and been replaced by the Quranic verse: ‘In the name of God the Merciful.’”
Despite strictly focusing on a handful of Gazan experiences, Home Away From Home examines the diaspora without confining itself to a particular Palestinian discourse. More than anything, it depicts how people construct familiar spaces for themselves within distant landscapes.
Tajbit Batniji’s Home Away From Home is on view at the Aperture Gallery and Bookstore until May 10. Both the exhibition and the book were made possible by a program of the French American Photography Commission. It is also launched by the Fondation d’entreprise Hermès and Aperture Foundation.