Mary Tuma, “Lingering Presence” (2014), Handmade paper, maps, commercial clothing patterns, stitching, 13 x 11.5 x .25 in. (Courtesy of the artist)

When San Francisco-based curator and educator Dr. Kathy Zarur was approached by Hilary Rand, program facilitator of the suggestively titled nonprofit Institute Of advanced Uncertainty, Zarur was intrigued. Rand’s proposition presented an opportunity for Zarur to achieve a long-sought goal: curating a group exhibition of contemporary Palestinian art that addresses landscape. Preoccupations: Palestinian Landscapes is that goal beautifully realized.

“Landscape” is, in equal parts, a complicated psychological and geographic construct. Its American origin story, for example, is heavily influenced by the ideological notion that the land (and the indigenous populations who live on it) must be civilized (subjugated and exploited) by their (white) cultural superiors. Visual art — first painting, and then photography — was a powerful tool as the European colonial agenda to “settle” the North American continent was executed. For those who face colonization or expulsion, landscape is an equally potent idea. It represents a heady mix of self, family, home, community, and a sense of belonging in the world, none of which will be surrendered. 

Since 1948, a dispute over land now occupied by Israel has been one of the entrenched geopolitical conflicts on the planet. Palestinians who were driven from their homes constitute one of the world’s long-standing refugee populations, and the fight to retain the few state-granted rights and land that is left to them is ongoing. Resolution of this profoundly complex question has bedeviled multiple generations on both sides. With that in mind, Zarur’s choice of Preoccupations as the exhibition title is more than fitting.

C. Gazaleh, “Flight Over Jerusalem” (2015), Ink on paper, 11 x 14 in. (Courtesy of the artist)

In the work of C. Gazaleh and Suhad Khatib, Palestine is an embodied experience. Best known as a muralist, Gazaleh’s densely-packed drawings incorporate Arabic calligraphy and graffiti. Somber faces of beautiful women and handsome men that are embedded in the graphic tangle stare back at the viewer. It is as if the figures are one with the text, which could be a poem, or political analysis, or a love letter that was written but never sent. The text threatens to overwhelm the figures, much as political rhetoric — viability of a two-state solution, the right of refugee return, East Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital city — exhausts those who live it day to day. In “Flight Over Jerusalem” (2015), the female figure floats above and away from the Jerusalem skyline, free to inhabit a world without oppression. 

Suhad Khatib, “The Return” (2019), Ink on paper, 22 x 28 in., framed (Courtesy of the artist)

Suhad Khatib’s ink paintings likewise evoke fantasy and dream, treating landscape as an extension of self. In “The Return” (2019), a woman’s portrait is heavy with meaningful, life-affirming symbols — birds in flight, flowers, and a multi-pointed architectural detail often associated with Middle Eastern domestic spaces. In the lower right corner, small figures bearing heavy packs reference powerful photographs of Palestinians who were expelled by incipient Israeli forces beginning in 1948. Khatib’s luminous figure could represent the generations of Palestinians born after the Nakba, who persevere despite generational trauma and work for the right of return.

Najib Joe Hakim, “Horizons (Jerusalem)” (1978-79), Digital inkjet print, 72 x 16 in. (Courtesy of the artist)

Najib Joe Hakim, “Arab Bus” (1978-79), Digital inkjet print, 72 x 16 in. (Courtesy of the artist)

Photographs by Najib Joe Hakim and Yazan Khalili evoke landscape directly. Hakim, a San Francisco resident, produced “Palestine Diary” in the late 1970s while studying at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. The triptychs “Arab Bus” and “Horizon” (1978-79) capture what look like mundane urban scenes, but they do not convey the harassment and restricted movement Palestinians face day-to-day. “Unsettled” (1978-79) conveys, in four photographs, the rhythms of bedouin life set against settlement incursion. At a glance, a paved road cutting across the hillside may not arouse suspicion, but it is an indicator that Israeli settlements will soon be erected on Palestinian land. Hakim invites us to witness what is blissfully ordinary about Palestinian life and prompts us to recognize how and by whom it is endangered.

Yazan Khalili 30′ | f5.6 (from Landscape of Darkness series), 2010 Digital inkjet print 36 x 24 in. (Courtesy of the artist and Transit Gallery)

Yazan Khalili 2.5′ | f9 (from Landscape of Darkness series), 2010 Digital inkjet print 36 x 24 in. (Courtesy of the artist and Transit Gallery)

In 2010, Yazan Khalili produced “Landscape of Darkness,” a series that recalls his clandestine journey from Birzeit to Yaffa in Israel in 2002. In darkness, Khalili recognizes a physical and metaphorical landscape that is unknowable. “Landscape of Darkness” punctuates that unknown as it portrays light cast over Israeli settlements, but not adjacent Palestinian villages. Where one population enjoys resources such as clean water, continuous electricity, and the relative safety of well-lit streets, the other, by punitive design, does not. Notably absent from Khalili’s starkly beautiful compositions is the twenty-one-foot tall cement barrier that separates Palestinians living in the West Bank from family and communities living beyond it. The apartheid wall, often called such for the cultural and ethnic divisions it enforces, is the most notable landmark in a region steeped in ancient history. Khalili’s refusal to photograph it is an act of defiance.

Preoccupations is one of six exhibitions, all addressing landscape, staged by the Institute Of advanced Uncertainty at Minnesota Street Project. Though the Institute Of advanced Uncertainty — described by Rand as “showcasing trajectories of the creative process” — is mission-driven to celebrate work in progress, the objects and ideas that comprise Preoccupations are far from incomplete. Zarur marshals seven artists’ passionate interpretations of Palestine, be it a lived or imagined experience. The invitation to explore that territory is ours for the taking.

Zeina Barakeh, Detail from the series Holy Land (2019), Archival inkjet print, 50 x 24 in. (Courtesy of the artist)

Manar Harb, “1 – ن (Nūn – 1)” (from the Nūn series) (2016), Oil and ink on canvas, 24 x 36 in. (Courtesy of the artist)

Preoccupations: Palestinian Landscapes is on view at Minnesota Street Project (1275 Minnesota St, San Francisco, CA), through August 24, 2019. The exhibition was curated by Dr. Kathy Zarur.

Roula Seikaly is a writer and curator based in Berkeley, and Senior Editor at Humble Arts Foundation. Her work can be found on platforms including Aperture, Photograph, BOMB, and KQED Arts.

13 replies on “The Relationship Between Landscape and Home for Palestinian Artists”

  1. Propaganda in art is an interesting subject. Maybe we should also talk about the Arab Muslim conquest starting in the 7th century as colonial expansion extending from Arabia to Spain on the one side and indonesia on the other to avoid the racist conotations. The Romans exiled Jews during the time of Pompii, in the year 70 and after the Bar Kochva revolt. Who really occupies the space is an interesting topic, but one sided accusations get us nowhere. The real issue in reality is the terrorism against Israel and the one sided propaganda that accompanies it.

    1. The real issue is hypocritical Jewish and Christian evangelical apologists for the racism of Zionism and the entitlement of theft, lies, and murder that accompany it. Not many are buying that song anymore. And deflecting an argument isn’t the same as winning it.

        1. Ah, the entitlement of supporters of Israel that whines whenever their fraud is exposed never ceases to amaze; anything that challenges Israeli deceit is “propaganda war and terrorism.” I guess Israel bombing Palestinian civilians to “protect” themselves from “terrorism” doesn’t count because the victims aren’t Jewish. Or Amnesty International repeatedly citing Israel for torture. Or Israel’s constant violation of the Geneva Convention. And on and on. One need only read unbiased sources, often written by non-Zionist Jews (self-hating, no doubt). When people are defined by their race, religion, and ethnic background, as they are repeatedly by the Israeli government, racism and ethnic bigotry determine which people are allowed to be treated as human beings, and which are relegated to less-than-human status. Covering up the truth because of choosing to identify with one particular label is pretty pathetic.

          1. The deceit is from the not so Wow propaganda post. No evidence just hatred for the great country of Israel.

    2. Nonsense! Your ‘founder never ever made such caims “…the [Palestinian] fellahin are not descendants of the Arab conquerors, who captured Palestine and Syria in the seventh century ce. The Arab victors did not destroy the agricultural population they found in the country. They expelled only the alien Byzantine rulers, and did not touch the local population. Nor did the Arabs go on for settlement. Even in their former habitations, the Arabians did not engage in farming…they did not seek new lands on which to settle their peasantry, which hardly existed. Their whole interest in the new countries was political, religious and material; to rule, to propagate Islam and to collect taxes.” – “Eretz Yisrael”* by David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, pg 196 (1918).
      Yiddish/Hebrew text always rendered “Palestine” as “Eretz Yisrael”

      1. No the fellehin are recent immigrants to the land and have no evidence proving otherwise. Their weapons are terrorism and propaganda.

        1. I am impressed by the broken record “terrorism and propaganda” repeated in answer to every comment that doesn’t goosestep to support Israel’s behavior. Is this real or merely a knee-jerk response when racist nationalism is threatened? Come to think of it, the real masters of terrorism (what else do you call the last invasion of Gaza) and propaganda (AIPAC and its cronies) are rather easy to identify. As was said earlier: no one’s buying that song anymore.

          1. Yasser Arafat admitted that their goal was the destruction of Israel. That is his words when he told the truth before General Jiap and the Soviets encouraged the use of propaganda. Aipac tells the truth. The reality is clear.

          2. False accusing Israel of what the PA and Hamas are guilty of does not change the reality. You provide no evidence for your false propaganda because you have none. Far from a wow, more like a dud.

      2. All propaganda. The Arabs were defeated by the crusaders. The Arabs who occupy the homeland of the Jewish people today have no connection to them.

    1. The Jews have returned to their ancient homeland so the refugees have been returned. Still waiting for the Al Masri clan to return to Egypt and end their occupation of the land of Israel however.

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