Yahya Zaloom, “NAKBA75” (2023) (courtesy the artist)

Nakba is the Arabic word for “the catastrophe.” Approximately three-quarters of all Palestinians were violently displaced from their homes in 1948 following the creation of the State of Israel. Seventy-five years later, can artists effectively engage the public to better understand the ongoing impact of the Nakba? While mainstream museums tiptoe around the topic — despite often owning vast collections of art from the region — a small London-based gallery is bringing lived experiences of the Nakba to the surface.

Last week, P21 Gallery opened Mathematics of the Palestinian Nakba75, a thought-provoking exhibition featuring video works, prints, and photography that depict a stark timeline of numeric facts and figures. As a museum professional, I popped into the opening, curious about what this exhibition theme could mean in the wider context of arts activism and freedom of expression.

P21 Gallery promotes contemporary Arab art and culture through its varied programs and free exhibitions that range from Arabic Pop Art to new perspectives on traditional crafts. The space operates independently as a charitable trust, with a translucent building façade that looks inconspicuous, yet its prime location in the heart of Euston attracts a diversity of culture vultures and keen students from neighboring universities. Ironically, it’s located just down the road from the British Library, whose archives house the original Balfour Declaration penned by ex-British Prime Minister Arthur James Balfour. As underscored in the exhibition, Balfour’s Zionist dream “became a nightmare for the Palestinian people.”

Balfour Declaration (1917), 67 words that sealed the fate of Palestine (via Wikimedia Commons)

Nakba75 touches on how key cultural organizations were, and still are, entangled in historical and contemporary geopolitics. “On the eve of the Sabbath May 14, 1948, 37 Zionist leaders from all over the world gathered at the Tel Aviv Museum on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv to sign a ‘Declaration of Independence’ for a state without defined borders, without a Constitution and without legitimacy,” notes an introductory panel.

Antoine Raffoul, the lead curator of the exhibition who is now based in Italy, has lived a nomadic life as an architect and conservationist after being forcibly expelled from Palestine as a child in 1948.

“It’s a tongue-in-cheek exhibition that plays with real factual numbers so that people see it from a new angle and remember it better,” Raffoul said of the show. His family’s compelling biography is documented through a montage of archival ephemera in a dedicated section of the Nakba75 exhibition.

Photographic documentation of depopulated Palestinian villages by Ahmad Al-Bazz (2021–2023) (courtesy the artist)

During our impromptu video call just before the exhibition opening, Raffoul emphasized that conflict can only be resolved through investigative practice. “As an architect, I always said you don’t cover a crack in a wall, you open it, you find out why it existed. You find the root causes of it and then you remedy the issue.”

Raffoul collaborated with P21 Gallery’s artistic director, Yahya Zaloom, to draw together a thoughtful selection of previous work by award-winning artists alongside new installations commissioned to spark awareness and dialogue. 

The exhibition features experimental modes of artistic interpretation. One work, 418 (2023) by Yahya Zaloom, is a color-coded series of 14 digital prints which geometrically represent the dispersed Arabic letters of 14 districts as an ode to 418 localities that were systematically depopulated and destroyed by Zionist paramilitaries.  

Showcased highlights include two captivating films by Gil Mualem-Doron, a British-based ex-Israeli now dedicated to fostering his socially engaged art practice.  His ethereal short film “Rosetta” (2013) captures the lost intergenerational legacy of destroyed Palestinian homes in the village of Al-Rasid (Rosetta, in English), the liminal place neighboring the banks of the Egyptian Nile in which the Rosetta Stone was discovered. He reveals that the only structure left was renovated and turned into Biet-Gidi — a museum that celebrates the occupation of the area by the Israeli’s Etzel forces in 1948. 

Gil Mualem-Doron, “Present Absentees” (2019) (courtesy the artist)

Equally poignant, “Present Absentees” (2019) powerfully depicts the issue of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Israel who fled or were expelled from their homes in Mandatory Palestine by Jewish or Israeli forces, before and during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, but who remained within the area that became the State of Israel. They are regarded as absent by the Israeli government because they weren’t in their homes on a particular day, even if unintentionally or involuntarily. IDP’s homes, property, and lands were seized by the Israeli state. 

An atmospheric soundscape from a cinematic film permeates the gallery. “Naim and Wadee’a” (1999) directed by Najwa Najjar skilfully weaves together vintage photography and family oral histories that reveal their vivacious lives before the Nakba.

Najwa Najjar on set (courtesy the artist)

The exhibition preludes with an eye-witness encounter documented by Mario Rizzi, an Italian filmmaker based in Berlin. “Impermanent” (2007) features Ali Akilah, a 96-year-old who poetically recollects his life as a doctor in the Palestinian village of Lifta until becoming a refugee in 1948.

It’s heartening to see accessible venues like the P21 Gallery offering visitors a safe space to reflect. Its very existence is a powerful act of resistance that urges us to think more deeply about questions like “why now?” and “what’s next?” for artists seeking to commentate on past, present, and future narratives about Palestine. 

It’s a tough aspiration for one exhibition to transform the museum paradigm, but it’s a step towards a growing movement for museums to be more socially engaged, truthful, and relevant by co-producing programs with communities.

NAKBA75 exhibition opening at P21 Gallery (photo Yasmin Khan/Hyperallergic)

I left the gallery pondering why the rest of the UK’s museum sector has largely been silent on tackling this pressing issue more overtly in their programs, especially when there is strong public demand. Is it a fear of backlash or loss of status that might threaten livelihoods? More likely, inertia stems from stifling mandates by stuffy boards and stale directors who are risk-averse.

But intellectuals such as Nur Masalha are optimistic that the tide is changing. “I think we do have civic society on our side. We have human rights organizations on our side. And we have the unions on our side,” Musalha said during his speech at the exhibition opening, harnessing his role as a Palestinian historian and academic at SOAS who wrote the critically acclaimed Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History (2019).

Imagine what exhibitions that commemorate Nakba100 might look like in 2048. Will anything change by then? Will the world have moved on? Will artists still care?

The enduring challenge remains for creatives to bring Palestinian narratives from the margin to the core. The wider museum sector urgently needs to wake up and step up.

Yasmin Khan is an independent curator based in the UK. She is the Founder of Covalent Creatives, which co-produces events, exhibitions, and interdisciplinary...

Join the Conversation


  1. ’75 Years After the Palestinian Nakba’ is a shockingly anti-Semitic article with no acknowledgment nor regard for the reason the State of Israel was formed. After the heinous murder of over six million Jews and unspeakable atrocities committed by the Nazi war machine, the United Nations, legally and in accordance with the majority of nations agreeing, permitted the Jewish people to return to their homeland. Since that time, Israel turned a barren desert into a prosperous nation while fending off constant attacks by neighboring countries who refuse to acknowledge her existence. The slant of this article, attempting to portray Zionism as militaristic and focusing on displacing and harming Palestinians is blantantly untrue and typical of the trope-like rhetoric that fuels anti-Semitism. Accordingly, this article is highly inappropriate.

  2. Your comment ignores or overlooks the fact that the adoption of the Balfour decision itself, was the anti-Semitic work-around for the possibility of the “winners” of WWII having to accept Jewish refugees. Europeans, the UK and US didn’t want more Jews in their countries. “Giving” them Palestine was the final solution. Jewish Currents editor Peter Beinart has said that actually visiting the West Bank and Jerusalem changed his opinion about the plight of the Palestinian people and his acceptance of the Zionist narrative. I am also Jewish and my visit to Israel/Palestine and Gaza opened my eyes to the suffering and oppression of the Palestinian people under Israeli apartheid.

  3. With all due respect, while you may refer to yourself as ‘Jewish’, your comments indicate more of anti-Semitic point of view. The background and intent of the Balfour Agreement is too complex to discuss here. However, I will remind you that the ‘final solution’, as you note, was to exterminate the Jews, not create a Jewish state. Either you support the plight of the Jewish people and the state of Israel as the Jewish homeland and disavow antisemitism anywhere and everywhere or you do not.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *