Identity has often been a topic for discussion amongst artists of Palestinian origin since the establishment of Israel and the long and complex political history that has followed in its aftermath. The likes of late poet Mahmoud Darwish whose exile inevitably lead to writings on identity within the context of his displacement and contemporary musician Shadia Mansour who although British born, tells the stories of generations of immigrant Palestinians through her lyrics, are just two examples of Palestinian creators of culture who contemplate notions of identity in their work and the exhibition Suspended Accounts is a visual demonstration of the continuous desire to return to the theme of identity and connect to a Palestinian heritage and homeland.
“…a retrospective understanding of the use of archive within contemporary art…as a tool for creating history.” – Viviana Checchia
Walking into the exhibition one is initially faced with the bold and brightly coloured paintings by Bashar Khalaf. Three selected oil on canvas works from the series A Shadow of the Shadow hang alongside smaller paintings by established Palestinian artist Sliman Mansour. One of Mansour’s images is of city rooftops in aerial perspective. Khalaf shows the same architecture in his reproduction, but his canvas his halved by a white wall in the foreground, the Israeli West Bank barrier, perhaps. In the new version, security cameras face downward to monitor the city and the viewer is forced to imagine oneself in the scene, to experience the change of content and remember the city as it was before; a poignant reminder of the identity of Palestine’s past and a warning of its fragile future.
By presenting Mansour’s work alongside his own, the artist brings the former’s work and legacy back to life, reminding us of Mansour’s visual realisation of the concept of ‘Sumud’, a sense that one must stay rooted and connected to Palestine as a crucial part of preserving one’s identity.
The iconic Palestinian artist, Sliman Mansour also features in the work of Noor Abuarafeh, in her video installation Observational Desire on a Memory that Remains. After discovering a realistically painted image of a group of Palestinian artists, taken from a photograph at an exhibition in 1985, Abuarafeh goes on a journey of ‘Imagination’ to discover and translate undocumented archives, as well as imagined works to present an almost unknown Palestinian art history.
Abuarafeh initially wanted to recreate the old image with the artists as they are now but found that they were either unavailable or had passed away. In the video the viewer is asked “When the dreamer dies, what happens to the dream?” The narrator who addresses the viewer died ten years prior to the 2014 showing of Suspended Accounts, but through this video Abuarafeh gives a new voice to this little known artist. She brings Sager Alqatel back to life, using his identity to tell his story, despite the fact that very few archives about him exist. Alqatel recalls a time when a journalist of the period described the artist’s appearance in a review, but failed to discuss his artwork. Similarly, when Abuarafeh studied at the Israeli, Bezalel Academy, she found that her art was being read and filtered solely through her Palestinian identity, so she began creating other identities to attribute her work to. By dismantling perceived notions of identity, viewers are challenged to question and look beyond known histories.
Artist Iman Al Sayed also uses archives to connect to Palestine. Unable to physically be in the country, she uses her father’s archives and accounts as a way of doing so remotely. The artist’s background in Museology and a Sophie Calle inspired need “To recreate, retell, repeat, recollect, record, research, reincarnate and re-exist” has lead to Re-repeat; a collection of sketches, notes and photographs displayed as though they were a pin board of personal archives collated over time. Accompanied by a voice recording of the artist nostalgically retelling her father’s stories as though they were her own, she transforms them into her own memories and therefore her own identity. In Becoming Arab in London: Performativity and the Undoing of Identity, Ramy M.K.Aly considers the practices amongst second generation immigrants from the Middle-East to utilise performance and the corporeal to signify and identify with a heritage they only experience indirectly.
Suspended Accounts tell “us about chapters in the history of Palestine that we are not aware of.” Scattered across the globe and often displaced, these young artists have uncovered, researched and exposed the archives, history and heritage of Palestine, a culture which is often overshadowed by news and media coverage which focuses on the violent and political disputes of the region. By immersing themselves in the past to retell forgotten stories and preserve memories, the artists reconnect with their own Palestinian origins and identity to create a narrative history that is their own.