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Passport to Palestine

Laila Shawa: Stamp For a Lost Country

La Scatola Gallery, London

22 November 2011 until 3 December 2011

Our Other Sisters went along to ‘PASSPORT TO PALESTINE’, which was a group exhibition with artists Fawzy Emrany, Jane Frere, Hazem Harb, Khaled Jarrar, Yazan Khalili, Steve Sabella, Laila Shawa

Taking its title from the celebrated 1949 British film ‘Passport to Pimlico’, directed by Henry Cornelius, ‘Passport to Palestine’ aims, through a combination of painting, photography, installation, video and performance to tackle issues of Palestinian statehood, occupation, the restrictions and difficulties encountered in travelling both into and out of Palestine today.

The Artists

The artists, whether Palestinian or not, whether living in Palestine or elsewhere, all approach the topic in fiercely individual ways. Each has their own story to tell about the sense of loss, and lack of freedom Palestinians experience by having been born into a nationality which tellingly remains unrecognised as a state despite recent attempts to reverse this. So to hold a Palestinian passport is an irony of circumstance. Why? What for? Who? Ultimately, this leads to the very questioning of identity and what it means to be.

What is the colour of occupation?

We attended a panel discussion with the artists and also critics Malu Halasa and Christa Paula and it started off with discussing political versus aesthetic art – can they be separated? Laila Shawa explained her work is more “humanitarian than political” and in some senses she “shunned politics.” She said that many works of art “transcend politics” and hers is certainly of that category. Scottish artist Jane Frere, whose work “What is the Colour of Occupation?” was displayed at the exhibition said photographers and journalists need to be responsible for what they document in other countries and need to avoid painting people as “animals in cages”. She explained “we don’t want to objectify the people, we want to learn about them and represent them – they must not become our projects”.

The Occupied Territories

Jane described how after returning from the occupied Palestinian Territories and witnessing the so-called Segregation Wall tearing apart urban and rural communities in the West Bank, she found herself a lightning conductor for a storm of emotion on canvas. Working with oils and acrylics on canvas, and sometimes with pastels, the theme of her recent paintings has mirrored the intensity of the anguish and suffering that has been the lot of the many hundreds of Palestinians she has worked with.

The panel described how the artists of Palestine are rising to the occasion of the Arab Spring. Artists and actors are all activists trying to encourage social and political change through their work. However, they also emphasised that the revolution is ongoing and no one can expect it to be instantaneous. Westerners are immersed in a culture of fast paced social networking, quick changes, but here, this revolution needs time.

The real revolution

Someone in the audience raised the point that perhaps the revolution isn’t real yet – did World War II ever end? The real revolution is not the Arab Spring but will only arrive when capitalism is questioned.

We asked Laila if being a woman was a strong influence on her work. She explained that for her there is not a question of feminism in her work because she sees a complete equality in terms of gender and she doesn’t see gender equality as an issue as a Palestinian. She raised the point that the art scene in Cairo and Beirut is now dominated by young women and young men and there is a great crossover. In the 1980s there were lots of women artists and many of these young artists are children of liberal parents.

Jane ended the discussion explaining that with her work she wants to trigger an emotion as simple as “what an earth is that about?” From there, the thought process begins. She said “we don’t want to be forced into a context when trying to understand this art.”

A percentage of the profits from the sale of works will be donated to Medical Aid for Palestinians.

Jane Frere What is the Colour of Occupation?


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