Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 17th June 2018

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London show offers playful look at Palestinian art and politics

Samah Hijawi explores the concept of returning to the homeland in representations of the Palestinian territories in the 1960s and 1970s.

Cutting through history. A collage created during Samah Hijawi’s presentation in London’s Mosaic Rooms. (Karen Dabrowska)

Cutting through history. A collage created during Samah Hijawi’s presentation in London’s Mosaic Rooms. (Karen Dabrowska)

LONDON - Is it theatre? Is it a lecture? Is it art created in front of a spell-bound audience? These questions inevitably come to mind when watching Samah Hijawi’s lecture coupled with performances.

The artist and researcher works across different media and explores the concept of returning to the homeland in representations of the Palestinian territories in the 1960s and 1970s when the Palestine Liberation Organisation militarily attacked Israel.

In London’s Mosaic Rooms, Hijawi began her presentation by asking the audience to visualise the room in the foreign office where the Balfour Declaration was drafted in 1917.

“In coming to London to make this presentation, I thought I should acknowledge a promise that was made just a short bus ride from here,” Hijawi said. “In Arabic we call it ‘al wad’ but, in fact, it was a letter that took two years to draft though it has only 67 words. (British Prime Minister) Theresa May recently noted that it was quite unusual for the British government to make such a short statement.”

Hijawi gave a rhetorical performance of Arthur Balfour reading the letter before he signed it: “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

Hijawi asked what Balfour was thinking or visualising of Palestine as he was signing the letter. She described her parents’ home in Nablus focusing on the dining room with paintings of her grandparents on the walls. Some have been reproduced in the books Hijawi had at the presentation. She opened one of the books, tore out a page, cut out an image and began her collage by placing the first cutout on a table in front of her. The cutting was projected onto a screen.

Hijawi described her grandmother’s life as an artist; she studied in Italy and exhibited in London before returning to Palestine. Her grandparents were politically active resisting the British colonisation of Palestine and later the Zionist-Israeli project.

Hijawi spoke like a lecturer and used cutouts from books to illustrate her words and make a collage. From time to time she assumed the character of the people she was speaking about and turned into an actress.

Hijawi said that artists working after the second world war felt if they were not working for the (Palestinian) cause they were considered cowards. “They were producing their work with a desire and an intention of returning to the homeland through the painting. There was a real conviction that this work would bring back the land of Palestine,” she said.

“The ‘60s revolutionary movements were romanticised throughout the world visually and embodied in black-and-white photographs of young men and women from the East and West. There were artists with a Kalashnikov in one hand and a paint brush in the other, depicting their images of resistance.”

Hijawi said her show “is actually looking at what has remained of the glorious resistance movements in the artistic productions of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. I am trying to look at the images that were being produced and what they mean in terms of legacy today.

“I love cutting through history books. This action is critiquing history,” she said, asking if there is no agreement over historical accounts of what happened in Palestine, “then what are we going to do with this?”

“The collaging is very important and essential in my practice because I am saying let us rearrange the image and the story.”

She remarked that, in Palestine, audiences were upset she was cutting through the pages of history books. “The history of Palestine is idealised and this stops us from moving forward as Palestinians,” she said. “I want to ask what are we going to do with this inherited past? It has gotten us nowhere. We can choose to do whatever we want essentially.”

Hijawi said adamant artists should not embark on an awareness raising mission. “That is more a politicians’ work. I am worried about that kind of stance particularly for Arab artists because then they end up being ambassadors and spokespeople. That is not their job,” she said.

Hijawi’s works have been shown in the Hayward Gallery in London, the Beursschouwburg in Brussels, Apexart New York and Darat al Funun in Amman. She has collaborated with Shuruq Harb and Toleen Touq on the curatorial platform “The River Has Two Banks” initiated to address the growing distance between Jordan and the Palestinian territories.