Visualizing a National Narrative: Art, Resistance, and the Consciousness of Exile


Video and Edited Transcript
Ikram Lakhdhar & Manal Deeb
Transcript No. 387 (31 July 2013)




31 July 2013
The Palestine Center
Washington, DC


Manal Deeb:
Hello everyone. Thank you, Jerusalem Fund, for inviting me to share my experience with you today. I’m honored and pleased to be here.  Let me introduce myself.  My name is Manal Deeb. I am Palestinian-American. I was born in Ramallah, and I came to the United States back in 1986. I studied fine arts when I first came to the States, I studied fine arts with a concentration in painting at the University of Illinois in Chicago, and about five years ago, I got a degree in individualized studies with concentration in psychology of art.

As you can see, my artwork that I will be sharing with you today is an attempt to find self and identity. I have an uncontrollable urge to paint portraits driven by the desire to capture the human spirit. Parts which, I insist cannot be reached through any other medium. Using self-portrait, I’m always searching for who I am at this point of my life and my place in the world, an existential journey in exile. I duplicate self-portraits of my own dreams and memories, sometimes running the risk of reinventing my own self by asserting a new identity or reclaiming an old one. I call my artwork anxiety in exile, with its agonizing sense of freedom. Yet, I’m consciously celebrating my Palestinian heritage in every piece of my artwork. I use Arabic calligraphy, verses from the Qur’an, old pieces of wood, sometimes old pieces from a Palestinian costume to give a different effect to my artwork. There are several examples I will be showing today, accompanied by poems. I was inspired by poetry [while making] my artwork. The poems are by a poet named Iyad Hayatleh. He is a friend, a Palestinian friend who lives in Scotland.

I believe in the political power of arts, of ideas and emotions. I think all art forms are types of emotional forces, powerful tools for communication. They are better tools than political and military solutions. I’m going to give you an example, a real life example that I had. On the observance of the international day of solidarity with Palestinian people back on November 29th of 2012, I had most of my artwork exhibited at the United Nations Visitor Center in the city of New York. There I had viewers from all over the world. Interesting and shocking to me, at that exhibit, some of the viewers read negatively into my artwork. In their articles and responses to my artwork, they say that there are hidden logos in my art that have to do with political issues, political issues between Palestinians and Israelis, where I have no intention whatsoever of having these logos, but I guess that’s what they want to see. Others were very happy to see my artwork. In one of my art pieces I had my grandmother’s headpiece that shows that I am Palestinian. And I guess, either way, if my artwork created the anxiety and questioning in some, and created happiness and comfort in others, I guess I have been successful in my artwork. In some cases the artwork has revealed and enforced or Palestinian consciousness in the Arab viewers in exile. In other cases the artwork challenged viewers who were against Palestinian rights. Civil reviews and articles were written based on both perceptions on my work.

As you can see in the slide, my artwork I will be sharing with you today is about my memories, advancing of years, dreams, identity, the identity of a Palestinian artist living in exile. They say home is where your heart is. I say home is where your art is. This is a photograph, Homeless.  [see video clip above] I believe photography as a medium has its own peculiarities: instant and credible. Here is an originally black and white photograph. I manipulated the negative and selected a textured, red-toned paper, on which to print so that the image had the look and the feel of painting or etchings. Again, the subject matter is exile. I call it internal exile here, Arabic calligraphy covering the form of the female figure, confirming the Arab identity, or the Palestinian to be precise. Red color to detect the feeling of insecurity and danger.

All artwork I will be sharing with you from now on is going to be mixed media, acrylic paint on canvas, and the concept behind my work will be structure. Structure can be defined by vision and expression, and structure may be determined by paint strokes, pattern, like and design, title control space and concept.

In April of 2012 I had a solo exhibit here at Jerusalem Fund Gallery. I was honored to have my artwork shown at the Jerusalem Fund Gallery. All work exhibited was accompanied by poetry by Iyad Hayatleh, the Palestinian friend whom I talked to you about at the beginning. If you had the chance to read the poetry here, Iyad and I kept both memories and hope very much alive. His longing, or haneen in Arabic, for homeland is obvious. Here he is saying [he is] leaving his soul behind and his memories, but to me, memories are partially showing, partially hiding.  There are wings of hawks and calligraphy appearing from under the white paint like peeling posters from the walls to convey time and the passing of time and the longing for home. On a side note, this piece has been selected by the curators of a Muslim art gallery at the International Museum of Women, based in San Francisco, and many positive views were posted on this piece.

Again, this is mixed media, acrylic paint on canvas, and I would like to share with you now a section from an article I read, published by the Middle East Institute. The title of the article is “Visions of Return: The Palestine Arab Refugee in Arabic Poetry” by an author named Tibawi.  It says, “A great and increasing mass of literature, chiefly poetry and also drama, song, and  painting, has been steadily appearing in the Arab World for the past years. Its theme is the Palestine Arab refugee, his sense of injustice, and his longing for return to his homeland. All poets, singers, writers, and artists, are Palestinian with firsthand experience with the calamity of their people and as human beings.”

Again, this is obvious in Iyad’s poetry if you read it. We shall return—the hope to return. To me, layers of paint, struggle. Eyes peeking through from under the white paint show the eclipses of the faces of refugees and the Jerusalem Golden Dome of the Rock, a story I am telling of my people’s struggle and pain.

This is the piece I was talking about with my grandmother’s headpiece. It’s a mixed media—acrylic paint on canvas, my gorgeous Palestine. Here I used my grandmother’s headpiece to confirm my identity as a Palestinian and to preserve my heritage.  To Iyad, Palestine is his mother’s tears and the scent of Arabic coffee. It is important not to underestimate these emotions concerning the return. For Palestinian adults, men and women with their children, who are homeless but also children of refugees born in exile, aspiration and emotions will translate into achievements and action. They may still be vague concerning means, but there is no doubt about the intentions. Do you agree with me?  I hope so.

We are only physically here. In spirit, we are in our homeland. Home is with us every day and every hour, and fills our heart and soul. All of what I just explained is obvious in this section of poetry by Iyad. And the anguish of longing for home in this painting to me is a dreamlike vortex of swirling movement, striking black splitting the painting in half to give the feeling of the night that Iyad is talking about in his poetry. Yet, there is hope lingering around with words written in Arabic, shadows from under the paint again, peeking through like something that is hidden, but it’s there. So strong, an eye or someone smiling from under the white paint is like a recollection of hazy memory.

This is a self-portrait. As I mentioned at the beginning of my presentation, I have this urge to make self-portraits over and over, and this is one of my favorite self-portraits. Part dream, part memory, part mourning, part longing, in this self-portrait I offer my face. I offer my face without my eyes, without the window to my soul. Yet, there is a smile on my lips. Thinking that my Palestinian identity, un-fragmented, into light someday. I am from there, and there is mine. I would like to read this section of poetry with you, if you don’t mind: “There far away, where the sky, just a bow’s length from a sigh overshadows the roofs of houses born out of tents as it dries the tears of old women which remain on their eyelashes, wherever they dwell, wherever they go. There far away.”

And finally, the obvious fact that the yearning of the Palestine Arab is not essentially material, nor, perhaps, primarily political. It is above all a deep spiritual aspiration in the soul of every Palestinian Arab in exile, whether [in] a refugee tent or in a more comfortable situation. Poets and artists, apart from being refugees themselves, they act as channels for voicing the grievances and hopes of the mass of the refugee. An adult refugee of the older generation may be inarticulate, but cherishes the hope of return all the same in the few words he musters to describe the injustice of the past and the aspiration of the future. A young refugee is on the whole well informed, vocal, bitter, and more determined to return to his native land. The feelings, dreams, emotions, and aspirations are thus communal, shared by old and young alike.

This concludes my presentation and I will leave you with a section on the slides from an interview I had and I talked about at the beginning. Thank you very much.

Ikram Lakhdhar:

‘Aslama.  Hello everyone. I’m very honored to be here today, especially. I can see a lot of Palestinians here. And as a Tunisian I share a lot of—what’s happening there—a lot of it is happening in my own country, and so what Manal spoke about is very close to my heart as well. My presentation will be more about theoretical art historical concepts that talk about art and politics and their relationship. As a young curator I organized an exhibition, so I will show some works from that exhibition and speak about some artworks.

So first of all, the emergence of key art historical concepts such as political propaganda art, art of the revolution, art of the war, art of protest, resistance art, and street art, the popular perspective has been concerned with describing this kind of art as either an artistic reaction to political turmoil or as an artistic action for social change. However, both of these definitions position art as inferior in the hierarchy of power of authority, especially when the contemporary artistic production is pegged to the high demand for kitsch and ornamental decorative art. Moreover, when artists start making explicit criticism of a certain political regime or leader, they are censored, persecuted, exiled, or driven to the margins of society, based on the pretext that their actions are serious threats to the national interest of society. In consequence, the art exposed, consumed, and celebrated by the public usually is inherently un-free.

Karl Marx contributed tremendously to the development of art theory. In his anthology, he declared the end of art as a phenomenon that shaped the relation of art to the society. He claimed that art has become the byproduct of the economic and political infrastructure of the society, and not in any way involved in the making of it. He says, “The essentially quality of art appears to be sacrificed to its religious function, which in turn is nothing but a means for kings and priests to maintain authority over their people.” The young Marx must have thought that such a relationship contradicts the basic definition of art, which for him meant the undistorted revelation of true human nature. On the other hand, another scholar I research—his name is Jacques Rancière—he had characterized genuine politics and artistic activities as separate realities. In his book, it involves forms of innovation that tear bodies from their assigned places and free speech and expression from all reduction to functionality.

Delineating how freedom is configured according to art and to politics is essential in understanding how art and politics relate to each other. That confirms that once people grow more accustomed to thinking for themselves, even governments will respond to the propensity and calling to think freely. Essentially, art alongside with politics are defining actors in the regulation of human existence, but most importantly art acts as a source of knowledge about human nature, while politics defines the appropriate knowledge.

The narrative of progress of developing states in the global order such as China, South Africa, and Tunisia, which are countries and cases that I develop more in my thesis, has been framed my neocolonial critique. The legacy of their complex past mirrors the challenge of their future. So this way, a comparative analysis of the context of the aesthetic production of their revolutionary art provides insight on how to think freely.

This is an artwork by a South African artist and I used his artwork for the catalog for my exhibition. Space, for South Africa is not a notion or an ideology; it is a living symbol for political oppression and physical appropriateness and segregation based on color. For most South African artists during Apartheid, and the post-Apartheid era, space is interrelated to identity. While it is difficult to own a space in Johannesburg, the artist challenges himself with an innovative method to carve out space. These are some examples of artworks of South African artists. Today, even fifteen years after the end of Apartheid, the legacy of trauma from the horrors of many years of radical divide is still rampant in the South African society. Violence between the blacks and the whites is still embedded in the everyday culture. This is because South Africans were able to move beyond the haunting effect of the social implementation of the ideology that spatial segregation was legitimate based on racial superiority of the whites. South Africa’s culture is stained with the debate of who is the victim and who is the perpetrator.

As a scholar with a self-designed major in art and politics, I am interested to examine the artistic reactions and investigate its relationship to political phenomena, specifically in Tunisia where a mass revolt ousted its dictator two years ago and brought down its regime. The case of the Tunisian revolution provides a good example to establish the idea that when the state is going through a revolutionary period of identity and state reconstruction, the chaotic characteristics of the political order not only generates a power vacuum, but also leads to social conflict since difference becomes perceived as a threat to the right for personal freedom.

I would like to talk now about the Chinese case and about specifically the authority of the image. In this slide [see video clip above], it’s an artwork by Jeong Hong Tu  and he melds with Mao’s image to comment about the authority of his image and propaganda.  Artistic freedom in China is an oxymoron. Chinese 20th-Century history shows the extent to which the government has directly and indirectly shaped the production of art and culture. The events of the cultural revolution from 1966 to 1976, and the 1989 democracy movement tragedy and the opening of the market economy significantly altered the national as well as the global perception of China’s artistic freedom and its cultural identity.

Jeong Hong Tu was born into a traditional Chinese Muslim family in 1943 in northwestern Jiangsu. When Mao’s atheist regime took shape he was cast off as a minority and a rightist because of his family’s religious background. Jeong Han Tu  understood the essential dilemma in modern Chinese culture, which is defining the appropriate limits of authority. Realizing this authority of the image, Hong Tu used Mao’s once-glorified persona during the cultural revolution as an icon to make satirical critique about his daunting legacy. Most of Hong Tu’s art cannot be exhibited in China.

The content of the image is another important distinction, since it only portrays political messages, framing ideas in a simple and effective way, or playing on the public’s personal effect, such as evoking danger, threat by the enemy, love and affection for the almighty Mao. These were the propaganda poster images that were striking during the revolution. In this sense, all propaganda art images from different movements shared similar figures and archetypes.  In this slide I’m showing artist Ai Wei Wei. He is purposely breaking an ancient ceramic as a way to reflect on breaking away from tradition and moving forward. This last artwork is by Jeong Han Tu as well. It’s called The Last Banquet, and he comments about Mao’s atheism and the crackdown on his people.

To go back to Tunisia’s ongoing revolution, I want to show a quick video of the recent events. This is in downtown Tunis.

[see video clip above]

I will let it download for a while. The uprisings that escalated in the capital, Tunis, and led to the ouster of the president were embellished by a visual movement that emerged by the people’s need to master the art of voicing out their dissent. The fall of the regime declared the end of censorship which signified a remarkable phenomenon for Tunisia. In fact, people started to feel the change in their daily life and personality once they were capable of speaking freely. The revolution gave them the right to criticize and converse publicly about politics and societal problems. If you ask any Tunisian today, they will confirm that the so-called revolution has yet to prove successful in terms of social–political change and merely brought about freedom or parole libéré. Ben Ali’s pictures were the only pictures allowed during his regime, and they differentiated in sizes. They were remarkably overwhelming through the city’s plazas and not mentioning inside any store or institution. Also, slogans were only allowed for the regime’s campaigns.

As I explained, in the Chinese case, the legacy of many years of political propaganda images and control has a very negative effect on the post-revolutionary political discourse. Interestingly, when Ben Ali came to power, the inauguration of his political triumph was celebrated with slogans of democratic ideals, and now also the party al-Nahda is celebrated with slogans of democracy.

[see video clip above]

This is a picture of the sit-in that was sent to me by one of the photographers that I also included in my exhibition. And this is just an illustration of Ben Ali’s propaganda.

The change in the city Tunis’s pictorial landscape was very visible during my brief visit to Tunisia from college vacation to the other. For example, in Sidi Bouzid’s walls, there are so many calligraphies and slogans about democracy and the end of dictatorship. What is important about the Tunisian revolution was that it generated an ideological and identity cleavage between the Islamists and the secularists. And so, today, the problem is about who has the right to rule and who hasn’t, and in many cases, during exhibitions, some Islamists went to the exhibition and tore down and vandalized artwork saying that it does not show the Tunisian identity. Again it is important to emphasize that the democratization process requires societal strength and unity, and with Tunisia’s current political power vacuum, it requests an investigation of the role of culture and religion in rebuilding a shattered identity.

This is a Tunisian artist who is based in Washington, in Seattle. The artwork is called The Circus. And this is another one that is called Hidden Friends. Rajaa Gharbi’s internal feelings as a woman are translated implicitly into her paintings, woven through the twisting and turning for her lines and colors that reminisce the geometrics of a woman’s body. However, she denounces the circulating photos on social media networks of naked women in provocative poses, arguing that this undermines the totality of life that a woman is capable of. She says, “In the art world, to use a woman’s nudity as a metaphor and as symbol of women’s sexual dignity is dishonest. It is a pattern of representation that is normative. It limits the true freedom of a woman’s body, which is definitely not for sex or a decorative image. She then points to a great danger that follows from such practice, and which, in her opinion, makes conservative people follow extremism. Even though she says we need art more than before, “There has been utilitarian, exploitative provocation by some artists,” she says.

Some people would like to see Tunisia travel back centuries ago, when men exploited women, as well as children and nature, even more than we are now. In a place where the rule of law is violent, we have to represent intelligibly. Otherwise we will give Salafis more gas for their engines.

I would like to show the artworks of a Tunisian artist based in Washington, D.C.  His name is Lutfi Krayyim and he uses idiosyncratic movement in his paintings.

At the end, I just want to emphasize that we have to recognize culture not as a constant state of affairs but rather as an event that sees its roots in aesthetics and establishes a potential for transformation of the self from the constant ordinary to an extraordinary self.  Similarly, I think we should conceive democracy as the condition of becoming democratic, which is rooted in the cultural event.  Thank you.

Ikram Lakhdhar was born in Kairouan, Tunisia in 1989. She graduated recently from Connecticut College with a BA in International Relations and a self-designed major, Arts and Politics. She completed a three-year honors research thesis entitled “Moments of Freedom: Revolutionary Art from China, South Africa and Tunisia,” which aimed to show that revolutionary art can transform perceptions of national identity. She has worked with contemporary art galleries in South Africa and Argentina, as well as with the first English newspaper based in Tunisia, Tunisia Live. Ikram is interested in the ways in which art can be used to analyze and bring about change in political and social conditions.

Manal Deeb is a Palestinian-American artist born and raised in Ramallah, Palestine. After nearly two decades of living under Israeli occupation, Manal came to the United States to study fine art. Her work reflects issues of identity and memory, encapsulating her experience as a Palestinian in exile. Manal uses self-portraits as well as words from the Qur’an in her paintings to recount memories from her homeland, to provoke energy and imagination, and to articulate her journey in exile.

This transcript may be used without permission but with proper attribution to The Palestine Center. The speaker’s views do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jerusalem Fund.