Bashir Makhoul
Outside the camp
I called Ibrahim Nobani from England to discuss his work for the essay I had been asked to write for this exhibition catalogue. After we had greeted one another and gone through a bit of small talk we were interrupted by a deafening roar.

“It’s the fighter jets.” He said, casually. “They always start around this time…call back in a couple of hours, they’ll be finished by then.”

After I hung up I couldn’t help thinking how people can get used to anything. His voice had betrayed only a mild irritation at the fact that it is impossible to hold a conversation for a couple of hours every afternoon. It was a small reminder, as if I needed one, of the situation in which Ibrahim makes his work. The situation is normal in Israel, a kind of ‘normality’ described well by Shuka Glotman recently 1, in which art students and professors discuss art and terror in Bezalel while Palestinian homes are demolished at the bottom of the hill or people casually eat a MacDonalds while, around the block, the remains of bomb victims are being recovered.

This strange normality is made stranger for Ibrahim by the fact that he is a Palestinian citizen of Israel. For post-war Europeans it is difficult to conceive of a situation in which it is possible to be a refugee in your own country, for whom your very existence is a kind of political statement. It is not at all surprising that this existential political identity pervades all of Ibrahim’s work. It is not possible for him to separate his work from politics, as it is not possible to separate any aspect of his life from the political. As he told me (when we were allowed to resume our conversation), “If I wanted to avoid politics I would have to stop painting.” But then again the act of stopping would be political too.

For some Palestinian as well as Israeli artists ‘stopping’ has been a political and emotional response to the current situation. For those living under the violent occupation it has been an enforced choice, but even in that context, of relentless destruction, artists are continuing to create things. For a number of Israeli artists the act of making and exhibiting art has become ethically and psychologically impossible. They feel that it is maintaining a pretence that they are living in a normal situation, in a normal, civilised society. But for Ibrahim, as a Palestinian, holding on to ones practice is a way of maintaining ones political as well as ones individual existence. It is imperative that Palestinians do not stop. Of course this puts an intolerable burden on the work – how can paintings bare such a load? For an artist who works in such a solitary way, whose work is full of personal, fragmented references, this existential load can sometimes feel especially heavy. He does not attempt to conceal the inevitable clashes between the personal and the political in his work, he knows that they can never be resolved and so his approach is to allow his work to remain unresolved. In this sense, his paintings are never finished; he leaves loose threads throughout them, from unresolved, compositional details, to the ways in which he allows them to be interpreted. The works are not quite abstract or figurative, what appears to be a landscape suddenly changes into a cityscape, before becoming a wall of hieroglyphs.

The problem with painting has also been its strength. It is generally expressed as a complaint that painting is completely self-reflexive – that painting is always only ever about painting. Although this could be said, to some extent, of most contemporary art forms, it is an undeniably strong characteristic of painting in particular. This extreme self-referencing that goes on within the practice can be regarded as a symptom of the terminal condition of painting as a contemporary art form. There are plenty of painters who would agree with this, not least Gerhard Richter who has found inspiration in the moribund state of painting. Rather than the continuation of the Avant Guarde endgame, in which painters climbed over one another to produce the last painting, the contemporary position appears closer to the Beckettian statement “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Although this can be said of people like Richter, we should not ignore the presence of the political in his work – their main point may be their pointlessness but the weight of history unavoidably bears down on them. Other painters have responded differently to this pressure, Phillip Guston turned from his beautiful, delicate abstracts to his crude figurative caricatures after being unable to resolve what he was reading in the papers in the morning and what he did with the rest of his day in the studio. Although the political, existential content of his late work was absolutely unavoidable, they still retained their painterly beauty and were, ultimately about painting itself.

Ibrahim’s work is also involved with the endless debate painting has been having with itself. This goes with the territory. However, his work also involves a more culturally complicated relationship to the history of painting. In Israel it has often been assumed that his work is partly rooted in classical Arabic geometry and its ‘Arabesqueness’ has usually been looked for and found by Israeli critics. Of course, this element is present in his work, but his main influences in terms of compositional geometry have always been Russian Constructivism and the various branches of early 20th Century European formalism. The reception of Ibrahim’s work has been strongly shaped by Israeli forms of orientalism; the irony is that it is partly Ibrahim’s Eurocentric training at Bezalel, where he studied the Western traditions of pictorial space that has lead to its apparently ‘ Arabic’ geometry. The problem with digging for cultural sources and origins in the work of artists is that it usually turns out to be a bottomless pit – how deep should we dig in Ibrahim’s work for his cultural origins? His interest in constructivism, or the dependence of constructivism upon Euclidean geometry, or the influence of Arabic mathematics on the work of Euclid of Alexandria? We can play this game ad absurdum. More often than not we know what we have set out to find and we can stop at any point that serves our purpose. As a member of a politically and culturally surrounded minority, Ibrahim is fully aware of the dead ends this kind of game can lead to. It is for this reason that he leaves false trails and loose ends scattered throughout his work. This aspect of his work goes beyond the rhetoric of painting and is closer to the methods of sculptors/performers/activists such as David Hammons and Jimmy Durham. Hammons, as an African-American New Yorker and Durham, as a Native American, both play with the assumptions and stereotyping that ‘ethnic’ cultural artefacts are subject too. They both occupy complex positions within opposing traditions from which they are not afraid to ask difficult questions of any section of their audiences as well as of themselves.

The self-reflexivity of painting appeals to Ibrahim, he would like nothing more than to submerge himself entirely in an endless exploration of his chosen art form. However, circumstances make this impossible. The act of painting can provide a kind of sanctuary, but this is one of the dangers he wishes to avoid. Many Palestinians inside Israel have, understandably, sought refuge in the small consolations of ordinary life, their families, nature, solitary intellectual pursuits or even drugs. It is important to Ibrahim that his painting does not become a kind of bunker, but he believes it is possible to submerge himself in his work and, at the same time, to bring the political with him. This is what he is doing when he uses the Palestinian flag as a signature. This is a deceptively simple strategy that can be taken at face value as a straightforward assertion of national allegiance. However, the signature has a highly complex history in relation to art and there are many meanings packed into this small gesture.

The flag is a graphic form that has appealed to many artists. My own early work was entirely preoccupied with the form and meaning of the (Palestinian) flag. Perhaps most famously, Jasper John explored the formalistic aspects of the American flag to its minimalist degree zero while, more recently, David Hammons transformed the same flag through the use of Marcus Garvey’s international African colours. All of these things come to my mind when I see a flag in a painting along with the concomitant ideas of abstract forms and abstract concepts such as nationality. Ibrahim takes this further by using the flag as a signature. This is a highly condensed symbol in which, commodity, authenticity, individuality and the law are all compressed. Firstly we have the artist ’s signature as a kind of logo or brand identity, like the Nike swoosh that identifies the product as the ‘real thing ’. There is even a Citroen car called Picasso that has the painter’s signature on the body and we are all familiar with the stories of the senile Salvador Dali being given empty sheets of paper to sign, like blank cheques. Within this signature-as-trademark there is the idea of authenticity, that the work is genuine and has been created by the same hand that has signed it. The value of the work is dependent upon proof of its authenticity indicated by the artists’ signature. The appearance of the signature on the surface of the work has long since gone out of fashion, in fact its disappearance was one of the early inventions of modernism. Most forms of contemporary art do not even have a surface to sign and so, these days, the gallery will supply a document that certifies the authenticity of the work, bearing the artist’s signature. This, of course, leads us to the law, in which the signature becomes a legal device, a unique mark that binds us. There are other, more scientific and reliable ways of proving who we are but the signature has a symbolic status over and above fingerprints, iris recognition or even DNA profiling. What distinguishes the signature is the act of signing – of making the mark through our own volition. It is possible to obtain a sample of somebody’s blood or a fingerprint through force but it is impossible to physically force a hand to sign a signature.

Through the act of signing we bear witness to our own existence and the mark we have made continues to work on our behalf, in our absence, as evidence of a kind of presence. This is, of course an idea developed by Derrida, and he has also pointed out that we are, when making our mark, doing so in anticipation of our absence as well as in order to become absent. Therefore the signature contains a paradox in which we assert our existence and ownership in an act that will also absolve us of our presence. What then, if somebody replaces their unique mark with a flag? But further still, what if this flag represents a nation that effectively is not permitted to exist. What kind of ‘document’ does this make? It reminds me of the property deeds kept by Palestinian refugees to homes now occupied by Israelis. These also bare the signatures of government representatives along side those of their fathers’ or grandfathers’ or great-grandfathers’. Nobody would ever expect these documents to be recognised in an Israeli court, but those signatures mark an absence that unsettles the fabric of the State of Israel.

When Ibrahim subsumes his individual mark in the flag he is attaching himself to a greater absence than his own. At the same time the flag can be seen not only as a replacement for his signature, but as something that intervenes in the act of making his mark. Part official stamp or seal used in the absence of the signatory and part envelope, containing and concealing the signature. As a Palestinian in Israel one becomes used to the constant reminders of Jewish national identity, its most prevalent symbol is the Menorah, which makes an appearance on virtually every official document. It is a constant reassertion of the Jewish claim to the country and, like many symbols of this kind, it is meant to be so ubiquitous as to become virtually invisible. But in order to function in society, Palestinians too must put their signature to documents bearing this sign of Jewish nationalism, a national identity that by definition can only, at best, tolerate ones presence as an Arab. To sign such a document with ones Arabic signature feels like a small act of self-erasure or even betrayal, in which the document itself becomes partly invalidated.

Being a signatory, putting ones name to something, involves an act of allegiance it demands trust or loyalty. But this kind of loyalty is contractual and is meant to be reciprocal. The signature, as a kind of promise, is given on the understanding that you will be equally represented by the society that gives authority to the document. In an ethnically determined state one can only be truly recognised and represented if one belongs to the predetermined ethnic group. In such a state there would always be distrust between the ethnic groups, no matter how ‘tolerant’ the state decided to be. In such a society the idea of loyalty would become fraught with in-built tensions and conflicts. It is not possible to separate oneself or rise above questions of loyalty, as Edward Said has noted, the intellectual is remorselessly challenged by the problem of loyalty.

“All of us without exception belong to some sort of national, religious or ethnic community: no one, no matter the volume of protestations, is above the organic ties that bind individual to family, community and of course nationality”. 2 For Palestinian Israelis each one of these ties is put under pressure or directly challenged throughout their daily lives but these tensions exist within the idea of loyalty itself. As an expression of allegiance loyalty suggests a priori a perpetual state of rivalry or conflict. To pledge ones allegiance to another, a nation or idea is to assume that our loyalty is necessary, that the object of our fidelity depends upon our allegiance for its very existence. It is something that seems to operate at the precise point at which the individual and political meet and the join is often so close as to be invisible. The existential threat implicit in the demand for loyalty is also bound up with how we define ourselves in terms of our familial, ethnic or political identities. Our loyalties as well as our identities can be dangerous to our families our nations or ourselves.

The threat, implicit in the demand for loyalty, runs deep in the structures of civil society. Loyalty has its etymological roots in the law and although it is now regarded as a moral value rather than a legal obligation it has never entirely lost its aura of judicial language. The conflicting demands of loyalty can be found in the origins of patriarchal law and the founding myth of democracy as represented in The Oresteia of Aeschylus. The blood feud of the house of Atreus was driven by loyalties and fatal allegiances within the same family and it was only the intervention of Athena as the representative of the law and order that put an end to the cycle of violence. I think it would be helpful if we reminded ourselves of the story, as it has a particular resonance for Israel and Palestine.

The king, Agememnon, in order to set sail for the Trojan war had been instructed to sacrifice his daughter, Iphiginia, which he duly does. While conducting the war his wife, Clytemnestra replaces him with a lover, Aegithus. On his victorious return, Agememnon and his concubine, Cassandra are murdered by Clytemnestra in revenge for the sacrifice of their daughter. Their son, Orestes is banished into exile for fear that he will avenge his father’s murder. Meanwhile their daughter, Elektra, who is loyal to the father, seethes with hatred towards her mother and Aegithus and longs for the return of her brother, Orestes. Eventually, instructed by Apollo, Orestes returns in disguise to avenge his father. After he kills his mother Orestes is hounded by the furies who torment him, on behalf of his mother’s ghost, for his crime. Represented by Apollo, Orestes is presented for trail at Delphi (the original democratic trail). Athena is chosen to conduct the trail by virtue of her impartial wisdom and it is she who casts the deciding vote in Orestes’ favour. Through this act Athena puts an end to the blood for blood feud and founds the rule of law based on allegiance to the father.

At every point in the tragedy loyalty is in question and is ultimately what is at issue in Athena’s judgement. The final section of the trilogy, The Eumenides, which deals with Orestes’ trial ends with a long exchange between Athena and the chorus of Furies. It is to them, the representatives of the murdered mother, that Athena must justify her decision to absolve the heinous act of matricide3. Not only does she justify her judgement and appease their rage but also wins their allegiance. In return they will be awarded the reverence and allegiance of the Athenian citizens, whose peace and prosperity will partly depend upon their loyalty to the furies.

The Athenians are promised a peaceful and prosperous polis through the agency of the appeased furies, their political allegiance will, therefore, depend upon their willingness to absolve the monstrous crime of matricide. Their acceptance of the crime is necessary because the rule of law must be seen to override all blood ties, including the strongest of all – between the mother and the child. It could be seen as the founding paradox of democratic, civil society that in order to be loyal citizens we must be disloyal to our own origins.

As the creation myth of western democracy it is highly instructive. It reveals the structural paradoxes at its core, not least among them is the conflict between the interests and loyalties of the individual (represented by the matrilineal blood tie) and the interests of society (the patriarchal law of the Athenian polis). At the same time the myth reveals the violence at its origins, a violence that has been only conditionally placated and remains as a constant threat at the bosom of civilisation. The furies have been appeased but the suppression of their vengeful rage depends upon the loyalty of the citizen.

This may partly explain why a special kind of ferocity is reserved for civil wars or when a nation turns against a section of its own people. We need not go very far back in European history to witness the disintegration of democratic law and the eruption of a savagery far exceeding anything before in human history. It is important to remember the historical proximity of this violence in Western civilisation and that, like the furies, it remains only conditionally suppressed in the homes of European citizens.

The Europeans, who created their own state in Palestine, brought with them their model of western democracy. In fact, it was the failure of this model in their homelands, with its ensuing savagery, that many of these people were fleeing. They also brought with them the Furies. The status of Israel as a democracy has always been questionable and has always been in crisis. The reasons for this have been a source of endless debate inside certain political and legal circles in Israel, often focussing on the need for a constitution. However, if we consider this in regard to the mythical origins of Western democracy, the problems begin to look far more fundamental. There is no constitutional, democratic way around the ethnically and theocratically determined nature of a ‘Jewish State’. It would stretch Athena’s powers of persuasion (which she boasts of in her appeasement of the furies) to convince a Palestinian Israeli that the rule of law takes precedence over blood in the Israeli polis. If we take this argument a step further, according to the myth, the blood for blood feud based on ethnic (or blood) allegiances cannot end until democratic law prevails.

When Ibrahim and I resumed our conversation, when the fighter jets had finished their routine, he talked about finishing a painting, about how they were never really finished, but that there was a point at which he felt the composition was about to fall apart and it was at that point that he stopped.

Professor Bashir Makhoul PhD 1 Shuka Glotman, Back to Normal in What Remains to be Seen, Ed Gordon Hon, Multi-Exposure, London 2004
2 Edward Said, Representation of the Intellectual, Vintage, 1994, UK, P30
3 The cultural/social significance of the matricide at the heart of this myth has been explored recently by Dr Amber Jacobs in her paper, Towards a structural theory of matricide: psychoanalysis, the Oresteia and the maternal prohibition. (Women: a Cultural Review, Volume 15, Number 1, Routledge, March 2004. pp 19-34)


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