Bashir Makhoul
By Bashir Makhoul

Viewers are rarely impartial and prejudices and preconceived perceptions are inevitable, and part of our social and cultural condition. Palestinians within Israel are often overlooked as part of an Israeli milieu, particularly by outsiders. It is important to realise that the Palestinians within Israel consider that they are the natural cultural guardians and rooted in historical precedent to their land.

This exhibition was conceived and curated by Rasmi Hamzah the director of the National Gallery of Jordan and explores identity on a variety of different levels. The exhibition brings artists from different generations, some very established, mid career and others that have only recently come to the notice of curators and audience. It is a ground breaking exhibition probably without antecedent in the Arab world.

A major topic the artists have in common, though it manifests itself in diverse ways visually, is that their core identity itself is a central issue. This is hardly surprising given the history of their existence as a people who have often been easier to overlook than accommodate when decisions about boundaries and nationhood are made by more powerful forces. This group of Palestinians are guardians of longing and the owners of the villages/land.

It could be easy to assume that the centre of Palestinian art would be in Palestine itself, but those who regard themselves as Palestinian, and live in the geographical homeland (i.e. Israel), are seen by others as having the most compromised national identity of other Palestinians. This is because, through no fault of their own, they are now exist as a minority within their own country, having suffered a demographic reversal as intense as the native peoples of North America, or the Australian Aborigines. Consequently they are faced with art institutions, such as art schools and galleries, controlled by majority Israeli interests, and even when they are able to take advantage of limited opportunities they tend to be offered only the options of either being ignored or assimilated into the Israeli art community.

The artists positioned as the Other , this minority group find that even a painless integration in to Israeli society puts them in an uncomfortable position, especially if they wish to make art out of personal experience, or reference to any of their own specific traditions in their work. Certainly if they show any radicalism in their politics, even if they do not make it a particular issue in their work, they find themselves marginalised. Some, like Abed Abdi for example, have tried to solve this problem by dealing with universal themes, such as a sense of loss, or a wish for justice, which, provided the imagery is reasonably generalised, may be accepted. It may also be possible to allude to the characteristic forms of Arabesques, or use elements which echo the traditional crafts of the region. This will add a limited leavening of approved ethnicity to their art production, and appeal to the desire for the exotic in their Israeli public, without necessarily raising the spectre of outright insurgency.

It would be inaccurate to see the Palestinians inside Israel as entirely submissive, despite being heavily outnumbered. They play cat and mouse over content, managing to invest some of their images with meanings which elude the grasp of the authorities. Moreover the question of loyalty leaves no one out , Edward Said has noted that the intellectual is best and 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.

Although tradition ,folklore and language all contribute towards identity and therefore we feel loyalty towards them ; identity itself is infinitely more complex. It is not fixed, but dynamic and because it is a social construct , its structures are based on contemporary ideology and personal experiences, as well as drawing upon historical phenomena. Palestinians in Israel are situated at the heart of these complexities. On one hand their loyalty lies with Palestinian ness and what it constitutes in terms of continuity of culture and tradition and national consciousness. On the other hand the impact of their social environment , in terms of their situation within Israel and subject to contrasting influence, and cultural dominance, necessarily has an influence on their identity which is unique within Palestinians.

Identity, however, is not only about projecting difference, it can be related to wide range of categories, identity is essentially about belonging and about what you have in common with some people and what differentiates you from others. At its basic, it gives you a sense of personal location, it also can be about the individual’s social relationships, and the personal involvement with others. For today’s societies identity has become ever more complex and confusing.

Identity generally speaking could be thought of as the state of being, and who or what a person or thing is. It is reasonable to suggest that all identities are in some way or other are dependent on others and how we present ourselves is always subject to interpretation by others. Alternatively, any attempt to ‘totalize’ someone else, to grasp the other completely, is bound to fall short - no description does the other justice. Moreover, as Lacan has suggested ‘one can only see oneself as one thinks others see one’.

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