Bashir Makhoul
Exhibition 2007

Bashir Makhoul is a Palestinian artist born (1963) in Galilee Israel. He has been based in the United Kingdom for the past 20 years. During this time he has produced a body of work, which can be characterised by its powers of aesthetic seduction. Once drawn in to the work, however, the viewer finds they have been seduced by something far more complicated than a beautiful pattern or image. Economics, nationalism, war and torture are frequently woven into the layers of Makhoul’s work and often the more explicit the material the more seductive the surface.

Makhoul completed his PhD in theory and practice in 1995 at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has exhibited his work widely both in Britain and internationally including the Hayward Gallery London, the Herzilya Museum Israel, Jordan National Museum, NCA Gallery Lahore, Pakistan, The Liverpool Biennial, The Florence Biennial, UTS Gallery, Sydney, Australia and many others. He is currently Head of Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton, UK.

This project addresses the highly contentious area of return in relation to Israeli and Palestinian politics and culture. The importance of the exhibition lies specifically in the use of photographic documentation of geopolitical territory in the region and the ways in which artist’s interventions can be used to interrogate the layers of assumptions and meanings that are implicit in the images. This represents a significant development of the research Makhoul has been conducting in this area since the completion of his PhD (1995) on contemporary Palestinian art and the analysis of its cultural and political influences. In particular it is an important extension of the work he has produced for the recent international touring exhibition “Hold” in which he explored the issues of ownership and possession in the context of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. These issues are inextricably connected to the idea of return in this context. In his exhibition “Symbiosis” (1998), he used existing photographs of his grandmother from the period before 1948 (similar to the photos he is using in this project) as part of an installation, displayed next to more recent photos of her. The significance of this is that in 1948 she and other members of the family were forced to flee Palestine and become refugees in Lebanon. This particular group of people are most affected by the uncertainty of return.

Return is a photographic exhibition of recent work by Makhoul, and it represents the results of an AHRC research award. The work addresses the issue of return in the rhetoric of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through the process of producing a series of digitally-manipulated photographs viewed through microlens. Makhoul used an existing archive of photographs from the British Mandate in Palestine to locate specific sites in modern Israel in order to digitally re-shoot the ‘same’ pictures. Using microlens, flipsigns and relevant software, layers of combination of the photographs old and new occupy the ‘same’ frame, which at the same time can be viewed individually, but only from one point of view, hence the concept of occupation. These new-layered photographs have been digitally manipulated in order to “restore” the memory of the sites back to the state documented in the old photographs. Through the experimental techniques the work bears the traces and visual discrepancies resulting from this intervention as a way of interrogating a process of return.

The exhibition consists of an installation of large format digitally-manipulated microlens photographs. The work attempts to focus specifically upon the ideological uses of photography as a form of visual appropriation of territory. It investigates the interaction between historic photographic documentation, the manipulation of images and the idea of return as a political act. The problem of return is a major political and cultural issue for Israelis and Palestinians: the Israeli state is founded on the idea of Aliya (return) of the Jews to “Aretz Yisrael” (Land of Israel) whereas the “right of return” of the Palestinian refugees is a major stumbling block in the peace process. Within this there are many layers of significance in the idea of return from the intimate memories of individuals to the geopolitical arena. A specific aspect that the work deals with in this proposed exhibition is the possibility of representing the “layered” aspect of this issue of return. The project intends to extend the discourse of return that has been developed in the work of Edward Said. His memoir, Out of Place, articulates the personal and political complexities of an exile returning to his home. Other work in the exhibition represents a series of photographs which are based on fundamental elements.

Return  Return  Return  ReturnReturn  Return 

Lewis Biggs, director of Liverpool Tate, has argued that in Makhoul’s exhibition, Hold, he was able to challenge the viewer and the writer equally. “A title can provide an indispensable lead in addressing the first question for the writer no less than the viewer: how to approach a work of art in the global marketplace of ideas? It is the problem and privilege of any international artist to address multiple publics whose terms of reference, outside of the lowest common denominator, may be mutually exclusive. Visual art addresses the known (we can only apprehend that which is conceptually familiar) and moves us, if it is able, towards the unknown. Writing about “international art” through the medium of any specific cultural referent (such as the word “hold”) may well leave in the cold the majority of readers, since necessarily the majority will not share these specific linguistic or cultural referents. Can the text aspire to the same status of “internationality” as the artwork? Perhaps, if we propose that the lowest common denominator is also the highest form of generalisation.

f we start from the biographical – the biological facts of a person’s life, along with some basic emotions, at least are common to humanity – and move towards the culturally specific, some readers may find they are able to share this way into the work. As we shall see, Bashir Makhoul’s work does in fact take its international aspiration seriously enough for us to be able to read it without the need for culturally specific referents, at least on first acquaintance.

You were made for me / Everybody tells me so
You were made for me / Don’t tell me you don’t know

These lines, written by Freddie and the Dreamers around 1964, pose an issue of ownership in the form of the lyric love song. Like much lyric romance, it is nostalgic for an earlier version of society. Ownership is not the same thing as identity in all societies, and yet they are closely related. (In slave societies, of course, many slaves adopted the name/identity of their owners.) In the highly politically and gender conscious era which the G7 countries have now entered, it is no longer possible to assert to your loved one that he or she might not be aware of the fact of her or his ownership. It is no longer permissible to suggest, either, that this ownership has been validated on behalf of the owner by a group of third parties (the state or “society” – “everybody tells me so”). People (in these countries) reserve the absolute right to assert their own identity – with more or less success. What if the society or the state asserts that you are not who you feel yourself to be? What if it asserts that you “belong” among people or in a place where you feel “alien”? And if you “belong” to a family, group, community, congregation, village etc, does it, in return “own” you? Are ownership and belonging symmetrical? Does the feeling of belonging increase of necessity if the ownership is asserted more strongly? Or might the opposite be true? (Symmetry is a device used frequently by Bashir Makhoul.)

Since the evaporation of (or respite in?) the Cold War ideologies at the end of the 1980s, the dominant sense of the difference between states has been in the relative importance given to the individual on the one hand and the state or society on the other. Within the G7 countries, individualism has been stressed while in the “developing” countries it has been the community. The fear of fundamentalist religion/ideology in G7 countries is based on the recognition that such fundamentalism asserts that the community is of greater value than the individual. (The relative success of Roman Catholicism in proscribing birth control comes from its ability both to assert, with fundamentalists, the primacy of the idea of human life – society – above that of the individual, while pretending to non-fundamentalists that it is in fact protecting the unborn individual.) The legacy of the assertion of the individual above society has been, universally, the alienation and rootlessness that has afflicted the societies that now make the G7 since the conceptual changes of the Reformation and the demographic changes of the Industrial Revolution. If the individual is valued more than the group, the inevitable consequence is that the autonomous individual eventually “belongs” nowhere and to no-one.”

Lewis Biggs, Hold, 1999 – Leeds Metropolitan University Gallery, UK

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