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By Samar Martha
There are many topics that come to mind when writing about Palestinian video art, such as the emergence of the medium and its relation to the international video art movement; the political, social, and economic factors that influenced its development and content; the art movements that have influenced Palestinian video art production, such as pop art, body art, Arte Povera, Fluxus, minimalist art, conceptual art, guerrilla art, etc.; and the available infrastructure for production, presentation, and marketing.
For the purpose of this article, however, I will start by defining video art and offer illustrations and examples of video artworks produced by Palestinian artists. Throughout the article I will highlight some of the ideals and concepts that have influenced the production of these artworks and how the social-political and economic forces have played a role in shaping them.
Video art can be characterised by its hybridity; it has drawn on a diverse range of art movements, theoretical ideas, and technological advances, as well as political and social activism.1 Unlike paintings or sculpture, it is a non-static form, allowing artists to create stories that move through time and space. The democratisation of video made it accessible and easy to use, not only in its recording but also in its broadcasting and reproduction. From a spectator point of view, video art is an interactive medium that allows the viewer to form an immediate experimental relationship with the artwork.
The video art movement was inspired by the post-war era and the events of the 1960s, which brought with them technological advancement. Artists then employed video technology to critique the commodified homogenous mass-media representation. They have also employed the medium to question the art institution’s role as a dominant power structure. For many artists video was seen as a utopian medium that drew art closer to the public and provided the voiceless with a voice; in other words, it was perceived as a bonding agent for individuals in search of social engagement and a shared sense of community.2
The artists of this era have employed a number of techniques to get their messages across. Amongst the most common techniques used are the minimalistic portraits of storytelling, incorporating in some instances the real and, at other times, fabricating a narrative. Others used conceptual black irony and appropriation to challenge all forms of representation. And still others have employed the latest state-of-the-art techniques and slipped effortlessly from realism to surrealism.
Within this historical context, where does Palestinian video art stand? It can be said that Palestinians have employed video since its early stages in the 1960s in order to document and bring to the forefront the plight of the Palestine people and to counterbalance the Zionist myth of “a land without people.” Similar to many underground video art movements in New York and Paris such as cinema-verite, Palestinian filmmakers such as Mustafa Abu Ali and Hani Jawhariya have used the guerrilla techniques and free-hand filming to produce documentaries that aim to increase awareness about the Palestinian struggle and instigate political and social change. Despite the similarities in techniques and aims, art historians and critics have not classified the films produced by Palestinians in this era as video art. This is a notion that requires further investigation.
The earliest video that can be tracked and was classified as video art by art historians and critics is the 24-minute, black-and-white video art Changing Parts, produced in 1984 by renowned artist Mona Hatoum. The work was constructed using shots taken inside her parents’ home in Beirut (Lebanon) and some footage from the documentation of a live performance entitled Under Siege. One part of the video refers to an organised, clearly defined, privileged, and ordered reality and the other to a reality of disorder, chaos, war, and destruction.
With the eruption of the second Intifada in the late 1980s, many Palestinian filmmakers and artists used the medium to document the brutality of occupation and the destruction it inflicted on Palestine and Palestinian society. Many videos were produced during this period; however, due to the nature of the films, which are categorised as political activism, they have not been archived or documented by art practitioners or art centres. As a result, many of these efforts have gone unrecorded.
Video as a medium gained its precedence among Palestinian artists in the late 1990s. After the peace process many of the artists focused their attention on personal and individual concerns. Themes such as identity, time, space, and gender were recurring ideals. Even though the occupation and its brutality and the preservation of national identity are still being depicted in many of the artworks, artists have portrayed these political issues in a subliminal and abstracted manner.
Artists such as Sharif Waked, Emily Jacir, Khalil Rabah, Larissa Sansour, Mohanad Yaqubi, Jawad Al Malhi, Taysir Batniji, Jumana Aboud, and many others have used video in their artistic expressions. They have employed the medium to critique representation and counter the myths and stereotypes of (mis)representation. One example is the latest work produced by Sharif Waked, To Be Continued. In his video, Waked uses the now-familiar media image of a suicide bomber’s last broadcast, but his leading role reads excerpts from One Thousand and One Nights instead, thus avoiding the horrific denouement. In his film, Waked interrogates the role of representation and creates a work that injects a realistic perspective into society and explores the castigation of Palestinians in contemporary Western dialogue. Similarly, Larissa Sansour, in her video SBARA, seeks to expose the cyclical nature of Middle Eastern rhetoric and policies and emphasise the psychological terror inflicted upon those on the receiving end.
In both video arts To be Continued and SBARA, Waked and Sansour, through appropriation and invasion, are critiquing a commodified culture and its attendant forms of representation. Time, imagery, and stereotype are challenged and contradicted.
The democratisation of video and technical facilities enabled artists to create totally hybrid spaces where the virtual and the real exist side by side in a symbolic relationship. One example is the video Bethlehem Bandolero by Larissa Sansour. By adapting the latest state-of-the-art video techniques, colorizing images and speeding up actions, Sansour visually creates a mythical portrayal, inviting viewers to experience a different sense of time, place, and meaning. She employs humour to highlight the obvious in the Palestinian current reality. Similarly, Alexandra Handal, in her video From the Bed & Breakfast Notebooks, uses the straightforward narration but brilliantly mixes it with layers of images and sound, creating an imagery of crime-scene investigation to unravel the story of Palestinians who have been expelled from their homes in the neighbourhood of al-Musrara in Jerusalem.
In some cases artists have used portable video as a new source for community engagement. Similar to Fluxus and nouveaux realist movements, artists have incorporated the real into their work. Many artists have utilised guerrilla tactics and idealism, depicting minimalist portraits and straightforward storytelling without interfering or directing the process. This approach can be tracked in Khalil Rabah’s video art TVZero123, which is a live broadcast of Palestinian villagers employed in architectural renovation of buildings in the West Bank, where a surveillance camera has been placed in two different locations, filming the workers on site. Crossing Surda by Emily Jacir is another example, where Jacir records her daily journey to work across the Surda checkpoint to Birzeit University, exposing through the discourse the hardship that thousands of Palestinians have to go through on a daily basis. In the same manner, Jawad Al Malhi records his video The Gas Station, in which he documents a gas station located at the periphery of Shufat Refugee Camp. He reveals throughout the process how time unfolds day and night for the workers of a gas station - their relationships and their interaction with the street.
It can be said that many Palestinian artists have appropriated the full range of production tools and aesthetics in their artistic practise in portraying their messages - whether personal, social, or political - to a wider audience.
Samar Martha is co-founder and director of ArtSchool Palestine and a freelance curator. She has been writing, lecturing, and curating exhibitions in the United Kingdom and abroad with a particular focus on Palestinian and Arab contemporary art practices. Exhibitions include This Day at Tate Modern (2007); Still on Vacation at Nobel Peace Centre, Oslo (2007); 50,320 Names, a solo exhibition by artist Khalil Rabah at the Brunei Gallery, London (2007); Mapping an Exhibition by Palestinian artists at Dubai, (2009), The Other Shadow of the City, an international art exhibition at Al Hoash Gallery Jerusalem (2009). She has also been the co-curator of the annual Palestine Film Festival at the Barbican Centre, London, since 2005.
1. Chris Meigh-Andrews (2006), “A History of Video Art,” p. 2.
2. Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer (1990), “Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art,” p. 32.