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By Jane Frere
This Week in Palestine
The cloud of figures cascading through the air evoked a profoundly emotional experience for almost everyone who visited my Nakba installation, Return of the Soul.
At the time the sculptural work served as a poignant reminder of the 60
years since so many Palestinians had been forced to flee their homes,
never to return.
But for me the most powerful and personal aspect, which left a deep and lasting impression over the past four years, was the privilege of experiencing a great collaboration with many Palestinians who put their own heart and soul into helping make the Nakba Project a success. From the outset I wanted to combine an educational programme, using my skills as both a theatre designer and artist, ensuring that the relationship I would have with hundreds of participants, both young and old, would be both collaborative and mutually rewarding.
It would have been disingenuous to create a factory setup simply mass-producing the necessary components for the sculpture. A subject as monumental as the catastrophe that befell the majority of the indigenous population of Palestine, one of history’s glaring yet barely recognised injustices, required an in-depth exploration from all those involved.
The figures, made by Palestinians, were intended to reflect a real identity of Nakba victims and their place of origin on the pre-1948 map. In other words a careful process of not only art-related investigation but also incorporating enquiry into the small detail of each participant’s family narratives lent authenticity to the work and offered them the opportunity to gain an insight into their own cultural heritage and identity.
Through the tireless efforts of Al Hoash Gallery, which helped to set in motion the Nakba Project by offering me the residency in East Jerusalem, director Rawan Sharaf, with main core funding from The Welfare Association, brought in regional partners, Al Balad Theatre, Jordan, with Shams Theatre Association and the Arab Resource Centre for Popular Arts, Al Jana, in Lebanon. Project manager Fadi Shurafa created a blueprint and, with support from UNRWA, arranged opportunities for me to stay in refugee camps across the region. I chose specifically to stay with families, not only to have greater access to their stories but also to experience something of the stark reality of their daily lives.
Four years on I remain amazed and continue to be humbled by the trust, commitment, and energy of all involved in The Nakba Project, which contributed to the successful outcome - the installation Return of the Soul, displayed in Jerusalem, Beirut, Amman, and also at a major international event, the Edinburgh Art Festival in Scotland.
I naturally set off on my artistic journey with a degree of trepidation. It was one thing to dream up an embryonic idea from the comfort of my London apartment based on my research and reading of books and media coverage, it was quite another, however, to venture forth into the reality of one of the most tormented and contested spaces on the planet.
Setting the mood and tone of the workshops from the beginning was vital. I began with a PowerPoint presentation describing in detail how the idea was formed and my reasons as a foreigner for taking such an interest in their history. It was essential that this first impression should be sufficiently compelling to win over trust and fire enthusiasm from the outset.
Paradoxically my own introduction to the Nakba began through an incident in what had been a Nazi concentration camp in Poland that I had visited on several occasions. I took a risk outlining my story by showing often horrific images and describing the historical context in brief. I was introducing a fragment of European Jewish history that many had no idea of and possibly no inclination to learn about either.
Instead of what could have been justifiably bitter resistance, I was heartened by the sheer humanity of so many who were filled equally with the same disgust and confusion that I had felt. I was asked repeatedly, How was it possible that Europeans, supposed champions of civilisation and democracy, could have committed such atrocities so recently in the twentieth century?
One underlying question remained, however - made all the more poignant as I stood in front of people whose lives have been so desecrated and disempowered by external forces. Why was it that Palestinians had to suffer for what might be considered almost an atonement for a monstrous crime committed by foreigners in distant lands, and why were they still paying the price without any resolution or compensation?
This was an answer I could not give, however it was one of my primary reasons to create such a work of art. The principal aim of Return of the Soul was at the very least to encourage such questioning and to create an awareness that a majority of Palestinians had been systematically expelled from their land, a truth that has been concealed through obfuscation and repeated myths to the present day.
I believe the overwhelming support and enthusiasm from so many Palestinians I worked with reflected faith in the power of art - that it was possible to stir people’s emotions sufficiently through artistic expression to make them think and question. They had accepted the idea that symbolically each figure, made by their hands and so imbued with their spirit would tell the story of their grandparents as they travelled in exhibitions across the world. This gave them a sense of empowerment, a human right that is denied to all refugees and many of the Palestinians also incarcerated across the West Bank.
During 2008 our ambition knew no bounds. We had hoped that the final count of 7,000 figures would continue to multiply if I could cross into the UNRWA camps in Syria and gather more figures with their testimonies. Sadly that has yet to happen.
Simultaneously we envisaged that the exhibition would go on its journey across the world. Finally at the time when there is a fitting museum to accommodate the installation under the custodianship of Al Hoash Gallery, the figures will make their symbolic return to their rightful home.
Unfortunately, many of these plans have not yet materialised, the figures remain wrapped in boxes disunited, one half in Beirut the other in Amman.
This does not augur well if the symbolism of the work is to find a just resolution. I hope the figures in their boxes do not reflect the on-going state of the plight of refugees and the rest of the exiled diaspora.
But it is the conversation with an elderly Palestinian gentleman who attended the opening on May 15, 2008, in Al Hoash that haunts me.
“Forgive me, I don’t like the title of the work,” he said wiping away a tear as he confronted the tsunami of fleeing wax figures hurtling towards an uncertain future.
“You see, I could be any one of those children fleeing, but I am still alive; I don’t want to return as a ghost or a soul, I simply want to be treated as any normal human being with my rights under international law to be re-instated, to have at least the choice to return to this soil where my family’s roots have been for thousands of years. The trunk of the tree may have been severed but the roots have not - they remain.”
Jane Frere is an artist/theatre designer whose work ranges from expressionist painting and printmaking to sculptural installation and video. Maintaining her interest in Palestine, her recent work has been exhibited in London and Scotland, and her “Wall series” of paintings was shown alongside a concert premiere of “Emails from Palestine” by composer David Ward inspired by her descriptions of living “behind the wall.”
See PDF www.thisweekinpalestine.com/i169/pdfs/article/therootsremain.pdf