By Catherine Wilson – London
As the sun touched the horizon, a rose glow filled the sky over the town of Beet Jala, near Bethlehem. In the home of Palestinian artist, Rana Bishara, the haunting voice of Palestinian vocalist, Sanaa Moussa, delivering the lullaby, Yllah Ynam (‘Hope he will fall asleep’) resonated through the room. Her sonorous voice swept in waves through the space, around a half-created sculpture of a kufiyeh on the kitchen floor, through the double windows and across the sky at dusk. It evoked the tender entreaty to a child, the cry of a lament and the power of human resilience.
Rana Bishara was born in Tarshiha, Galilee, where her ancestors have lived and owned land for generations. Her life and art are profoundly influenced by stories of her parents’ resistance of Israel’s invasion in 1948 and her father’s subsequent exile to Lebanon and Syria for two years. Rana’s childhood was shaped by the natural beauty of Galilee, the artistic heritage of jewellery making in her family, inextricable from her sense of identity and belonging, and the violation of that identity through Israel’s attempts to cleanse the region of Palestinian history and culture and establish a Jewish majority. For Bishara, creativity is vital to resistance of the occupation and as important as the time and energy she devotes to supporting families rendered homeless by Israel’s demolition of houses in Jerusalem. She claims that art “challenges the most vicious weapon and inhuman acts. Art is a sensible language of civilisation, beauty and the power of expression.”
Bishara has exhibited her work, encompassing drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, film, performance and installation, in Palestine and internationally since the mid-1990s, and is now Chair of the Art Dept at Al Quds University, Jerusalem. During my visit, she spoke of her resolute commitment to addressing issues of truth and injustice and her recent collaborations with UN organisations working in the occupied territories.
Last year, Bishara was invited by the UNRWA to exhibit her installation, Homage to Childhood, at the French Cultural Centre, Jerusalem, to commemorate its 60th Anniversary in 2009. In a dreamy, light filled room, evoking a womb-like space, the viewer could walk across a soft fur-lined floor through a field of clear balloons, each holding within its precarious membrane a photograph of a Palestinian child, as the lullaby, Yllah Ynam, pervaded. Bishara explained the balloons “are made for children, but the childen can’t play with them. When you want to do a birthday, you put balloons with colour, but here the colours have been hijacked.” Closer examination revealed that each child depicted was enduring humiliation or abuse. There was also a fur covered mattress with halos of tulle ringed with barbed wire suspended from the ceiling above, suggesting both the innocence of a child’s dream and the menace of an impending threat.
For Bishara, researching and selecting photographs from the UNRWA’s archives for the artwork “gave me a flashback of what I have seen and still see today, the exact same scenes of torture and ethnic cleansing, of house demolitions and children in refugee camps living under inhuman conditions.”
Homage to Childhood was also a tribute to the UN organisation that has been there to offer millions of Palestinian refugees hope, compassion and a humanitarian lifeline for over half a century. Karen AbuZayd, Commissioner General of UNRWA, who opened the exhibition on 4 December 2008, said that Bishara’s installation challenges our understanding of what childhood is in the occupied territories, and “rightly provokes debate about the action, and inaction, of the international community in the face of the complex task of protecting Palestinian children, of guaranteeing them the most basic rights, the right to life itself…”
The right to exist has been the core struggle for Palestinians since the Al-Nakba of 1948, and through history and memory Bishara reveals the repetitive pattern of violence since the first attempts to expel the Palestinian population during the creation of Israel.
The cycle of injustice continued when Israel launched its war on Gaza in December 2008. With the borders of this impoverished enclave, housing eight refugee camps, sealed by Israel, professionals working for the World Health Organisation strived to save lives.
On World Health Day, April 7, this year, WHO hosted an art exhibition, Health Facilities in Emergencies, at the Al Mahatta Gallery in Ramallah. It featured an installation by Bishara and a series of photographs taken during the Gaza war by local photographers, including Shareef Sarhan and Ricardo Mir, from the artists group, Windows from Gaza. There were also videos of interviews with health professionals who gave personal accounts of their experiences during the siege, produced by Saed Andoni of DarFilms Productions. Health Facilities in Emergencies was also hosted at the PRCS Al Quds Hospital, Gaza City (curated by Shareef Sarhan and Windows from Gaza), and at the French Cultural Centre, Jerusalem.
A WHO spokesperson said: “the aim of the exhibition was that of exposing the destruction and damages caused to health facilities by the Israeli war on Gaza. Safety of civilians and of health personnel is vital at all times, even during a conflict, and is protected by international humanitarian law. During the war on Gaza, health facilities were not kept a safe haven for those in need. The exhibition was dedicated to the sixteen health workers killed while on duty during the war on Gaza, and all other health staff who risked their lives protecting that of others.”
Bishara contributed mixed media works that creatively transformed the everyday materials used by health workers. Across wooden panels suspended from the ceiling, the artist stretched and pinned hundreds of latex medical gloves, superimposing in text the facts of the devastation, while on the reverse sides were excerpts from the Geneva Convention declaring that medical personnel shall be respected and protected in all circumstances. More than 1400 Palestinians were killed, while WHO reported that 15 of 27 hospitals, at least 43 primary health centres and 29 ambulances were damaged or destroyed, 16 health workers were killed and 25 injured.
On the floor of the gallery, the artist placed orange ambulance stretchers, each draped in a piece of white gauze printed with a documentary image of the conflict where health services and workers are visible, administering assistance or as tragic casualties. Bishara selected gauze for printing “because this material is made in Gaza, it is where the name of Gaza comes from.” The metal handles of the stretchers were blackened with charcoal powder “because nobody could carry them.” The ephemeral outlines of stretchers created with black charcoal powder were also a reminder that vital emergency services can be as vulnerable as the human lives that depend on them.
Commuting by bus from Beet Jala back to Ramallah, we were stopped at a checkpoint, and tired, resigned women and children were ordered to disembark and stand in a line for inspection of their ID cards by armed Israeli soldiers. “In Israel, they keep you busy with surviving,” Rana had said, “they keep creating new laws and new obstacles. You have to be as tough as they are to keep going.”
Ever since Ismail Shammout painted memorable and resonant images of exile and displacement, and the PLO advocated the importance of art and culture to resistance in the 1960s, and in spite of the innumerable challenges for survival, Palestinian artists have been driven to mobilise freedom of the soul and the imagination. Rana Bishara is one of those challenging the psychological cage of occupation and working to plant the seed of decolonisation in the minds of others.
– Catherine Wilson, BFA (Hons), Dip World Art, is a writer and editor based in London. She has written about contemporary visual art, world art, culture and society for UK and international titles, including a-n Magazine, The Oxford Times, Artlink, Art & Australia, Art Asia Pacific and The Brunei Times newspaper, and contributed essays to museum and gallery publications. She contributed this article to the PalestineChronicle.com.