By Shawn Robinson and Rana Abdulla
The woman behind the exhibit is artist Rehab Nazzal, a Canadian citizen born in Jenin, an historic town located in Palestine in a territory under occupation since 1967. Nazzal’s exhibit of 1700 photographic images along with four short videos, were collected by her over the fourteen years. Segments of these images depict life in the experience of occupation.
Nazzal’s premise of this collection is based on the idea that people leave traces of their existence and the traces in this case are part of the collective memory of occupied Palestine. Not being the first time this collection has been exhibited, it was also featured in Toronto at the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival 2013.
Stumbling across the exhibit at Ottawa’s City Hall in the Karsh-Masson Gallery, the Israeli Ambassador to Canada felt that such an exhibit should prohibited. The Ambassador operating outside of his mission, met with Mayor Jim Watson and Deputy City Manager Steven Kanellakos of the City of Ottawa, to demand closure of the exhibit, stating it “glorified terrorism”. Somehow in the unidentified 1700 images and four videos, the Ambassador was able to single out seven individuals he described as terrorists.
The 4th Geneva Convention that Israel and Canada are signatories as well as the Hague Regulations, provides that people under occupation have the right to resist their occupiers. Palestinians are in a situation where they are resisting occupation. The Israeli government and their representatives dispute this occupation in spite of the presence of its military. Terrorism terminology by Israel has become so common and so pervasive that many inside and outside of Israel perceive Palestinians as terrorists – a racist generalization that is pejorative and isolating.
Nazzal’s work reveals human cost of military violence and war, and it is not a call for more human loss, contrary to the Ambassador’s allegations. It is a catalog of Palestinian history, creativity and expression for Forgotten Survivors; a lament for their homeland; and sadness for those who have died in a long hopeless conflict. Her work is a strong counter-narrative articulated creatively using visual vocabulary, transforming the oppressive tools of Israel and its discriminatory policies into elements of hope and life. Her political art communicates messages of dignity and liberation and has undoubtedly inspired many, not just Arabs but non-Arabs as well. The strong media attention certainly indicates that her message is worthy of consideration and appreciation.
Not satisfied with the responses from the Canadian public and City of Ottawa, the Ambassador has escalated his inflammatory language including allegations of “blood libel” and descriptors such as “child murderers”. Is this the role of a foreign diplomat to Canada? His call on Jewish groups to demand action is of great concern. Individuals who have yet to see the exhibit but have read the Ambassador’s false and inflammatory statements, are responding through promotion of these false allegations in blogs, emails to City Hall and online comments. Canadians are being presented with a bias that perpetuates this terrorism label.
The Israeli suppression of the Palestinian narrative appears to now be officially part of the Canadian art and political stream of understanding. It has no place nor is it appropriate. Instead of approaching the situation as an ethnic denial of people, that would appear racist to Canadians, the Ambassador of Israel instead invokes falsely the understandably reactionary term – terrorist.
Censorship of art, especially political art has a history associated with oppressive regimes. Artists in Canada of all faiths, backgrounds and cultures have the full right to artistic expression as granted by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Therefore uncensored artists are able to explore difficult themes; which is a victory for democracy and freedom of expression.
Realizing that Mayor Watson and his staff have stood by the Charter, the Ambassador requested that Mayor Watson review the process of selecting future art exhibitions at the Karsh-Masson Gallery. This is also censorship. Does this mean future exhibitions could be at risk? That the City of Ottawa should influence the selection panel of professional artists? Do we want elected politicians interfering with these processes, and especially at the behest of a foreign country and its diplomatic body?
The situation is of concern to Palestinian, Arab, Muslim and other ethnic minority artists who may not be featured by galleries across Canada due to the fear of facing the public wrath of Jewish groups and/or the Israeli government. As Canadians, we don’t want to be controlled in how our art is expressed.
We know from the history of others, that when governments and special interest groups control the message of art, that in many cases, target groups who are censored are in danger of future marginalization. In Europe in the 1930’s a number of countries excelled in this practice further legitimizing their hateful actions against minorities, including Roma and Jews. For some countries this was the beginning of their marginalization process against an ethnic minority. Canada must uphold its values for this reason as our laws and freedoms are for everybody, and not to be denied for a specified group, especially under pressure from an outside country.
The exhibit created by Nazzal is an opportunity for Canadians to view imagery that captures the humanity of a real situation. People are not exploited in their suffering or celebrations, they are living an experience that is untold by the media and has for as much as four decades.
To be Palestinian is not anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli. In actuality it is a culture that is centuries old in its cuisine, dance, literature, art, architecture, music, costume and other elements we all embrace in our own.
Canada, a country of hundreds of cultures, cannot be part and parcel of this type of denial, and should not be afraid in embracing its citizens. Removing this show would set a precedence that would allow one group at odds with another group to demand censorship in the Canadian milieu. Influencing selection committees of art galleries, are creating the environment of fearing to present a Palestinian artist would also be an act of censorship and stifling our right to the freedom of expression. This is not a Canada we want.
– Rana Abdulla is a Canadian professional accountant, living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Shawn Robinson is a Canadian artist in graphic design and creative writing. She lives in Ottawa. They contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.