Ahlam Shibli, 2013
The different series I have produced over time are concerned with one single issue that each new work reconsiders under changing contextual conditions. My concern is the issue of Home. Some of my questions are: what are the consequences of being denied a home?; what is the price individuals or a population are forced to pay in return for claiming their home?; who defines the right to a home?; what are the oppressive forces exercised in the name of home?; and even what might be the liberating effect of the loss of home?
I employ photography to open the eyes, to see what is there as if it were for the first time, and to recognize what is unrecognized.
Santu Mofokeng, a photographer I admire, has written: "Home is an appropriated space. It does not exist objectively in reality. The notion of 'home' is a fiction we create out of a need to belong. Home is a place where most people have never been to and never will arrive at. Except, below that patch of mound that has a number you notice as you glide past on your way to nowhere anywhere."
The problematic nature of home, home's inaccessibility and evasiveness, is responsible at one and the same time for the urgent need to represent what is denied representation and for the impossibility to consider representation a straightforward act of uncovering, revealing, and exposing "what has been", to allude to the famous formula of Roland Barthes. The photographic recording needs to be cautious not to objectify and victimise the subjects of state violence.
The photographs of the series Goter show Palestinians in their living places in al-Naqab (the Negev). These people live in villages that are not recognized by the Israeli state, that are not marked on official maps and where no permanent houses can be built, because the state denies a complete population the right to live on their ancestral lands and tries to concentrate them in several townships built by the state. That condition can be expressed in the following way: "Where there is a home, there is no house; where there is a house, there is no home." To oppose the denial of recognition connected to the mutual exclusion of home and house, I represented places that the Israeli state excludes from representation. Turning into pictures what is visible but not recognized I attempted to reverse the symbolic deletion – which is regularly accompanied by physical destruction – of people and their places.
The challenge of the series Trackers was to represent a part of the Palestinian reality that the Palestinian society itself has trouble to recognize: the phenomenon of Palestinian volunteers serving in the Israeli army. The volunteers expect from the dominant power recognition and the opportunity to build a house. People who are deprived of recognition and their ancestral lands do not know better than to invest their bodies in return for a place to live. They agree to fight against members of their own society who struggle to rebuild a homeland. In order to be entitled to a house the volunteers agree to assist in the destruction of the homeland by the hegemonic power and to risk losing their lives in that course of events.
In the series Eastern LGBT I focused in a different context on the relation between the body and the home. That work is devoted to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from Eastern countries such as Somalia, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, or Turkey who in their home countries are denied the right to live according to their chosen sexual or gender orientation. In order to escape oppression in the name of homeland values, they have to leave their native societies, seeking opportunities to feel at home in their own sexual bodies in a foreign place. Dom Dziecka. The house starves when you are away shows children who grow up away from a family home in an orphanage, where they create a new home and a new social body.
In both cases I traced ways in which people react to the denial of an accommodating original home by establishing values and ways of living that divert from the majority's culture. Minorities employ their bodies to establish manners of existing that are opposed to traditional expectations. The withdrawal of a native home, even though involuntary and certainly painful, is revealed as bearing the potential of liberation and auto-determination. Inversely it emerges that the people depicted in Goter are not only denied their own home by the Israeli state but through that denial also excluded from contemporary redefinitions of the notion of home: a population whose lands are claimed by the hegemonic power is not free to engage in definitions of the home that are disassociated from a territory.
In the work Trauma home appears as a notion of auto-affirmation and the exclusion and oppression of others who in their turn demanded the right to their own home. In the city of Tulle I noticed that celebrations commemorating those who fell in the fight for the French homeland, the victims of Nazi occupation and the martyrs who lost their lives pour la patrie, were connected to commemorations of military personnel who lost their lives in the colonial wars fighting against those who struggled themselves against occupation. In this series it appears that the notion of home has the potential to turn into a tool of political and social oppression – which takes us back to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian homeland.
In my most recent work, Death, I focused once more on the bio-political consequences of the Palestinians' fight for their home. The work is concerned with the representation of martyrs and actors of martyrdom operations, men, women and children who lost their lives as a consequence of the Israeli occupation of Palestine or used their own bodies to carry explosives aimed at Israelis. The martyrs did not have anything left to invest in support of the homeland except their bodies – for them it is true what Mofokeng says, they arrived home only "below that patch of mound", and on the way their families lost the house that sheltered them: it was destroyed by the occupation force.
To call people who lost their lives as a consequence of the Israeli occupation of Palestine 'martyrs', even the ones who used their own bodies to carry out a bombing attack, is adopting the language commonly used by the Palestinian people. It implies the refusal to use the language and rationale of the powers that support Israeli hegemony, and especially the language of the colonial occupation force itself. It implies the request to take account of the Palestinian situation as it presents itself to the Palestinian population. It asks to acknowledge the complexity of that situation. Part of that complexity is the fact that at the time of the Second Intifada the Israeli occupation resulted in a feeling among Palestinians that the only remaining way to resist was to use their own body as a weapon and to choose non-military targets. The use of the term 'martyr' in the legends that accompany the pictures of my work Death has to be understood as a request to consider the terrible situation of a population that was forced by the occupation to turn to operations against civilians that resulted in the death of the attacker and the attacked alike. It requests to see an abominable truth that the hegemonic powers try to keep from visibility. It requests the end of a situation that breeds 'martyrs'; it requests the end of occupation.
I think my photos show how deeply sad it makes me to witness through my photographs how the precarious life of simple people is invaded by pictures of their dead friends and relatives who have been represented as heroes and martyrs. The photographs are full of pain in the face of the destruction of private and public life that is dominated by the representation of heroes and martyrs. To call the dead anything else than martyrs would imply turning the eyes away from this destructive reality.
Out of all the photographs I take in certain situations I create a narrative which is telling at least one truth, the truth that I saw. Demanding the Minister of Culture and Communication to shut down and thereby censor my exhibition, one group of people assumed the right to decide that one of several conflicting narratives has to be eliminated from the public stage. One group of people assumed the right to decide what the people in France, French and non-French, are allowed to see and to read and what they are not allowed to see and to read.
I am very grateful that many people in France and all over the world have raised their voice to defend one crucial human right, the right to freedom of expression.
23 May, 2013