Ulrich Loock, 2009
All of Ahlam Shibli's work is guided by a fundamental question, 'What does it mean to be at home?', and its inversion, 'What does it mean not to be at home?' This question has to be asked since one of the most incisive experiences of the 20th century is the loss of a sense of home as something reliable, given and granted. This all-encompassing sense of loss in the case of Shibli is highlighted and sharpened by her personal biography. She grew up in a village in the Lower Galilee 'under the first occupation', as she puts it, the occupation of Palestinian lands and the displacement of large parts of the Arab population by the Jewish who founded in 1948 the State of Israel. Consequently her first works focus on circumstances marking her close environment.
Early on Shibli identified her task as 'researching the living conditions of the Palestinian population under Israeli rule'. This formula, however, as well as her use of documentary modes of photography, should be comprehended in a particular way. In a worldwide artistic/cultural context in which 'research' and the 'documentary', packaged in 'projects', have acquired the status of a contemporary academia, her use of those modes points to a way of thinking which takes its clues from looking at particulars. Even though her practice takes the form of documentary, the focus of her work is not an inventory of given situations, a record of sociological or ethnological circumstances, let alone the illustration of preconceived cultural knowledge. Inversely, to take pictures means to create a stock of images which may, when looked at and related to one another, reveal a subtext which the respective situations tend to conceal.
Shibli's work reveals the pervading desire to be at home and the failure provoked by any attempt to turn this desire into a reality. She has expressed this frustrating dialectics by saying, 'Where there is a home, there is no house; where there is a house, there is no home.' The work Unrecognised shows the efforts people made to claim a home where the State forbids them to install most of the basic amenities for dwelling, namely to build proper houses on their own land. They are labelled trespassers on those lands and consequently denied recognition and representation by the authorities. In defiance of being treated as if they were not there, however, they adorn their tin shacks with colourful painting, plant gardens and prepare one room of their poor shelter for the reception of visitors.
Aesthetically, many of Shibli's photographs, the exposing of that which is there, reflect – acknowledge and at the same time refute – the official discourse of denied representation by producing pictures which veil as much as they reveal. More often she shows the objects people deal with than the people themselves. If people are represented, they are usually photographed in moments of quiescence, they are hidden in the shadow, or a face is covered by a piece of paper held up in front of it.
The work Trackers addresses Palestinian volunteers in the Israeli army who chose to become traitors of their own people in order to be able to build a house for themselves, and The Valley is concerned with construction activity that destroys the mountain which has in the past protected Shibli's home village, a consequence of the State denial of Palestinian land rights.
The frustrated sense of being at home in these works is conditioned by history – a history serving the identity of the Palestinian people and legitimizing this people's claim to its lands. That notion of home has to be comprehended in direct relation to the Jewish discourse stipulating a 'Land of Israel' on the basis of a different historical construction which is denying the identity of the Palestinian people and its entitlement to traditional lands, and above all it has to be comprehended as one of the few tools in the fight against Israeli politics of ethnic cleansing, apartheid and the deprivation of basic support structures.
In subsequent works Shibli has reconsidered and shifted the territorial and collective notion of home of a traditional society suffering from the destruction of its very foundations. Eastern LGBT depicts people of a sexual orientation that deviates from the norms of their Muslim home countries, Pakistan, Palestine, Lebanon, Turkey, Somalia, etc. Now, the very body of an individual is considered his or her primary home, and the home bound to a people and a territory is revealed in its oppressive nature. Since their socio-cultural origin imposes on the people whom Shibli photographed a gender identity which disallows them to feel 'at home' in their own bodies, they are forced to leave their 'home' and emigrate to places where they may dwell in a body which is gendered according to their individual preferences, be it as lesbian, gay, bi- or transsexual – such places they find in night clubs of Tel Aviv, Zurich, London, or Barcelona. These micro-societies of people who congregate by their will to decide on their own gender for the limited time of one night in the 'extraterritorial' place of a club, then may be considered their 'real' home – which still will be at odds with the norms of the communities of their origin which they are confined to for most of the remaining time.
In her most recent, yet unpublished work, which she has given the working title Trauma, Shibli explicitly confronts the authority of history as a force legitimizing a notion of home which is based on the unity of a people and its territorial rights. The gender-based individualism of the people figuring in Eastern LGBT returns in the guise of people connected to different and conflicting histories, and the ephemeral world of a night club returns in the guise of a social construction bracketed by exuberant symbolism. Trauma is concerned with the recent history of the small town of Tulle in central France, that history's contradictions, and its contemporary repercussions. On the 9th of June, 1944, Tulle was the place for revenge atrocities by the SS who hanged 99 residents from lamp posts and balconies in the main street and deported another 149 to German forced labour camps where most of them died. This traumatic event is commemorated each year with extensive celebrations and permanently with a large number of memorial items such as plaques in the street, street names, monuments, inscriptions on graves, and a museum.
When she came to Tulle, Shibli noticed that commemorations of the resistance to the German occupation by a disobedient part of the population and that population's suffering from the German rule and reprisals often were closely connected to commemorations of France's colonial war efforts in Indochina and Algeria. Any notion of home legitimized by historical claims had to be shattered by the question, 'How come that people would resist occupation of their home and suffer from the occupiers' atrocities, and soon afterwards would fight wars in Indochina and Algeria against people who in their turn demanded to be free of occupation and for that had to suffer again from repression – now inflicted by the same people who had battled the Germans?' It is an uncanny experience to detect in Shibli's photos the undistinguishing similarities between celebrations commemorating the efforts of the Resistance, the sufferings of the 'martyrs' and the 'sacrifices' of the military in colonial wars – those photos suggesting an official discourse which covers up the questioning of historical legitimacy through the waving of flags.
Shibli then spent two and a half months in Tulle to seek out and photograph individual people who had been affected by Tulle's trauma and people whose personal stories epitomize the conflicts which are buried under the symbolic overload imposed by a society attempting to generate superior unity by permanent reference to death: 'morts pour la France'. These include: a lady, supporter of the OAS, showing slides from her youth as a pied-noir in Algeria; a Harki [Algerian collaborator of the French army in the Algerian war] presenting the flag of his commemorative association; a so-called voluntary worker from Indochina who had been brought to France in the 1920s; former resistance fighters; sons and daughters of fathers who have been hanged or deported on the 9th of June, 1944. Through individuals Shibli reveals the mind-boggling inconsistency of history that consequently is profoundly contested as a legitimate foundation for any claim to a home. In some pictures a glimpse can be gleaned of a different notion of home – a family of Algerian descent who visit a neighbouring pied-noir family stating that Algeria is their home, or the daughter of Algerian immigrants in her 'typically French' living room who declares that she is at home wherever she stays. Home then is the place where individuals are mutually respected and accepted for what and who they are.
A major trait of Shibli's critique of the notion of home – critique in the Kantian sense of the revelation of conditions of possibility – is her use of photographic images which by their nature are informed by the particular. Her discourse is one of looking, of reading the signs and of detecting profound contradictions showing through the visual texture of the reality accessible to the photographic image. Looking at her photographs she had to correct in certain cases preconceived ideas. When she photographed children in orphanages in Poland (Dom Dziecka. The house starves when you are away), for instance, she had assumed that she would find children marked by the absence or the loss of home. What she saw, however, were signs of an unexpected 'childrens' society' which led one boy to say, 'It's not dom dziecka [childrens' home – the name of the institution], it is dom [home].'
That Trauma is concerned with the workings of history made the producing of this work especially challenging. How do you photograph history? Shibli took pictures extensively of memorials, tombs and inscriptions which are a society's prominent devices of historical mediation in public – including the trappings of ideological bending of history –, and she asked individuals to take her to places where something had happened which had been significant for their respective story, or to re-enact what they had experienced in the past. Further, the addition of captions became an essential feature of this work.
More significant in this work than in others, however, are photographs of documents which Shibli's witnesses showed to support their stories: photographs, letters, official declarations, newspapers, posters, maps, and the like. These documents usually are spread out as during a conversation, or held up to the camera by their owners, often taking prominence over the image of the persons themselves. Apart from collecting relevant information this means that Shibli turns her own medium of documentation back on itself, thus re-defining the position of the photographic document in relation to historical facts that are not accessible as an original reality but only through their graphic traces. Shibli's own photography then does not affirm a state of being but reveals itself as another moment in a sequence of traces. Thus the documentary medium turns into a device for contesting the authority of a historical status quo, and more specifically of history legitimizing traditional notions of home.
This essay was published in:
Ulrich Loock. "Ahlam Shibli's Critique of the Notion of Home", cura., no. 2, Rome, October–December, 2009.