When San Francisco-based curator and educator Dr. Kathy Zarur was approached by Hilary Rand, founder of the suggestively titled nonprofit Institute of Advanced Uncertainty (I.O.U.SF), Zarur was intrigued. Rand’s proposition presented an opportunity for Zarur to achieve a long-sought goal: curating a group exhibition of contemporary Palestinian art that addresses landscape. Preoccupations: Palestinian Landscapes is that goal beautifully realized.
“Landscape” is, in equal parts, a complicated psychological and geographic construct. Its American origin story, for example, is heavily influenced the ideological notion that the land (and the indigenous populations who live on it) must be civilized (subjugated and exploited) by their (white) cultural superiors. Visual art — first painting, and then photography — was a powerful tool as the European colonial agenda to “settle” the North American continent was executed. For those who face colonization or expulsion, landscape is an equally potent idea. It represents a heady mix of self, family, home, community, and a sense of belonging in the world, none of which will be surrendered.
Since 1948, a dispute over land now occupied by Israel has been one of the entrenched geopolitical conflicts on the planet. Palestinians who were driven from their homes constitute one of the world’s long-standing refugee populations, and the fight to retain the few state-granted rights and land that is left to them is ongoing. Resolution of this profoundly complex question has bedeviled multiple generations on both sides. With that in mind, Zarur’s choice of Preoccupations as the exhibition title is more than fitting.
In the work of C. Gazaleh and Suhad Khatib, Palestine is an embodied experience. Best known as a muralist, Gazaleh’s densely-packed drawings incorporate Arabic calligraphy and graffiti. Somber faces of beautiful women and handsome men that are embedded in the graphic tangle stare back at the viewer. It is as if the figures are one with the text, which could be a poem, or political analysis, or a love letter that was written but never sent. The text threatens to overwhelm the figures, much as political rhetoric — viability of a two-state solution, the right of refugee return, East Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital city — exhausts those who live it day to day. In “Flight Over Jerusalem” (2015), the female figure floats above and away from the Jerusalem skyline, free to inhabit a world without oppression.