Palestinian photographer Ahlam Shibli on photography and home – artist profile

Palestinian photographer Ahlam Shibli presents “Staring”, an online commission at Remai Modern.

“Staring” is the online project by Palestinian Ahlam Shibli presenting 27 never seen before photographs.

Ahlam Shabli, 'The Spanish Specialities Store or Mari Dolores Sabates Juliana who came from Barcelona to Kassel in 1973', 2008. Image screen grab from Remai Modern and courtesy the artist.

Ahlam Shabli, ‘The Spanish Specialities Store or Mari Dolores Sabates Juliana who came from Barcelona to Kassel in 1973’, 2008. Image screen grab from Remai Modern and courtesy the artist.

“Staring”, which viewers could experience as the online commission on Remai Modern’s website during August 2017 (the exhibition is still online), consists of two bodies of work, with 27 images in total. Made in Hebron, the first series Unrecognized (2002) is an account of a Palestinian village that the Israeli state does not acknowledge. The other series entitled Trauma (2008–09) is the result of the artist’s investigation conducted in Kassel around communities that share experiences of exile, expellees from the eastern territories of the former German Reich after World War II and the “guest workers” who came from southern Europe and North Africa from the 1950s to 1970s.

Across these very diverse places, informed by diverse historical conditions, Ahlam Shibli revelas her continuing search for the “material” evidence of home. What the artist found were, according to the commission’s introductory text,

manifestations of an evasive place that was imagined and disappropriated, constructed and denied, remembered, sought, rejected, reclaimed. Home appeared inseparable from contestation and ideological, political, and economic violence.

Ahlam Shibli, 'Bicycles at the Hay atYahud/Avraham Avinu Israeli Settlement', 2009. Image screen grab from Remai Modern and courtesy the artist.

Ahlam Shibli, ‘Bicycles at the Hay at Yahud/Avraham Avinu Israeli Settlement’, 2002. Image screen grab from Remai Modern and courtesy the artist.

Both series have been displayed in institutions before, however what is currently available to see online are the images that Shibli herself excluded, or did not fit in the original showings of the series. Shibli thus explores the “online commission” as an alternative site for exploring the relations between representation and institutional limits, visibility and quantity. The images are organised in various thematic groupings, including “Origins”, “Pigeons”, “Gaze”, “Enclosure”, “Sports”, “Community” and “Representation”. Shibli states in an artist statement about the web commission:

I recombined these images to examine what is similar and what is different in situations apparently so far apart.

Ahlam Shibli, 'Puppets made by French prisoners of war at the stalag IX A Ziegenhan prison camp (the site has been used since 1948 to accommodate refugees of German descent, becoming the municipality of Trutzhain in 1955', 2009. Image screen grab from Remai Modern.

Ahlam Shibli, ‘Puppets made by French prisoners of war at the stalag IX A Ziegenhan prison camp (the site has been used since 1948 to accommodate refugees of German descent, becoming the municipality of Trutzhain in 1955’, 2009. Image screen grab from Remai Modern.

Shibli has long been working through notions of “home” in her photography. The artist’s first major retrospective at the Museum of Art Barcelona was entitled “Phantom Home”, and featured nine series of her documentary-style photographs, dating from 2000 to 2012. In a text commenting on the work Shibli made for 2017’s Documenta 14 in Kassel, the writer refers to Shibli’s conceptual concern with

matter that transcends the divisions between private and public: the mosaic of gestures and places that includes “views” (landscapes), speech situations (elicited by the artist), and biographical documents (excerpted from family archives).

Ahlam Shibli, ‘Untitled (Death, no. 37)’, 2011-12, Chromogenic print, Image courtesy the artist and MACBA Barcelona.

Ahlam Shibli, ‘Untitled (Death, no. 37)’, 2011-12, chromogenic print. Image courtesy the artist.

For Shibli, born in Galilee in 1970 of Bedouin descent, the notion of a homeland is a complex semantic, material, spiritual notion, encompassing the concept of family, the nation state as well as the body. Her photography practice pushes the limits between a documentary aesthetic and intimate profile, landscape and portrait, often choosing as her subject sites where notions of home and belonging are complicated by systems of oppression, structural racism or invisibilised historical narrative.

In a photographic series entitled “Death” (2013), Shibli depicts people across Palestinian society rehearsing their right to remember those lives lost due to years of Israeli military occupation and resistance movements. The project spotlights the memorial gestures of the families and friends of the Palestinian dead, including, for example, the first Palestinian woman to carry out a suicide bombing in Israel. In the public spaces of Nablus, commemorations are common and can be seen across the concrete walls or inside cafes and living rooms. The series seeks to document civil society’s informal art practices, which take the form of graffiti, memorial, posters and collective actions, which the artist recuperates as resistance to colonialism.

Ahlam Shibli, 'Sans titre Eastern LGBT n° 22, International', 20042006. Image courtesy the artist.

Ahlam Shibli, ‘Sans titre Eastern LGBT n° 22, International’, 2004/2006. Image courtesy the artist.

Ahlam Shibli, 'Sans titre Eastern LGBT n° 22, International', 20042006. Image courtesy the artist.

Ahlam Shibli, ‘Sans titre Eastern LGBT n° 22, International’, 2004/2006. Image courtesy the artist.

Shibli has also worked extensively across Europe, North America and the Asia-Pacific region. Previous projects, many of which were included in the “Phantom Home” exhibition, have focused on the monuments that commemorate members of the French Resistance against the Nazis together with French fighters in the colonial wars against peoples who demanded their own independence. Focusing on the bodies of sexual minorities across Europe, the project entitled “Eastern LGBT” (2004/2006) is a group of works portraying the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Eastern Europeans, exiled due to repression in their countries taking up residence across Tel Aviv, Barcelona, London and Zurich.

Ahlam Shibli, ‘Sans titre (Dom Dziecka n° 30), Dom Dziecka. The house starves when you are away’, 2008. Image courtesy the artist.

Ahlam Shibli, ‘Sans titre (Dom Dziecka n° 30), Dom Dziecka. The House Starves When You Are Away’, 2008. Image courtesy the artist.

“Dom Dziecka. The house starves when you are away” (2008) is a series of photographs taken in Polish orphanages – displayed for the first time at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw in 2009. Ahlam Shibli’s camera documents life in the orphanages. The artist observes the interiors, inquires the relationships among the members of the groups, follows the moments of intimacy and records all those apparently futile events in the daily routine.

Ahlam Shibli, ‘Untitled from “Dependence”’, 2007, Series of 29 photographs, 38 x 57.7 cm; 57.7 x 38 cm, Gelatine silver prints; chromogenic prints. Image courtesy the artist.

Ahlam Shibli, ‘Untitled from “Dependence”’, 2007, series of 29 photographs, 38 x 57.7 cm, 57.7 x 38 cm, gelatine silver prints, chromogenic prints. Image courtesy the artist.

Ahlam Shibli, ‘Untitled from “Dependence”’, 2007, Series of 29 photographs, 38 x 57.7 cm; 57.7 x 38 cm, Gelatine silver prints; chromogenic prints. Image courtesy the artist.

Ahlam Shibli, ‘Untitled from “Dependence”’, 2007, Series of 29 photographs, 38 x 57.7 cm, 57.7 x 38 cm, gelatine silver prints, chromogenic prints. Image courtesy the artist.

The series was made around the same time as a Barcelona-based project, which is also the result of the artist’s intensive research and preparatory work in a particular location. A year before Shibli spent time in Barcelona with migrant care workers co-constructing the project “Dependence” (2007), which focuses on the relations between immigrant care workers and their employers in Barcelona. The images in “Dependence” are, as much of her work, a product of her personal engagement with the subject she deals with, and her mission to cast light onto the otherwise “invisible” members and phenomena in society.

Rebecca Close

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Related Topics: Palestinian artists, site-specific installationphotography, art and politics, art about society, art and war

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