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A Palestinian Artist, with Camera

Joel Schechter
March 20, 2017

by Joel Schechter

AN INVENTIVE response to travel restrictions imposed on Palestinians by Israel can be seen in Emily Jacir’s photography exhibit, “Where We Come From,” at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art.

All four walls of one gallery display photographs taken by Jacir in Gaza, Haifa, Jerusalem and other zones where Palestinians find their travel restricted. The colorful photographs of urban and rural sites record Jacir’s journey to places that exiled and visa-denied Palestinians named when she asked them: “If I could do anything for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?”

Different respondents told Jacir they would like her to visit a relative’s grave site, look at the house their family once owned in Jerusalem, eat dessert in a favorite Gaza restaurant, kiss their mother, look at Haifa’s landscape atop a peak, water a tree in a village now demolished. The exiles, whom Jacir met in different locations, were not able to travel across borders and perform these simple, peaceful acts; but she did it for them, accompanied by her camera. Her photographs show cities and relatives visited, and captions next to the pictures describe the requests made to her by the exiles. The display is a visually moving and attractive record of the artist’s activity. Through her travel and photography, she became a representative of her countrymen and women and enabled them to see forbidden sights, or at least see photographs of the sights. (She herself is Palestinian by birth, and has been involved in Ramallah’s art scene.)

Her art does not exactly abolish borders, but it temporarily defies physical restrictions many face with regard to entering territories controlled by Israel. If one sees her activity as a protest, it is a quiet, artfully compelling protest against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands and the security laws that prohibit everyday actions and family reunions among those born and raised in them.

Jacir’s photographs were first displayed at San Francisco’s MOMA in 2008-2009 as part of a larger exhibit about passages and memory. Now her photographs have a room of their own, deservedly so, although no special billing or promotion has been given to them in the newly enlarged and recently reopened museum. Without reading the small-lettered captions accompanying Jacir’s photos, if looking only at the pictures, a visitor might miss their significance as records of service to exiles and symbolic defiance of travel restrictions. (Perhaps an American-born artist might consider starting a similar project on behalf of banned refugees and Muslims, if courts allow the Trump restrictions on immigration to be implemented.)

There is some irony in the display of Jacir’s Palestinian photographs, and their unspoken commentary on restrictive Israeli travel laws, at SF MOMA. The photogaphs are housed one block away from San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, which could not display such pictures without endangering its funding, some of which comes from sources that would not approve of the photographer’s outlook. We will know times have changed in our own country if and when Jacir’s exhibit or a sequel to it with newly requested pictures is able to move one block away, to be shown at CJM.

Joel Schechter is a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, and author of Radical Yiddish and
Eighteenth-Century Brechtians.