Lenses of Emily Jacir Document Human Reality of Ordinary Palestinians

Doris Bittar

There is one word that best describes the thread running through Palestinian artist Emily Jacir's conceptually based photographs, videos, and installations: generosity. Whether Jacir is tackling the issues of the restricted lives of Palestinians, the complex reality of occupation, or issues concerning the commodification of women in the West, her approach is motivated by intelligence, patience, and above all, generosity.

Emily Jacir is now showing in the Whitney Museum's Biennalle and has had a two-page spread in Artforum; The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and Art in America, to name a few, have recently reviewed her work. Artforum described her as "an exile in Marlboro country." She brings the Palestinian narrative into the American mainstream.

In Middle Eastern culture, generosity is evident and expected, whether it be in trivial conversation or thoughtful action. This generosity often displays itself in doing tasks small and large for others. It often involves giving credit and thanks to others.

The series of photo essays, "Where We Came From," shows the painfully restricted lives of Emily Jacir's Palestinian brethren. Her ethnic memory and much-coveted American passport dictates and motivates her to fulfill the wishes of others who cannot travel. Jacir asks Palestinians from the various diasporas, "If I could do something for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?" She then carries out their wishes as best as she can. The texts are displayed in English and Arabic along side a photograph. In one piece a Palestinian girl would like her to go back to her hometown of Haifa and play soccer. Emily goes to the town, finds a young boy and plays soccer with him. A photo with her back to us documents her kicking a ball in a cramped urban lot. In another she places flowers on a mother's grave from a son who lives in Bethlehem and is not permitted to go to Jerusalem to pay his respects.

This poignant series brings together all of the social, political, and personal manifestations of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict through the lens of the hearts of ordinary Palestinians and their most basic desires: to eat a piece of sweet kinefi at a favorite deli in Jerusalem, to embrace a mother, or to place flowers on a loved one's grave. This contrasts with what many in the West think Palestinian dreams and wishes may be – to achieve martyrdom and go to paradise, for example. With this large body of work (30 wishes granted) and her genie-like choreography we are propelled to continue reading the next story.

The cumulative effect of these photo essays is powerful; reading each caption, seeing its Arabic partner, studying each exquisitely formed photograph – all build a kind of pressure inside the viewer's psyche. This persistence draws us not to a particular story but to an overall weight of being a witness and merely a fellow human. Through this technique, Jacir has successfully engaged a wide American and European audience, one often reluctant to be drawn into the specifics of the conflict.

Jacir's film, "Crossing Surda: a record of going to and from work," is a surreptitious account of her daily commute between Ramallah and Birzeit University over a period of eight days. It is a lengthy film that has a presence on its own: have the patience to view it. By default it acts as a backdrop to the photo essays. The viewer who is familiar with Jacir's other work inadvertently reads the film as a journal of her daily tribulations to and from her tasks of making wishes come true. It shows a wasteland of rubble, mud, dust-coated taxis, and an endless trail of marching men, women, and school children. She concealed the camera in her bag and through this eye we see the route to work for her and many others. We feel the weight of her gait; hear the sound of her footsteps.

When seen apart from the photo essays, the film takes on a different and altered meaning and once again has a cumulative effect of building pressure. Occasionally we are treated to a splash of color: a woman in the traditional, profusely-embroidered dress, a florescent orange shopping bag, and a sunny day with an electric blue sky become welcomed focal points. Otherwise, the film documents a gray reality that shows the punishing monotony of crossing checkpoints. The devil is in the details. "Crossing Surda," in its "final slow edit"” version, allows us to carefully examine the details of her walk. Every stone, the tread on a tank, and the marchers' gazes swaying as they walk – all elements take on an eerie significance. Viewers are pulled into the horror of the reality. An older Palestinian man slowly walks between a tank and an armored vehicle, we glide past a Coca Cola sign and a muddy puddle, a hand holding a cigarette bobs as a tank blocks the road. The figures we pass engage us with a haunting presence as the slow motion sound rumbles like distant thunder clouds.This sound builds and we realize that its pounding and angry rhythm is the sound of Jacir's own shoes slogging through mud.

Her earlier work, "From Paris to Riyadh: Drawings for My Mother" won her initial acclaim and was based on a childhood experience she had with her mother as they traveled from Paris to Saudi Arabia, where Jacir grew up. Her mother, with a marker, blackened the images of exposed parts of women in her Vogue magazine so as not to get the attention of the censors. Emily held on to these pages as one would cherish a gift and retraced them onto vellum years later – an homage to her mother, as the title suggests. The disengaged abstracted shapes are not immediately recognizable as female figures but slowly reveal themselves as emerging human forms. Jacir explains: "That piece is about being in between a place (Paris/NY) where the image of women is objectified and commodified, and a place where the image of women is banned (Riyadh)." Jacir's stance on feminism is to be critical of both societies. She is wary of becoming a mouthpiece for the simplistic and predictable Western feminist jargon that fails to approach Arab women's concerns and issues through tactics that promote dialogue rather than monologue.

For an earlier piece, Jacir took a United Nations-issued tent and asked Palestinians to embroider the names of the 418 Palestinian villages that were destroyed or depopulated by Israel in 1948. This collaboration was community-based and may have influenced her again to pay back those who had helped her by becoming a conduit for their stories.

In the Ramallah/Sieged Cities series, Jacir captured the utter and wanton destruction by the Israeli forces, yet at the same time showed a disciplined, formal restraint. Ramallah, in the late 1990s, was ever so briefly a shining example of what the Palestinians could achieve given half a chance. Its topography was in flux. Ramallah's new buildings were furnished with the latest technology and flowerpot-lined sidewalks stood beside the renovated older homes and buildings. Jacir lives in Ramallah and was a witness to its rise and fall. We are able to contemplate the language of patterns that chards of glass can make, or the view of Israeli soldiers' lost gazes as they "patrol" the broken glass and debris. These photographs exhibit stillness and at the same time horror. They do not explicitly offer editorial commentary even though they are pictures of mass devastation. Beautifully composed, they demand that we first be witnesses.

Jacir follows her concepts to their conclusions to create an experiential reality that carries the art and sweeps her audience into a mode of engagement. As with much of her work, whether it is the presence/absence of the female body or the stateless being of the Palestinian, Emily Jacir's insights and clarity offer us a seductively human path toward the political. Through her generous lens anyone with half a heart will ultimately be compelled to ask urgent questions.

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 10, nos. 46/47 (Winter/Spring 2004) 
Copyright (c) 2004 by Al Jadid

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