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A willful erasure of those very acts of erasure

Jul 07, 2016

For this blog post, scholar Shela Sheikh interviews artist Fazal Sheikh about the loss of memory and identity following the the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. What is at stake for Sheikh is the possibility of exposing and countering the various processes of erasure that, over the last several decades, have sought to erase both the violence of this history and the acts of erasure themselves. In the interview, they also discuss the politics of visualizing dispossession, and the potential of artists to reach across divisions, be they of ethnicity, religion, or class.

Fazal Sheikh, from The Erasure Trilogy, 2015Fazal Sheikh, from The Erasure Trilogy (2015)

Of the three bodies of work, only Desert Bloom has previously been exhibited. But it in fact seems necessary to consider them collectively in order to fully appreciate the significance of each.

Yes, in my mind they are so interconnected, and Desert Bloom provides a link between the first and the third bodies of work quite clearly. Across the three projects, one experience opened on to the next, as is the case in much of my work. And central to all three are the events of 1948, even if this isn't necessarily explicit when one views the Desert Bloom images, for instance. I'd read a lot about the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, so this seemed a natural place to start: visiting, interacting with, and interviewing people who'd been combatants on both sides of the divide. I realized the extraordinary rupture of what the turmoil around that time had created—a fissure within the society that is still palpable today. In all the time I've been there, this is what resonates with me the most: the idea of a scar just beneath the surface. Rather than leveling accusations at either side, my wish has been to try and address the wound, and to do so with what for me was an essential openness. Because this is such a taboo subject in the region, I want to mourn that loss and consider what that rupture has meant. A profound moment for me was early on during my visits, when it became unlawful to commemorate Nakba Day. I was driving through Sheikh Jarrah with one of my assistants, Talia Rosin, on the Israeli Independence Day, and there were thousands of young people gathered together right there to start the parade. Why had they chosen to gather here in this fiercely contested part of East Jerusalem? It seemed to me somewhat an act of provocation: this idea that for every new year there's the birth of something new and optimistic for Israel, whereas on the Palestinian side it's yet another year without some sort of resolution. This is something I explore in the third part of the trilogy, Independence/Nakba, which is comprised of a series of diptychs and is based on this very idea of the wearing of time: I wanted to articulate the expanse of time between 1948 and today (or at least 2013), so I photographed one person from each community to represent each year from the age of 1 to 65. (Importantly, on the Israeli side, I included people whose families had emigrated prior to the establishment of the State of Israel—people who also had a right to be there, a history there; people who, before the start of the state, had lived together as neighbors.) Here, as in Memory Trace, I saw my role as a kind of conduit. Although I was there as an outsider, this actually seemed to grant me the ability to engage with and be offered hospitality on both "sides," to use a not-so-popular term. In this way, both works respond to the blockade imposed by the separation wall, be this literal or on the level of understanding and dialogue. Having passed through Memory Trace and Desert Bloom, it became increasingly necessary for me to work within the seam, openly and responsively to both communities. What was striking to me was the rupture beneath the surface not only of the land, but also within people's psyches. I feel like this last part of the trilogy finally accomplishes that in a very understated way. What interested me with the diptych format was the sense that the viewer can only attend fully to one of the portraits at any given moment; but still, the other segment remains, creating a looming and synchronous sense of the space. I would hope that the viewer feels some kind of affinity in each case for both subjects. Both sitters harbor this expanse of time within them, this sense of history looming within and beyond the façade.

That sense of not quite knowing, or not explaining things away, seems very apparent in Memory Trace, which you describe as a "visual poem," insofar as it's a kind of hymn to traces that are being erased, or that are willfully not read, or wrongly attributed, mis-translated. The important thing is that the work both documents and leaves a lot unresolved— it shows the wound without naming it as such.

For me the strongest works I know are ones that raise questions and get you embroiled in the complexity and emotional weight of a situation, rather than operating in a straightforward mode. In some senses this was one of the greatest experiences I took away from working in Palestine: the longer you spend there, the more complicated and gray your sense of what's going on becomes. This was certainly something I wanted to invite the viewer to experience. In the case of Independence/Nakba, my aim was to somehow gesture towards that which is simmering just beneath the surface— this rupture, wound, or scar that looms, with a forceful yet unresolved presence, its legacy not yet healed. To me, that emotion is something that runs through all three pieces.

Exactly. But, nonetheless, many of the images function as tools for research.

Yes, certainly. It's important for me that the work operates on several levels and may be viewed in a variety of venues, including, but not limited to, the museum or gallery space. One of my real priorities is that the work be more activist in its intent; but I don't see this as being discordant with the aesthetic quality of the work. Often it's claimed that there's some impropriety in a work's being formally or aesthetically compelling, but in my mind it's more a matter of attention and care: creating a framework for someone else to see the space in question in the most inclusive fashion. This then, hopefully, provides an invitation to want to know more: in this case, to consult the accompanying testimonials and the extensive captions.

I'd like to pick up from earlier and ask more about the viewer's experience vis-à-vis context: for instance, viewing the Desert Bloom work in an exhibition space, obviously one has to have a certain amount of contextual narrative in order to begin to access the images: where they are, what they depict, what conflicts they register, and so on. Again, it's a matter of legibility. It seems simplistic, perhaps, to ask what the relationship is between image and text, but there is one and it's vital if these images are going to mean anything beyond simply being ciphers that open up unknown questions for most people. So there has to be some form of narrative around the image, as a point of access for the viewer.

As I mentioned, essentially, the image is a kind of invitation, and one hopes that the formal aesthetic qualities can encourage the viewer to want to know more about what they are viewing. In this case it's difficult, precisely because of the contested nature of narrative and historiography in this region—of what is and isn't visible, what is and isn't acknowledged—which the work addresses through its broader meditation on "erasures"; in the context of the exhibition, each space must have a clear description of what it is one's looking at, a clear reading of the image, as well as some things that one doesn't even see within the image. Hence the laborious research that was necessary in compiling the extensive captions. But at the same time, providing a clearcut message closes down the subtlety and the resonances that can create true understanding. In short, the image and its textual description must each function effectively in the absence of one another; then, when combined, the work becomes something that transcends the separate elements, with each part retaining its weight yet neither merely "illustrating" the other. For instance, an important part of engaging with the work is to experience the physical sense of it, the experience of moving within and through the space, trying to figure out what the image contains without necessarily knowing what one's looking at. In this sense, the experience is at once specific to the particularities of the Palestine–Israel context and transcends this, insofar as it's a matter of looking, reading, and responding to images, positioning oneself in relation to images, more generally. In the case of Desert Bloom, the scale is important: making such large images is not something I usually do, but in this case I wanted the viewer to have the feeling of being a little overwhelmed, surrounded by the images without a stable position or reference point. On the one hand, it's about looking: I'd like the person who comes to the work to have the opportunity to look at it in the way that I looked at it, to explore what it is that's before them before they're told what they're supposed to be seeing. The viewer is sometimes in a vast expanse without any rooting, without certainty. On that level, I rather like that opening, which I would say is also a quality that exists in portraiture. On the other hand, it's about more than the visuality of looking: returning to the particularity of the subject matter, the work, I hope, also demands that the viewer consider the modes in which we view and respond to the world around us, and in particular to zones of contestation such as this one, in which we are all in some way embroiled. Again, this is often a case of a deeply unsettling lack of assuredness, one that translates into many other contexts.

Across all three bodies of work, what's so captivating is the multivalent functioning of traces and inscription, both within that which is photographed and within the photographic medium itself. Perhaps, given that we've just been talking about Desert Bloom, we could begin here. We've already spoken about the lack of overtly legible traces left by the Bedouins on the land itself working to their detriment in terms of their claims to the land, and about your use of aerial photography as a tool for registering traces that would otherwise not be apparent. But could you say more about the idea of interpretation, or legibility, within the images themselves. This seems to be a key issue here, and one that also opens up onto the question of the evidentiary.

The interesting thing is how the photograph can be used as a kind of archaeology. It's a pause along a continuum; it holds within it everything that you need to access, but you also need a trained eye to unravel what it is you are looking at. The work is an elegy to something that is passing, being transformed. Each of the locations captured in the Desert Bloom images is locatable on a Google Earth timeline. Detailed within the captions are the coordinates of the space; that was important to me, so that the viewer could go to that exact site on Google Earth, which is public, and view for themselves what the last decade has done to that space. And then if you look, for instance, at one of my images from al-Araqib [see image above], it's an aerial view of just the planted troughs of the forest in preparation for the rains, but in point of fact when you go back the ten years on the Google Earth timeline, you see that on that same spot there were four houses, those of the Abu Jabber family. So I've mapped and traced what happened to the space on which the family once lived, marking its presence along the continuum and how that spot on earth has changed over time with the slow but sure encroachment of the afforestation onto it, followed by the demolition and complete eradication of the houses. Similarly, this land of al-Araqib, as shown in the image, was included in the official census of 1945, which registered Bedouin tents on the land. If you look carefully at the image, you see that there's a well from that time within the area of afforestation. Curiously, in the two and a half years since I made the photograph, it became evident that the figure, the form itself of the beginning of the forest, was in fact just a placeholder, was being used as something to hold the space in abeyance for later progress. What you have in the last two years is a train line that has gone completely across and through the area that was to be part of the Ambassador Forest. So all of the photographs I made are traces not only of the moment that I photographed them, but also of the traces that lie just below the surface, from some other time, sometimes going back as far as prehistory, to Nabataean-era or Byzantine-era inventories; or to the remains of recent demolitions in Bedouin villages, including in fact the Bedouins still living within the landscape, under threat of eviction. In this sense, they are traces of what is already fading—bearing witness not only to a certain presence, but also to the tide of transformation.

One sees here the connection between the landscape images and the portraits, in terms of what the image offers up as information. And this is a question both of indexicality and of narrative temporality, of what lies beyond the photographic instant. For instance, as you've just said about the Desert Bloom series, the photographs on the one hand function in the isolated moment that is registered in the making of the image; but on the other hand, their broader significance lies within the acknowledgement of the passage of time and of a narrative in which such a moment is enmeshed—a narrative that isn't immediately obvious to the viewer. And much the same thing is at work within the portraits, insofar as the faces photographed bear witness to layer upon layer of psychic traces and scarring, for a start; in other words, they each bear witness to a history, one that lies beyond the photographic frame. What I'm getting at is that in both cases—in the landscape images and the portraits—what's harbored therein isn't immediately legible; it resists translation into a clear, calculable language, or into "fact." And this element of opacity, although arguably the case for any photograph, seems particularly pertinent to the images of landscapes as well as the portraits.

When I consider the relationship between these aerial images and the portraiture, I realize that they both offer one the clues to that which is held within, beyond the immediate reach of the image, yet with close study there is an overture. In the case of the portrait, when I approach the encounter, it is with a desire to create a collaborative image that will offer the viewer a calm, open invitation to engage. In each case, you see that which is on the surface; you want to render it in an empowering way, you want to respect it, but you don't have all the tools at your disposal to unravel what it is exactly that you're looking at. What for me is compelling about the aerial material is that you can confront it on so many different levels, the Google Earth timeline comparison being so simple and yet so effective. Given the erasure or destructions of certain spaces, and with this the willful erasure of those very acts of erasure, my question, moving from Memory Trace to Desert Bloom, was that of what the land holds within. This seemed to me similar to what I was seeing in the landscape of the face. A portrait can do something very effectively if you approach the person in the right way and they offer you a kind of open, calm invitation. You realize that there's always something that the sitter retains for themself. And maybe the fissures in the face or the gaze allude to part of that. But for me a photograph has always been limited in that sense: there is always this degree of mystery. It's precisely this limit, however, that makes one wish to revisit the experience of looking.

You mentioned that you'd like the viewer to be able to "look" at things the way you saw them—with "looking" here functioning in an expanded sense—but also to consider their own mode of viewing and relating. Could you say something about how you yourself were able to grapple with the divisions and exclusions you encountered, and how being from "without" influenced this?

People often use the dichotomy of "insider"/"outsider," but for me neither is better or worse—it's just different. Perhaps the greatest photography book made about North America, The Americans, was made by Robert Frank, who's Swiss and who was encountering the country for the first time. I don't know what the right word for this is; perhaps "permission."

Rather than objectivity?

I don't think I'm objective at all; in fact I think my work is very subjective. What I'm referring to is an essential openness, without prejudice. Much of this, I think, comes from my own experience of being of mixed heritage, and hence of feeling at once at home and a little aside or "other"; it offers the desire to reach across a divide, whatever that may be. Maybe all of my work has been formed within that idea of reaching across divisions, be they of ethnicity, religion, or class.


Learn more about the associated exhibition. The complete version of this interview is also available.