Memory Metamorphosis: An Exhibition on Palestine Remembered In conversation with Greta Scharnweber

Notoriously elusive, complex, and difficult to define, memory has become a focal point for multiple studies in the academic and public spheres. In the Palestinian context, 2017 has been a year of commemorations, marking 100 years since the Balfour Declaration which saw Britain give its support to the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine and 50 years since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights following the Six Day War of 1967.

As two landmark moments in the history of the Palestinians, perhaps then there was no better time for the School of Oriental and African Studies, better known as SOAS, University of London, to display Memory Metamorphosis: An Exhibition on Palestine Remembered in its Wolfson Gallery. A small but beautifully conceived exhibition that captures the thought-provoking stories of many Palestinians now scattered across the world, through the media of artwork, sculpture and song, Memory Metamorphosis brings to the fore key themes of dispossession and longing, but simultaneously resilience and resistance, that have come to epitomise what it means to be Palestinian.

The exhibition was the creation of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, a leading centre for the study of the modern Middle East located at New York University. With London among their 14 international campuses, exhibition curators Greta Scharnweber, Jacqueline Reem Salloum and Suhel Nafar were keen to display the exhibition at the Wolfson Gallery in the belief that it would gain exposure among the many SOAS students interested in Palestinian issues. I was fortunate enough to speak with Greta about the exhibition, its artists and the tales that led to its creation.

Given the significance of 2017 as a year of remembering Palestinian history, the poignancy of Memory Metamorphosis is clear. Greta points out that ‘for those of us that research Palestinian identity and rights, [2017] is a most sombre occasion,’ with any student or scholar specialising in the subject ‘approaching this landmark anniversary year with utmost seriousness.’ The exhibition has many aims, but chief among them is that it seeks to remind onlookers that ‘the Palestinian losses that date back to 1917, or 1948, or 1967, are far from distant memories. Rather, they are intensified by the passing of years and generations.’

The exhibition was conceived as an opportunity to interpret such Palestinian memories, often recorded in the diaspora due to the displacement and dispossession that befell the Palestinian people in the Nakba of 1948 and again in 1967. Greta explained that ‘every semester the Hagop Kevorkian Center hosts non-academic “practitioners” who share their field of expertise with our graduate students, and as such Memory Metamorphosis came about through the workshop led by our Fall 2016 practitioners in residence, artists Jacqueline Reem Salloum and Suhel Nafar.’

It was their vision to interpret Palestinian memories in this way, combining film interviews (visible as part of the exhibition using QR technology) with multiple forms of artistic expression. This variety of media was a deliberate and conscious decision and Greta believes that ‘part of the exhibit’s strength is the variety of approaches and mediums used to express the memories. Each of the six artists used totally unique approaches to their craft, and we are able to see and learn more about different elements of the interviewee’s memories than perhaps we would have seen through only watching the video.’

On a practical level bringing the exhibition together was no easy feat. One of the initial challenges that faced the artists from inception was the obstacle of geography. Each of the artists never met the interviewees whose stories are portrayed in the videos, both for logistical and budgetary reasons but also as a way of mirroring the current situation of many Palestinians. Greta suggests that ‘working on this exhibition was very much about making complex exchanges across time and space, and using digital technologies to transcend some of the challenges that otherwise might have set us back.’

Another challenge posed by physical space was the question of transporting the artworks to their required location. One of the most striking exhibition pieces, a birthday cake made of bullets, had quite a journey to London:

‘The most interesting challenge had to do with Jacqueline Reem Salloum’s beautiful sculpture, sana halwe ya okhti (Happy Birthday, dear sister).  Representing a birthday cake that Soumaya [one of the interviewees] recalls as breaking a taboo on celebration in the refugee camp she grew up in, a cut slice out of the cake reveals M16 bullets. While the bullets are decommissioned, we knew they would present a challenge to move across borders, whether we shipped them or moved them through airports in checked baggage. After some strange calls to JFK airport and to Norwegian airlines, I am happy to report that while I am certain the story of our cake will be retold among NYC-based TSA [Transportation Security Administration] agents for quite some time, I ultimately was able to check the cake (carefully packed in bubble wrap) and take it from New York to London.’

Greta observed that ‘my own identity as a white, non-Arab, non-Palestinian, almost certainly resulted in this story having a happy ending,’ a fact which only further highlights one of the many questions raised by an exhibition focused on granting what Edward Said once termed ‘permission to narrate.’ In such a highly-charged topic of discussion with so many powerful actors at play, making space for those marginalised stories is both necessary and overdue.

It is these stories that take centre stage in Memory Metamorphosis. Visitors to the Wolfson Gallery are immediately struck by a colossal painting imbued with rich green tones and the striking image of a Palestinian woman. Her arms are folded patiently across her body, holding a terracotta plant pot from which vines littered with delicate flowers creep their way to the outer corners of the piece. Her eyes closed and head held tall, she is the picture of serenity and grace. Titled ‘The Flowering Body’, this beautiful piece explores the figure of a strong Palestinian woman and mother, bearing fruits from the soil and children for the land, as artist Dina Matar dedicated the piece with the words ‘Umm Jalaa, you never died – the seeds you sowed are still sprouting from the land, and from your womb as well.’

Created in response to the memories of Jalaa’ Abdelwahab, a Jerusalem-born Palestinian who grew up in Ramallah during the First Intifada and later emigrated to the United States, the piece pays homage to the centrality of women and nature in traditional Palestinian imagery. Yet away from this by now long-engraved symbolism, the piece also explores the simplicity of remembering a mother. In his video interview Jalaa’ explains how his mother passed away while he was in college, but that the smell and taste of peaches always evokes vivid memories of her and childhood days spent playing on the land. He told his interviewers

‘I was eating a peach the other day and peaches here suck generally, but if you do find a good peach that’s juicy and smells amazing, to me that’s a reflection […] and a lot of senses are triggered by food and fruits. The seed of the peach fruit is so brilliant, red, burgundy, and it is a really intricate carving, and I remember that my Mum always used to keep the seed of the peach in her pocket […] after she passed away I went through her stuff and in every jacket that she had or every pair of pants that she had there was a dry peach seed. Whenever I see a peach now that signifies so much to me of my Mum, the land, and maybe the loss as well.’

Such simple memories are captured with humility and emotion throughout the exhibition. From Suaad Amiry’s recollections of visiting the famous Zalatimo Sweetshop in Jerusalem’s Old City to Sumaya Yousef’s memories of looking out at the wheat fields outside their home in the Fawaar refugee camp south of Hebron, the exhibition is in many ways an exploration of everyday life and normalcy. Something which is so often lacking in the lives of Palestinians, the importance of preserving these “normal” memories is something which Greta believes is central to the role of Memory Metamorphosis. Although as she points out:

“all of our lives are made up of tiny moments, little events or experiences that add up to one’s larger sense of identity […] I think for individuals or groups that are displaced, especially in a violent way without hope of return, that this rupture of the routine further cements “the way it used to be” in people’s minds, and elevates the importance of those “good old days.”

While many of the interviewees acknowledge the role of nostalgia in forming their memories of Palestine, this does not negate ‘the profound sense of loss [which] is tied up in the collective whole of these memories; the sense of what is missing. Those losses are almost more tangible and relatable when they are linked to a seemingly mundane occurrence like the taste of a particular food or recalling a particular site that may or may not still exist’ like those memories of Jalaa’, Suaad and Sumaya.

That this memory is often at risk of becoming lost with the passage of time and the continued absence of a right of return for Palestinians can be seen in the theme of generational memory explored by the exhibition. In a culture in which familial ties remain strong and stories of life in Palestine are passed on through grandparents and parents alike, memory is consistently developed, altered and re-remembered to create a complete metamorphosis and re-interpretation of its significance.

This idea is explored in Tanya Habjouqa’s piece ‘Swimming with Khubaze’, a striking photographic work which features a young, ebony-haired girl floating in a white bath tub. Surrounded by leaves and jet black soil turning the water an ethereal grey, the photograph plays on Anwar Mohammed Yousef’s memories of plucking khubaze, a wild plant native to Palestine used for food and traditional medicines, from his ancestral home

I went to Bayt Mahsir in 1982, the first time. It was a shock. They gave my house to a Soviet immigrant and I had the chance to talk to her, to the lady who lived in our house, and I collected khubbayza from in front of the house. We share the parent’s memory. We share their thoughts of it. We share their feeling about it. It becomes an inborn thing in us.

Anwar’s observation that ‘all my memory is the memory of my parents’ is indicative of the passing down of memory in generations of Palestinians. Greta reminds us that ‘the Nakba in 1948 displaced many Palestinian families—and such a displacement generally means that families and friends relied on each other to become each other’s home, in a sense.’ She notes that ‘one interesting and unforeseen thing that came about organically in Memory Metamorphosis when we brought it London is that two of the artists involved their own young children as models and co-artists in their submissions.’ In the case of ‘Swimming with Khubaze’, Tanya Habjouqa’s daughter Naya co-conceived her photography piece and as such becomes an ‘active agent in reinterpreting these memories and bringing them new life.’ Greta reflects that ‘I think it is human to put stock and hope into the next generation, and Memory Metamorphosis explores this future in subtle but important ways.’

Few pieces displayed in the exhibition discuss what this metamorphosis of memory means for the future, not only of the ideas and narratives it protects but for the Palestinian community at large. One interviewee who does so is Father Khader, whose story inspired the work ‘Heart of Longing’ by Mohamed Al Hawajri. Born in Beit Jala near Bethlehem and now pastor of Salam Arabic Lutheran Church in Brooklyn, New York, Father Khader seeks to ‘be a builder of bridges’ and the ‘voice of the voiceless’ in his intercommunity work. On the question of what role cultural exhibitions like Memory Metamorphosis can play in any sort of peace process or resolution to the ongoing reality of Palestinians, Greta believes exhibitions like this ‘in fact have a far more promising approach than do the diplomatic negotiations that have failed us all so miserably.’ She concludes

‘as human beings we owe each other opportunities to be who we are, to share our stories, to listen to what one another has to say, and to acknowledge perspectives even if they conflict with our own. This exhibit attempts to create a creative space for that type of human interaction while also preserving a handful of memories and stories in an interesting, creative, and hopefully beautiful way. It is overwhelming to think that the most minute of details extracted from these stories could inspire the artwork that forms Memory Metamorphosis. It is still more astounding to consider that there are millions more stories out there from Palestinians still living under occupation or in the diaspora. We hope to be able to share more of those stories with future audiences.’

Memory Metamorphosis was displayed at the Menier Gallery in Southwark, London between 5th – 9th December, more details of which can be found here.

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Published by AsfarEurope in London, UK - ISSN 2055-7957 (Online)