Emily Jacir

Memories in Exile

by Chiara Gelardin

Art work-Emily Jacir, Memorial to 418 Palestinian Villages Destroyed, Depopulated 
and Occupied by Israel in 1948 (Detail), 2001.

At the opening at PS1 where Emily Jacir's Memorial to 418 Palestinian Villages That Were Destroyed, Depopulated and Occupied by Israel in 1948 was first exhibited in the spring of 2001, an Israeli woman, originally from Iraq, approached the artist and burst into tears. She thanked Jacir for the opportunity to "participate in this history." Moments later, the artist looked inside the Memorial (a refugee tent, like those distributed by UNRWA and the Red Cross) to find a man huddled in the corner, sobbing. He was from one of the four hundred and eighteen villages remembered in this extraordinary piece.

About four months after the present intifada started (September 2000), having known for years that she wanted to work on a memorial to these villages, Emily Jacir acquired a large burlap refugee tent. Onto its sides and roof, she penciled four hundred and eighteen names of Palestinian villages (based on Walid Khalidi's detailed book, All That Remains: the Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948). A blank space was left around the door; a poignant reminder that there are many more names—of villages, destroyed, depopulated and occupied since 1948—that could, and perhaps will, be added. Jacir then started, with thick black thread, to sew them onto the tent, perforating the fabric with her thoughts and feelings of that particular moment. Having realised the enormity of the task—each village would take approximately six hours to complete—she decided instead to open her studio, twenty-four hours a day, to anyone who was willing to help. Over a hundred and forty people came, many were Palestinians from these very villages or Israelis who had grown up on their remains. Others who joined were from Syria, Morroco, Tunisia and Lebanon, forming what Jacir calls "a sort of Arab collective." Some came—from various other nations—with little knowledge or direct personal connection to the history of Israel, but who wanted nevertheless, to partake in this special process of remembrance.

The stitching itself testifies to the collective nature of the project. It is varied, at times erratic and loose, at others meticulous and orderly; multiple hands were involved in the making of this memorial. A community of friends and volunteers enlivened Jacir's studio as they sewed—talking, reading (Khalidi's book was ever-present and constantly referred to), discussing politics, singing (on many occasions musicians came to play for the stitchers), drinking, telling stories and remembering.

Many who lived in New York in a state of exile, or who had lived alone with the trauma of the current intifada, found in the studio a place in which they felt safe from hostility and misunderstanding, in which they could share their thoughts and fears. A place of their own. They claimed this generic refugee tent and reconfigured it as a place not only of mourning and "working through," but of shelter and comfort. When the tent is shown now, Jacir says that it strikes her as "a relic, or a document of that period of time - of all those people, all the conversations, all those hands."

As a portable structure, the tent also calls attention to the displacement, not only of Palestinian people, but of their memories and histories. That displacement is explicit also in the abstracted names. For one thing, they are written in English. This is a work about exile, for those exiled. Jacir explains that, "many [Palestinians] who worked on the tent who were from the villages do not speak Arabic because they have lived here, and it is just as painful for them as it is for a refugee in Lebanon." The fear was also that, given the context of New York, had they been written in Arabic, they would solicit comments about the beauty of the script, undermining the pain and specificity of the work as a memorial.

Where We Come From
Emily Jacir
Where We Come From

Debs and Co. is pleased to present Where We Come From, the first New York City solo exhibition by Palestinian artist Emily Jacir.
For the main project exhibited, Jacir asked other Palestinians from around the world, "If I could do something for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?" The artist used her American passport and its accompanying "freedom of movement" status in an attempt to realize desires of people who have limited or no access to their own nation. The exhibition documents in text, photography and video the artist's fulfillment of these requests across artificial and dangerous borders. The presentation is simple and straightforward: photographs record a vista denied, a family separated, a bill paid, a historic district obliterated. A text in Arabic and English records each request and its outcome (some requests have been impossible to fulfill).

The requests made of the artist range from the seemingly everyday to the more obviously harrowing. Her charges vary from "play soccer with the first Palestinian child you meet in Haifa" to "go to my mother's grave in Jerusalem on her birthday and put flowers and pray." This latter charge was impossible for him to do himself, as he is required to ask permission of the Israeli authorities when he wishes to enter Jerusalem. On the last anniversary of his mother's death, he was denied access to her grave. When Jacir went there in his stead, she was surprised to see tourists surrounding the neighboring grave of Oscar Schindler. This hero of resistance to the Nazis is buried next to a woman whose son lives a few kilometers away in Bethlehem and who is forbidden from paying his respects. The irony of the situation sheds light on the calculated division and dispersal of the people, history and culture of Palestine.
Jacir's project arises, partly, in response to the proliferation of checkpoints, borders and boundaries that has occured within and across Palestine through the years. Even those who carry a priceless American passport (who are thereby theoretically able to cross these various boundaries) are subject to dehumanizing humiliations in an effort to discourage people from entering or moving around the country. Jacir began her 190-minute video piece Crossing Surda (A Record of Going to and from Work) after she had been held for three hours at gunpoint in freezing rain by an Israeli soldier who had thrown her American passport in the mud. Following this incident, Jacir secretly and illegally recorded a week of her daily crossing as she travelled within the West Bank from Ramallah to Birzeit University. The two-channel video reveals an everyday commute to work through extraordinary conditions that have somehow become "normal."
This spring, Emily Jacir will be included in the Whitney Museum ISP's exhibition Homeland, in private/public at Häusler Contemporary in Munich, and in Made in Palestine at the Art Car Museum in Houston.
Jacir has recently exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art Oxford, the University Art Gallery in Boulder, the Queens Museum of Art, Apex Art, the Art Car Museum in Houston, and Gallery 400 in Chicago. She was included in Greater New York at PS1 in 2000.
Born in 1970, Jacir was a PS1 studio program resident in 2000-2001, a World Views resident in 1999-2000, and attended the Whitney Independent Study Program from 1998-1999.
This project was originally commissioned by Al-MA'MAL Foundation for Contemporary Art in Jerusalem. It was made possible by the generous support of Al-Ma'Mal as well as Alex Khalil.

Debs & Co. 525 West 26th Street, Second Floor, New York, NY 10001. 212.643.2070.
Sexy Semite 2000-2002
Memory and Exile: The Borderless Art of Emily Jacir

Every morning I walk my dog around Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis. Nothing special, just the comfortable familiarity that comes with wandering beloved terrain day in and day out. But sometimes I wonder: what if this was all gone, if I was banned from ever coming here again? How, then, would I cherish this mundane ritual? Artist Emily Jacir addresses these issues head-on, telling the stories of people who don’t have the luxury of pondering such what-ifs—Palestinians in exile, both within Israel and abroad.

The reality of not being able to return home, or to move freely, is at the heart of Jacir’s recent project Where We Come From (2001–2003). A Palestinian artist with an American passport, Jacir can travel where other Palestinians can’t—into and out of the Occupied Territories, to her parents’ home in Ramallah and to her studio in New York. For the project she asked exiled Palestinians: “If I could do anything for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?” She then took their answers—“Go to my mother’s grave in Jerusalem on her birthday and put flowers and pray.” “Drink the water in my parents’ village.” “Go to Gaza and eat Sayadiyeh.”— and set out to fulfill them.

She paid the phone bill of a man who is forbidden from going to the Jerusalem post office himself. She delivered hugs and kisses to missed family members, took a snapshot of an ancestral home, played soccer with a random boy in Haifa, lit a candle on the beach. She documented her encounters with a photo or video, each shot from her vantage point, a perspective that allowed the person to project themselves into forbidden spaces, if only virtually. The work’s presentation is serene: requests, printed in English and Arabic, are mounted beside the documentation. In this stillness, the border between worlds seems both photograph-thin and unmercifully impassable.

These themes—exile and memory—permeate much of Jacir’s work. In From Texas With Love (2002), she uses an American icon of freedom—a wide-open highway—to evoke the smothered dreams of Palestinians. Again, she began with a question: “If you had the freedom to get in a car and drive for one hour without being stopped (imagine that there is no Israeli military occupation, no Israeli soldiers, no Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks, no ‘bypass’ road) what song would you listen to?” She set their selections—51 songs ranging from Madonna’s “Material Girl” to traditional Arabic music—to an expansive hourlong video, a continuous shot down a seemingly unending roadway. Created during an artist residency in Texas, the piece was about “being in a place so incredible and beautiful and being able to drive freely and to listen to music, and at the same time wanting to cry because this cannot happen back home.”

But while Jacir’s work is tinged with sadness, it’s also spiked with humor. In her subversive Sexy Semite (2000–2002), she peppered the Village Voice with personal ads for Palestinians looking to settle down in Israel. One asks “Do you love milk & honey? I’m ready to start a big family in Israel. Still have house keys.” Another, more pointed, reads: “You stole the land. May as well take the women! Redhead Palestinian ready to be colonized by your army.”

The ads slyly suggest a way around an irreconcilable issue in the Middle East peace process: by marrying Israelis, Palestinians can gain citizenship and thus sidestep calls for the “right of return” (an unfulfilled provision of UN Resolution 194 that promises Palestinian refugees the chance to return home). But, given their placement in the love-wanted section instead of world news, the ads seem less about policy than the personal. Individual lives—people seeking love, a sense of home, the kind of daily routine you and I enjoy—are profoundly impacted by the occupation. And perhaps it’s through individual relationships that the conflict can ease. As one ad punned: “Palestinian Male working in a difficult occupation. I’m looking for a Jewish Beauty… Only you can help me find my way Home.”

- Paul Schmelzer