In­dia Stoughton talks to Le­banese artist Mar­wan Rech­maoui about an evoca­tive new ex­hi­bi­tion in Beirut

The National - News - - ARTS & LIFESTYLE -

It was the British who paved the way for the Nakba, the bloody found­ing of the state of Is­rael marked by the mas­sacre and mass ex­pul­sion of hun­dreds of thou­sands of Pales­tini­ans from their home­land.

In A Na­tional Mon­u­ment, which opens on Thurs­day at Dar el-Nimer for Arts and Cul­ture in Beirut, a se­ries of beau­ti­ful, hand-drawn maps made dur­ing the fi­nal years of British Man­date fore­shadow the tragic events of 1948 and the decades of con­flict to fol­low.

Visu­al­is­ing Pales­tine, a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion es­tab­lished in 2012 to use data to draw at­ten­tion to the Pales­tine-Is­rael con­flict, has col­lab­o­rated with Le­banese artist Mar­wan Rech­maoui to ex­hibit a se­ries of two and three-di­men­sional maps of his­tor­i­cal Pales­tine.

The high­light of the ex­hi­bi­tion is a se­ries of 22 carved ply­wood sculp­tures by Rech­maoui, each cap­tur­ing a Pales­tinian city or town, sanded to a soft sheen. The de­tail and tex­ture of these sculp­tures is a way of re­claim­ing the phys­i­cal­ity of a land that has be­come al­most myth­i­cal for many Pales­tini­ans in the 70 years since the Nakba. “For most of us my age and younger, Pales­tine is a story or it’s an idea or it’s a cause or it’s a be­lief, but it’s never an earth you stand on. You’re not al­lowed to stand on it,” says the artist, who was born in Le­banon in 1964.

Each sculp­ture is made up of squares of wood based on the grid over­lay­ing a se­ries of beau­ti­ful, hand-drawn maps cre­ated by the British be­tween 1946 and 1948. Each sculp­ture is to scale with the maps, so while the smaller towns fit on a sin­gle square, Jerusalem cov­ers four. Their po­si­tions in the gallery cor­re­spond to their geo­graphic lo­ca­tions, cre­at­ing a scale map of pre-Nakba Pales­tine that spans the length and breadth of the gallery.

The wooden sculp­tures are sur­rounded by a sea of 1,500 dots, rep­re­sent­ing smaller Pales­tinian vil­lages from the pe­riod. The ex­hi­bi­tion’s cu­ra­tor, Ah­mad Bar­clay, an ar­chi­tect, vis­ual com­mu­ni­ca­tor, prod­uct de­signer and part­ner with Visu­al­is­ing Pales­tine, copied these from an over­print on the orig­i­nal maps cre­ated by the Is­raelis in the 1950s to show new set­tle­ments, as well as Pales­tinian vil­lages marked as “de­stroyed” in He­brew.

Vis­i­tors can walk be­tween the sculp­tures, peer­ing down at minia­ture tableaux of his­tor­i­cal Pales­tine, a coun­try that has taken on a sym­bolic sta­tus for many Pales­tini­ans liv­ing in ex­ile, un­able to re­turn. While the maps are rem­nants of the colo­nial ap­pro­pri­a­tion of Pales­tinian land, the sculp­tures are a ten­der ode to lost cities, a means of re­claim­ing what has been stolen.

“My fa­ther’s fam­ily is Pales­tinian. I was born here and I’m Le­banese, but I hear the Pales­tinian ac­cent at home. It’s very close to me,” says Rech­maoui. “Grow­ing up in a house where you have vis­i­tors sleep­ing on the couch for a few days and then dis­ap­pear­ing and then an­other vis­i­tor sleep­ing on the couch for a few days and then dis­ap­pear­ing. For me that’s the Pales­tinian is­sue. It’s tran­si­tional, al­ways.”

He is fas­ci­nated by the sym­bol­ism of the grid, which he says rep­re­sents the British im­po­si­tion of moder­nity over Pales­tine. “It be­came a step to­wards colonis­ing the coun­try, but also in­tro­duc­ing this way of think­ing, which is alien from the lo­cal,” he ex­plains. “When you have the grid, you can make the bor­ders of a piece of land, of real es­tate. Be­fore that, I still re­mem­ber how my grand­par­ents di­vided the in­her­i­tance of a piece of land. It was oral. It was like, ‘Your prop­erty is from this tree to that wall. And then from that wall to the other tree is your brother’s prop­erty.’ But if the speaker dies, no­body will know where the prop­erty is. So there was this con­flict be­tween the sci­en­tific ap­proach of the grid and the po­etic ap­proach of the oral.”

Bar­clay ap­proached Rech­maoui to

cre­ate the sculp­tures as a way of bring­ing to life a data­base of maps com­piled by Visu­al­is­ing Pales­tine. Bar­clay was able to cre­ate com­puter-gen­er­ated three-di­men­sion models of the land­scape by match­ing the his­tor­i­cal maps to to­po­graphic in­for­ma­tion pro­duced by Nasa. On­line, the maps have also been geo-ref­er­enced to Google maps, so that vis­i­tors can con­trast his­tor­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary views of the same city, town or re­gion.

The col­lec­tion, which in­cludes Ot­toman, French and English maps dat­ing from 1870 to just be­fore the Nakba, is avail­able on­line at palopen­

Vis­i­tors to the ex­hi­bi­tion can ex­plore these maps on dig­i­tal tablets, com­par­ing the his­tor­i­cal maps to con­tem­po­rary Google maps of the same cities and re­gions. The on­line data­base is de­signed to fa­cil­i­tate col­lab­o­ra­tions with or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the Pales­tinian Oral His­tory Ar­chive, due to launch later this year. Bar­clay hopes that the maps will even­tu­ally be linked to pho­to­graphs and sto­ries from dif­fer­ent ar­eas of Pales­tine.

The cu­ra­tor has also cho­sen to ex­hibit prints of the maps that in­spired the sculp­tures, which are beau­ti­ful draw­ings in shades of green, red and or­ange. “They’re aes­thet­i­cally very at­trac­tive, al­most like pieces of art,” Bar­clay says, “but also it’s this kind of arte­fact, ev­i­dence, from be­fore the Nakba … There’s an el­e­ment of these maps be­ing an arte­fact of a process of coloni­sa­tion. They’re cre­ated with the in­tent of map­ping out the ter­ri­tory for the Zion­ist move­ment to pur­chase land, trans­fer land, to colonise the ter­ri­tory, ini­tially hand-in-hand with the British.”

Rech­maoui’s work as an artist has long be­trayed a fas­ci­na­tion with space, geog­ra­phy and map­ping, from his 2004 work Beirut Caoutchouc, a large rub­ber floor-mat based on a map of Beirut ac­cord­ing to sec­tar­ian di­vi­sions, to his 2016 work Bla­zon, an enor­mous in­stal­la­tion made up of 400 flags and 59 shields, con­vey­ing the writ­ten and oral his­to­ries of Beirut’s dis­tricts as ex­pressed through names, land­marks and fig­ures.

In A Na­tional Mon­u­ment, he has found a way to use the tools by which the British di­vided and ap­pro­pri­ated Pales­tine – em­ploy­ing maps and grids to di­vide it up math­e­mat­i­cally, as though it was an ab­stract con­cept, rather than a phys­i­cal land, home to thou­sands of peo­ple – to re­claim Pales­tine as a tac­tile re­al­ity, both on a per­sonal and a pub­lic level.

“I’m learn­ing a lot about the to­pog­ra­phy of Pales­tine, but by hand, not by eye. I have to touch it all the time, see where the hard parts are, to sand them and make them softer, so I spend my whole day like a blind per­son go­ing around the to­pog­ra­phy of the coun­try,” he says. “You start feel­ing the dif­fer­ence be­tween coastal cities and moun­tain­ous cities. It’s like Braille. And sym­bol­i­cally it’s very much like that, be­cause it’s a place that you don’t see, but you’re touch­ing it.”

A Na­tional Mon­u­ment is on show at Dar el-Nimer in Beirut un­til Jan­uary 26

Pho­tos Visu­al­is­ing Pales­tine

Above, the ex­hi­bi­tion fea­tures a se­ries of 22 carved ply­wood sculp­tures; and right, a se­ries of two- and three­d­i­men­sional maps of his­tor­i­cal Pales­tine

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