Emily Jacir’s exhibition Europa, currently showing at the Whitechapel Gallery, feels especially relevant in the current climate of mass migration, confusion and fear. Jacir is a Palestinian artist who spent her childhood in Saudi Arabia and went to high school in Italy, and this collection of installations, works on paper, photo and film reflect her own diverse personal geography as well as more generally exploring the dialogue between the Middle East and West, and migration.
There are works here that perfectly meld poetry and politics: From Paris to Riyadh (drawings for my mother) is a work based on memories of flying back to Saudi Arabia as a child with her mother, who would spend the flight blacking out the “illegal” bits of Vogue magazines – exposed female flesh – in order to be able to take them into the country. Jacir’s response is a grid of A4 pieces of tracing paper onto which she has repeated her mother’s practice, one drawing for each year between 1977 and 1977. The result is at first an incomprehensible wall of rhythmical abstract black shapes, which, under the viewer’s gaze slowly reveals a leg here, a breast there. It’s a powerful testament to this fascinating gesture in which her mother simultaneously defied a severely patriarchal regime and became the agent of her own repression by literally censoring the female body.
A similar work which makes a powerful political statement through a simple scriptural gesture was stazione for the 2009 Venice Biennale, an intervention on the vaporetto (water-bus) lines in Venice in which she put the Arabic names of the stops next to the Italian, highligting the many Arab influences and exchanges in the history of Venice; the project was however stopped at the 11th hour by the vaporetto company, who cited “political reasons”, so what we see in the exhibition is a series of photographs of what should have happened. However, the centrepiece of Europa has to be Material for a film, an ongoing process of researching, collating and remembering which started in 2005.
The installation (for want of a better word) about the death of Wael Zuaiter, a Palestinian intellectual assassinated in Rome in 1972, starts with a blank wall and a 6x4in photo of his corpse on the pavement. The main thread is Jacir’s diary entries and accompanying snapshots of her trips to his various homes, like a detective uncovering evidence. This is interspersed with artefacts from his life – letters, pages of books, articles written by him, a recording of Mahler, the score of which, after his death, the police isolated as suspicious material from his personal effects, not understanding what the notes meant, indicating their total lack of comprehension and sympathy for a man who was clearly passionate about music and literature, much less violence and subversion. A letter form Jean-Paul Sartre recommending Zuaiter to someone indicates the kind of people he associated with; snapshots of books from his apartment shows an eclectic but distinctly Westernised literary taste, with Walt Whitman, Wordsworth, Auden and Eliot amongst the poets, and Goethe’s Faust, the Marriage of Figaro, Engels and the Penguin Dictionary of Astronomy amongst others. There is even a 30 second clip of his performance as a waiter in The Pink Panther and a photo of the copy of 1001 Arabian Nights he was carrying when he was shot; the 13th bullet hit the book’s spine.
This cumulative building up of a life is augmented with Jacir’s diary entries on the walls, of her visit to his home in Rome, outside which he was shot, to Nablus, his home town (to which the Israelis would not allow his body to return), and her conversations with his friend Janet, who gives testimony to his character. Oddly, she start her own story in media res, so that you find out how she even came to meet Janet at the end of the installation, and she never bothers to explain who the people are that she references, plunging the audience into the story; this slow trickle of information, adding new dimensions to the character she is building for Zuaiter, makes a deeper impression on the viewer because the apparent lack of ordering to the information leads to new surprises at every turn.
The installation culminates this sense of collective remembrance with a number of statements about Wael from his friends and peers, ranging from the ridiculous – “he used to make hummus with peanut butter” – to the sublimely impassioned conviction of his innocence: “He was the most peaceful person I ever met in my life”; “Wael was a pacifist”; “Wael was completely against violent resistance”. Material for a film is presented as and feels like an exhibition of a person’s life, and I was startled upon finishing it to remember that it was in fact a single work of art. It is, ultimately, the art of remembrance.
Emily Jacir: Europa is on at the Whitechapel Gallery until 3rd January 2016.