Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

W. J. T. Mitchell reviews The Origins of Palestinian Art

Bashir Makhoul and Gordon Hon. The Origins of Palestinian Art. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013. 269 pp. Hardcover $99.95. Paperback $35.95.

Reviewed by W. J. T. Mitchell

The title of this book could easily lead the unwary reader astray. It sounds like a very old-fashioned form of art history, focused on a national tradition, and concerned with establishing deep roots in a remote past. Nothing could be further from the truth about this very ambitious and wide-ranging treatment of contemporary Palestinian art. The book is situated primarily in the “post-Nakba” (post-catastrophe) era after 1948, and it treats every one of its key terms—“origins,” “art,” and “Palestine”—with the most critically agile alertness that I have seen in any of the large and growing literature on this subject. The question of origins, to begin with, is carefully unpacked in relation to Edward Said’s notion of “beginnings,” a contrast between archaic, mythic starting points and the ever-present imperative to open up new possibilities. And yet rather than simply settle for Said’s modern, secular formulation, Makhoul and Hon deconstruct the opposition to show the ways that beginnings are also endings (the Nakba serving as the primary example), and have a tendency to turn into origins that are constantly being transformed by art into new beginnings. 

This dialectic is especially pertinent to the other keyword of the title, which implies the question of the nation and nationalism. Makhoul and Hon work through the very considerable literature on this subject, particularly Ernst Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm, and Benedict Anderson, in a lively, critical exploration of the ways that classic theories of modern nationalism both apply and notoriously fail to apply to the case of Palestine. Their chapter on “The Problem of the Origin,” in fact, should be required reading for anyone who wants to think freshly about contemporary nationalism, for which the case of Palestine serves as both a central case and a deep anomaly. Palestine, in a very obvious sense, does not exist as a nation, much less a state, at the same time that its people have steadfastly insisted on their existence for over a half a century. At the same time, Palestine and the Palestinians exist as—what? An occupied and oppressed population? A diasporic community?  A nation of refugees?—in tandem with its inseparably intimate and domineering partner, the state of Israel. Makhoul and Hon raise the question of how, precisely, this “partnership” should be named and inscribed—“Israel-Palestine” or “Israel/Palestine”—i.e., mere adjacency or a slash that denotes the structural violence that has constituted this hybrid entity for multiple generations.

All this critical care is especially welcome in relation to the question of Palestinian art, which today more than ever, commands an international audience, and offers such a refreshing alternative to much of what passes for “politics” in the art world. Makhoul and Hon show the ways that Palestinian artists have absorbed and transformed many of the most interesting strategies of contemporary art—site specificity, the installation, institutional critique, performance art, art/language hybrids, critical public art, community-based tactics, salvage art—in ways that seem to bring these strategies into direct engagement with a very concrete and urgent political struggle. This is one reason that their book does not confine itself to the “usual suspects,” canonical art stars such as the rightly admired Mona Hatoum, but takes up what Gregory Sholette would call the “dark matter” of the Palestinian art world, and beyond that, to the whole sphere of visual culture and everyday life. Thus, the re-staging of a martyr video as a reading of Scheherezade and the transformation of the midriff striptease required of Palestinians passing through Israeli checkpoints into Chic Point, a hilarious fashion show complete with custom-made “exposure” fashions and a runway to boot, testify to the trenchant irony and wit that characterizes so much of Palestinian art today.  Makhoul and Hon note that the last two decades of Palestinian art may, in some possible, even inevitable future, be remembered as a Golden Age. This is because the contemporary flourishing of art, especially in the West Bank and in the community of Israeli Palestinians, seems so various, surprising, innovative and tenacious, especially when considered against the background of the constant state of siege in which Palestinians live. Anyone who thinks that art can only thrive in a situation of surplus and luxury will have their assumptions overturned by the remarkable creativity and ingenuity of the Palestinians, whether they live inside Israel, in the Occupied Territories, or abroad in the far-flung Palestinian diaspora.

Among the many laudable features of this book is the way it treads so carefully along the political fault lines that confront anyone who takes up the subject of Israel/Palestine today. While it is clear that the authors are on the side of Palestine, they recognize that there are many artistic and intellectual allies on the other side, and they are not afraid to give them credit. Without claiming any transcendental status for artistic universality, they carefully trace the common cause that unites Israelis of conscience with Palestinians. One of the unfortunate episodes in the recent history of Palestinian art has been the dispute between Kamal Boullata, whose Palestinian Art: From 1850 to the Present (2009) is the most important predecessor to Makhoul and Hon, and Gannit Ankori, an Israeli art historian whose Palestinian Art (2006) marked an important advance in the literature. Boullata, who helped Ankori with her research, came to feel after her book was published, that she had somehow “colonized” her subject, and even plagiarized some of his work, accusations that have been decisively disproven. One can see in this regrettable episode how difficult it is to find common ground for scholars and artists located on opposite sides of the “slash” between Israel and Palestine. But that is exactly what Makhoul and Hon accomplish in their judicious assessment of this episode, and in their own practice as critics and historians. Their book is a masterful performance of fairness and objectivity, combined with a passion for the subject that will make it the most important point of departure for all future writing on this subject.