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Claudia Aravena Abughosh: The Palestine Project

In the work series "The Palestine Project" the artist born in Chile explores her Palestinian roots.
By Paz Guevara | Sep 2006

"The Palestine Project" by Claudia Aravena Abughosh consists of three pieces: "Beitjala" (Santiago, 2003), "Greetings from Palestine" (Santiago and Kassel, 2003) and "Out of Place" (Santiago, 2005). The artist was born in Chile of a Chilean father and Palestinian mother, a double affiliation that emerges as the working matrix of her work.

Work Process for Palestine Project
Beitjala is the hometown of Claudia Aravena’s family on her mother’s side. A family who, like many other Palestinian immigrants, worked in the garment industry in Santiago, setting up shop in the sector of Patronato, which is the center of local Palestinian commerce. For the piece titled "Beitjala", Claudia Aravena interviewed members of her family and other shop-owners in this sector of Santiago, to inquire into the Palestiniain imaginary of these immigrants residing in Chile—what they remember, what images remain in their minds. Claudia Aravena later travelled to Beitjala and following the order of her interview logbook, she produced an archive of video images that she projected onto the display cabinets at the Aravena Abughosh family shop, on her return to Chile. For three days in April of 2003, the family substituted the mannequins and clothes with fragments of the memory of Palestine in Chile.

Using postal art as a genre, Claudia Aravena sent images from one territory to another, such as "Greetings from Palestine" – from Palestine to Chile (exhibited at the 6th Biennale of Video and New Media, Santiago) [1]. This video consists of a single take: a concrete barricade in Bethlehem, built to block Palestinian access to Jerusalem. In voice-off you can hear the conversation sustained by the artist and the Israeli soldiers guarding this military outpost. The soldiers' attempt to block the author's filming remains a pleonasm of the wall itself, her proximity to the wall and by extension, her arrival in Jerusalem. A video loop was projected onto concrete blocks, both the reiteration of the barricade and the endless repetition of the single take represent the eternal return of the identical as a perception of the "sinister" (Freud).

Borrowing the title of Edward Said’s memoirs, "Out of Place", Claudia Aravena produces a video based on photographic sources drawn from her Chilean-Palestinian family album, illustrated magazines of the period and audiovisual recordings of her Arab [2] family in today's Palestine and Chile. In the course of this work she did research on the processes of representation of the identity of the subject, culture and on photography itself as a medium. In highlighting the journey and process of adaptation of Palestinian immigrants in Chile, she reveals the process of becoming from one culture to another, confirming a dynamic process of identification between both. This 'acculturation' process is revealed in the (im)possibility of translating all cultural codes from one culture to another; the incomplete narratives and hybridizing way of working with video. In this essay I will deal with this work with reference to two earlier works and their context with the Chilean and Palestinian art milieus.

The problem of representation
In "Out of Place" photography is not a document of what is being photographed. Instead, it records the impossibility of such photographic capture, the precariousness of what it purports to reveal. The portraits and group photographs do not represent [3] precise events to us. Without a footnote or precise clarification the albums of Aravena and Abughosh, of Chile and Palestine, interweave without fair warning, representing the discontinuities and islands of memory. The family portrait of the Abughosh family as refugees outside Palestine, probably as a result of the disturbances of the 1930s, is insufficient to provide evidence of a documentary value because Sumaya Abughosh Hussein, mother of the artist cannot identify the reality behind the photo: "There was a revolt, I cannot recall what year it was (…) our grandfather took us to Lebanon and that photo of me was taken there or in Palestine in order to travel with the four children to Lebanon. I cannot recall why this photo is here (…) it might be Syria (…) Samy says that it is a photo of Syria, it could be. " Many group portraits, taken under grapevines or in the open country also render ambiguous the settlement in an Arab landscape or in central or northern Chile, escaping the precision of 'local colour'. Rather than a sequence of events or family adventures, this assemblage of photographical bodies exhibits the desire to register blank spaces, uncertainties and losses that are characteristic of a memory that has been displaced and formed 'in between' Palestine and Chile.

In "Out of Place" the Palestinian immigrant family and its children born in Chile are positioned as subjects in constant interplay between Arab and Chilean codes. There is a scene where Claudia Aravena Abughosh's mother and aunt prepare Arab food at home. While they give form to the small Arab delicacies they speak in the language of their exile, Chilean Spanish. As a meeting point between the two cultures, the photo of the airport scene shows us the first steps of the new arrivals in Chilean territory. The capacity of 'being other', the dynamic and hybrid construction of these subjects raises questions of 'identity' as something given or essential and on the contrary, exhibits the various processes of 'identification' through which the subject is configured, incorporating into the process exterior social and historical elements [4]. Even one of the inherent aspects closest to the representation of the subject, a person’s name, in this case 'Claudia' is revealed to us as the appropriation of 'Claudia Cardinale', an echo of Hollywood.

There is here not only a mobility between local Palestinian culture and Chilean culture, the subject is also penetrated by the planetary signs of a system-world such as the use of Cardinale’s name, massively appropriated by the 70’s generation. "Consumers from all walks of life can read the quotes of a multi-local imaginary that TV and advertising have grouped together: Hollywood and pop music idols (…) comprise a repertory of signs in constant movement. " [5] A constant play on 'otherness' on acculturation, understood as the process whereby the subject assumes a culture that is 'other' to him, a double capture of the subject and a hybrid and syncretic culture.

Identity as a stable and timeless representation is found only in the realm of fiction and disguise. The photograph of the Palestinian child sitting on typical arab rugs and wearing the clothes of native Arabs and another of a child on a horse, dressed up as a Chilean 'huaso' complete with a 'poncho' and straw hat, are reaffirmations of identity from the point of view of their dressing up 'as themselves.' The paradox is that once the disguise is removed, we return to a constantly mobile, contaminated and changing reality. In the background of some images included in "Out of Place", it is possible to hear typical Arab music, off-key and subjected to a process of decomposition through which it eventually loses all marks and stereotypes that would render it recognizable. Its grotesque manipulation reveals the artifice of its invention and inventory [6] and, therefore, the suspicion of complacency amongst unchanging, disguise-like forms of representation and the complexities of the real world.

Migration and diaspora
Palestinian emigration began as a result of a series of military occupations. The first wave of Palestinian immigrants arrived in Chile in 1880, as a result of the economic crisis suffered during the rule of the Ottoman Empire and came mostly from three predominantly Christian towns: Beit Jala, Bethlehem and Beit Sahur, which today belong to the so-called district of Bethlehem. This flow of immigration increased in 1912 as a result of the mandatory military service imposed by the Ottoman rulers, from which the young Palestinians fled. The second great wave of Palestinian immigration took place after 1948 with the formation of the State of Israel [7]. Some of these immigrants were deportees belonging to the Communist Party and came mainly from Beit Jala, which was also known as 'Little Moscow'. By then, the first Palestinian immigrants in Chile had formed a community, in 1917 they had established their first organization: the Orthodox Cathedral of Saint George in the sector of Patronato in Santiago, where to this day there is a busy commercial Palestinian activity. In 1920 they founded 'Club Palestino', the first football club in the world to bear the name and colours of Palestine. In 1947, after a debate between Zionist and Palestinian students at the University of Chile, this institution asked the government not to vote in favor of the partition of Palestine, as a result of which Chile is one of the 29 votes of abstention in the UN session.

This acclimatizing of Palestinians in Chile provided very favorable conditions for the new generations of immigrants and the Palestinian families living here became the immediate destination of new arrivals. The rural life of Beit Jala, whose economy was based on the growth of olive trees, was the starting point of the migration of the Abughosh family in 1951, headed for Illapel, a town in northern Chile: "At the time everyone had their own plot of land. We stopped over in France but life was very expensive there (…) we then went to Spain by train (…) and we waited in Barcelona for almost three months until we received our papers to enter Chile (…) and from Buenos Aires we travelled to Chile by train, to northern Chile to a small town called Illapel, where the family lived."

Uprooted, the immigrants built the identity of the 'New World' and from the narrations of the events of the journey they projected a utopia in the horizon. In their journey they drag one world into another and the actual meeting point with that ‘otherness’ destroys not only the myths of the journey, but also the subject is irredeemably abandoned 'in between' two distant worlds: "The people arriving from America spoke on and on about America (…) that the houses were all pretty and made of crystal. They thought that America was different, that it was a case of getting money by the sackload. And when we arrived in Illapel at night, when my mother awoke the next morning and she saw the barren hills and the house, she felt like dying, she started to cry (and said): "to have come here from so far away, to this ugly village."

The growth of immigrants in the 1970s led to the construction of the Palestinian Country Club and the Arab School of Santiago in the 1980s. Today there are five Orthodox churches and one mosque (serving a group of approximately twenty Muslim Palestinian families coming mainly from Beit Safafa) and the University of Chile now has a Centre for Arab Studies. Palestinian immigration has had several points of destination worldwide. The greatest numbers have emigrated to other countries in the Middle East and the United States, but the Palestinian people have been scattered throughout the world, as revealed by the "World Map of the Palestinian Diaspora" by Philippe Rekacewicz, published in Le Monde Diplomatique (February 2000).

This diaspora [8] gives rise to a mutual capture between Palestine-Chile and Palestine and its multiple destinies, destabilizing the homogenous and timeless vision of the Orient, which Edward Said criticized as the 'colonizing gaze'. In "Out of Place" the subjects are constructed precisely from the standpoint of that 'Out of Place' or, as the Paris-based Palestinian writer Elias Sanbar has said, from the 'identity of becoming': "Dire une identité, dire son identité, consisterait dès lors à identifier puis noter les positions-figures afin de tracer un parcours, un trajet en permanence cinétique. Les recouperements successifs de ces vecteurs de flux forment alors une succession, une chaine de figures d’intensités déformables et c’est à travers ces figures-là que l’identité prend sa consistance. Cette chaîne d’identité, je l’appelle identité de devenir [9].

The subjects of "Out of Place" develop amongst codes of access and exit. Although the philological order of languages articulates them in connection with their familiar dependence, as root and branch languages, in this video we are witness to the process of de-familiarizing and re-familiarizing between one language and another; we see the strangeness of Arabic and the everyday familiarity of Spanish.

The impossibility of using the tree as a metaphor for a development that is linear and causal derives from the empty spaces, from the missing parts from which the diagram hangs and which pose a translation problem: not all Arab language content is translated in this video. The interruptions of this language, its cuts and stutters leave us in an undeterminated point in this crossroad, within earshot and in silence, "Out of Place."

The narrations included in "Out of Place" lead us to narrative intensities—the parent’s love story, the journey to America, the origin of the names, etc.—intertwined with unnarrated zones: areas of images with no characters, action, outcome nor translation. These incomplete narrative structures, with mute zones, deploy an indeterminate narrative that rather than document what is real, questions it.

The tree-like structure of families, of languages and narration is broken up into little pieces. Dispersed like the olive trees, the children-fruit are pulled from the tree and scattered, as a recurring image of "Out of Place."

Video is used here from the point of view of the subjectivity of becoming. Its high reproducibility allows for its multiple migration, its simultaneous presence in different places, its diaspora. The use of diverse visual materials in "Out of Place" - Super 8, digital filming and photography- is structured on the basis of a hybrid montage, of the cut and its adjoining 'other' and from the standpoint of this erection, distances are bridged, the 'Out of Place' comes closer. After a blank screen the images of Out of Place fade in and fade out, developing somewhere in between absence and presence, between memory and oblivion, representing also the becoming, the journey there and back of the immigrant subjects of "Out of Place."

Through the use of video, photography is constantly taken to the edge [10]: The pose, the frame, the record and the photographer himself allow a reflection on photographic materials and their deployment as archive and record.

Opening a discussion
"Out of Place" designs the 'missing links' of immigration between the place of origin, Palestine, and the country of destination, Chile, representing the dynamic construction of the subjects and the movements of their adaptation, which is different from the traditional static attitude of a conservative standpoint. On the contrary, it operates from the standpoint of a recent process of cultural diversity and new living conditions, social models and communities.

As the name itself suggests, the "Palestine Project" precipitates itself forward, towards the opening of a discussion based on this catalogue which, rather than being a transcendent miniature of the institution of Art, is an appeal to open a contemporary discussion on the immigrant component of local society.


  1. This work was exhibited under similar conditions at the "Kasseler Dokumentarfilm und Videofest" in Kassel, 2003, where it was awarded the first prize, the Golden Cube Prize.
  2. 'Arab', as Catherine David has pointed out in her research on Contemporary Arab Representations, is not a term that is applicable to all territories of the Middle East. For example, Israel is not considered part of the Arab culture. Another term that has been used to group the Middle East has been the adjective "Islamic," but we will not use it because this is exclusively a religious and reductionist term that excludes other religions in the area such as Christianity. With these exceptions we will refer to the 'Arab' culture in this text. See: Catherine David: Tamáss 1 Contemporary Arab Representations. Beirut/Lebanon and Tamáss 2. Contemporary Arab Representations. Cairo. Fundación Antoni Tàpies. Barcelona 2002 and 2004, respectively.
  3. The concept of aesthetic 'representation' has its roots in Aristotelian mimesis, where language is a means of representing human actions. Although for Aristotle the medium of representation must imitate — hence the term mimesis — actions, we shall see that the mimetic function will give way to difference and even to the falling back of language upon itself in modern times. In this case, the documentary is defined by the fidelity between representation and what is represented, a fidelity that in "Out of Place" is presented only from the standpoint of its impossibility.
  4. From Derrida, whose book "Hospitality" is quoted in "Out of Place" in the author’s monologues, we can define the opposites 'identification' and 'identity'. Even though identity could be explained as an essence prior to the existence of the subject, identification follows existence and is not an autonomous construction being understood in relation to exterior social and historical and therefore, ideological elements. Therefore, Derrida questions the notion that consciousness is a direct experience claiming instead that it is mediated, affirming that identity is constructed on a parasitic basis: "An identity is never given, received or achieved; no, we only suffer the endless, indefinitely phantasmatic process of identification." (Jacques Derrida, El monolingüismo del otro o la prótesis de origen. Buenos Aires, Manantial, 1997, pp.45-46.)
  5. Nestor García Canclini, La globalización imaginada. Buenos Aires, Paidós, 1999.
  6. Said has analyzed the diffusion of these stereotypes of the Orient as European constructs: "The Orient was practically a European invention and since antiquity, had been the scenario of romances, exotic beings, unforgettable memories and landscapes and extraordinary experiences (…) the main thing for the European visitor was the representation of the Orient that Europe had and its immediate destiny." Edward Said, Orientalismo. Madrid, Libertarias, 1990. p.19.
  7. The causes of Palestinian immigration not only include political or religious problems but also the direct impact on the economy whose crises are the immediate cause of the immigration waves. Gema Martín Muñoz establishes interdependent relations between politics and economy: "The Middle East region is characterized by deep political convulsions that are the consequence of a series of crises and prolonged conflicts (the Iraqui invasion of Kuwait and the war that followed, upsetting the entire regional order; the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and the Intifada it gave rise to; the embargo and US-led sanctions against Iran and Iraq) which affect the capacities of regimes and economies, contribute to the general process of impoverishment of the region and produce huge military spending that make the process of liberation more difficult." (Gema Martín Muñoz, Después de Manhhattan, qué?. Santander, Editora Límite, 2002. p. 35.)
  8. Although originally the concept of 'diaspora' was used to refer to the dissemination of the Jewish people throughout the ancient world, by extension it may refer to the dispersion of human groups that previously lived together or formed part of an ethnic group.
  9. Elías Sanbar, Figures du Palestinien: Identité des origines, identité de devenir. París, Gallimard, 2004. p. 15.
  10. 'Placed on the edge' is an original term coined by André Gide and updated by Lucien Dällenbach in order to determine the mirror-reflection of the statement of a work and its enunciation or code.


Paz Guevara

Writer and curator from Chile. Lives in Berlin, Germany, and Latin America.

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