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Jawad Al Malhi - New Works

The new works of the artist from Palestine, at Delfina Foundation & Mosaic Rooms, London.
By Valerie Grove | Jun 2010

Jawad Al Malhi was born in 1969 in Shuafat Refugee Camp in Jerusalem. As a teenager he constantly sketched the landscape and the people in and around the camp, learning much about form and composition in the process. His early paintings were enormous and were often created on the sacks from UN distributed aid.

In 1987, the outbreak of the first Palestinian intifada (uprising) accelerated his need to document the lives of the people around him and resulted in his first solo show at the Palestine National Theatre in 1989. Throughout the 1990s his work was included in numerous international group shows and he was invited to artist residencies in Sweden and France. However, as his painting style developed he noticed he was losing his local audience: "I don't think anybody really understood the 'modern' art of abstraction at that point. As my work became more abstract I found I was no longer being referred to as a 'promising' artist." [1]

In 2000 he founded 'Open Studios', an ongoing arts education project in Shuafat Camp and a reflection of his underlying philosophy about the role of art and the artist: "Art should be for life and not just a thing done by an individual for his own gratification. It must have a social dimension so the artist does not become disconnected from his community and can give something back. The way I see it, this is how I pay my taxes."

Al Malhi had also started experimenting with sculpture and installation and had become fascinated by the technical and visual relationships between 2D and 3D. Needing a concentrated period of time for study he applied to do a Masters at the Winchester School of Art in 2007. Given his interests and the local disengagement with abstraction, he concluded that a number of dilemmas could be resolved by making greater use of photography, a medium he already employed extensively as a research and development tool. This shift was consolidated when he exhibited photography for his degree show despite the fact that the MA had been in Painting.

It is Al Malhi's subsequent investigations into photography and video that have resulted in the compelling body of new work now showing at two London spaces: the Al-Qattan Foundation's Mosaic Rooms and the Delfina Foundation where Al Malhi is currently artist-in-residence.

The work at the Mosaic Rooms is arranged over two floors. The images of Shuafat Camp in the upper gallery are familiar in style and concept to those at the Sharjah Biennial in March 2009, but there are some marked differences of scale and focus. Four vertical images seem to penetrate the very fabric of the camp by exposing the close-up characteristics of concrete stacks and steel rods. The odd disconnection of these materials from the surrounding physical context is significant: "After Oslo [Peace Process] and its collapse the community realised that they were stuck - that the 'temporary' camp existence was permanent. This social response translated into an architectural one and I became very interested in concrete as an expression of the absence of the idea of 'nation'. The concrete going upwards to create space for future family members became an often frantic expression of personal control over a very small space."

The perspective widens into alleyways always with a signature splash of colour. One photograph, however, appears completely dark until the figure of a boy running becomes discernible in the gloom. He appears to be turning a corner but the darkness of the shot means that no corner is visible to the viewer, nor indeed any other route. The darkness itself suggests only dead ends.

This particular image provides the connection to the lower gallery where the majority of the work was created at night. The few daytime shots provide a stark contrast and make the sunlight filtering through the vertical narrowness of the camp seem dazzlingly beautiful. Apart from one panoramic panel showing Shuafat camp as seen from the Israeli settlement of Pisgat Ze'ev, the work is displayed in light boxes. There are also four looped video works which endow the entire space with the muted and atmospheric sounds of dusk. We see the activity around a gas station housed in a large metal container; a man painting his house in gentle rhythmic strokes; a barbecue on the roof and a woman throwing a basketball repeatedly into a net. Such legitimised voyeurism of the repetitive actions that underpin human existence is oddly life affirming but once again there is another story: "There are no public spaces in the camp hence the barbecue and playing basketball on a tiny roof. The gas station was also a local symbol of jurisdictional absurdity because it straddled a piece of land under the authority of the UN on one side and the Israeli municipality on the other."

This constant negotiation between knowledge and interpretation forms the relationship between artist and viewer and highlights a conundrum central to Al Malhi which is how his work can be equally accessible to both local [inside] and international [outside] audiences: "It gets a reaction from the inside because they can see it and understand it on all these different levels. It reflects an absolute reality to them. For the outside it is a work of art through which I would like to put them in the position of witness but if this is not possible I can at least create a level of curiosity."

At the Delfina Foundation, the focus of the work is the city of Jerusalem. With the exception of one archive image showing Jerusalem as it was in the early 1950s, all are video works. This continuation, with its atmospheric parallels and matching presence of a large urban panorama, creates an immediate connection to the Mosaic Rooms giving the impression of one seamless show.

In a twist of presentational norms, three of the videos are mounted and displayed in small frames as if they were photographs. However, all conventions are overturned by the custom built medium of the two larger works. One of these is the most famous panoramic view of Jerusalem as seen from the Mount of Olives, while the other is a detail of the Mount of Olives cemetery overlooked by a surveillance camera. Both are real-time video projections onto aluminium prints but they constantly change as an unseen panel behind them freezes and thaws causing patterns, holes and condensation to form on the surface of the image. Accompanying the Jerusalem panorama are the multilingual voices of tour guides each expressing their own pre-formed narrative of the city, crystallizing how the internal reality is overlooked - the tourists are there but they don't actually see.

The work is technologically, conceptually and artistically mesmerising and completes a journey from Mosaic to Delfina through form as well as through place. It is also a kind of destination for the artist himself: "I had always asked myself what was art for the 'inside', and what was art for the 'outside'. This is what I have tried to answer and in some ways I think I am near that point with this work."


  1. All quotes are from an interview with the artist at the Delfina Foundation on 14 June 2010.


Valerie Grove

Artist and arts writer, based in London, UK.

Jawad Al Malhi

New Works

11 June - 8 July 2010

The Delfina Foundation
29 Catherine Place
London, UK


The Mosaic Rooms
A.M. Qattan Foundation
Tower House
226 Cromwell Road
London, UK

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