Mohammed Al Hawajri: Red Carpet

Hawajri lays out a Red Carpet in vital locations of the Gaza Strip. His images seem peaceful, celebratory, yet they are charged with biting criticism.
By Ala Younis | Apr 2014

Mohammed Al Hawajri sets up locations that receive VIPs in Gaza. They begin at the seashore, from which the Israeli siege bars vessels from approaching or leaving for any reason. Hawajri sets up an archway and lays down a red carpet, as the main character, the story’s protagonist, walks forward with a bouquet of flowers he’s received, a beam of the sun setting in the sea lighting half of his face.

The rituals of reception on the red carpet are associated with images of film celebrities and politicians; the media exaggerates in the tribute it pays to these images. Here, at the entrances to the Gaza tunnels, the red carpets will only receive Gaza’s residents just arriving from a journey under/through the ground.

At a gas station, another character walks forward carrying diesel fuel in plastic jerricans. The scarcity of movement, fuel, goods, medicines, oil paints, and other items force the people of Gaza —and its artists— to make special efforts to obtain, and in some cases do without, many of the basic components of a civilized life, not to mention its luxuries.

In this new photography series, Hawajri lays out a red carpet in various vital locations of the Gaza Strip, on which characters like stars in sunglasses and formal suits and ties, walk with a confident step towards the camera. We see them arriving from the horizon, from achievement, from accomplished missions.

"Among the virtues of the new voices in Arabic poetry is that they feel they must pen their small selves, their little problems, their marginality. Their search for meaning is different from the old sense of meaning. Meaning used to precede texts; now meaning manifests from the search for it within a text." [1]

In cases in which it is impossible to take a photograph or to arrange these photo sessions, the characters are affixed to the locations by Photoshop. Photoshop is used to improve, crop, or compile images, and its name and use has become widespread in recent years for commentary on politics and the economy; it’s often used to transform photographs into jokes or visual references for written commentary. Often scenes from famous movies or plays are re-worked as Photoshop texts that carry current references; because people know these works by heart, there’s no need to explain the images or their audio tracks. People know the tone (pride, criticism, approval, shock, horrid delight) in which the scene was originally performed.

News from areas besieged by war depends on narration and images, and numerous individuals become the heroes of such narratives. Yet there’s a striking difference between the importance granted to these heroes of narratives (news items, reports that go into painstaking detail of suffering, international sympathy) and the way in which these same individuals are treated on the ground (deteriorating standards of living and mobility, the fact that there are an excessive number of people who live the same suffering, the blind shelling and violence of war.)

In this artwork combining performance, photography, and video, Hawajri uses film and media methods and contexts to produce images of ordinary people glare upon their return from a basic mission, or merely for their endurance:

"In place of the fida’i, Elia Suleiman, as other Palestinian filmmakers, stages everyday local heroes who insist, in spite of insuperable odds, to fulfil an ambition, a desire, a dream. The ordinariness and sometimes futility of their ambition, desire, or dream underscore the brutality of the occupation, while their persistence that articulates in tones of stubbornness, madness, or foolhardiness, is, in effect, steadfastness, sumud, one the hallmarks of Palestinian identity as forged by struggle." [2]

Hawajri interrogates the place of art in debilitating conditions under which artistic production is besieged by the priority of survival at the expense of thinking about what comes after the basics. Transformation in the works of artists from Gaza is inevitable, consequential, a natural development like any other form of natural selection.

In 2010, Hawajri began using Photoshop to combine images of daily life in Gaza with the stars of artistic productions stretching a span from the Renaissance to contemporary times. These works of Hawajri surpass the material, geographic, and political borders that define the Gaza Strip and its people, with regard to comprehension of them (for they combine images that are familiar yet placed in unfamiliar contexts), and given that their digital copies can be sent to, printed, and exhibited anywhere in the world.

The name of this series, Guernica - Gaza, touches on the reality of Palestine’s internecine fighting. Picasso produced his mural-sized painting "Guernica" in abhorrence over the German and Italian air raid of Basque Guernica carried out to terrorize the people in support of the Spanish nationalist forces during the Spanish civil war. Picasso refused to sell this painting, which he was commissioned to make for exhibition in the Spanish pavilion of the 1937 Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in Paris. He produced a tapestry version of it that adorned the UN Security Council hall from 1985 to 2009, whilst the Security Council efforts never succeeded in breaking the siege on Gaza. Upon the Palestinian Guernica, Hawajri announces on behalf of Gaza’s new electric company: "Picasso’s light shone in the famous painting he made following the barbaric war on the village of Guernica, in which the village was destroyed and the electricity was cut off. Thanks to the new electric company in Gaza, electrical lines donated by the people of Gaza have been extended to the people of Guernica. The lines have been safely delivered." [3]

Hawajri also uses media approaches in the building of anticipation for and promotion of his work, starting with the gradual posting of his project on his Facebook page. In the style of a major promotional campaign, a sign appeared a few months ago bearing the word "Soon" on a red background. This was followed by a posting of the project title, Red carpet, in turn followed by a post in which the artist appears, Photoshopped, standing at the edge of a red carpet that ends in a sewage drain. The caption reads, "Sewage overtakes the homes of families in Gaza. No to condemnation and diplomatic messages."

There are also no cinema theatres in Gaza since the 1980s, although the people of Gaza had once attended "the cinema in rapt attention as aircraft flew overhead during World War II." [4]

The images of the Red carpet project seem simple, peaceful, celebratory, yet they are charged with bitingly cynical criticism. They represent a form of Palestinian artistic production in which individuals are fused with icons of Palestine’s stories, even if the hair braids of grain embracing Palestine the woman (a 1997 drawing by Hawajri) have turned into gas canisters and jerricans of diesel fuel, and even if the peasants, freedom fighters, and refugees have turned into everyday celebrities upon red carpets.

"Take me, for example, I don’t differentiate between optimism and pessimism and am quite at a loss as to which of the two characterizes me. When I awake each morning I thank the Lord he did not take my soul during the night. If harm befalls me during the day, I thank him that it was no worse. So which am I, a pessimist or an optimist?" [5]

 

Notes:

  1. Mahmoud Darwish interview with Abbas Baydoun, Al-Safir Newspaper, Beirut, 21 November 2003.
  2. Rasha Salti, Once Fida’is. Of Redeemers, Poets, Insurgents from Palestine, 2012.
  3. Artist statement published on Facebook.
  4. Asmaa Al Ghoul, The Death of Cinema in Gaza, article for Al Monitor, 6 February 2013.
  5. Emile Habibi, The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist, 1974.


Ala Younis

Independent artist and curator, born in Kuwait in 1974. Lives in Amman, Jordan.

(Translation from Arabic: Jennifer Leigh Peterson)

Mohammed Al Hawajri
Red Carpet

17 March - 10 April 2014

ELTIQA Gallery
Omar Al-Mokhtar St.
Near Al-Abbas square,
Alharazein building,
Gaza - Palestine

Nafas
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