Yazan Khalili – an artist misunderstood?

Yazan Khalili is spokesman for The Question of Funding, a collective of artists taking part in the leading German contemporary art festival Documenta 15. Here, he responds to allegations that he has in the past spread anti-Semitism. By Joseph Croitoru

By Joseph Croitoru

The Palestinian artist Yazan Khalili was once asked which aspect of his work was most frequently misunderstood. He replied that it was the fact that his art does not follow the usual pattern of always portraying the Palestinians as the oppressed and the Israelis as the oppressors.

And it is true that right from the word go, Khalili's oeuvre has been characterised by complexity. For example, he not only visualises and verbalises the specifics of the Palestinian lived experience, he also simultaneously reflects on its stereotyping – not least by the Palestinians themselves.

Yazan Khalili is a spokesman for The Question of Funding, a collective of artists taking part in Documenta 15, a leading international exhibition of contemporary art that takes place once every five years in the German city of Kassel. He was born in Syria in 1981 and grew up in Ramallah. An architect by training, he also refers to himself as a "visual artist" – something he says he became by accident.

In 2007, while he was still working on architectural projects by the Palestinian artists' group Zan Studio, of which he is a co-founder, Khalili began playing around with photos of the Al-Amari refugee camp in Ramallah, colouring in the houses and transforming them from a monotonous collection of buildings into a cheerful, colourful ensemble. The photo series entitled "Colour Correction", which contradicted the conventional portrayal of the refugee camp as shorthand for Palestinian suffering, not only caused a stir in the Palestinian art world, it also conferred international fame on Khalili.

Photographing power structures

Studying for an M.A. at the Centre for Research Architecture at the University of London (where one of his lecturers was the Israeli architect and founder of the artistic research collective Forensic Architecture, Eyal Weizman) honed Khalili's eye for the impact and function of images. In the photo sequence "Landscape of Darkness" from 2010, Khalili processes his experience of taking photos at night in the Palestinian territories. During their night-time excursions, he and the friend who accompanied him expected to be stopped by Israeli soldiers at any moment. Khalili also noticed that strong light triggered feelings of fear in him. It became clear to him that he associated bright light with the Israeli settlements, which generally shine much brighter at night than the Palestinian villages.

In this series of photos, the light not only mirrors the political balance of power, it also highlights how this balance of power is further cemented by the technique of photography: because the camera automatically focuses on light sources, the Palestinian villages blur and blend into the darkness. Another way in which the uneven distribution of power is also reflected by light levels was powerfully illustrated when Khalili was indeed once "caught" taking photos by soldiers: they forced him to delete the brightest images.

"Apartheid Monochromes" by Yazan Khalili (source: http://www.yazankhalili.com)
Kritik und Selbstkritik: In "Apartheid Mono­chromes“ von 2017 werden israelische Besatzungspraktiken verurteilt, aber die Selbstkritik fehlt nicht. "Die sechs monochromen Tafeln spielen auf die verschiedenfarbigen Personalausweise an, die Palästinenser seit 1967 je nach Wohnregion von Israel erhielten,“ schreibt Josepg Croitoru. "Als 'Apartheid' geißelt Khalili hier nicht nur die israelische Kontrolle, sondern auch die Spaltung und Hierarchisierung, zu der diese 'Farbenpolitik' in der palästinensischen Gesellschaft führte. Das Einbeziehen der Farbe Grün ist kritischer Kommentar zum – wenn auch von Israel diktierten – Vorgehen der Palästinensischen Autonomiebehörde: Ihre Ausweise sind grün, ausgerechnet jene Farbe, so Khalili, welche die Israelis früher für Häftlingsausweise verwendet hätten.“

Over the years, Khalili has returned again and again in his photo and video works to the way power structures are captured in images. His works have been exhibited in museums and galleries the world over. On numerous occasions, the Goethe-Institut has been a co-operation partner at these exhibitions or indeed – as in the case of the New York project "Ludlow 38" – the organiser. Khalili has also exhibited in Germany several times, for example at the Kunst-Werken in Berlin in 2020.

In 2016, when the group exhibition "Questioning the Chroma-Key-Principle" explored the "Politics of Seeing" in Berlin's Ballhaus Naunynstraße, which was curated by Nadia J. Kabalan, Khalili was also represented. In "The Aliens", he explored the question of the meaning of "return" by telling the story of a group of astronauts who return to a landscape they left behind years before. In the accompanying text, he wrote of the "impossibility of a return" that inverts the "act of displacement".

Criticising the Palestinian 'return' paradigm

"Returning home becomes another act of displacement and alienation, a continuation of the journey in searching for Home," he wrote. It is almost impossible to overlook the fact that there is an element of criticism here, among other things, of the Palestinian paradigm of the 'return'. Khalili is even more overt in his examination of what he described in our conversation as his compatriots' obsession with the map of Palestine. Not excluding himself from this criticism, he too thinks he can see the outline of this map all over the place, in cracks in the ground, for example, which he made the focus of the photo series "Cracks Remind me of Roadkills" (2014).

Here, he does more than just document a series of cracks that catch his eye; the snippets of text that are interspersed among the images distort this act of documentation. Even in those cases where Khalili criticises Israeli occupation practices – such as in "Apartheid Monochromes" (2017) – there is no lack of self-criticism. The six monochrome canvasses are a reference to the different-coloured ID cards that have been issued to Palestinians by Israel since 1967, depending on the region they live in. Here, Khalili is not only castigating Israeli control as "apartheid", but also the division and hierarchisation to which this colour policy has led within Palestinian society.

The inclusion of the colour green is a critique on the actions of the Palestinian Authority – even though dictated by Israel: the ID cards of the Palestinian Authority are green – the very colour, according to Khalili, that the Israelis previously used for prisoner ID cards.

"Cracks Remind me of Roadkills“ by Yazan Khalili (source: http://www.yazankhalili.com)
Kritik am palästinensischen Paradigma der Rückkehr: Seine Landsleute seien von der Landkarte Palästinas besessen, sie würden überall die Umrisse Palästinas erkennen, meint Yazan Khalili und nimmt sich selbst davon nicht aus. Sogar in Bodenrissen, die er 2014 zum Gegenstand der Fotoserie "Cracks Remind me of Roadkills“ machte.

"Not one boycott, but many"

In his position on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement too, Yazan Khalili remains true to his principle of always questioning socio-political norms. In an article entitled "Not One Boycott, but Many", which he wrote for the Arabic portal "7iber" in 2013, he warned against rising dogmatisation and intolerance. In the following year, he published in the magazine Tidal the text "The Utopian Project", which is now being interpreted by critics in Germany as an anti-Semitic call for the abolition of the state of Israel.

What these critics overlook is that Khalili amended the aforementioned text, which is available on his website, in 2017 and published it in the collection "Assuming Boycott. Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production" (OR Books, New York).

The amended version is easy to find on the Internet. As Khalili explained in our conversation, the text – which also reads as a criticism of BDS – is not a political agenda, but a design for a utopia in which Jewish Israelis and Palestinians co-exist in a non-state space. At the end of this piece he writes: "The moral emancipation of the Palestinian and the Jew is the emancipation of the state from Zionism, and later their emancipation from the state as such."

When asked about his current position on boycott – to which he subscribes in principle – he replies that every case must be assessed individually. In 2015, Khalili took over management of the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah at a time when the financial support the centre received from international donor countries – absolutely vital for its work – was drastically cut. To overcome the crisis, new work concepts were developed that sought to reduce the centre's dependence on donors in favour of its integration into the locality. The development of joint projects with groups of artists and other cultural institutions, including the Goethe-Institut in Ramallah, contributed to this emancipation, which Khalili sees as a total work of societal art.

"The Image" by Yazan Khalili (source: http://www.yazankhalili.com)
"The Image“, a work by Yazan Khalili from 2010. Khalili, spokesman for the artists' collective "The Question of Funding“, due to take part in Germany's Documenta 15, was once asked which aspect of his work was most frequently misunderstood. The artist, who was born in Syria in 1981 and grew up in Ramallah replied that it was the fact that his art does not follow the usual pattern of always portraying the Palestinians as the oppressed and the Israelis as the oppressors

He says that the question as to how cultural work could function within the Palestinian context, which is influenced by the occupation and has very little resources at its disposal, was key. The role of the artist – especially when the artist (as in Khalili's case) simultaneously acted as curator and team leader – was questioned.

The Question of Funding (QoF) collective, which was founded by Khalili and several other Palestinian artists, addresses similar questions. The origins of this collective date back to Khalili's time as director of the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center, with which it cut ties when Khalili resigned from his leadership position in 2019 in order to pursue his doctoral studies in Amsterdam. According to Khalili, the QoF accepted the invitation to Kassel after his successor at the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center declined the invitation.

Documenta has since updated its information on the QoF on its website, which is now described as "a growing collective of cultural producers and community organisers from Palestine". The Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center is no longer mentioned. According to Khalili, works by the members of the QoF will not be exhibited in Kassel. Instead, they have invited artists from the Gaza group "Eltiqa", who hope to exhibit and sell their work at Documenta. It is as yet unclear whether this will happen within the framework of the Lumbung Gallery, the sales exhibition planned by the Ruangrupa curator team. For its part, QoF will be focusing on pieces about ideas for funding culture and the function of the art market.

Joseph Croitoru

©  Qantara.de 2022

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan