Otherwise Occupied is an exhibition featuring two established Palestinian
artists: Bashir Makhoul and Aissa Deebi, and presents artworks exploring the plurality of
Palestinian positions. There exist simultaneously no Palestinian state and many Palestinian
states. It is the perfect example of what Benedict Anderson termed the nationhood of ‘imagined communities.’
As Palestinian artists their work is unavoidably occupied with political engagement (even if
engaged otherwise). However, as both Makhoul and Deebi make clear in Otherwise Occupied, it
is vital that the idea of Palestine is not defined by the occupation and this exhibition’s
title indicates their commitment to other ways of imagining the nation outside and beyond
the conflict. Makhoul and Deebi as artists also maintain a deep interest in the aspects of
play and performance within art as an alternative occupation; an occupation that remains
marginal, though vital, to the workaday world. Art is capable of occupying cultural spaces
that are otherwise inaccessible or invisible, the intersections of disciplines, cultural
spaces and knowledge. Art offers ways of thinking ‘otherwise’.
The artworks presented here by Makhoul and Deebi are artistically and critically questioning
the Palestinian identity; thinking through the de-territorialisation of Palestine and the issues
of dispersal, plurality, and dispossession. Both artists, whether exploring contemporary colonial
actions, turning them into a collective relation to space, enacting a dangerous ‘game’, or
digging into the archive and researching particular cases in history where the Palestinian
identity was integrated within a global communist identity-seeking utopia, are enacting the
performativity of thinking ‘otherwise’.
This exhibition approaches ideas of occupation not only as an intractable political problem of
the on-going colonisation of Palestine, but also in the sense of a form of employment. To be
otherwise occupied is to be busy elsewhere, to be engaged in activities outside the programme.
For both Makhoul and Deebi, artists of diaspora (Shatat), the ‘otherwise’ opens up an imaginary,
parallel space in which to think about ideas of place, identity and belonging. Another space
which is outside the prescribed confines of colonialism, and beyond the claims of nationalism
that are both staked out and opened up by global cultural events such as the Venice Biennale.
Here there is also space for play and for thinking otherwise.
Bashir Makhoul asks you to pick up a box and place it in a garden in Giardino Occupato.
Bashir Makhoul invites you to occupy the garden at Liceo Artistico Statale di Venezia. Thousands of cardboard box houses are added by both Makhoul and members of the public over the course of the exhibition Otherwise Occupied. This growing cardboard shanty-town is constructed by the public making and carrying each house to be placed in the garden, creating a quiet parade of houses through the surrounding streets. Giardino Occupato emphasises the performative aspects of occupation – the act of getting there and of filling the space.
Unavoidably political, the work evokes the politics of space in Palestine, alluding to both the filling of the West Bank with Settlements and the poor housing conditions of many Palestinians and the haphazard developments of Palestinian villages and refugee camps under Israeli restrictions.
A garden is always already an act of violent occupation, of humans forcing nature into landscape. In this sense, Giardino Occupato is a double invasion. Yet there is also a playful quality to this work, calling to mind childhood preoccupations with boxes as spaces of imaginative transformation. Play, however, can also be a subversive tool, one, especially as deployed by Makhoul in Giardino Occupato, which can allow us to imagine and act otherwise.
Aissa Deebi summons you to The Trial.
In Aissa Deebi’s video work The Trial, actors Saleh Bakri, Amer Helehel, and Hanan Hillo re-enact the 1973 trial of Palestinian poet and revolutionary Daoud Turki, an Arab citizen of Israel, tried for treason at Haifa District Court. Turki was sentenced to 17 years in prison (he would be released in 1985 as part of a prisoner exchange). On trial for treason by a state that would not recognise him as one of their own, Turki was in an absurd but nightmarish situation like the fictional plight the character Josef K. faced in Franz Kafka’s The Trial, from which Deebi’s work takes its name.
Blatantly political, this work builds on Deebi’s interest in questions of distance and agency. In The Trial, Deebi presents us with a play of a real historical event from the distance of 40 years, and four years following the death of Daoud Turki in 2009. Playing with the text of this serious trial speech, Deebi’s direction of the actors’ halting speech further distances us from the idealistic speeches of the performance, adding another layer of separation onto The Trial. Such distance offers us a new space to be otherwise engaged with the questions of what a future Palestine might be, by looking back at how such another future was previously imagined.