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December 12, 2017
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Bashir Makhoul's "Occupied Garden" at the 55th International Venice Biennale. Source: bashirmakhoul.co.uk.

Artist Bashir Makhoul, native of Galilee and based in the United Kingdom, spent his childhood living as a Palestinian in Israel - a complex country where Palestinians do not feel they belong and where national identity is related to the "appropriation" of the territory. "There's not a unique way to define Palestine. What's fascinating about Palestine is the fact that it is plural: there exists simultaneously no Palestinian state and many Palestinian states, not a prototype of a Palestinian, but multiple Palestinians with different backgrounds and religions", explained Makhoul to The Genteel.

It is within this politically and socially fragmented scenario that Makhoul, an artist of the Diaspora genre, found the premise for his latest work "Occupied Garden". This past August, it was displayed in the exhibition "Otherwise Occupied", as part of the 55th International Art Exhibition at the Venice Biennale 2013.

Bashir Makhoul's "Occupied Garden" at night.
Source: bashirmakhoul.co.uk.

The work required the visitors' active participation. The artist had set up a garden; the rest of the show was created by the public, who were encouraged to use some of the thousands of cardboard boxes lying around and refold them into cubes. In doing so, they were seen building their own houses, which were then placed in the garden. Participants dealt with the action of occupying their private physical space. "Occupation is a concept normally refused. Rather than an act, it is something that simply 'takes place' just like what's happening with the Israeli forces occupying Palestine," explained Makhoul.

"However, the unexpected in my piece of work was that people didn't engage with the Palestinian issues of plurality, dispersal and claiming ownership of a land; they didn't necessarily associate Palestine to the usual image of an occupied territory under military control. They instead engaged with their own sense of occupation or the thoughts occupying their mind at that time, their personal preoccupations. For once the idea of occupation was connected to something playful as they joyfully played by making their houses just because it was fun and there was no restriction on the way they could occupy the garden," said Makhoul.

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According to Makhoul, what captures the attention of the global audience is the Palestinian connection with their land and their conflict with Israel. "It's a 'high profile' occupation [where] there are two levels [involved]: the people and the politicians. At a political level, [foreign politicians] are not actively supportive of Palestine. This is why Palestine hasn't been liberated yet like other countries. The general public deals with the occupation of Palestine on a human level. [However] the instant reaction is that they want justice and justice is something on a human level, [where] it is natural to reject occupation."

Artist Bashir Makhoul. Source: bashirmakhoul.co.uk.
Artist Bashir Makhoul. Source: bashirmakhoul.co.uk.

As the worldwide idea of occupation leads to the feeling of wanting justice against restrictions, Bashir Makhoul tries to fight the norms by using his art as a vehicle of freedom of speech and expression. His artworks usually touch global topics that can be relevant to any country; not only the Palestinian situation, but also issues including economics, politics and nationalism. In the case of Makhoul's "Occupied Garden" work, his artistic background has helped re-shape the audience's interaction with the word "occupation". Through art, this seemingly negative term is no longer connected to the sense of Palestinian oppression, but has instead acquired a positive nuance: it means being busy - simply, "otherwise occupied".

Curator of the exhibition, Rawan Sharaf, who also spoke to The Genteel for "A Fragile Heritage", underlines that although the purpose of the artwork "Occupied Garden" was to emphasise the recreational aspects of an "alternative occupation", while simultaneously encouraging the audience to take a position in the garden, the implicit political meaning emerges inevitably. "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," explains Sharaf in a press release.

Somehow fear was their [Israeli authorities] tool of political oppression. Being aware that I was meant to feel this fear, the [rebellious flag art] work was partly about shaking off that fear.

It is true that Palestinian people have the same (physical) space as other people in the world, but that space has historically been related to the concept of restriction and isolation. "If we consider the conflict in the Middle East, the space for local Palestinians would be the space that Israeli authorities decide to make within the checkpoints. Despite this, my work and Palestinian art are able to offer optimistic ways of thinking 'otherwise', imagining the nation outside and beyond the image of occupation", Makhoul states.

According to the artist, there are three adjectives to describe Palestinian art. Firstly, it is the consideration of being an "outsider", because Palestinian artists don't portray the same issues as other artists in the rest of the world. Their works are implicitly or explicitly related to the political situation of conflict where art expresses the unsaid and unknown about the culture. Secondly, Palestinian art is also "dynamic unfixed", because the identity of Palestine can not be precisely defined as being a fragmented plurality of parallel identities living under military control or as refugees.

As a result of political events, art represents a constantly developing idea of what it means to be Palestinian. Moreover, since the state of Israel was established in 1948 and Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza strip in 1967, millions of Palestinians have been in continuous exile in host countries around the world. As such, and as Makhoul's third adjective highlights, being able to tell their story globally, the work they produce in Palestinian art is very much "transient". Every piece of work is inspired by a transient political event or life experience of the artists.

Bashir Makhoul's "Al Hijara".
Source: bashirmakhoul.co.uk.

As Makhoul explains on his website in the article “Found in conflict", when he first moved to the United Kingdom twenty-two years ago, it was shocking for some British people to hear from him that, in Israel, the use of the Palestinian flag's colour in art was illegal. Pursuant to a law made after the Arab-Israeli war in 1967 - and still in effect - artists in Israel and the occupied territories, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, were forbidden to use the four colour combination of the Palestinian flag (red, white, green and black) in their designs.

When he rebelliously chose to employ the Palestinian flag's colours in his flag paintings at the end of the 90's, art definitely became for Makhoul a powerful way in which he could break the limits imposed by the Israeli invaders and find his own space. Concludes Makhoul: "I was actually afraid whenever I went back to visit my family that the Israeli authorities would find out about my work and that I would be arrested or questioned. Somehow fear was their tool of political oppression. Being aware that I was meant to feel this fear, the work was partly about shaking off that fear."

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