Emily Jacir – Material for a film

Whitechapel Gallery

30 Sep – 03 Jan 2016

The main focus in seeking art usually centres on the more commonly sought after media of painting, sculpture and drawing. When coming across Emily Jacir’s work, the thing I found most striking and engaging is that it uses a range of less used media such as sound installation, documentary and video which she uses to create an in depth study of history through her creativity. Within the gallery, there are three of Jacir’s exhibitions on display, all of which bring attention to the plight of the Palestinian people. One of these exhibitions is ‘material for a film’, which is a visual biography, focusing on the life of a Palestinian intellectual Wael Zuaiter who was assassinated in Rome by Israeli agents in 1972, after being mistakenly identified as being involved in the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics held in Munich.

The exhibition raises questions about the meaning of history and how it is created and it particularly provokes the viewer to consider how historical narratives are often silenced. This is shown in one artwork in particular, which is a letter that highlights the way Zuaiter’s assassination was shown in the press. This resonates with the coverage of current affairs in Israel and Palestine today where there is much concern about the apparent bias and imbalance in the reporting of today’s historical events. The letter is sent to Wael Zuaiter’s wife Janet from the organisation Friends of Palestine. It provides information about the reportage of his death; “it was a very short item and no details. Just a Palestinian killed in Rome. Nothing like the headlines we saw when an Israeli was killed in London”. Episodes of Zuaiter’s life are imagined through family photographs, correspondence and documents unearthed by Jacir, which give us an insight into the life and character of this man unlike the short paragraph in the newspaper which reduces his life to a couple of sentences.

Emily Jacir creatively shows the personal history of the individual through a diverse range of pieces. For example, Wael’s books found in his apartment after his death, which allow the viewer to understand his life as an intellectual as well as showing his passion for literature. The powerful use of a sound installation of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, a special edition conducted by a friend Bruno Walter, provides a haunting and atmospheric soundtrack that follows you around the exhibition. This was another belonging of Zuaiter, which was sequestered by the police when they raided his apartment as they considered it to be suspicious evidence. Another way in which Emily Jacir effectively portrays the life of Wael Zuaiter is by using the perspective of other individual’s. One piece that shows this are excerpts from a video interview with Bruno Cagli where he states that he “couldn’t believe that someone, who dedicated his entire life to intellectual, cultural and moral reconciliation between peoples, could have been targeted”. This shows the enormity of the loss of his life in comparison to the brief coverage it was given in the news. He was denied the full obituary, which he deserved, which prompts us again as a viewer to think about who creates history but also how history can be reclaimed through art.

She imaginatively uses different exhibits; the juxtaposition of a simple coin that he kept on a string to use for the coin operated elevator in his building against the photograph of a meeting with journalists at the Hilton in Kuwait City convened to discuss the issues of Palestine to show the complexity of human life. Jacir’s art, again, creatively presents history and politics in a way that is different to anything I have experienced before.

Eden-Grace Turner







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