Ahlam Shibli’s first major retrospective, “Phantom Home,” featured nine series of her documentary-style photographs, dating from 2000 to 2012. For Shibli, who was born in Galilee in 1970 and lives in Haifa, the concept of home is multilayered, encompassing one’s family home, one’s homeland and one’s body.
A Palestinian of Bedouin descent, Shibli has often focused on her homeland. All her projects involve months of investigation as well as direct contact with her subjects. The mostly black-and-white photos in “Goter” (2002-03) were taken in two types of areas where Bedouin families live: villages that they’ve inhabited for centuries but are unrecognized by the Israeli government, and “recognized” townships set up by the government. The images show barren, rocky terrains and desolate, flat landscapes, sometimes with a solitary building in the distance. Occasionally, people appear: we see children playing in dirt berms, and a family going about daily tasks in a simple home. The viewer cannot easily tell the types of villages apart; in both, a sense of desolation and impermanence prevails.
Shibli’s interest in the body as home led to “Eastern LGBT” (2004/2006), a group of works portraying the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Eastern Europeans who have fled the repression in their countries to live more freely in Tel Aviv, Barcelona, London and Zurich. One photo features a lone man adjusting his slinky red belly-dancing outfit in an empty concrete hallway. Others depict expats helping each other dress up for a night out.
Without question, Shibli’s new series, “Death” (2011-12), commissioned by the three museums co-hosting her retrospective (MACBA, the Jeu de Paume, Paris, and the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves, Porto), is her most ambitious and difficult work to date. It provides an in-depth study of commemorative images of Palestinian martyrs in the city of Nablus, a bastion of Palestinian resistance during the Second Intifada (2000-05). A martyr in these circumstances is any Palestinian killed due to the Israeli occupation, including soldiers who died in confrontations with Israeli forces, civilians killed in Israeli attacks and suicide bombers who carried out attacks in Israel.
Shibli sought out the families and friends of these people as well as contacted martyr support associations. The resulting 68 medium and large color prints present posters, murals, banners, paintings, photographs and graffiti of some of the most revered martyrs in Nablus (such as the first Palestinian woman to carry out a suicide bombing in Israel). The subjects are typically shown brandishing a weapon, with backgrounds that include patriotic decorative elements like the Palestinian flag and handwritten exaltations.
In the public spaces of Nablus, a cult of martyrdom seems omnipresent. Commemorations are seen on concrete walls pockmarked by bullet holes, or in the shabby interiors of cafes. Large, framed pictures of prominent martyrs are mounted on metal structures above the crumbling entrance of an oft-visited cemetery. Shibli provides lengthy descriptive captions for each photograph (available at MACBA as printed gallery notes), indicating details about the people pictured.
Perhaps the most disturbing photos are the ones taken in the intimacy of family homes, such as Untitled (Death, no. 37), in which a living room is dominated by a painting of Kayed Abu Mustafá (aka Mikere), a grim-faced young man with his finger on the trigger of an assault rifle. Mikere’s son looks up at the portrait of his father with pride, as his mother, daughter and young nephew sit nearby.
Shibli’s “Death” series seems to be the culmination of many years of reflecting on her homeland. She has probed deeply into the devastating impact that the frustrated quest for a home has had, and presents a terrifying portrait of a place where a continuing cult of martyrdom—and terrorism—appears inevitable. This viewer wonders if the questions that “Death” poses are best served by its presentation in the rarefied context of a contemporary art museum.
“Phantom Home” travels to the Jeu de Paume, Paris, May 28- Sept. 1, and the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves, Porto, Portugal, October 2013-February 2014.
PHOTO: Ahlam Shibli: Untitled (Death, no. 37), 2011-12, chromogenic print, 39ï¿½?? by 26¼ inches; at MACBA.