Monday, 8 July 2013

'Just' a museum, 'just' an artist?

Artist Ahlam Shibli at Jeu de Paume (Photo: LP/ Philippe de Poulpiquet, taken from the newspaper Le Parisien)

I had written here before about my experience twenty years ago visiting a history museum in the town of Halifax (UK). I was totally shocked when, in one of the photos on display, I saw Cypriot resistance fighters against British rule being identified as “terrorists”. At the same time, I suppose I realised at that moment – I was 23 then – that there existed people who told that same story in a totally different way. The men on the photo coudl have killed their loved ones, who had been sent there by their country to defend a legitimate, in their view, authority.

Anyway, no matter how shocked I was, I didn´t threaten to put a bomb in the museum, I didn´t even start a petition to close the exhibition. Which is exactly what has been happening in Paris in these last weeks as a response to certain photos on display which form part of the exhibition Phantom Home, at Jeu de Paume, by Palestinian artist Ahlam Shibli. Why? Because certain people feel that exhibiting photos of Palestinian suicide bombers, and referring to them as ‘martyrs’, is a way of glorifying terrorism. Needless to say, I find the reactions and threats of the pro-Israeli groups totally unacceptable. But I must also say that they don´t come as a surprise, do they? The topic is sensitive, it is controversial, and those who claim to be surprised by the fierce reactions of certain circles or who are warning us about the return of censorship (read Emmanuel Alloa´s article La censure est de retour) are naive, to say the least, or simply not honest with themselves and with others. There´s nothing new or surprising in these attempts of censorship, they happened before and they´ll happen again in the future. But this is not what I wish to talk about.

I praise museums that have the courage to tackle difficult and controversial subjects. Museums should be doing exactly that: challenge our ‘stories’, present the ‘other side’, provoke debate, make space for it. Frankly, I am not sure if this was Jeu de Paume´s aim.

One reads on the museum website regarding the exhibition: “Death, Ahlam Shibli´s latest series, especially conceived for this retrospective, shows how the palestinian society preserves the presence of ‘martyrs’, according to the term used by the artist. This series witnesses a vaste representation of those absent through photos, posters, panels and graffitis exhibited as a form of resistance.” The museum seems to be perfectly aware that the use of the term “martyr” might be controversial and attributes it to the artist herself. On the other hand, the artist is being quoted in Emmanuel Alloa´s previously mentioned article as claiming that “My work is to show, neither to denounce nor to judge.”

Exhibitions, in my opinion, don´t ‘just’ show. Artists don´t do that either. Exhibitions and artists make statements. The French Minister of Culture seemed much more affirmative to me in her public statement and didn´t seem to run away from what was really the issue: “This claimed neutrality may be shocking in itself”, she said, “and give rise to bad interpretations, since it doesn´t explain the context of the photos, which is not just that of loss, but also that of terrorism.” (read the full press release here).

Death nr. 37, by Ahlam Shibli (Photo taken from the blog Lunettes Rouges)
The Ministry asked the museum to complete the information made available to the visitors in order to, on the one hand, clarify and better explain the purpose of the artist and, on the other, to distinguish the artist´s proposal from that of the institution. The Minister was under attack from all sides. Personally, I don´t see why a museum should set itself apart from its choices in the way the French Ministry seems to be suggesting. What should be really clear is why it chooses to present its audience with exhibition A or B, how it fits in its mission and programme, what it aims to communicate, what kind of thinking and discussion it aims to promote.

I can´t say it´s clear for me what Jeu de Paume really aimed to do through this exhibition or why it has chosen to present an artist who ´just wants to show´. I checked again and again on the museum website, looking for a parallel programme that would complement the exhibition with talks and debates. Nothing. Finally, a debate was announced, organized by the Museum and L´Observatoire de la Liberté de Création, “in reaction to the controversy caused by the exhibition”, that would discuss issues such as the freedom of artistic representation, the responsibility of the institution that exhibits works that cause a controversy, the freedom of the visitor to have access to the works and the the freedom of expression in all its components (read here).

This is all great. This is exactly what should have been planned beforehand and not as a reaction to a controversy. And it should have gone even further than a general discussion of freedom to create, freedom to exhibit, freedom to visit. This exhibition raises other important and very specific issues.

I would expect Jeu de Paume not to pretend that it had not expected a huge controversy when Palestinian suicide bombers are referred as martyrs. I would expect the artist to wish not “just to show”, as if she was ‘just’ a reporter, as if she didn´t take and exhibit these photos with the purpose to make a statement. I would expect both the museum and the artist to truly wish to provoke a debate, to push the boundaries, to create the space to discucss what is history, identity, conflict, justice, resistance, a terorist act or a terrorist state. This is about the palestinian issue and there´s nothing ‘just’ about it.

More on this blog

The stories we tell ourselves

Silent and apolitical?

The long distance between California and Jerusalem

More readings

Marie-José Mondzain, Artiste palestinienne : liberté pour l'art au Jeu de Paume (Le Monde, 21.6.2013)

Chez soi : la photographe palestinienne Ahlam Shibli au Jeu de Paume (on the blog Lunettes Rouges, 7.6.2013)

G.W. Goldnadel, France/Jeu de Paume: double honte (Israël Flash, 21.6.2013)

Marta Gili: Je refuserai toujours la censure au Jeu de Paume. Interview of the Director of Jeu de Paume (Le Figaro, 24.6.2013)

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