Ahlam Shibli (4 stars)

Everyday war

Isla Leaver-Yap talks to Ahlam Shibli, a Palestinian artist exhibiting photographs of her everyday life in an extraordinary situation.

Shibli’s lens attends to the bleak realities of Palestinian identities lived within Israel and the Occupied Territories. Born in Galilee, which became part of Israel in 1948, Shibli explores the topographical and emotional contradictions of people disconnected from one land now searching for another. ‘My work is about how we deal with being here, now,’ says Shibli. ‘I ask: “where are we and what are we?”’

Bringing together Goter, photographs of the traditionally nomadic Palestinian Bedouin population taken in Negev in 2003, and Trackers, images of Palestinian soldiers training in the Israeli Defence Force in 2005, both series possess a classic documentary aspect. They are ‘classic’ in the sense that the ordinariness of hardship has a grim timelessness, and ‘documentary’ as the titles of individual photographs refer to often unrecognised Arab territories.

But this is not just worthy photojournalism. These are not the consumable media images of tragedy. Shibli’s sparse use of black and white, occasionally punctuated with bleached-out colour images, has a striking geometry and quiet beauty. The Goter landscapes explore the physical space of house and home. Both this and the designation of territory in the photographs’ titles grant legitimacy to subjects and spaces where, in reality, they are often denied. Focus is split between the Bedouin’s temporary builds, where many choose to create their sense of home, despite state restrictions banning the use of electricity and water, and the unpopular Israeli-built townships.

Given the turmoil over the contested territories of the Middle East, one might expect animosity or polemic to characterise the artist and her work. But this is not the case - to do so would undermine Shibli’s project. ‘I’m not trying to tell people what to think. I want to open something up and see if it is honest,’ she says. Like her photographic narratives, the artist talks about her subject matter not with passionate fury, but sober matter-of-factness. ‘When I was taking the photographs for Goter, the people there had to give the land to the Israeli state,’ Shibli explains. ‘Most of them don’t agree - they continue to plant on it. The Israelis use helicopters to spray the field and destroy their plants. Of course, the children in the houses next to the fields can get poisoned and go to hospital. I was there when it started. At first I was tempted to go and photograph it but then I realised that I don’t want to concentrate on the drama. I don’t need it.’

In favouring cautious scrutiny, Shibli focuses on the everyday tensions: an image of a Qur’an stuffed in the back pocket of a Palestinian soldier saluting the Israeli national anthem; an apprehensive young tracker holding a grenade like a poisonous egg; the zinc roofs of a cluttered Israeli township. Thankfully, there are no glib celebrations of a Rushdie-esque hybridity to be found in these in-between identities. ‘To take the photo, to put down the name of the place, is also for me to know I was there,’ Shibli adds. ‘To know I was not dreaming.’

Dundee Contemporary Arts until Sun 1 Apr

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