The artist explores how changes have made Palestinian cities and villages all but invisible through the contradiction of original and future structures Image Credit: Supplied

Italy-based Palestinian artist Hazem Harb was born in Gaza in 1980. He draws on his personal experiences of living under occupation to examine structures and systems of power and hierarchies. In his latest exhibition, “The Invisible Landscape and Concrete Futures”, Harb investigates the potential of architecture to destroy and museumise a culture.

In his multimedia artworks, the artist has juxtaposed various references to pre-1948 Palestine with concrete blocks, which can be seen as a symbol of occupation, representing the apartheid wall, the road blocks encountered daily by Palestinians, and the intrusion of other architectural styles on Palestinian architecture.

The artworks highlight the fact that while architecture can provide shelter, it also has the potential to destroy people and obliterate their existence. Through the heaviness and destructive power of architecture, Harb speaks about the violence of occupation and the destruction of cultural narratives.

However, he also expresses hope in the power and potential of architecture to reverse the destruction and to construct a better future. The show is organised by Salsali Private Museum in collaboration with Athr gallery, Jeddah, and curated by Lara Khaldi.

“With the changes that have taken place in Palestine, I feel like our cities and villages have become invisible. I try to imagine what an archaeologist would find a few hundred years from now, and I am afraid that all that will remain of Palestine in the future might be just a block of concrete. In this body of work I am excavating the old and trying to imagine a memory of the future and showing the contradiction between the original archaeology and the future archeology of my land and my culture.

“This show is about the violence of architecture, which we thought would shelter and protect us. It speaks about the plight of Palestinians but it is also about the suffering of all human beings,” Harb says.

This idea of the violence of architecture comes through strongly in a series of collages titled, “Archeology of Occupation”. Here, archival photographs of pre-1948 Palestine, featuring picturesque towns, villages and old brick buildings are juxtaposed with the heaviness of concrete blocks, wave breakers, lines and hand-drawn geometric shapes. Shells of ugly, modern buildings hover menacingly over the historic Mediterranean city of Haifa; and concrete slabs and black squares and rectangles conceal large areas of other charming landscapes.

“For many years, I have been collecting pictures of these beautiful villages and landscapes that do not exist today. The architectural interventions on these images talk about fragility, demolition, invasion, absence, the cancellation of panoramas, and the wiping out of memory and history,” Harb says.

Similarly, in the “Tag” series, the artist presents archival photographs of unknown Palestinians. These include pictures of families, people on the street, and groups of carefree children. Borrowing a concept from contemporary social media, Harb has tagged various individuals as well as places in these images. Once again, portions of these nostalgic pictures have been blocked out by concrete slabs and black squares and rectangles.

“When discussing conflicts, people always talk about numbers. But I want to focus on the human element and ask questions about individuals — about their absence and about the erasure of a way of life, of memories, and of history,” Harb says. Pointing to an empty black envelope in one collage, he adds, “I can send a postcard to any place in the world, but if I send it to Palestine it will never arrive. This one is about waiting,” he says.

The centrepiece of the show is a multimedia installation titled “This is Not a Museum”. It features a platform that is based on the floor plan of Baramki House in occupied Jerusalem, which is now a museum, called The Museum on the Seam.

Placed on the platform are pillows, damaged concrete blocks, a sheet of glass and a moon-shaped light. There is also a video showing an air mattress inflating and collapsing in an endless cycle.

“I got the original floor plan prepared by Baramki, a well-known Palestinian architect, from his family, who were forced to leave their home in 1948. The occupied house became a military outpost for the Israeli army, and is now a museum of contemporary art, located on the Seam — the invisible line separating the east and West of occupied Jerusalem.

“The pillow alludes to sound sleep and the feeling of security that we should have in our own home and bedroom. Even the height of this platform conforms to the standard height of a bed. But that feeling of safety is negated by the fragility of the glass and the violence of the broken concrete slabs.

“This work talks about the contradictory roles of architecture and the vulnerability of sleep. But it also reminds us that after sleep comes awakening. The air mattress in the video alludes to the logo of Gaza municipality, which is the Phoenix — a bird that eternally rises from its ashes. This work is about memory and destruction and the irony of something that was forcefully taken from one culture being used to commemorate another culture. But it is also about the hope of reawakening and rebuilding,” Harb says.

Jyoti Kalsi is an arts enthusiast based in Dubai.

“The Invisible Landscape and Concrete Futures” will run at Salsali Private Museum until June 1.


Chairs for Charity

Miniature versions of two chairs designed by Hazem Harb are available at the exhibition. The “For Ever” chair, featuring two intertwined seats, and the “Other Side” featuring two seats separated by a fence are poignant references to the suffering and the dreams of Palestinians.

The chairs, crafted from steel, are available in limited editions of 200, with prices starting at $600 (Dh2,202). The proceeds will be used to finance chairs for schools in Gaza.

“The money we raise will go back to Gaza, and we will get carpenters from Gaza to make the chairs with local materials, thus creating jobs in the devastated city,” Ramin Salsali, founder of Salsali Private Museum says.