Ahlam Shibli: Phantom Home
Musee du Jeu de Paume, 1 Place de la Concorde, 75008 Paris, France
28 May-1 September
From the Press Release
The Jeu de Paume presents the first retrospective exhibition of the artist Ahlam Shibli (Palestine, 1970). Phantom Home will bring together six photographic series that encapsulate Shibli’s investigation into different ways of understanding the word ‘home’. Her photographs deal with the loss of home and the fight against that loss, uprooting and social exclusion.
For this exhibition, Ahlam Shibli presents a selection of her works since 2000. Her images are anchored in current events, not through the urgency of a witness account but in the need to reestablish a critical distance through the profound transformation brought by a subjective regard. The exhibition also includes Death (2011-12), Shibli’s latest photographic series, especially conceived for this retrospective, which shows how Palestinian society preserves ‘the presence of the martyrs’‘in the artist’s own words.
Since the mid-nineties, Ahlam Shibli’s photographs have depicted the conditions of living under oppression. The documentary aesthetics used to address the traumas implicit in the discrimination of the Palestinian population has been transposed to other places where the idea of home is just as problematic. Like the celebrations to commemorate French war victims and the contradictions involved in the revelation that the same people can be victims of horrifying violence and then agents of an equally unjust colonial regime, or the desperate decision of individuals who are obliged to emigrate to reconcile their bodies with the desire for a gender of their own choice. The work of Ahlam Shibli uncovers states of dislocation and occupation that are not limited to the Palestinian condition, but extended to other states and situations.
The exhibition Phantom Home brings together the major series of photographs produced so far by Ahlam Shibli. [...] [Her] documentary practice [...] negates the premise underlying a strain of photography that has set itself up as an essential ingredient of global public opinion and provides every event for debate with an image. So many things happen in this hyper-visual regime, which allow us to see and to know everything without guaranteeing the occasion to act on it; precisely what the artist Hito Steyerl has called ‘idle reflexivity’‘information with no right to action or possibility of intervention. The photography of Ahlam Shibli calls for textuality to suspend the autonomy of the image and to introduce it into a regime that no longer uses photography for information purposes. The reflexivity of Shibli’s images lies in the relationship with the subject that speaks to us while remaining suspended within the photograph itself. Furthermore, a single image cannot be detached from the series to which it belongs, as each of her photographs finds its meaning in the sequence. Therein lies a rich, complex multitude of signs that represents the only vestige of community in situations of precarious life.
Through a documentary aesthetic, the work addresses the contradictory implications of the notion of home. The work deals with the loss of home and the fight against that loss, but also with restrictions and limitations that the idea of home imposes on the individuals and groups marked by repressive identity politics. Examples of places where the problematic is encountered include the Palestinian areas; monuments that commemorate members of the French Resistance against the Nazis together with French fighters in the colonial wars against peoples who demanded their own independence; the bodies of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals from Eastern societies; and the communities of children in Polish orphanages. Death, Shibli’s latest photographic series, especially conceived for this retrospective, shows how Palestinian society preserves the presence of the ‘martyrs’’ in the artist’s own words. This series contains a wide representation of the absent ones through photographs, posters, graves and graffiti displayed as a form of resistance.
Most of the works are accompanied by legends assigning each photograph to a specific time and place in an investigative process that often implies long empirical and conversational contact with the subjects in question. Phantom Home encapsulates Shibli’s investigation into two different ways of understanding the word ‘home.’ As usual in her practice, these are specific and situated uses.
The first group of works brings together the series Eastern LGBT (2004/06) and Dom Dziecka. The house starves when you are away (2008). While the body is considered the primary home for human beings, it also appears as the first target of repressive identity politics. These two series show that, despite their precarious lives, minorities exposed to violence and a lack of recognition employ their bodies to create conditions of existence that are opposed to the values and expectations of the majority.
A second group includes more recent works: Trackers (2005), Trauma (2008-09) and Death (2011-12). The sequence of these series describes a colonial conflict not limited to the Palestinian land, but also referring to a French locality that in turn sends us back to the wars of independence in Indochina and Algeria. The city of Tulle, in south-central France, bears witness to celebrations that commemorate the victims of a brutal massacre under Nazi occupation, as well as those who, immediately after the Liberation, fought against the independence of other peoples. For the Palestinians, on the other hand, the state of exception that marked the events represented in Trauma has become the rule. They have nothing left other than their own bodies. If they want to confront disdain, the ‘wretched of the earth’ can do nothing but invest their own lives.
In this sense, the politics informing Shibli’s photographic practice acknowledges the plight of those living under oppression. Hence her photography avoids the historical obsession of the medium with achieving evidence at all costs. Her photographs refuse to explain the conflict. They are looking at it to fight preconceptions.
In the last series in the retrospective, Self Portrait (2000), the photographer recreates a childhood event. A girl and a boy are the protagonists of an elusive story, taking place just outside the village where the artist grew up. Their gestures, games and positions in the middle of an open field define a territory that, far from assuming a rigid demarcation, exists as a representation. The production of ‘existential territories’, as the French philosopher Felix Guattari would say, is a quality of resistance that can take place inside other territories, such as the State or the community. Shibli’s photography perceives this resistance as an accumulation of signs found in photographic series and sequences, where an image makes sense in the context of other images.