Palestinian exile refuses to be boxed in

How Bashir Makhoul explores through art the plight of his countrymen

May 30, 2013

Box clever: Il Giardino Occupato touches on themes of dispossession and occupation

Few people illustrate how the lives of academics - or artist academics - have become globalised better than Bashir Makhoul.

Born in Galilee in 1963, based in Winchester but with a studio in China and an exhibition coming up in Japan, Makhoul has spent the past week in a garden in Venice. Here, with a team of assistants, he has turned about 4,000 cardboard boxes into houses.

When the international Venice Biennale art exhibition opens on 1 June, visitors who want to see the installation, titled Il Giardino Occupato, will be given boxes and encouraged to place them in the garden, too. The idea, explains Makhoul, is that “the garden will be completely filled up and turned into a sort of shanty town, with completely random and unregulated forms of housing”.

Exhibiting alongside him will be Aissa Deebi, his former PhD student and fellow “voluntary exile”, now assistant professor at the American University in Cairo, who has created a video called The Trial. This draws on Franz Kafka’s novel to re-enact the testimony of Daoud Turki, the Palestinian poet who was charged with treason by Israel in 1973 and sentenced to 17 years in prison. Together, the two works form Otherwise Occupied, the unofficial Palestinian contribution to the Biennale (the country does not have its own official pavilion in the main garden).

So how did Makhoul end up here? He attended art school in Israel, where he was a member of the Communist Party, which called for a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - something he still believes offers the only long-term route to peace (“splitting a little piece of land into two or three separate pieces is just absurd”). He then moved to the UK for a PhD at Manchester Metropolitan University, which he completed in 1995.

He has since become a British citizen, headed departments at the University of Bedfordshire and now has a demanding day job as rector of the University of Southampton’s Winchester School of Art. He oversees a total student body of 1,750, including 400 attending Southampton’s Dalian campus in China.

Artistic licence

Alongside his rise through the ranks in British higher education, Makhoul has “never stopped making work, no matter what job I do, because I don’t see the point of having ideas and keeping them to myself”. He has thereby forged an international reputation as an artist through work largely addressing issues of Palestinian identity.

Coming to the UK allowed him to start breaking taboos, producing bright abstract paintings using the colours of the Palestinian flag, which was then strictly illegal in Israel. When Makhoul went to Lebanon to visit his grandmother in 1997, he photographed the bullet holes still marking many of the walls in Beirut and juxtaposed repeated images of them in an eerily beautiful wallpaper pattern he called Points of View (1998).

He has also produced several works incorporating images of an olive tree that he inherited from his father, although by a strange quirk of history he does not own either of the two pieces of land it separates. And in Return (2007), he used the technique of lenticular photography to juxtapose images of Palestine during the British Mandate (1917-48) with the same settings today so that the past and present haunt each other, with the ghostly past appearing, disappearing and reappearing as viewers look at the work from different angles.

Since he calls himself “a thinker and maker, not a typical artist who sits in a studio to produce work all year”, Makhoul has been working for many years with al Hoash, a cultural organisation he describes as “essentially the Palestinian museum in Jerusalem”, producing English-language books designed to “enrich the debate around Palestinian issues”.

All this has created something of a double life. Although powerful and accessible, Makhoul’s work has a far more obvious and direct resonance for those living in Hebron than their counterparts in Hampshire. When he came to Winchester about eight years ago, he says, he “tried to keep his personal research interests to myself”, but an exhibition he held attracted criticism for his use of terms such as “resistance” and “Zionist lobby”.

“People inside and outside the university didn’t want to allow people like me to use language like that. That was quite an experience.”

Makhoul has had similarly unhappy experiences exhibiting in the US. (“The attitude towards Palestinians in New York - God almighty! You are not allowed to say anything. As soon as you open your mouth you are anti-Semitic.”)

Bashir Makhoul

International exposure

After a good deal of exposure in the 1990s alongside “Young British Artists” such as Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread, he hasn’t exhibited in the UK for eight years. Perhaps rather surprisingly, his work now attract most interest in China, Japan and Germany.

Since much of it is planned digitally but requires a labour-intensive manufacturing process, Makhoul has a studio in Beijing where he spends “four or five focused weeks a year when involved in a project”.

The one that arose out of Return and immediately preceded Il Giardino Occupato was called Enter Ghost, Exit Ghost. It was shown at the Yang Gallery in Beijing last year and is now being shipped to the Aichi Triennale in Japan. It will be resurrected at the Asian Triennial in Manchester next year.

Enter Ghost, Exit Ghost was partly inspired by the stage directions in Hamlet, which pose directors a technical challenge to make Hamlet’s father’s ghost appear and disappear. Yet Makhoul had also become fascinated by a huge training camp set up by the Israelis in the Negev Desert, where “they have built streets made of concrete, similar to real places in Gaza, Jerusalem, the centre of Beirut, parts of Jordan”.

He adds: “The idea is that they won’t get so many surprises if they carry out an invasion, and soldiers will perform better on the field. They even use special effects to create arms and legs and blood, so a full picture of what you might face is simulated there.”

Disturbed by “the way CGI for training in war merges playfulness with killing”, Makhoul decided to create a work that “widens the gap between reality and the virtual which the army had tried to close”.

To do this, he constructed a maze with 120m of lenticular photographs of street scenes from refugee camps projected on to it, so “you get lost and can never see the image from the same point of view twice. You have to move in order to see the images, which animates them - so it’s disturbing, disorientating and gives the sense of getting lost.”

As spectators emerge from the maze, they find themselves in a claustrophobic cardboard city with walls 9m high.

Il Giardino Occupato uses the same material to explore similar themes of dispossession, occupation and even the semi-exclusion of Palestine from the international art scene represented by its unofficial status at the Venice Biennale.

Despite the challenges of coordinating a team scattered between Beijing, Cairo, Jerusalem, Venice and Winchester, the exhibition should open to the public as planned.

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