Q&A with Bashir Makhoul

We speak to the Palestinian artist and pro vice-chancellor (academic portfolio and market development) at Birmingham City University

August 7, 2014

Source: Detail from the installation Otherwise Occupied, Venice Biennale 2013/Getty

Bashir Makhoul is a Palestinian artist and pro vice-chancellor (academic portfolio and market development) at Birmingham City University. He continues to practise and has exhibited his work widely in the UK and internationally.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Galilee in 1963, in a tiny village 40 minutes’ drive from Nazareth.

How has this shaped you?
I was one of 10 children in a poor Christian-Palestinian family. My father died when I was five and I had to work on a building site from the age of 13 to enable me to study. It was a real fight. Racism was an everyday part of life. That has to shape you in some way.

What are your views on the current situation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
In all the arguments about what is happening today, it is important to note that the origins of the conflict lay in the relationship between the occupied and the occupier. I am opposed to violence as a means of resolving disputes and want to see a secular one-state solution, with all people treated equally.

Given your past works, is the ongoing conflict inspiring ideas for future output?
Conflict has always been at the core of my work, in my writing and practice. For me, the conflict and its effects on communities is inescapable, and always makes it deeply personal.

Does art offer a more evocative way of expressing political/social commentary?
Art is a way of raising questions and allowing people to think about the answers for a moment, rather than just attempting to provide them. I want to draw people in with the aesthetic of the imagery and then confront them with deeper issues, such as nationalism and religion.

In your opinion, what work of art offers the most poignant image from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Work by a Palestinian artist, Suleiman Mansour, called Jamal al-Mahamel. It depicts a Palestinian man carrying Jerusalem on his back, and offers a stark illustration of the conflict and its effect on people.

The creative industries are sometimes portrayed as less important for university graduates to go into, compared with fields related to STEM subjects. Is this view harmful to the variety in UK society?
I don’t feel it is damaging because creative industries are continuing to flourish and prove their necessity to the UK economy. And actually, I don’t see them as separate – they are contingent, which is something I’m experiencing at my university.

In particular, some degrees at newer universities are labelled as “Mickey Mouse” subjects. What do you say to the detractors of more vocational subjects?
The UK economy is very different from how it was a generation ago, so it is natural that university provision becomes more varied. Many specialisms, such as digital media, film production and gaming, are now part of multibillion-pound export industries. The only comparison with Mickey Mouse is the billions of dollars he made for Disney!

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
Can I have two people please? For his intellect, Edward Said, a Palestinian philosopher and critic, whose work has influenced generations of Western intellectuals. My second is more predictable but none the lesser for that – Nelson Mandela, for all he has done to resist racism.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I wanted to be an artist from the age of five.

What keeps you awake at night?
Ideas mostly. It’s probably the reason why I work in universities, because it is easier than many other environments for ideas to flourish and be challenged.

If you were a prospective university student now facing £9,000 fees, would you go again or go straight into work?
My personal advice is always to go to university, and then choose what to do afterwards. These opportunities don’t always come round again. It is an investment in an undetermined future but, more than that, it helps people become who they are.


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