Meaning and Reference in the Landscape of Manal Mahamid
By : Jonathan Harris
The term landscape has entered art historical and popular usage in such a way that its two separable senses are often combined and sometimes confused. These meanings are (1) the actual land and how we see it, apparently ‘directly,’ and (2) representations of the land, mediated in and through art forms. Recent works by Manal Mahamid – video, sculptures, prints and drawings focused on the Palestinian landscape – illustrate this continuing situation in a number of quite dramatic ways.
While landscape painting emerged and developed as an independent genre in western academic art in the period between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, initially being given a marginal place in relation to both history painting and portraiture, by the eighteenth century it had become elevated into a form capable of conveying, symbolically, religious beliefs, social ideologies and aesthetic values. It is to Mahamid’s credit that her corpus (which, significantly, eschews the use of oil painting with its aristocratic lineage from this earlier era) refers to and subtly inflects these charged and sometimes conflicting meanings – in the context of Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and its parasitic absorption and consumption of Palestinian physical, cultural and natural-historical resources.
Mahamid’s focus, for instance, on the ‘Palestinian Gazelle’ – a quasi-scientific nomenclature accepted throughout the world for this animal native to the region but the subject of a recent apparent outrage for those in Israel who cannot or will not accept the (idea of a) history of Palestine and the Palestinians – has enabled these complex and charged meanings of ‘landscape’ to resurface. The aesthetic-philosophical idealism inherent in the redefinition of landscape painting’s significance – part of its romantic legacy – has carried over into the term’s currency in ordinary usage. This might partly explain the broader interest in Israel recently in disputing ‘Palestinian landscape’ as a possible (never mind desirable) category and reality. (1)
We can look at what we think of as the real landscape – say the view out of the window of a train passing between towns, or from the front door of a house in the countryside – and yet see this scene in terms of our knowledge of landscape imagery in art. Windows and doors frame the view like a picture, creating the sense contained in the related term picturesque. Mahamid’s representations work assiduously, however, to make impossible any putative ‘Israeli picturesque’ centered on this land. This is because her images continually press questions to do with where meanings come from, who they are for, what interests they serve and how they may be challenged or transformed. Her beautiful ‘still-life’ like drawings of gazelle horns, for instance, though seemingly descriptive and objective, beg these ontological and socio-political questions insistently. The picturesque, by contrast, relies on the assumption that landscape’s senses and values remain immanent, natural and unquestioned.(2)
There is a strengthening force of subjective expressiveness in Mahamid’s colored drawings and etchings of the Palestinian Gazelle – these are reminiscent of works by Die Blaue Reiter group and Wassily Kandinsky from before the First World War. The gazelle has become concentrated motif, exemplified in the mixed media works Golden Ghazal (2016) and Gazelle Houses (no date) which have a fervent symbolist feel. The animal here becomes a vehicle for an entrenchment of personal (even private) as well as declarative socio-political meanings and investments. The contemplate inner life of the artist is as significant in and to these works as the historical situation of Palestine and the Palestinians.
Her undated Finger Print sculpture – whose white and black indented horizontal surface assumes the pattern of a mammal’s skin that might be that of a gazelle or one of its potential predators – refers us back again to Mahamid and reputedly to one of the most individual, unmistakable and unalienable features of the physical human being. Matters of identity can never be far away in works by Palestinian artists – inescapable often to the point of cliché in accounts of their intentions and critical reviews by others. But Mahamid’s works on paper allow a freer rein. Her Manal with Gazelle (no date), a clearly ‘staged’ photograph showing her kneeling next to a near life-size sculpture (or photo-shopped image?) of the animal, is enigmatic as well as easily readable. This work may tell us ambiguously about her secret non-political inner-life as much as it poses familiar ‘animal/human’ and ‘nature/culture’ anthropological oppositions – played out here, however, in the precarious captive polity that the Palestinians have been and are required to inhabit with its particular geographic, ideological and mental enclosures.
Landscape, then, actually implies some selected view and often, within that, an idealization – making that which is shown or seen fit into an idea or belief of what should be shown and seen. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the history of landscape art had begun to extend beyond an impulse to idealize, to other aims and concerns: for instance, to show the ground, water, sky and the animals and plants as realistically as possible, often for mapping or other scientific and practical purposes. Mahamid’s works draw attention to this process in a very acute way, as the Israeli control and consumption of Palestinian space and natural resources (and their very naming) has been and is a key facet of its historical settler colonialism. (3) To whom does this land and its myriad resources belong?
This is the key question subtended by Mahamid’s works, in a way that both complements and contradicts the beauty of her pictorial forms and the natural historical forms to which they refer. In the twentieth century landscape grew another life for itself when it became conjoined with processes of abstraction and subjective expressiveness in modern art. Mark Rothko’s very late pink paintings, for example, suggestive even of moonscapes (these works were painted in the 1960s when the Apollo program was being televised), have been read as symbols for his own interior ‘mental landscape’. Mahamid’s video film The Tale of a Gazelle (no date) – showing her running over many different kinds of land and space in the occupied West Bank territories and in the state of Israel – has a similar feel: we are seeing, in so far as this can be depicted or indicated, ‘her world,’ which is mental as much as it is physically external to her. (The sound track with its echoing incanting voice strongly reinforces this sense of a mental interiority.)
These issues of whose land it is and what it means or is for cannot be annexed in the way, or to the same extent, that Palestinian land itself has been. There is meaningful resistance, therefore, in these works, and in the ranging over the land that Mahamid has physically actually done by her running – her landscapes open and keep open a critical space, which is both real and imagined.
1. ‘Israeli hip-hop Star Hopping Mad Over ‘Palestine’ Gazelle,’ Haaretz, 28 April 2015 http://www.haaretz.com/news/israel/1.654011. See John Berger, Ways of Seeing (BBC and Penguin: London, 1972) for an account of landscape painting’s role in depicting and ratifying personal property and property relations in capitalist societies since the eighteenth century.
2. For two influential critiques of the picturesque tradition, see John Barrell, The Dark Side of the Landscape: The Rural Poor in English Painting 1730-1840 (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1980) and Norman Bryson, Word and Image: French Painting in the Ancien Regime (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1981).
3. See, e.g., Eyal Weizman, Hollow Ground: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (Verso: London, 2012).