«Return of the Soul» commemorates 60 years of Nakba
Marie MMina - 27/05/2008
Thousands of tiny figurines are suspended in the air, like the lives of the Palestinian refugees lying in wait for an impossible return. The “Return of the Soul” exhibition by Jane Frere was inaugurated in East Jerusalem earlier this month as a commemoration of the Nakba (“disaster” in Arabic)—the Palestinian exodus that took place when the State of Israel was created.
“This sculpture is representing people who had to flee their house in a state of terror,” says Jane Frere, who denounces the Nakba as “ethnic cleansing.”
When Israel declared its independence on May 15th, 1948, the neighbouring countries went to war against the young Jewish state. Out of the 1,300,000 Arabs who had been living in Palestine under the British mandate, 750,000 went into exile. Some simply fled the fighting while others were forced out of their villages. More than 400 Arab villages were destroyed by Jewish militias which operated before the Israeli army's creation.
According to some, including Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, there was an ethnic cleansing intent behind these events. However, other historians claim the Arab countries encouraged the Palestinians to evacuate their villages temporarily to facilitate a military victory, which they hoped soon coming.
The military victory never came and most refugees could never get back to their homes. They are in perpetual exile and can never settle down, like the 3,000 small wax beings - men, women, children - who are floating in the Al Hoash gallery.
These figurines were not made by Jane Frere herself, but by Palestinian people whom she trained during the last eight months. She set up workshops in refugee camps in the West Bank, Jordan and Lebanon, where young participants studied anatomy and emotional expressions, especially body language. To gain a historical perspective, they were encouraged to ask their parents and grandparents about what their families had gone through. Surprisingly, some of this younger generation hadn't heard the stories until now.
Drawing on her costume designer experience in theatre, Jane Frere asked the participants to go through photographs from the Nakba so they could picture what people were wearing when they fled their homes. She had them do this even though the clothes on the figurines are abstract.
The mini-characters form around a metal wire skeleton that was paper-wrapped and dipped in wax several times. “They take on a life of their own. They grow and they form and it's out of your control,” rejoices the Scottish creator.
She only taught the fabrication process, leaving the actual figurine making to the Palestinian contributors. “It had to be made by Palestinians,” Jane Frere explains. “They gave them a soul.”
In order to do so, the workshop participants had to think about the attitudes of the refugees at the moment of the exodus: Were they holding a child? Carrying things? Were they tired or handicapped? Were they being helped? “We re-enacted the scene and we drew each other before finally making the figures,” says Jane Frere, who wishes the workshops to continue.
After being displayed in Jerusalem, the work will be shown in Ramallah this summer and then in Amman. Some other 3,000 characters that are currently being made in Lebanon will go and haunt the Edinburgh Festival this summer before coming back to Beirut this fall. In the end, both sets will be united in Jerusalem.
Rawan Sharaf, the director of Al Hoash, hopes workshops will continue to contribute more figurines to the exhibition while it goes on tour.
According to her, the previous initiatives on the Nakba were either too academic or too simplistic. No project ever focused on the human aspect. She hopes the exhibition “will be a medium to deliver this story to the West.”
“Return of the Soul” also has a national objective. “It is very important for us to remember our history or we'll lose our identity and our right,” fears the Al Hoash director.
Jane Frere however denies any political goal behind her work. “I don't think I'm in a position to give a message,” she says. “The aim of this piece of art is that people feel something emotionally and then start asking questions... It is about humanity, about emotions.”
Throughout the project, the artist lived with families in refugee camps in Deheishe, Amari and Qalandia (West Bank), in Zarqa (Jordan) and in camps next to Tyre, Beirut and Tripoli (Lebanon).
“The Palestinians were the driving force,” she confides. “They gave me the energy to keep going. They have so little and yet they are so much stronger. They gave me such strength.”
“Return of the Soul” by Jane Frere
from May 15th to July 15th 2008
Palestinian Art Court – Al Hoash, East Jerusalem