The ghosts that have come to haunt the T.W. Wood Gallery, on the Montpelier campus of Vermont College, have nothing in common with the hokey Halloween variety. These are tragic apparitions, conjured from the Palestinian people's historical experience of removal, absence and loss.
Amazingly, Vermont is one of the three stops so far in the United States for "Made in Palestine," a visually striking and politically unblinking exhibition that should not be missed. The show was brought to the state through the efforts of Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/ Israel. Even though the Wood could afford to present only a truncated version of this exhibition, which was previously seen in Houston and San Francisco, the selection of works still conveys the diversity and strength of a national art that's almost entirely unfamiliar to American audiences.
The 50 or so pieces on display come in many media and styles: photographs, paintings, drawings and reliefs. Several of the artists rely on representational images to relate straightforward narratives, but others turn to abstraction or make oblique use of figurative elements.
At the same time, the pieces exhibit a few important similarities. Nearly all convey explicitly political themes or at least have titles indicating that they're intended as statements about the Palestinian plight. Art for art's sake isn't much in evidence here.
For a show so infused with politics, it's a tribute to the curators that only a few of the works qualify as barefaced propaganda. James Harithas, Gabriel Delgado and Tex Kerschen -- all affiliated with the Station Museum in Houston -- chose judiciously during a 2002 tour of artists' studios in the Palestinian territories and other parts of the Middle East.
As Harithas suggests in a wall panel introducing the show, the aim is as much cultural -- and even anthropological -- as it is political. "What is at stake here is of tremendous importance," Harithas writes. "The lives as well as the traditions and culture of an entire indigenous population are in grave danger of being extinguished."
The artworks share an unwillingness to criticize or question the party-line Palestinian perspective. While it's understandable that the artists would want to seize a rare opportunity to speak plainly to Americans about Palestinian oppression, there's no chance of justice being done in the Middle East until both sides dare to empathize with one another. Israeli Jews are portrayed here solely as victimizers and villains. And while some surely are that, it's still the sort of one-dimensional depiction that art ought to transcend.
Another notable feature of "Made in Palestine" is its casually secular tone. Visitors expecting only puritanical treatments of the human body will be surprised by the number of nudes in evidence -- never in lascivious poses but also not executed in a self-conscious or quasi-apologetic manner. The view of Palestinians as repressed and anti-modern is another of the stereotypes shattered in this show.
What's most striking, however, is the ghostly aura emanating from many of the works. Immediately upon entering, viewers encounter restless spirits straight ahead as well as to their left and right.
Impossible not to notice, Mary Tuma's "Homes for the Disembodied" hangs from wires affixed to the gallery's ceiling. Five 10-foot forms in translucent silk resemble empty dresses that pool elegantly and emotively onto the floor. Constructed of 50 continuous yards of fabric, the piece casts thin shadows like memories given shape.
Tuma, an art professor at the University of North Carolina, is among the show's artists living in the Palestinian Diaspora. Because their works reflect a profound identification with the lost lands, "Made in Palestine" can be understood as referring to a state of mind rather than a physical place.
On the other side of the entrance hangs John Halaka's "Stripped of Their Identity and Driven From Their Land." It's a much more powerful piece than its tendentious title might suggest. Halaka, born in Egypt and residing in San Diego, uses rubber-stamped ink and acrylic to create a ghostly tableau of unclothed figures hobbling toward the viewer. Some are women carrying babies, others children walking alone. On the right-hand side of the 23-foot-long unstretched canvas, a life-size male figure carries another adult man, piggy-back style. This sad procession of refugees seems to be emerging from a sandstorm while remaining in a dimly lit landscape.
A wooden cabinet standing near the gallery's main door appears at first to be a nondescript piece of furniture, perhaps containing brochures for the exhibit. Closer inspection reveals shadowy forms etched on top that look like images from a prehistoric cave painting. Visitors are encouraged to pull out the cabinet's seven drawers to see similarly styled scenes sketched in burnt materials on the inside of each drawer. This is Tyseer Barakat's biography of his father. It visually recounts a life turned upside down by Al Nakba -- "The Catastrophe," the term Palestinians use to refer to their 1948 uprooting and the concomitant establishment of the Jewish state.
Barakat, the impresario of a West Bank arts center, retrieved the cabinet after it had been discarded by the Israeli army. The drawers originally contained files on the Jewish immigrants who had come to the Holy Land prior to Al Nakba.
Aggression and resistance are alluded to in Barakat's piece, and are presented much more concretely in a few other works. Among the most striking are photographs from a series by Rula Halawani entitled "Negative Incursion." One shot shows a family hunkered down in a tent that's pitched precariously beside a heap of eerily lit ruins. In another, a tank rumbles along a street as a half-dozen men lie face-down in the foreground with their arms locked behind their heads. The photos take on a phantasmagoric quality because they are printed as negatives. Light and dark are reversed. Nothing looks normal.
A badly needed bit of lightheartedness is supplied by Ashraf Fawakhry, who lives in Haifa, Israel. His 48 inked wood blocks each contains an identical image of a donkey. No two are alike, however, because of the accompanying materials or doodlings that Fawakhry includes in each of the small blocks. One has a sugar-free label pasted onto the donkey's side; in another, Johnny Walker strides by in his familiar top hat and tails. Entitled "I Am Donkey/Made in Palestine," the piece makes wry use of a symbol of Palestinian tenacity.
If this were a juried show the top prize would go to Samia Halaby for "Palestine, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River." Notwithstanding its absolutist title, which implies the destruction of Israel, this is a joyful outburst resembling one of New Yorker Elizabeth Murray's colorfully anarchic wall installations. Halaby deftly blends green, black, blue and orange bits of cut-up canvas and paper to form a 12-foot-long abstract mural vaguely suggestive of a map. It's the brightest piece in a somber show. Halaby's collage also acts as a grounding presence amidst the ghosts that hover all around it.