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Artist Emily Jacir Brings the Palestinian Experience to the Venice Biennale

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At the Venice Biennale, the oldest and most prestigious international biennial art exhibition in the world, we speak with one of the most celebrated Palestinian artists, Emily Jacir. In 2007, she won the Golden Lion here at the Venice Biennale for her work “Material for a Film,” a large-scale installation based on the life of Palestinian writer Wael Zuaiter, who was assassinated near his home in Rome, Italy, by Israeli Mossad agents in 1972. For years Jacir has created groundbreaking art to capture the Palestinian experience and other issues. In 2001, she presented a piece titled “Memorial to 418 Palestinian Villages Destroyed, Depopulated, and Occupied by Israel in 1948,” consisting of a large refugee tent on which the names of 418 Palestinians villages were embroidered. She later did a project called “ex libris” that commemorated the approximately 30,000 books from Palestinian homes, libraries and institutions that were looted by Israeli authorities in 1948.

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AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road in Venice, Italy, the site of the Venice Biennale, the oldest and most prestigious international biennial art exhibition in the world. The theme of this year is “All the World’s Futures.” You may hear inside where we’re broadcasting outside today at the Arsenale, in the midst of Venice, people singing.

Well, we’re beginning today with one of the most celebrated Palestinian artists, Emily Jacir. In 2007, she won the Golden Lion here at the Venice Biennale for her work, “Material for a Film.” It was a large-scale installation based on the life of Palestinian writer Wael Zuaiter, who was assassinated near his home in Rome, Italy, by Israeli Mossad agents in 1972. For years, Emily has created groundbreaking art to capture the Palestinian experience and other issues. In 2001, she presented—titled “Memorial to 418 Palestinian Villages Destroyed, Depopulated, and Occupied by Israel in 1948.” The piece consisted of a large refugee tent with the names of 418 Palestinian villages embroidered on it. She later did a project called “ex libris,” that commemorated the approximately 30,000 books from Palestinian homes, libraries and institutions that were looted by Israeli authorities in 1948. Emily Jacir is speaking here at the Creative Time Summit as part of the Venice Biennale.

And we welcome you to Democracy Now!

EMILY JACIR: Thank you. I am so excited to be here. I just have to say this because my father is probably your biggest fan.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, thank God for fathers. So, Emily, you gave a remarkable speech here yesterday, where you, as, well, a person not from Venice, though you lived in Rome, gave us a tour of Venice, a kind of geopolitical cultural tour that most people are not privileged to get. Talk about what many visitors may miss.

EMILY JACIR: Yesterday I spoke about a project I made for the 2009 Biennial called “Stazione,” which was a public intervention that was meant to take place on the 25 vaporetto stops, the vaporetto being the water bus line, the water bus stops, that runs through the heart of Venice. And what I did was I translated each of the names into Arabic and placed the Arabic names next to the Italian, creating a bilingual transportation route into the city. And what inspired this project was a two-year period of researching the history of Venice, when it was really interdependent with the rest of the Mediterranean, and I was interested in exploring the heritage, the shared heritage, Venice shares with the Arab world. So, for example, the very first book ever printed, mechanically printed in Arabic, was called the Book of Hours, and it was printed here in Venice—I think it’s 1514—by Gregorio de Gregorii. Another highlight from that research was the first mechanically printed Qur’an in the world was printed here in Venice by Alessandro and Paganino Paganini in 1537. And the glassblowing technique that Venice is so famous for was actually developed in Palestine.

AMY GOODMAN: The Murano glass.

EMILY JACIR: The glassblowing—the technique of glassblowing, because this was from a period where there was all this exchange. The border—there was no borders. Venice was like a liquid city. So it’s a shared heritage, all of this. There are words in the Venetian dialect that come from Arabic. For example, where the summit is being held, the Arsenale, it comes from the Arabic word dar al-sina’a, which means “house of manufacture.” So it’s really, really, really an incredibly rich and layered history. The architecture, if you take vaporetto line one, you will see the—

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what the vaporetto is.

EMILY JACIR: The vaporetto is the water bus that you take to move around the city. It’s the bus. It’s like a bus in any city, but it’s the water bus.

AMY GOODMAN: For all folks to understand, Venice is a remarkable city of canals. There are no cars, so you either take gondolas or you take these vaporettos, which we have been on, throughout Venice. It’s kind of like a—well, a watery subway system, you could say.


AMY GOODMAN: It’s small ferries, right?


AMY GOODMAN: And each station stop has the Italian name of the stop, like—


AMY GOODMAN: —what? Sant’Elena.

EMILY JACIR: Yeah, exactly, or Biennale, Arsenale, San Marco. And the stops are actually these separate floating kind of platforms jutting out into the water. So the idea also of putting the Arabic next to the Italian was so that the stops would have a dialogue with the architecture along the Grand Canal, which is this incredible mixture of influences from the Arab world and here.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you did this for the—


AMY GOODMAN: Biennale in 2009.

EMILY JACIR: 2009, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: You were going to do this project. You were actually going to put the Arabic translations—


AMY GOODMAN: —of the Italian stops on each stop.

EMILY JACIR: Yeah, we worked with the vaporetto company that’s in charge of all the lines and the bus stops, and they were really excited about the project, and they were going to fund the project, actually. And they had asked me to create a text to explain to tourists, to put on some of the stops why—what is this Arabic that is on these stations. And we were going to have an opening with the mayor of Venice. But then, shortly before the Biennale, the project was shut down.


EMILY JACIR: The city officials. Somebody came to the head of the vaporetto company and told them that this was not to take place in Venice, which was really devastating for me because I think it’s a very important project dealing with a beautiful history, a shared history, a shared cultural heritage, and it was a secular project, which is also something that’s very important.

AMY GOODMAN: What did they tell you? So, instead you showed it in—now, at that time—there isn’t today—


AMY GOODMAN: —but you showed it in the Palestinian Pavilion?

EMILY JACIR: Pavilion. It was the first Palestinian Pavilion. So what I did instead is I created—after this happened, I had to come up with something else. I created a brochure, which was a map of the project and where Biennial goers, or whoever, could follow this map and go see my project. And when they arrived, they would discover it wasn’t there, with my intention being that maybe sometime in the future people will think it was there, because I created this brochure that it actually happened, when it didn’t. It was the only way to overcome this.

AMY GOODMAN: Yet you had won the actual—what is it called?

EMILY JACIR: The Golden Lion, one of the Golden Lions.

AMY GOODMAN: The Golden Lion the year before.

EMILY JACIR: Yeah, in the 2007 Biennale, yeah.


EMILY JACIR: For my work called “Material for a Film.”

AMY GOODMAN: And I want to talk about that in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: But on this issue of not being able to put up these signs—


AMY GOODMAN: —we’ve reported over the last few days that the Icelandic Pavilion—


AMY GOODMAN: —was shut down when the artist—the pavilion was in an old church, hadn’t been used by the Catholic Church, I think, in something for like 40 years—


AMY GOODMAN: —turned it into a mosque. And the Venetian authorities said no.

EMILY JACIR: Yeah. And in 2005, there was an artist called Gregor Schneider who had—was going to put a black cube in Piazza San Marco, and that also got shut down.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain the Piazza San Marco.

EMILY JACIR: Piazza San Marco is the main square of Venice where the church is. It’s beautiful.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was that black square to represent?

EMILY JACIR: It was a—well, that, the artist would have to explain; I’m not going to speak on his behalf. But that was shut down because they were scared that it would look too much like Mecca.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, the place we’re sitting right now—and some people might hear sounds of music or speakers wafting through—we’re right next to the theater where the Creative Time Summit is taking place. And we’re in an area called the Arsenale. Yes, you got it—the Arsenal. So, an old arsenal has been changed into an artist space here in Venice. But talk about the Arsenale, the significance of this area, Emily.

EMILY JACIR: Well, it’s interesting because it’s one of the things that I was talking about with the translation, because it was the place where ship building took place and where this word, dar al-sina’a, comes from, which is “house of manufacture.”



AMY GOODMAN: And it was one of the first industrial assembly lines—


AMY GOODMAN: —where they made warships.


AMY GOODMAN: A warship in a day.


AMY GOODMAN: Here in Venice, Italy.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking with Emily Jacir, who is a Palestinian artist and filmmaker, professor at the International Academy of Art, Palastine, in Ramallah. Her work includes a diverse range of media and strategies, including film, photography, social interventions, installation and performance, video, writing and sound. So now I want to go back to 2007, to the—


AMY GOODMAN: —what you won the Golden Lion award for at the 52nd Venice Biennale, in 2008 winning the Hugo Boss Prize at the Guggenheim Museum—

EMILY JACIR: Guggenheim.

AMY GOODMAN: —for the same thing. Explain what your—what your project was.

EMILY JACIR: Essentially, that project was about the first Palestinian, named Wael Zuaiter, who was killed by the Israeli Mossad on European soil, in 1972. The title for that project comes from the chapter of a book written by Janet Venn-Brown, who was his companion for eight years. There was a chapter called “Material for a Film,” where Elio Petri, the famous Italian filmmaker, and Ugo Pirro had done a series of interviews with the people who knew Wael. Wael was very important in the cultural scene in Italy. He was the first person to bring Alberto Moravia to the Middle East. He took him to Iraq and Syria, Kuwait. And he was very involved with people like Pasolini. So this chapter—

AMY GOODMAN: And Pasolini was?

EMILY JACIR: The Italian filmmaker, Pasolini. So, this chapter—basically, I felt that I was building on their work and gathering more material for a film. So what the installation ends up being is not only about Wael, but also about my journey in finding him and the traces he left behind.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about how you found him. You lived in Rome for many years.

EMILY JACIR: Yeah, yes, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: This is where he was murdered.

EMILY JACIR: Yes, yeah. I lived in Rome for many years, so there was always this specter of his death in my mind since I was a child, of this kind of impending threat. And to make that project, it actually required that I did a lot of research—it took five years—and collaborated mainly with Janet Venn-Brown, who, as I said before, was his companion. And frankly, we wouldn’t really have any information on him or his life if it wasn’t for her, because she kept every single documents, every single letter, all of his books. She held onto them. So, a lot of the work was working with her in her apartment, going through her archives, to create this piece. She was an Australian painter living in Rome.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the images you used here at the Biennale, which means the Biennial—again, it’s 120 years old, the oldest in the world—and also at the Guggenheim. It was—I remember being there, seeing this just breathtaking display.

EMILY JACIR: Thank you. What I intended to do was, I wanted it to function like you were walking through a film about this man and his life, and my life, except unlike a film, where if you’re watching a film, you’re in a very passive position and almost being lectured to, you were moving among the elements at your own pace. So there was video, and there was sound, various texts, images I had collected from his life, photographs. And it was in—it took place in several rooms, kind of like a maze.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, the Guggenheim is a circular building that you walk up.

EMILY JACIR: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: The response to this? And how did you know that the Mossad assassinated him, the Israeli intelligence?

EMILY JACIR: Actually, there was a court case. It went to the court case in Italy, and it was proven. And their names are actually—which I don’t have off the top of my head right now—are available in the documents of that court case.

AMY GOODMAN: And finishing this project, what did it mean to you, bringing out this man’s life and death in such a establishment art institution? And it goes to a bigger question about your role as an artist, also as a Palestinian artist, what you’re trying to do.

EMILY JACIR: That’s a huge question.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, a lot of people might be experiencing or looking at what’s going on in the world today, so many conflicts, from Ferguson to Palestine. Here we are in Venice at an art exhibition.


AMY GOODMAN: Here you are. How does that mesh? How did you choose art as a way of expressing yourself? And do you consider yourself an activist?

EMILY JACIR: I do consider myself an activist, but I do also feel that when I’m working with my projects, many of them are very long-term and require a lot of research. And actually, it’s kind of the opposite of what journalism is about, because it’s about going really slow and taking your time, looking at tiny details that would not actually normally appear in news reports or news stories or all these—especially all these stories coming out the way the West Bank and Gaza and Palestine is contextualized in the media.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to your third project that I wanted to talk about: the tent.

EMILY JACIR: Oh, the memorial to 418 villages, yes, destroyed, depopulated and occupied by Israel in 1948.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you did.

EMILY JACIR: I was in New York at the time, and I got a family-size refugee tent. It really was a community-based project which took place over a three-month period. And I stenciled the names of every village that was destroyed or depopulated or occupied in 1948 onto this tent, and then invited people to come sew with me, sew each name, embroider each name into this tent. And—

AMY GOODMAN: And where did you get the names of the villages?

EMILY JACIR: The villages’ names, I used Walid Khalidi’s book, All That Remains, which is—and we actually, when we would work on the tent, when someone would start sewing a new village, we would actually read in the book what he wrote about that village, who lived there before, how it was depopulated, etc.

AMY GOODMAN: And Walid is the father [correction: cousin] of the Columbia University professor—

EMILY JACIR: Yes, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —Rashid Khalidi?


AMY GOODMAN: And so, you had these names.

EMILY JACIR: Yes. And it became—it really became—it really became a social space where people came to gather and sew and work, but the other thing that was happening at that time when we were working on that piece was the Second Intifada had started. So, for many of the community, they were on Skype or trying to call family members. You would get on a subway train in the morning, and there would be these horrible headlines, and you just didn’t feel safe. So, even though we were sewing these names from what happened in ’48, we were also gathering in a space where we could be together to deal with what was happening in the contemporary moment. And that was really important.

AMY GOODMAN: And you left space on the front of the tent?

EMILY JACIR: I left space on the front, because I think the destruction of Palestine is a work in progress that’s still going on, so to imply that I would be adding more names later. So there’s one panel that’s completely empty.

AMY GOODMAN: And then there’s “ex libris.”


AMY GOODMAN: And explain where the installation of “ex libris” was shown.

EMILY JACIR: “Ex libris” was made for dOCUMENTA (13). dOCUMENTA (13) is a big art exhibition that happens every five years in Kassel, in Germany, which is an incredible site because it’s in the region of Hesse, which is where the biggest book repatriation project in history ever took place, when it was under the American zone. And I was very fascinated by this idea of repatriation and restitution of property. So it made sense to me that my project would be about the books, which are currently in the Israeli National Library, that were looted from Palestinian homes and institutions in 1948.


EMILY JACIR: So, I went to the library—well, first of all, those books are in the Jewish National Library in Hebrew University, and they have a mark, “AP.” That’s their catalog number, AP, which stands for “abandoned property.” So it’s really interesting because they’re part of the system, but they’re also—what happened to them is signified in this AP designation.

AMY GOODMAN: Abandoned property.

EMILY JACIR: Property. But they were looted. And I went to the library, and I—

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean by “looted”?

EMILY JACIR: They were taken from people’s homes and institutions and libraries. They were looted. They were stolen.

AMY GOODMAN: Does the Israeli government recognize this?


AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s in the library.

EMILY JACIR: It’s in the library, under AP.

AMY GOODMAN: Abandoned property.

EMILY JACIR: Property, yeah. So I went, and I took photographs of the traces of the original owners, which I found in the books. So that’s what the installation is comprised of—notes, flowers, an inscription, somebody’s prayer card.

AMY GOODMAN: What do—for example, what would the prayer card look like?

EMILY JACIR: Well, there was one that was a picture of Jesus, like a little bookmark, you know, these little—yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: So a picture of Jesus—


AMY GOODMAN: —in an Arabic book.

EMILY JACIR: Yes, yeah. I found—and then I found a note or pressed flowers. There were—yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the response to this project.

EMILY JACIR: This was really—oh, there was another element of the project, actually, I forgot to mention, which is that I took some of these inscriptions, and I—because I wanted this idea of the public and a collective to be an important part of this. And you know when you write an inspection in a book, it’s so small, and it’s so personal. So I took a couple of them, and I turned them into large-scale murals so they would be out in public space. One of them is actually—I put, a few years later, up in New York, and I think it’s still up. You can see it from the High Line.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what the High Line—not really a banner. It’s a—

EMILY JACIR: It’s a painted mural on the wall above my gallery.

AMY GOODMAN: A mural. And what does it say?

EMILY JACIR: It’s—oh, God, I have to remember which one that was.

AMY GOODMAN: About owning a book?

EMILY JACIR: Yeah, it was “This book belongs to its owner, Fathallah Saad, and he bought it with his own money in March 1892,” I think it is.

AMY GOODMAN: And that was the kind of inscription.

EMILY JACIR: That was—he wrote it in the book, yeah. So I translated it into English, and then we have it in English and Arabic there on the High—

AMY GOODMAN: And it’s remained there for years?

EMILY JACIR: It’s still there. I think it’s still there.

AMY GOODMAN: For those who walk the High Line.

EMILY JACIR: Yeah, for those who—

AMY GOODMAN: Your next project, Emily, as we wrap up?

EMILY JACIR: I’m doing a couple of projects right now. Two are films that will be filmed here in Italy, and a set of drawings, and again, back to the subject of translation and naming, and what gets lost in a translation or gained in a translation, and who gets to name things.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us.

EMILY JACIR: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Emily Jacir is a Palestinian artist and filmmaker, professor at the International Academy of Art, Palestine, in Ramallah. Her work includes a diverse range of media, strategies, including film, photography, installation, performance, video. In 2007, she won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale here. And in 2008, she won the Hugo Boss Prize at the Guggenheim Museum. We will continue to follow her work over the years.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Mariam Ghani joins us. She’s a Brooklyn, New York, artist from Afghanistan. She takes on, in her art, everything from Ferguson to brutality in U.S.-run prisons, from Guantánamo to Afghanistan, her home country. She is the daughter of the current Afghanistan president, Ashraf Ghani. Stay with us.

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