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Made in Palestine at SomArts Gallery

A Different View from the Middle East

When was the last time you attended an art opening at a small independent gallery that included both uniformed and plainclothes security guards? At "Made in Palestine", an exhibit of Palestinian art now at the SomArts Gallery in San Francisco, they were there in force, a precaution against the controversy that the show has generated across the country. Were we in danger of attack by an anti-Palestinian extremist group? Could violence follow the art and the artists from Palestine and erupt in our fair city? It gave the event a strange and unsettling aura, and somehow magnified our awareness of the work.

The work compiled in "Made in Palestine" includes oil paintings, works on paper, video, sculpture, textile art, ceramics, and photography, and each piece seemed to have an indelible backstory. There is the tragedy of printmaker Mustafa Al Hallaj, who rescued his epic work, "Self-Portrait as God, the Devil, and Man", from a fire at his studio only to die after returning to save his other works. Or the evocative, luminous drawings of Muhammad Rakouie, executed on pillowcase linen in crayon and smuggled out of the Israeli prison where he was held (similar to the art of the "Pintos", or Chicano convicts). Or the experiences of Gabriel Delgado, one of the exhibit's curators, who was strip searched and detained for four hours as a suspected terrorist after entering Israel to document the work of some of the artists.

There is also Rana Bishar, whose work involves images of Palestinian suffering that are silk-screened in chocolate on suspended glass panels. It reminds one of works by Robert Irwin, who has used suspended panels in installations as well as Ed Ruscha, who experimented with food-based pigments. Chocolate is her metaphor for Palestinian culture -- it's rich, bittersweet, and ephemeral, and it can be erased or melt away at any time. "Homes for the Disembodied" is another haunting installation of five diaphanous dresses of black silk, hung fifteen feet high and reaching to the floor, that suggest ascending spirits. According to the artist, Mary Tuma, an associate professor in the fiber arts program at the University of North Carolina, it's "a tribute to Palestinian women who provide strength in terrible circumstances, but who receive little recognition."

Samia Halaby, who was contacted by the exhibit's curators, Gabriel Delgado, James Harithas and Tex Kerschen, after a largely unsuccessful effort to locate Palestinian artists to include in the show at its inception in 2002, connected the curators with Palestinian artists and traveled with them to Palestine to meet the artists. According to Halaby, the exhibit had been refused by 90 different museums and galleries before finding a venue in San Francisco. People automatically assumed, simply because of the origin of the work, that it was an anti-Semitic, terrorist propaganda exhibit. They balked at the insurance costs and the potential for alienation or controversy.

The artists in "Made in Palestine" are from diverse backgrounds -- many work in "western" modes and seek to explain Palestine to the West. Others speak through more traditional media. All tell a story of grief, suffering, and oppression with eloquence, humor, pride, and a deep love of their native land. There's no propaganda or anti-Semitic message here. The narrative is more often along the lines of "this tank came into my neighborhood and destroyed the houses of my family and my neighbors. I lost my wife and children and parents."

The exhibit is the first show of Palestinian art of museum quality to be presented in the U.S., and San Francisco is the first city to host it after Houston, where it originated at the Station Museum. The exhibit will be presented later this year or in early 2006 in New York, where fundraising efforts are underway to finance transportation, insurance and gallery space. According to Mr. Harithas, "It was our conviction that the American public deserved to be made aware of the Palestinian side in the hope that it will contribute to an improvement of their tragic situation." "Made in Palestine" is a rich, soulful, compelling, and complex statement of the Palestinian experience that allows us a brief but vital exposure to a different viewpoint. That's something we could use a whole lot more of these days.

Made In Palestine
Exhibit runs through Thurs., April 21

Tues. & Wed., 12-4 p.m.
Thurs., Fri. and Sat., 12-7 p.m.
Sun., 12-6 p.m.
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