By Keren Tova Rubinstein
Sary Zananiri’s mounted and manipulated photographs in Unpicking Jerusalem: a re-examination of the archives reflect Jerusalem’s historical trajectory from 1850-2015 in overt and subtle ways. Though the subject is as infinite as time itself, and though the architectural and human landscape that comprises this place is equally vast and complex, entering the gallery one can’t avoid its smallness, and the concentration of images evokes discomfort and rage at history, unwieldy as it is.
The Little Woods Gallery tucked away in Collingwood, on a corner that epitomises Melbourne’s gentrification. It’s a single, small, semi-divided exhibiting space, that in January housed Zananiri’s four unframed photographic prints on glass. These were wall mounted on plain pine supports, except for the first one to greet you as you entered the gallery from the street.
This first, larger two-piece, is floor-mounted on a pine easel that reminded me of building materials, hinged in order to support two glass prints, one seen through the other. The front panel shows the arched entrance to a modern day mall in Jerusalem. Happy shoppers and people going about their day, oblivious to their function in this re-examination of the space they occupy. Through the arched entry to the rather posh mall, one sees the second pane, this one revealing the same location in Palestine that is no longer. It is a soft sepia market scene, peacefully conducted, before it was destroyed: the eroded landscape reappearing. But it is, of course, difficult to see.
As explained in the exhibition’s text, the area Zananiri chose to examine is Mamilla, at one time a passageway connecting the Old City with the growing population of Jerusalem at the second half of the 19th century. Mamilla borders Jaffa gate and is adjacent to the remains of an ancient cemetery and a pool. With its shops and businesses, it was the city’s new commercial centre in the twilight of the Ottoman Period. It connected the city’s east and west, while the Jaffa-Jerusalem railway was built nearby in 1890. Important national figures, such as Khalil Sakakini, one of the key cultural leaders of Palestine at the time, would frequent the local cafes. In 1936 the Palestine Broadcasting Service (PBS) was also established in Mamilla, from which it would broadcast in Arabic, Modern Hebrew and English. The PBS would become a pivotal propaganda tool for the British Mandate.
This unique intersection of cultures made the area a wellspring for ideas, discussions and articulations of national types, ideologies and manners of discourse, evolving in the face of rapid demographic change and the soon to be realized partition plan for Palestine.
In the 1930s Mamilla was the stage for riots between Palestinians and new Jewish immigrants. The PBS was bombed by Zionist paramilitaries, only four years after broadcasts began. And by 1946 the same armed fighters would also bomb the nearby King David Hotel, an event that I, as an Israeli child at school, had been taught of as a celebrated moment of Jewish self-determination. The destruction that enabled the creation of the State of Israel was never discussed, not once.
Following Israel’s declaration of statehood, Mamilla decayed into an industrial slum, as it lay in the ethnically cleansed, post-Nakba no-man’s land between the new Jewish state and Jordan.
The Palestinian residents that left/were evacuated during the Nakba of 1948 were replaced by a predominantly Mizrahi population. Jewish immigrants began arriving in mass waves into Israel in the early 1950s and immediately became second-class citizens in the nascent Socialist Zionist Jewish state. Most were settled in transition camps, later to be relocated to development towns and other disadvantaged peripheries.
Those streets remained in relative neglect and dispute right through the 1990s. By this time Zananiri’s family had already left Amman to resettle in Sydney, Australia. Sary still recalls the Intifada, as it gripped his child’s imagination with images from the media. The fissure between Israelis and Palestinians had become completely cemented. And despite continuing legal battles and endless delays, it was then that the decision was made to ‘resurrect’ the Mamilla mall, or rather recast it. Teddy Kolek, the mayor of Jerusalem at the time, rejected out of hand one architect’s plan, which proposed conserving all of the existing facades.
Once again the area was evacuated (markedly differently to how it took place in 1948). Mamilla neighbourhood was no more; it was now the Mamilla precinct. The architect, Moshe Safdie, had delivered a winning plan for a high-end shopping mall for the newly and radically gentrified neighbourhood. “An architecturally eviscerated space,” Zananiri writes.
Medium and impact
Zananiri is a glass artist combining archived photographs with his own for this project, processing these layers, splicing and suturing them together. This convergence of different points in time serves as a both a visual reminder and a rejection of the erasure that occurred with the Zionist colonisation of Palestine. But the insistence on returning lost buildings to the newly constructed Jewish national landscape can only be done virtually, on computer. Sitting at one’s computer, one can often feel powerless in the face of the ongoing destruction. This feeling is performed explicitly in the piece “Mamilla from Plaza”, in which the artist’s replaces a certain, now destroyed building, back into the neo-oriental, Zionist landscape.
Clearly seen in the photographs is the unique architecture of Palestine and Israel. Juxtaposed, the building styles might initially bear resemblance to one another, but as Zananiri puts it, Safdie’s desire to show cultural sensitivity, preserve certain buildings and synthesise a new style that indigenised the new mall into its landscape, paradoxically ends up with monuments to neo-colonialism and capitalism. It is an exclusionary and false indigeneity, mimicking styles while voiding them of living cultural realities and connections, or in the artist’s words, ‘effacing Palestinian modernity’.
Glass is fragile and transparent, but it is also razor sharp and heavy. This medium drenches the photographs with emotional resonance. Zananiri’s techniques and chosen materials seem a fitting response to the nullifying tendencies of exile; a response to the coloniser’s urge and power to archive, record and enumerate his takings. His power to make meticulous lists and even publicise them with indemnity. This impulse is conveyed in “Dismembered Façade”, a photograph showing the dismantled, numbered and reassembled bricks of one of the buildings preserved by Safdie and his team. The crude black numbers scrawled on the creamy sandstone bricks seem like stains or scars, like numbers tattooed into an arm. And the edges of shopfronts Zananiri placed in the background of this reassembled wall serve to remind us of the site’s function, to sell unnecessary and mass-produced, likely non-indigenous stuffs. It is testament to the blood-stained commodification of Palestinian culture. There is no escaping history, I thought as the Holocaust came to mind (a personal habit). Genocides have their patterns too.
The artist’s choice to use photography, the evidence-based primary resourcefulness of archives, and to engage with architecture, is a fitting response to the chauvinist and colonialist tendencies of reappropriation, erasure and rapid reconstruction. He too is preserving secreted images of Palestine as it lives on and evolves within the fabric of Israel. The choice to manipulate photographic images also calls attention to the use of photography as proof and as political leverage for acts of occupation.
Zananiri’s preoccupation with these different media draws our attention to the ways in which images can be used to falsify history. Complicating the act of archiving is crucial to the artist, who has always resided in the Palestinian diaspora. Viewing the place at once through these multiple lenses – the Ottoman period, the British mandate, the post Intifada world of prosperity for some and deprivation for others, and the view from Melbourne 2015 – forces the viewer to confront the emotional weight of the Nakba, and of absence.
Claustrophobia and time travel in Collingwood/Palestine
Outside the gallery I finished my latte next to ageing government houses and urban fusion cafes. There are myriad layers of construction here too, making almost completely invisible the Indigenous history of this colonised space. Contested as it is, Melbourne’s inner city carries on with its prosperous growth. But if we make use of history and leverage our discomfort from colonisation’s privilege, we might help to pave the way for new ways of being. Zananiri’s work was galvanising and confronting, and rewarding as it was necessarily unsettling.