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Interview with Dor Guez

Dor Guez, artist, scholar, photographer, archivist, wants to avoid being classified, but it’s difficult not to fall into the trap. As an artist from Israel of mixed Christian Palestinian and Tunisian Jewish origin, whose work disentangles the complex identities which exist within Israel and Palestine, delineation is something he both rejects and encourages.

 

His work uses photographs, archives and films to ask critical questions of the position of Israel’s Christian Palestinian community, who today make up less than 2 per cent of the population. Much of his art focuses on his family, particularly his grandparents Ya’qoub and Samira, through whom he tracks the experiences of the generation who lived through the Arab-Israeli War, which began in 1948: the year marked Israel’s declaration of independence, which led to the large scale displacement of Palestinians from their homes. Guez uses archival photograph collections to record the steady movement of time passing, and video installations to document banal everyday exchanges, capturing fragments of memory and reflections on identity. In the video Subaru-Mercedes (2009), three members of the same family discuss the complexities of self-identifying between Arab, Christian, Israeli, and Palestinian, while in (Sa)Mira (2009) a young Christian Palestinian discusses the subtle racism she’s encountered in Jerusalem. Alongside his art work, Guez founded the Christian-Palestinian Archive (CPA) in 2009, the first archive devoted to the Christian-Palestinian minority of the Middle East.

 

With the past month witnessing an increasing number of stabbings, shootings, protests and clashes across Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, Guez’s work takes on added relevance. Many of his projects are highly intimate, displaying portraits of the generations who have been witnessing this cycle of violence and dispossession since 1948. Guez seeks to unfold every recent layer of identity within the Christian Palestinian community, contrasting these complexities – and the extraordinary circumstances which come with living in either Israel or Palestine – with people’s often banal everyday routines. In Bypass (2014), we see the dirt track, which runs parallel to the concrete wall separating Israel and the West Bank, worn away by the ‘living footsteps of menial existence’. It is a physical testament to the weary and never-ending back and forth of thousands of downturned Palestinian faces. 40 Days (2013) tracks the last days and wake of his grandfather, and Watermelons Under the Bed (2010) portrays his grandfather lying very fragile in bed as his son, Guez’s uncle, describes how the grandfather had ‘danced between the drops and survived in the new environment’. We are made witness to the ways in which ordinary individuals have coped, and continue to cope, with loss, dispossession and cultural alienation. Guez also focuses on structures which have been constructed, or deconstructed, by the Israeli occupation over time – olive groves in The Nation Groves (2010), the Ben-Sheman forest in Pioneer Tree (2011), the destroyed Palestinian homes in Lod in Lydd Ruins (2009) and Al Lydd (2010).

 

Politics is inescapable. The story of the Christian Palestinians in Israel, a minority within a minority, is a reflection on exile, and Guez’s attempt to probe the ‘meta-narrative’ of nationalism does not escape controversy. (Controversy from both sides – those who claim it’s propaganda for an Israel that wants to be seen as tolerant, and those who are offended by the documentation of Israeli vandalism, such as of the gravesites in the Christian Palestinian cemetery in Lod, which Guez captures as part of his 40 Days project.) But his work is more concerned with picking apart the threads of history embedded within the individual than with political statements about nationalism or belonging.

 

Guez holds a Ph.D. on the practice of photography from Jaffa and Tel Aviv before 1948. His work has been the subject of over 25 solo exhibitions worldwide. His most recent project, The Sick Man of Europe, has been shown at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, The Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv, and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit. His work has been the subject of over 25 solo exhibitions around the world, including at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin; The Jewish Museum, New York; Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Tel Aviv; Rose Art Museum, Boston; Artpace, San Antonio; The Mosaic Rooms, London, and more.

 
I met with Guez on a hot day in June in his studio in an old fabric factory in the semi-industrial area of Jaffa, famous for its graffiti. Jaffa is the southernmost, oldest part of Tel Aviv, and used to be a separate city – it proved the perfect setting to discuss the complex and overlapping identities within Israel and Palestine.

 

Q

The White Review

— You say in one interview that you ‘refuse to participate in the Israeli regime of identities’, so I won’t ask how you self-identify. But the question of identity is central to all your work. How can we discuss and understand identities without falling into the trap of categorisation?

A

Dor Guez

— The work in general is trying to tackle this meta-narrative. What does it mean to be Italian, what does it mean to be Israeli, what does it mean to be Palestinian? Is there one definition or do we have different colours? I’m trying to question this formalisation of what identity is supposed to be, since none of us fit into the formal definition of a national identity.

 

I believe that we are all minorities. Being a woman is being a minority, for example, though obviously not in terms of numbers. We need to create a new definition of what minorities are. But in general when you look at the idea of a nation, which usually follows the traditional European model, none of us really fit into this formal language or regime of identities. This case is even more extreme when you look at political conflicts between countries and identities, like within the Israeli Palestine conflict, countries which in many ways define each other. What is Israel without Palestine, what is Palestine without Israel? This is something we should think of as artists. The political conflict is such an important part of everyday life, and of the questions we ask about ourselves, so it shapes our way of thinking and our culture.

 

I feel 100 per cent Israeli and 100 per cent Palestinian, 100 per cent Christian and 100 per cent Jewish. It depends on the context.

 

My latest project, ‘The Sick Man of Europe’, deals with the relations between army, culture and nature and the way these impact on identity. It’s a project which focuses on five individuals, all creative people – an architect, a painter, a composer – but because of their participation in wars, their way of thinking or looking at the world completely changed. Sometimes it had a very productive impact, but sometimes it had the opposite effect and they stopped creating. It’s a project about potential, and I think nationality is also a potential that has not really been realised – especially not in the Middle East.

 

Q

The White Review

— Could you describe the community of Palestinian Christians in Israel today?

A

Dor Guez

— In the Middle East the Christian community really has a specific identity within the culture. But it’s also very much a part of the Middle Eastern culture. Christian Palestinians make up one of the voices of the Palestinian identity, which is itself made up of a variety of identities – the Palestinian identity is, like any other identity, a combination of so many voices. I think people sometimes misunderstand this point. It is not saying that you are ‘not something’ by saying that you are a part of something and also have something that defines you within that group.

Q

The White Review

— How does the Christian Palestinian identity manifest itself in practical terms?

A

Dor Guez

— A lot of people in my community see the church as the cultural centre. This is where you’re baptised, this is where you get married, this is where the cemetery is located, where you’ll go at the end. The holidays, the parades, everything revolves around it. Also, precisely because we are a minority and are so small in numbers, we try to get the best education possible. This is behaviour typical of minorities. The Christian Palestinians are the most educated population in Israel. The gaps are quite significant.

 

The platform of art can add to culture by opening these narratives, giving them the stage that history books and politicians ignore. Art in general can give a voice to unwritten narratives and suggest different ways to read history. And it also has different questions about aesthetic. In my practice, when it’s work related to my community, the Christian Palestinians, the way the picture is being installed is influenced aesthetically by what I experienced from childhood. I’ve worked with some curators in Europe and the States, who have sometimes expressed hesitations. They ask many questions before the exhibition because they’ve never necessarily encountered those aesthetic codes before and don’t read them automatically.

Q

The White Review

— They don’t understand it?

A

Dor Guez

— For each artist it’s a process and you have to understand the aesthetic.

Q

The White Review

— The hesitation isn’t political?

A

Dor Guez

— This is a different question. No, it’s not hesitation. I feel they have so many questions about the aesthetic. Because there is also an aspect of research and trying to understand everything through these codes.

Q

The White Review

— What is a nationality? Is there any paradox evident in creating a community through individual voices, while trying to connect them into a grouping? And is nationality different to citizenship?

A

Dor Guez

— Obviously we live in a country where nationality and citizenship are not the same. These questions frame my work – what is nationality, what is history, who defines history, who defines identity. It’s more about going against the answers than giving one answer. I don’t think there is one answer.

Q

The White Review

— But then, can anything be constructed by what it isn’t? Can the future of the nation state ever be so ambiguous?

A

Dor Guez

— I don’t think it’s ambiguous. I think it changes and evolves on a daily basis. Benedict Anderson coined the phrase ‘imagined communities’. What he wrote sounds very obvious today, although it was groundbreaking when he first published it, but that’s because it’s obviously true. I think in many aspects art is trying to push your imagination as well.

Q

The White Review

— This is where the routines and practices which make up the everyday lives of people within the community, or the nation, becomes so important.

A

Dor Guez

— Yes, but community changes all the time as well. Nationality is like a religion in many ways. Everyone has a very personal relationship with it. If someone wants to define themselves as being part of a specific group, it’s like a religion regardless of what the group is. And how can religion be proved? It’s real if someone believes in it, and you can’t really reject it if you want a dialogue with that person. Sometimes different political groups try to diminish the other by saying they have ‘invented identities’, which I always find ridiculous. It’s not like a court, people can’t prove their identity. This is what they believe they belong to. I also think this question applies to art. Questioning ‘what is art’ is itself the answer – if you’re questioning it, it becomes art. Art, religion and nationality – there’s a nice salad there.

Q

The White Review

— Four identities – Christian, Jewish, Palestinian, Israeli. How do they manifest themselves in everyday life, and which powers enforce them?

A

Dor Guez

— I could answer this in a two hour discussion. I will say that there is pressure from both majorities on the Christian Palestinian minority. On the one hand, the Jewish Israelis sometimes identify Christian Palestinians as a community that is more European, as many Israelis like to define themselves. Zionism was started in Europe, it was a movement which was influenced by European ideas, and the Israelis usually perceive themselves as a Western country (we could have a long debate about this – whether or not it can really be a Western country). So they identify Christian Palestinians because of their religion, not necessarily their political views. And then you have the same pressure from some in the Muslim communities, pushing in their own direction. I think the result of these pressures is not assimilation, but rather it strengthens the Christian Palestinian identity. Precisely because we are forced to answer who and what we are all the time.

Q

The White Review

— Are people who live on the edge of something (be that political, cultural, social; as an exile, refugee, outcast) better equipped to understand that which they are outside of?

A

Dor Guez

— No, because anyone can be a minority. You can think as a minority. Being a minority is not only defined by a community, it’s about a mindset. If you’re devoted to the tradition of being an artist, you will act as a minority in many ways. Does that sound naive? The position of artists. So many people think that art is about creating nice objects. The aesthetic value is the key to opening up other interpretations. But if it stays at that level of aesthetic value, do we really need it? Do we really need artists? Do you think that artists should really make the world more beautiful, or should they challenge the world around them?

Q

The White Review

— Your work tries to go beyond the binaries of understanding the aggressor and the supplicant by interrogating the dimensions of power within those categories. But it seems that minorities are always fighting battles; is this intrinsic to their identity as minorities, or is there some way beyond this power balance which allows both histories to co-exist and intermingle?

A

Dor Guez

— It’s very reductive to look at it as someone being victimised and someone turning someone into the victim. I don’t think that minorities necessarily don’t get along. It’s not that there is a fight. There are points where there is tension and points where there is a very productive battle.

Q

The White Review

— But there’s a tension of power?

A

Dor Guez

— Of course. But then you have to ask – what is power? You could argue that the Christian Palestinians are more powerful because they’re the most educated; but then you could say they’re very weak because they have no political representation, they’re very small in numbers. You can spin it in so many ways.

Q

The White Review

— You gave an interview a few years ago in which you said: ‘At the moment I see my Israeliness as it is – part of the occupation, and I have a genuine civic obligation in relation to it.’ What do you mean by civic obligation here?

A

Dor Guez

— It’s not only me. If you look at the work of many artists coming from this region, our work can also be classified, among other definitions, as activism. It’s obvious if you’ve seen my work or you know my personal history that I’m working actively to end the occupation. Art can put things in a different perspective. It doesn’t mean I necessarily promote one idea. It’s not as direct and simple as that. I think it’s really important that people are strongly opinionated, that as artists we question that, and that we never leave ‘reality’ as it is. This is the traditional role of art, although not everyone will agree with me on that.

Q

The White Review

— Is your activism working? Are people being jolted out of their idea of reality by it?

A

Dor Guez

— The answer is not as direct as the question. Yes, it happens a lot, people coming up to you after an exhibition and saying ‘you’ve changed our mind’. But it’s more a cultural process. Even making somebody question something that he thinks he already knows is an achievement within itself. We’re not politicians, we are artists.

Q

The White Review

— Is there a difference in the way that people perceive your artwork compared to how they see the Christian Palestinian Archive? Is the archive viewed as more ‘neutral’?

A

Dor Guez

— No, I think it depends on the audience. Art which doesn’t deal with politics, which is not socially engaged, becomes decorative and it could just be called design. But creating an archive is also a political action.

Q

The White Review

— An action which is connected to the opinion of the artist?

A

Dor Guez

— Sometimes you see artists who are not sure about their opinions but who want to ask the questions publically, to share their process with the public. My questions are not only oriented towards the political situation – I have questions about the role of art relating to reality.

Q

The White Review

— There was a piece in Haaretz newspaper published in June this year which described artists in the Israel of Netanyahu as being ‘the 1970s Soviet intelligentsia of today’. What do you think about this?

A

Dor Guez

— If you look at the artists from Israel who have any international success, I’d say they’re all very much engaged in ending the occupation. But maybe the Israeli government uses them somehow. Artists are often being used in a way that we can’t control completely. I’m sure it’s even happened to me at times. You can’t control the context 100 per cent of the time.

Q

The White Review

— There’s no infringement on freedom of expression here?

A

Dor Guez

— This is something which we are scared of now, this is the debate now in the art community in Israel – what’s going to happen? Are we going to be controlled by the government? It’s not even about ‘a specific government’, it’s also a state of mind.

Q

The White Review

— By control, do you mean having your funding cut, or are there other methods?

A

Dor Guez

— Well, that’s the debate going on in the newspapers – yes. I mean the question is one of freedom of speech. But at the same time, how can we talk about freedom of speech, which is the hot debate now, when we are occupying another nation? How can we speak about democracy when you have a direct occupation? And I’m saying it as ‘we’ now because I think that all of us, Palestinian Israelis included, have a responsibility, and each one of us should look at ourselves and ask what actions we are taking to stop it. Art is the only solution that I personally know how best to utilise.

Q

The White Review

— What is your personal relationship with Israel? As you’ve just expressed, you have a lot of resentment and anger towards it, but you’ve chosen to live in Tel Aviv.

A

Dor Guez

— My mother’s family has been here for hundreds of years. I live about a kilometre from my grandmother’s house. I live on my land. I see it as a part of who I am. This is where I grew up, I don’t reject it. As a society we should take responsibility. I’m not avoiding it, I’m saying quite the opposite. All of us, not only artists, should take responsibility towards the occupation because we are a part of it. We pay taxes, the government uses this money to continue the occupation. This is something that we can’t avoid being responsible for. And it’s an everyday responsibility. It’s not something that only happens when we have extreme conflicts.

Q

The White Review

— Your art focuses on the personal reflections of your family about their identity. Does your family have these conversations about identity organically, and do they feel it is important to discuss and dissect identity?

A

Dor Guez

— Obviously when you have a camera it changes the dynamic of the situation. But they are used to the camera, it becomes like a family member because it’s always there. It is an organic conversation that we have a lot of the time, yes.

Q

The White Review

— The perspectives of different generations and different genders is a clever one for pushing further at the nuanced realities faced by different demographics within this band of people with blurred identities. Do you think people cling to other identifying factors (their gender for instance) more as a result of this blurring? How do women’s rights, for instance, fit within all of this?

A

Dor Guez

— I don’t represent any kind of community. I represent my own voice. I wouldn’t even say I represent my family – I don’t. Obviously as any kind of artist, I take hours of films and edit them and emphasise one aspect and leave other aspects on the cutting room floor. I’m rebuilding their own narrative when I edit it.

Q

The White Review

— Your work foregrounds the multi-layers of history. Can we only look forward by looking back, or is it possible to carve new realities?

A

Dor Guez

— First option, obviously.

Q

The White Review

— Why obviously?

A

Dor Guez

— It’s unrealistic to start something which is unwritten. This really goes against everything I believe in. I mean we are defined by our family, by our community, by our history, by our land, by the buildings that we’re surrounded by. This is what people go to wars over. History in the current time. Otherwise we have no diversity, and diversity is important.

Q

The White Review

— But you’ve just said that you rewrite your family’s narrative to create something new.

A

Dor Guez

— As a visual artist, when I edit a story, I reshape it. I emphasise certain aspects of course, I mean there are other questions which crop up in the conversation that I choose not to focus on, but it is all still very much connected to an existing narrative.

Q

The White Review

— You gave a very interesting interview in Haaretz in 2011 in which you laid out the paradox within which you see yourself operating – ‘I have no interest in abstraction or in imitating the traditional Western artistic narrative, but I have a desire to use the tools of that language. Time will tell if my exhibition within the walls of Israeli museums is an activity that makes me a part of the quasi-Western Israeli canon or establishes the presence of another narrative.’ Has anything changed in the four years since that interview to give you any answers to that question?

A

Dor Guez

— I’m not sure about that because I’ve been exhibiting more abroad than in Israel in the last four years.

Q

The White Review

— Is that a conscious decision?

A

Dor Guez

— I guess if I’d wanted to, I could have initiated it more in Israel. I’m just trying to think about the last exhibition I did in Tel Aviv after 2011.

Q

The White Review

— What was the reaction to that?

A

Dor Guez

— Well the subject was a Turkish soldier, so it was not as divisive as about the show I did about the Nakba in 2009. I don’t think it was a conscious decision not to show in Israel. I work by invitations and not by initiating something.

 

But now you’re making me think about the history of my exhibitions in the last five years. I work with both Arab foundations and Israeli foundations. As a rule, I would work with any curator who supports the work and is not censoring me. I’ve cancelled a few shows in the past because of censorship. Which has been very delicate or, in some cases, indelicate.

Q

The White Review

— Pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian?

A

Dor Guez

— From both sides. From all sides I should say, not both. It can be in Germany, in the States, anywhere. It will be in different political atmospheres. I have been asked to change my work a few times, and I have cancelled a few shows because of this, because I will never change my work in any way. Sometimes the temptations are very big – these are big institutions I’m talking about, and it’s not easy to refuse their demands.

 

But you know, I don’t think anyone should ‘hug’ my work, because it should bite you. If you want to hug it then you don’t really understand it. It should bother you.

Q

The White Review

— What is the process that you go through when you’re thinking about a new project? Is there a particular cycle?

A

Dor Guez

— It’s not necessarily that I start with a story I want to tell. I think of myself as a storyteller. On many occasions it starts, in a complete contradiction when you think about it, with questions of form – but that can only be a starting point. The way I work changes so dramatically from one project to another. Much of it happens from writing. I see myself as a text-based artist.

Q

The White Review

— You write in Hebrew? There’s another question to ask there about language, and choice of language, and what falls between the gaps when you mix between Hebrew and Arabic and English.

A

Dor Guez

— I have an academic language, I have an emotional language, I have a language I create with, I have a language I think with. It changes. It’s easier for me to explain my work in English, because this is the international language we use as artists. When I speak in English I also feel very disconnected from the work itself, I’m able to think about it in a third body. So it’s a way of expressing myself in a so-called objective manner, without being too emotional.

 

In the videos of my family you’ll see that we speak a mix of Hebrew and Arabic. We often speak Hebrew with each other but then when it becomes emotional, like when we’re telling stories from our childhood, we switch to Arabic. It’s automatic, it’s not something that is conscious. The video work ‘Sabir’, with my grandmother, documents her talking about Jaffa before and after 1948 and it’s really unbelievable. When she talks about official events it’s in Hebrew, and when she talks about her childhood in the first part of the video it’s in Arabic. She’s not aware of it. But language is like culture, or music, it’s something which we use to connect to our feelings.

Q

The White Review

— There’s the difference between the first and the third generation in terms of the way they understand politics. Is that changing, do you think?

A

Dor Guez

— Yes. I would say that the difference does not depend on individuals only, but should be understood within the context of different perspectives. It’s always the second and third generation who will be more vocal about their place, their position, their narrative, than the generation that actually went through the war and the occupation. It’s really hard to judge because it’s such a different atmosphere right now to what it was even a year ago, and certainly to 67 years ago. In 1948 the majority of Palestinians really thought that Israel was something temporary, they believed they’d return home and it was a just a phase. Even when my grandmother locked her home in Jaffa and went to Lydd, where my grandfather’s family is from, she left behind everything, believing she’d return. They went to Lydd and became refugees in their own country.

Q

The White Review

— Did she come back to her home in Jaffa?

A

Dor Guez

— Now the Israeli government claims that they own her house, so there is still a legal battle ongoing about their property. The 1948 war created so many legal problems, which has also resulted in so many creative ‘legal’ solutions.

Q

The White Review

— Is it possible for Israel and Palestine to exist outside of politics?

A

Dor Guez

— Many people on both sides live in bubbles. You see many who say ‘we don’t get into politics, we don’t want to hear about it.’

Q

The White Review

— You mean cultural and creative bubbles?

A

Dor Guez

— We are now sitting very close to a cultural bubble. Tel Aviv is a cultural bubble, although Jaffa the southern, oldest part of Tel Aviv, which used to be a separate city] is not.

Q

The White Review

— Ramallah (the capital of the West Bank) is a bubble, but very political.

A

Dor Guez

— Tel Aviv is very political as well, but if you hold elections in Tel Aviv the biggest party will be Meretz, which Israelis considers to be an extreme-left party. So there is a state of Tel Aviv and a state of Israel. But at the same time Tel Aviv is completely white. You don’t have Arabs living in Tel Aviv, while you do have Arab Israelis in Jaffa.

Q

The White Review

— Are these bubbles helpful? It seems like an easy coping strategy. These places are marked by their creative and cosmopolitan nature, but then this doesn’t seem to translate to anything else.

A

Dor Guez

— You can have your own community, living with other communities peacefully. It does exist in Jaffa, it does exist in Lydd, it does exist in Haifa. It exists in many cities in Israel. But Tel Aviv, ironically, is not an example of this.

Q

The White Review

— Are you still doing a doctoral thesis on the subject of the ‘new Jew’?
A

Dor Guez

— I’ve finished it! I’m publishing it as a book this year. The title is Pre-Israel Orientalism: A Photographic Portrait. It follows the specific orientalist approach of the Zionist movement in the early twentieth century towards the Palestinian people. One of the first Zionist ideas was that they would assimilate within the Arab culture, or at least their idea of what Arab culture is in the Middle East. They had a lot of stereotypical symbols of the Middle East which they perceived to be the East itself. They used it in photography, paintings etc. But then when the conflict raised its head in 1929 with the riots, there was a huge change in Jewish art in the ‘Land of Israel’/‘Palestine’. This was the point when they stopped fetishising it as a desirable identity.

 

The book is about rejection and attraction, towards what they perceived as the East. But it’s more complicated than that because, as I claim in the book, what the Zionists tried to do was to define their identity as Western by defining Eastern identity as Eastern. Defining yourself by defining what you are not. And I guess this also relates to your first question about identity and art. There’s a mixed reaction to the reality here.

 

 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Helen Mackreath is a writer and researcher based in Istanbul, previously in Beirut and Ramallah.

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