Palestinian Artist Ahlam Shibli’s powerful message at São Paulo Biennale – Middle East Monitor

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The Bienal de São Paulo has set bold ambitions for “Choreographies of the Impossible,” the theme of this year’s exhibition exploring how visual artists employ diverse creative practices to scrutinise the seemingly overwhelming contemporary issues, including the elimination of violence, inequalities and the pursuit of complete freedom.

The biggest artistic event in the southern hemisphere, now in its 35th edition, has consistently been a platform for pushing the boundaries of artistic expression and challenging established norms.

However, what sets this biennale apart is its concentrated focus on artists from regions often under-represented in the global art scene, such as Brazil, Latin America, the Philippines and indigenous communities.

“It’s an international exhibition and one that is very much respected in the world of art,” emphasised Palestinian artist, Ahlam Shibli.

Installing the work of Ahlam Shibli [Photo by Anna Juni for Sao Paulo Biennial]

Ahlam Shibli [Photo by Anna Juni for Sao Paulo Biennial]

“And this year’s edition is very interesting and exciting as most of the artists picked by the curators are from those who are traditionally marginalised. They’re indigenous artists who are not usually seen at European and North American museums,” she said.

The latest iteration of the biennial, on view through 10 December at Ibirapuera Park, an iconic creation by architect, Oscar Niemeyer, known for its rationalist purism, is led by a diverse team including curator, Diane Lima, anthropologist and art researcher, Hélio Menezes, both hailing from Brazil and of African descent, along with the Portuguese artist and theorist, Grada Kilomba, also of African descent.  Joining them is Spanish contributor, Manuel Borja-Villel.

It’s a beautiful way to challenge conventional narratives and promote a more global perspective, explained Ahlam.

Born in Palestine in 1970, Ahlam is one of the 120 artists participating in the event, bringing into dialogue the concept of home, a notion deeply intertwined with her Palestinian identity.

She holds a multifaceted perspective on the idea of “home,” which extends beyond the confines of one’s family residence to encompass one’s homeland and even one’s own physical being.

“It was the curators who made the choice which of my works will be shown at the exhibition. They asked for this specific work of mine because it was meaningful to them in relation to the theme and what they are showing,” explained Ahlam.

Entitled “Death”, her series of photographs on display is a powerful exploration of Palestinian martyrs and prisoners captured by Israel, whose fate led towards martyrdom.

“They died because they were Palestinians,” said Ahlam. “One moment they were fighting for their freedom and, the next moment, they were killed. These killings continue daily, and their families have to suffer this sadness and emptiness for the rest of their lives. Every day, Palestinian women and men are losing lives for what? To have a home.”

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“So, as an artist, I see it as an obligation to document the injustice against my people and showcase it. It is clear to me that this is part of preserving history, it’s proof. Palestinians are being denied their home and suffer continuous oppression.”

Arranged in a cinematic sequence in the brightly lit gallery room, Ahlam’s artistic approach involves creating a series of photographs that tell a cohesive and impactful story about the lives and sacrifices of Palestinian individuals who fought for Palestinian freedom.

Through her art, she aims to shed light on the realities faced by Palestinians and offer a stage for recognition from the perspective of those directly affected, rather than through the lens of colonisers.

Photographed between 2011 and 2012, Ahlam’s work on the series of “Death”, comprising 68 pictures, began with a clear decision – to rent an apartment in the bustling city of Nablus.

She explained, “For my project, I had to photograph martyrs but, of course, they have passed and are no longer here to photograph so, instead, I researched and found that where I could visually deal with the question of martyrs was in Nablus, because it was the last city that continued to stand strong against the Israeli occupation forces during the Second Intifada.”

“They entered and totally destroyed the city and almost each and every Palestinian family lost one of their children killed by the Israeli army. Thousands were killed by the Israelis.”

She noted how the journey of creation is often a deeply immersive and time-consuming experience, even before the actual creative process. The photographic series on “Death” required essential mental preparations and extensive research on the notion of martyrs.

A recurring violation in Palestine, noted Ahlam, is the systematic destruction of monuments constructed in honour of Palestinian martyrs. These monuments, serving as poignant symbols of resistance and remembrance, face constant threats from Israeli authorities who seek, permanently and intentionally, to erase the historical narrative of the Palestinian people.

“It has already been 11 years since I completed this series and, looking at it today, I see its importance,” noted Ahlam. “I’ve come to acknowledge how it’s necessary for us all together as historians, artists and architects to build on and write about our existence to preserve our history,” explained Ahlam.

In Brazil, there’s a strong sense of solidarity with this issue because the nation’s history isn’t characterised by rosy ideals. Instead, it’s marked by the legacy of colonialism and ongoing oppression against black and indigenous communities and individuals. Consequently, when Brazilian viewers encounter Ahlam’s artistic work, they often react positively and empathetically, recognising the parallels with their own struggles.

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Meanwhile, Western audiences are more accustomed to the Israeli narrative, noted Ahlam. Therefore, when exposed to her work on Palestine, it prompts them to question their preconceived notions and explore alternative perspectives.

She said, “I’ve been receiving fantastic feedback on the installation. Other artists and curators have come to tell me how they appreciate my work. It’s a different response to what I’m used to from the audience in Europe. I didn’t, at any moment, feel the need to say or prove that what is shown in my pictures is the truth. There isn’t this suspicion, which often is the case in the West, where people are sceptical about how true it is in what I’m displaying. It’s so refreshing here.”

The São Paulo Biennale’s commitment to diversifying voices and narratives in the art world brings to light the power of art to reflect, challenge and change society. Ahlam’s work is a testament to the enduring importance of art in preserving history, offering recognition and contributing to a deeper understanding of the Palestinian struggle.

Her photographic series on “Death”, featuring painting, graffiti and posters of the Palestinian martyrs – forms of representation originated by the families, friends and defenders’ associations – through the São Paulo Biennale, is a powerful reminder that art transcends borders and languages, making it a potent tool for writing history and resistance.

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