Aniconism: Representing the Unrepresentible in Palestine The myth of the apparency of representation haunts every photograph (every representation is politically questionable and ambiguous) yet this almost paralysing cliché should compel us to make more images, take more consciously challenging photographs not less. When the subject represented is said to be beyond political representation – is occupied, not recognised as belonging to a state, put beyond the apparatus that confers political visibility – then the ways in which we can and cannot represent the unrepresentable come sharply into focus. And who is this ‘we’? Through solidarity with an oppressed people we become part of a network that contradictorily attempts and complicates representation when we document the tautological relationship between the struggle for popular sovereignty and state sovereignty, between lives that are seen and not seen, recognised and not recognised by the occupying state. But the unrepresentable oppressed populace, barred from statehood and the universal rights it professes to confirm, may appear to be politically invisible, but it will not go away; there are bodies on the streets, bodies unified (yet denied the right to political unity) in the act of protest, bodies that can be targeted, threatened and killed. In this way self-representation is a right, but it is one that can lead to death.
The relationship between death and representation comes to the fore in Palestinian studio portraiture where injustice becomes self-nomination out of powerlessness, becomes disquieting martyrdom; the self-appointed ‘one’ dangerously speaks for ‘the people’ and sacrifices his or her life in the process. If the subject who previously protested against the state had to cover their face with a balaclava in order to freely do so, his or her face is now exposed in death: this is who you did not allow to be seen; this is who sacrificed their life in order to be seen. In entering the symbolic domain, a final second death is perceived as preferable to the first. The consequences of this are always terrifying. As uneasy icons, these images point to a kind of perverse aniconism where a deadly taboo is again placed on representation, yet, these images are an injunction
to always seek to represent the unrepresentable. As an act of public mourning (as the celebration of a life turned against the state), they come from and speak to a public that is not allowed to be, therefore not allowed to mourn, yet here they are before us. To appropriate and re-present these images is an act born out of frustration and profound understanding. When recontextalised the trace of the original violent context is exposed and the political dimension becomes the only dimension. This urge opposes the indignity of speaking for others, but speaks in solidarity with others, takes that life and death conversation into unknowable spaces â€“ including the gallery. And what would it mean if these images, faces and bodies from the streets of Palestine were plastered on the walls of all of our cities?
Dr Alexander Kennedy is an art historian and critic and the author of How Glasgow Stole the Idea of Contemporary Art: 2004 â€“ 2014. He runs Daat Press, a publishing house based in Glasgow.
In the summer of 2013, the residents of Kafr Qaddum, a small village near Nablus in the West Bank, woke up to find a series of photocopied flyers pasted over the village walls and tied to its lamp posts. They contained out of focus, grainy images of several of the village’s young teenagers above a message from the Israeli army. The images had been taken by the IDF using a telescopic lens at one of the village’s weekly demonstrations against an illegal Israeli settlement nearby, the establishment of which blocked the main route to Nablus. The boys in the photographs were not in any way more wanted by the IDF than anybody else at the demonstration. They just happened to have left their faces uncovered at the wrong time. Remaining anonymous is so inherent to the culture of Palestinian resistance that ‘Molatham’, the term used to describe its participants, translates literally as ‘to cover up one’s face’.
“ WE ARE THE ARMY. WATCH OUT.
WE WILL CATCH YOU IF WE SEE YOU. OR WE WILL COME TO YOUR HOUSE”
Interview The only time a Palestinian can be publicly identified as part of the resistance is in the event of his or her death or imprisonment. In this case their faces appear all over the city walls in the form of posters and murals. The posters depicting both political prisoners and martyrs in Molatham were provided by a graphic designer in Nablus who wishes to remain anonymous. Here he answers some questions regarding his work. Can you begin by telling me how long you have been designing martyr and prisoner posters for? I have been designing posters since the start of the second Intifada (Al-Aqsa Intifada). When designing the posters do you usually follow a brief? Or are you free to design the posters however you like? We make the design that fits with the current events depending on the conditions and also on the martyrâ€™s nature and belonging as well as the death circumstances. I have noticed that photographs of beaches / paradise are a recurring theme in the posters, can you explain why? Paradise and carrying more meaning, their signification represent the
beaches are than just one most important is that they symbol of the
grandparents and parentsâ€™ Palestinian lands that were occupied in â€˜48, and they are also a means to confirm the idea that the martyrs who fought and died, they defended the whole Palestinian territory. It is also to show how beautiful Palestine is as well as to express the meaning of comfort and reassurance.
Have there been times in your career where you have had to design more posters than others? Surely there have been times where I have had to design more posters than other times; like during the invasions or at national occasions. Where do you obtain peoples photographs to use on the posters? I obtain peoplesâ€™ photographs either online or I get them from relatives and friends of the person who want the design. Are there posters that you have designed that you are particularly proud of? Yes I really feel proud and glad of this beautiful work. When the posters are stuck up on the walls in the streets of Nablus, what sort of role do you think they play in daily life? Getting the posters stuck up on the walls in the streets of Nablus, makes people aware of what is happening around, creating communication between them and reminding them about these peopleâ€™s names who sacrificed themselves for their homeland.
Opposite: “The Chains Will Eventually Break “ phrase from ‘The Will To Live’ by Tunisian Poet Aboul-Qacem Echebbi commonly used in political iconography.
Above: Poster commissioned by Fatah to commemorate release of prisoner sentenced to six years”
Under the military law imposed by Israel to the Palestinian land it occupies, anybody can be imprisoned indefinitely without trial starting from the age of 12. As of January 2014 there were 5,023 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli detention centres and prisons. Studio portraits are commonly used in political activity such as this demonstration, in Nablus in 2013, against Israelâ€™s use of administrative detention.
Studio portraits attached to olive trees, which were symbolically planted near the illegal Israeli settlement Yitzhar next to the Palestinian village of Burin.
Abandoned photography studio in Hebron
Molatham April 2014