Beyond the Last Sky: Contemporary Palestinian Photography and Video

Larissa Sansour, A Space Exodus, 2009, video 5' 24" (still), image courtesy of the artist.

Larissa Sansour, A Space Exodus, 2009, video 5′ 24″ (still), image courtesy of the artist.

Laughter is not a reaction you might expect from an exhibition of contemporary Palestinian art, but a visit to Beyond the Last Sky: Contemporary Palestinian Photography and Video at the Australian Centre For Photography will leave you pleasantly surprised. Curated by Chrisoula Lionis, Beyond the Last Sky is the first exhibition of its kind in Australia and includes the works of 11 artists working in both Palestine and abroad.

The exhibition sets out to challenge stereotypes and preconception through the use of laughter and satire. The biting humour of the exhibition is set with the first photograph that greets you in the foyer. Amer Shomali’s Visit Palestine is an appropriation of a famous tourist poster from 1936 of the Dome of the Rock. Although the original poster presents an idyllic scene, Shomali’s version includes a large imposing wall that obstructs our view, hinting at the barriers that affect current residents of the West Bank.

The use of appropriation and parody as critical tools continue with Larissa’s Sansour’s affecting video and photography series A Space Exodus. Taking visual and musical cues from Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sansour uses the theme of space exploration as a metaphor for displacement. The artist is depicted as an astronaut laying claim to the moon with a Palestinian flag, and the video ends with a slow montage of Sansour floating through empty space. More than mere parody of Kubrick’s film, Sansour’s body of work is a political statement as well as a response to the artist’s own personal despair.

Other artists in the exhibition also model their videos after common formats to create intriguing works. Jacqueline Reem Salloum’s Planet of the Arabs is a mock ‘trailer,’ which features stereotypical depictions of Arabs as seen in Hollywood cinema and primetime television. When viewed together in sequence, the typecasting and vilification in these clips becomes self-parodying. The humour is a vessel for a critical examination on the harmful ways that the media perpetuates negative stereotypes.

Essentially, the artists in Beyond the Last Sky use laughter as a means to come to terms with their own experiences. Sharif Waked’s Chic Point models itself after fashion runway videos, complete with an upbeat pop soundtrack and catwalk footage. The models, all male, wear ‘chic’ clothes that expose or feature the torso. Contrasted with documentary photo stills of Palestinian men being searched at border patrol, Waked’s work features these over-the-top fashions as a comment on the continued interrogation of the Palestinian body.

Beyond the Last Sky is a thought-provoking exhibition that focuses on the issues that affect Palestinian artists today. It demonstrates how humour can be used not only as an artistic strategy, but also as a subversive tool to challenge stereotypes and question identity. Moving beyond the documentary and journalistic footage that frequent media depictions of Palestine, the works in this exhibition give a voice back to the individual experience of the people.

Originally published on ArtsHub Australia on September 2, 2012.

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