Eran Eizenhamer: What is the exhibition about?
Mai Omer: The exhibition is about the Menashiya neighborhood. About what that place represents in terms of its political significance and my own interest in it. Let me rephrase. The exhibition is about documentation and destruction. I have been photographing the Menashiya neighborhood for many years because of my grandfather, the poet and landscape architect Hillel Omer (Ayin Hillel), and due to my fascination with silenced narratives. Menashiya is a classical example of a hidden history – the neighborhood was destroyed, its rubble thrown into the sea. On top of the remains a park was built, designed by my grandfather. You can dig into the grass and expose the past. My grandfather’s involvement in the destruction made me feel as if I have a personal connection to that place, and of course also the archival materials our family has.
Eran: Can you tell us about these archival materials that you worked with?
Mai: I discovered the archival materials that form the basis of the exhibition in 2017, as I was getting ready to move to London. I had at home some 8mm films that my grandfather had filmed and one of them was titled Jaffa. I had a feeling that it contains a treasure of documentary material, so before I left I gave it to a friend who converted it and watched it, and called me saying it’s an “art film.” It turned out that it really is a beautiful film that my grandfather shot in Menashiya and in the north of Jaffa, those areas in which he eventually worked as a landscape architect. And since he was a poet and had artistic sensitivity, he shot an artistic film. meaning, it’s not exactly a family film (even though he did also film our family) and it is not exactly an architecture film (even though he did also film architecture). It’s a film that also has the sea and birds and children, and there’s an attempt to create a certain atmosphere and effect. His gaze, which documented the place before it was destroyed, is in fact the same gaze that transformed the place. So that is what the exhibition is about – that gaze, which documents and destroys at one and the same time.
Eran: How would you characterize his filming style?
Mai: I think that the kind of story my grandfather created in his film is a very naive story, but underneath that naivety you can sense a repression of reality. I think my grandfather regarded Jaffa as if his generation had not been the one that fought in the war and was part of the Nakba. In other words, he documented the place while ignoring the meaning of his presence there: the violence, the destruction and the elimination that he himself was a part of. My claim is that this gaze belongs to a certain tradition. It can be associated with the 19th century tradition of Orientalist photography. It can also be associated with earlier traditions of colonialist impressions by “explorers” who documented the places where they arrived. In recent years I’ve been interested in understanding these traditions and seeing to what extent colonialist culture is part of my culture, language, ingrained aesthetics, and artistic education and training. In parallel I’m interested in understanding what to do with this gaze and what to do with the archival materials.
Eran: What are your thoughts regarding the awareness of the colonialist artistic gaze? Do you think you grandfather was aware of the things that his gaze ignored?
Mai: I didn’t know my grandfather well enough to be able to say if and to what extent he was conscious or unaware of his gaze, or if this blindness came from his free will. Even my mother can’t answer this question. But it can be thought of differently – that I am sort of an incarnation of his. That is, that this awareness passed on to me and I continue to develop it from a different, new perspective. This was one thought that came to me while reading Ariella Azoulay’s latest book Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism.
Eran: How so?
Mai: Azoulay claims that imperial modes of thought regard the past as closed, final and unchangeable. Therefore, she claims, every apparatus that separates the past from the present and presents it as a sealed chapter – the museum, the archive, the camera – is an imperialist apparatus. This notion allowed me to look back at my grandfather’s archival materials as living entities, as still ongoing. I could think I have an opportunity to understand how I want, need and can continue it: how I can talk to the archive, oppose it and change it. At the same time, I also wanted to emphasize the contexts of that gaze in relation to the way Jaffa looks today, and Israel/Palestine looks today.
Eran: What did you discover? What can be done with your grandfather’s gaze? What can be done with Menashiya?
Mai: That’s a big question – what do you do with problematic history, with the weight of history? How do you deal with collective trauma and with your own personal trauma within the collective one? There are no real answers for that, or at least no one definite answer. There are all sorts of strategies, there are movements of understanding or change. In the UK and in the US, for example, monuments commemorating imperialist history have been removed. But the Charles Clore Park has no monument to topple. The entire park is the monument, and it is a very successful public space that is enjoyed by many Jews, Palestinians, immigrants and tourists. So should it be knocked down? Can a park even be toppled? Does an historical event need to be addressed in exactly the place it occurred? How? By erecting a statue? Hanging an exhibition? I don’t yet have answers to these questions, but I hope to develop as many courses of action as possible.
Eran: Finally, can you say a few words about the title of the exhibition – Alayam الايام?
Mai: The name comes from Emile Habibi’s The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist, where there’s a female character called Yoaad. The name means something like “repeat.” Yoaad is the teenage love of Saeed, the novel’s main protagonist. In the middle of the story the IDF pulls her away from him in a very cruel manner, but the plot continues. Saeed marries, has a child, and the years go by. Toward the end of the book Saeed meets Yoaad again. He’s very excited to see her after all those years, yet it transpires that she is not his beloved Yoaad but her daughter, who resembles her and bears her mother’s name. She is the same yet different. She tells him that she will always come back to him, like water to the sea. So to return to your first question from another angle – the exhibition is about time, return, continuity, and the political potential in gazing at past and present days together.
Text editing: Yoni Raz Portugali
English translation: Sivan Raveh
Acknowledgments: Norma Musih, Fatina Abreek-Zubiedat, Ibtisam Ammouri, Sophie Snir, Raz Weiner, Ariel Caine, Efrat Vital, Debby Ferber, Adi Didi Inbar, Eran Eizenhamer and the Liebling Haus staff