Issue No.
121, May 2008 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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A Weeping Refugee, Jane Frere
Artist Jane Frere with figures
Working on the Return of the Soul

The Journey of the Soul
By Jane Frere

Many people ask me why a Scottish artist should be interested in creating a work of art that addresses a Palestinian historical issue. The question puzzles me, as though some are even confused as to Palestine’s existence - a place that, as time passes, is becoming increasingly associated only with the dusty-coloured plates of our Sunday school bibles. As an artist, my interests have always tended to veer towards humanity, and as a citizen of a shrinking globalized world increasingly wired with 24-hour communication technology, it is difficult to ignore the daily deluge of painful images that come out of this beleaguered region.

However, I did not set out to undertake a project about Palestine; it transpired through an unintentional process of chance events and a journey of accumulated experiences.

My concern with war and the plight of refugees began many years ago. I was working as a theatre designer on a project in Athens called Woman and War, with writer John McGrath and director John Bett. Using ancient Greek texts and contemporary testimonies, this work focused on the unfolding crisis in Bosnia.

My working drawings included piles of shoes and clothing suspended from lines - the last visible relics of some of the victims of ethnic cleansing. For financial reasons, the project was never fully realised, but after considerable research I was haunted by the image of what it is to be a refugee - wrenched from your home, left with only the belongings you can carry or the very clothes that you are wearing, and denied the settled life that most of us take for granted.

Soon afterwards, during the Edinburgh Festival, I became involved as a tour manager and producer of an international theatre company from Poland, Teatr Biuro Podrózy. Once again the production addressed war and its repercussions of displacement. Clearly, audiences inured by the dulling effect of the media, responded to the power of art, and the company’s compelling outdoor production Carmen Funebre became the hit of the Edinburgh Festival and went on to travel around the world to more than 45 countries.

It was while working with another Polish theatre group in a small Jewish town called Lublin that I made frequent visits to a nearby concentration camp, Majdenek.

Visiting Majdenek is particularly harrowing; the Red Army liberated its inmates, 40 percent Jewish, 35 percent Polish and many other nationalities from across the globe, before the Nazis were able to clear away the evidence of their atrocity. It is as though it has been caught in a time warp, with the remains of clothes neatly on display, children’s toys, spectacles, hair, ashes, and pairs of shoes piled high: a potent reminder of the hundreds of thousands who had walked into the death camp and had not walked out, symbolic of the millions who were murdered in the Holocaust.

Unlike the infamous Auschwitz Camp, which receives half a million visitors each year, far fewer people visit Majdenek; and on the three occasions that I was there to ponder the question of how mankind can be so utterly abhorrent and brutal to fellow man, I was almost always alone.

During my last visit, however, I was moved by a group of visitors who had probably lost relatives there; on leaving, they had planted small Israeli flags - the Star of David - on the ground outside. At first I was confused by this image, pondering the blue and white flag that has become so blood-drenched since its creation. This provoked my thoughts on what is happening now in Israel, and I began to wonder about the next stage in the tragic history of that period, which led to the creation of Israel, and contemplated the consequences.

The people without a land required a land without people, and the creation of the state of Israel, as is now being revealed by Israeli historians such as Ilan Pappe, required a very deliberate strategy to pursue what has only latterly become known as ethnic cleansing - the violent expulsion of one group of people to satisfy the political goals or merely the bigoted prejudices of another.

By immersing myself in the literature, culture, and filmography of Palestine, I came to understand that the Nakba - the catastrophe - as the Palestinians call it, was not a single event buried in the past, but a continuing source of catastrophe for Palestinians, the Middle East and, indeed, the wider world. During my research, I came across one particular documentary by the Egyptian-Canadian director Tahani Rached, which had a particular resonance for me. Soraida, a woman of Palestine, was a moving portrait of life under occupation; in the film a larger-than-life character kept recounting her dreams and, in particular, her description of a nightmare, in which she saw Palestinians being hung from clothes lines, lodged in my mind,

“Why are they doing that to the poor people?” she asks in her dream. “Because they are Palestinian,” replied the voice in her head. “They are in a state of suspension, able to touch neither heaven nor earth.”

So powerful and troubling was this image that it became in effect the lynchpin for the Nakba Project. As an artist I was considering how I could use my work to help ensure that, amidst the apparently conscience-free celebration of the creation of Israel on Palestinian soil, the 60 years of suffering of the Palestinian people should not go unmarked. My initial discussions with the Al Hoash Gallery in East Jerusalem were positive and encouraging. The director, Rawan Sharaf, gave me an almost immediate approval, and the Nakba Project was under way. Fadi Shurafa was assigned as the project co-ordinator during my assignment as artist-in-residence at Al Hoash.

My aim was to engage Palestinian artists in a training programme that would allow them to pass on the methodology to young Palestinians in workshops to produce some of the key ingredients for the installation I had in mind. This was not as simple as it may sound. I wanted to create an installation comprising thousands of tiny figures, symbolic of the three-quarters of a million Palestinian refugees driven from their homes in 1948 and the millions still denied the right to return to their homeland. Alongside this I wanted to have written testimonies from “first witnesses” - genuine, authoritative, and personal accounts of what happened to them in the fateful days of 1948. I also wanted to hear their voices whispering their witness around the installation.

Firstly the training would involve anatomy lessons - essential to have a sense of proportion in crafting the small wire figures, which were to symbolise a relative who became a refugee in 1948. In addition, it required costume research, which set young people to thinking carefully about the kinds of clothes that their grandparents or other relatives might have been wearing when they were given a moment’s notice to leave their homes. Ironically it turned out in some of the refugee camps across the region, where we set up the workshops, that a new generation was woefully uninformed about the history of the Nakba and even the details of their own family’s exodus. So the workshops provided the stimulus for cross-disciplinary education, a requirement for initiative and personal research, family history, and then practical engagement in contributing to a global artwork that would symbolise the tragedy that befell not one but successive generations of Palestinians.

I have had many humbling experiences in my personal journey into the lives of Palestinian refugees. I insisted on living with families in the camps to share their discomforts and learn more about how they often managed to live in very poor conditions. I was constantly encouraged by the dignity and courage repeatedly displayed by those I met, with their phenomenal hospitality and the warm support they gave to the project.

From its modest beginnings, the project has grown to more than fulfil the original global vision. Not only will it provide a centrepiece to commemorate the Nakba for Palestinians in many parts of the region, but it will be seen by a wider audience at the Edinburgh Art Festival, one of a series of festivals that surround the main Edinburgh International Festival during August when the Scottish capital becomes the cultural focus of the world.

* The Nakba Project would not exist without the encouragement and support given by many organisations and individuals who have generously helped either financially or in kind - too many to thank all individually. But I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to everyone involved, particularly those still in refugee camps 60 years on.

Jane Frere is an artist without borders. Trained at Central St. Martins College and the Slade School of Art in London, she has worked internationally as a theatre designer and also as a creative producer, taking remarkable performances into unusual places around the world. Her triple-screen video installation on the theme of the Nakba was shown at the Maski Festival in Poland in 2006 alongside performances by Al Kasaba Theatre. She is commissioned to produce a new video work for the Palestine Gallery opening shortly in London. “Return of the Soul” will be exhibited at the Patriothall Gallery in Edinburgh from July 30 to August 17.

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