Paris Palestinian Exhibit Casts Eerily Prescient Spotlight on War in Gaza

The photos of property are neatly lined up, looking — at first glance — like a classic window display at any real estate agency.

“Calm, light filled, and unobstructed surroundings,” reads one, indicating the location as the Ezbet Abed-Rabbo neighborhood, in northern Gaza. “Garden + parking: 120 square meters. Inhabitants: 10 people.”

The photo above it shows the rubble of a blasted building, flanked by a baby-blue sky.

The artwork is part of a trove of paintings, photographs and sculptures that comprise the exhibit, “What Palestine Brings to the World,” at the Arab World Institute in Paris. Running through November 19, the show was organized well before the Israeli-Hamas war broke out earlier this month. Yet the images of shattered Palestinian homes, rings of barbed wire and tall fences are eerily prescient. 

“The exhibition gives a foretaste of the coming eruption, the pent-up anger and the sense of injustice,” said the Institute’s head, Jack Lang, a former French culture minister, in an interview with VOA. “And at the same time, it shows the talent, intelligence and creativity of Palestinians, notably the youth.”

The works are authored and donated by a mix of Palestinian and other largely Arab artists, many of them living in the West. But the themes are about Palestinians: their recent history, their loss, the truncated territories where some live today.

The collection’s home, for now, is the Arab World Institute, whose show aimed to mark the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, or catastrophe — the Palestinian commemoration of their mass displacement during the establishment of Israel. But its owner, former Palestinian ambassador to UNESCO Elias Sanbar, wants it to form the basis of a future Palestinian museum of modern and contemporary art in East Jerusalem. 

On display too is the Sahab or “cloud” museum painted by Palestinian artists of the art house they hope will rise in Gaza one day. With swathes of that territory now lying in ruins, it seems like an unlikely dream.

The war has entered the exhibit in other ways. One Gazan artist died in a bomb explosion. Others cannot be located.

“I send messages to the different artists,” Lang said. “I have received one answer. But it doesn’t mean the others have died.” 

The collection reflects Palestinian history as interpreted by its artists. One massive painting seems a riff on Picasso’s “Guernica,” the Basque town bombed during the Spanish civil war. This time, the structure is an Israeli separation barrier. In another room, photos show yellow no-trespass signs transposed over images of former Palestinian land. 

A picture by Texan-Jordanian photographer Tanya Habjouqa — part of a series called “Occupied Pleasures” — shows two men and a child sitting in armchairs, flanked by an Israeli border barrier. Others depict the dreamed-of return by Palestinian exiles to their homeland. There are only a few scraps of semi-normality, like youngsters on skateboards, or a pair of women on a yoga mat.

The Institute’s chief curator, Eric Delpont, says despite its bleak images, the exhibit offers an undercurrent of hope. 

“The Palestinians are people, like so many others, who have been hurt through the history,” he said. “Yet there is a force of life, and a believing of what can be tomorrow, despite the harshness of today.” 

The show has drawn good crowds since it opened in May, museum officials say, but turnout has spiked since the war.

Events in the Middle East are closely followed here in France, home to Western Europe’s largest populations of Jews and Muslims. Thousands of French joined pro-Israel rallies after Hamas’ deadly attacks in Israel on October 7. Following Israel’s retaliatory strikes on Gaza, thousands more have participated pro-Palestinian demonstrations — some of which were banned for fear of unrest.

“It’s enriching, you see through the works the distress of the Palestinians,” said Radia Robani, a Parisian of ethnic Algerian origin, who visited the exhibit one recent afternoon.

Of the war in Gaza, she added, “it’s hard, it’s sad. You don’t have to be an Arab or a Muslim to feel this.”

Student Gihed Barreche said the Palestine exhibit helped him to make sense of recent events. “It really shows us what Palestinians think,” he said, “and how they try to free themselves from the conflict through their words and their pictures.”

Institute head Lang, who visited Gaza in July and knows the region well, is not hopeful about the months to come.

“The future is very, very grave, and the hatred is very high,” he said, describing both Israel and the Palestinians as currently lacking the political leadership needed to realize peace. “The people who could discuss things a little before are today not able to discuss.”  

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