“They are looking for answers”: Jawad al Malhi at Al-Ma’mal Foundation
Jawad al Malhi: Measures of Uncertainty at Al-M’mal Foundation for Contemporary Arts
June 6 to July 4, 2014
New Gate, Old City, Jerusalem 91145, (+972) 2 6283457
Palestinian artist Jawad al Malhi watches the activity on the street from his balcony in the Shufhat Refugee Camp in East Jerusalem, where he was born and still lives. At times it mirrors what he sees in television coverage of events across the Middle East, and it reminds him of his own fervent engagement with politics in the past. Young men on the street, mostly adolescents, stand around nervously waiting for something to happen, for an encounter that will set off an action in which they can participate. When it does, individuals who may not even know each other suddenly come together as a group, expressing their passion and acting as one. But when the event is over the solidarity disappears and they drift apart, uncertain and without purpose.
This fleeting moment after an event — the atmosphere, the body movements, the gestures and facial expressions —is what al Malhi seeks to capture in his paintings, viewing the crowd as if through a wide-angle camera lens, and using large canvases with minimal colour. It must be rather like trying to paint the sea after a wave has crashed, when for a moment the waters seem to have no clear direction.
There is hardly a hint of the environment in these paintings, and a powerful absence of architectural space, just the dust and glare of an exposed public space. The boys seem to be wandering around nowhere. This is in total contrast to Al-Malhi’s previous body of work, a series of panoramic long-distance photographs that show the buildings of Shufhat packed claustrophobically close, and with no sign of people. Entitled “House No. 197,” they were exhibited at the recent Helsinki Photography Biennial, and at the Venice Biennale in 2009.
The youths depicted in his current exhibition, “Measures of Uncertainty,” could be hanging out near the Israeli checkpoint a short distance from al Malhi’s house, but in conversation the artist says that they are not necessarily Palestinian: they could be in Cairo, or Istanbul, or anywhere in the Middle East. Dressed in the generic t-shirts, hooded jackets and jeans of kids anywhere, they live in what he calls “Coca-Cola time,” perhaps meaning a mixture of expectation and emptiness, a mood as international as their clothes.
Coming into the elegantly renovated Al-Ma’mal gallery, a former tile factory, in Jerusalem’s Old City, the bleached, creamy colours of the paintings almost merge into the stone walls and there is a general sense of stillness, suggesting peace and harmony. At first sight, you could be looking at all-male scenes on the fringe of a football or cricket field. But a closer study shows the deep, naked unease in the expressions and body movements of people caught in suspense, floating in a toxic, anonymous haze.
There is a pervading sense of watchfulness. The characters watch each other and us. They seem aware of being watched — by the artist, by television cameras, by the international community. Sometimes a gaze catches the viewer’s eye and creates an emotional link. We find ourselves watching rather than viewing them, but with all this attention, they don’t know what to do. Many of the characters are portraits of people al Malhi knows — boys who work in a local garage or tire factory, for instance — which invests a strong, contemporaneous reality to the work. The characters express confusion and bafflement; they scratch their heads and look around, seem lost, stunned, mildly indignant, filled with trepidation. Each one seems isolated in his own restless dream.
But the dream, says al Malhi, doesn’t exist. What does exist is the huge potential energy, even power, within the crowds on the street. “They are looking for answers,” he says, “but perhaps should be trying to find questions.”