KHALIL RABAH, Palestine (1961)
Written by Wafa Roz
Khalil Rabah is a Palestinian conceptual artist born in Jerusalem, Palestine, in 1961 to a family from Ramallah. He studied Architecture and Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Arlington and resided in the United States for more than a decade. Upon his return, he taught at the Department of Architecture at the Birzeit University and at the Department of Fine Arts at Bezalel Academy from 1997 to 2000. Rabah co-founded the Ramallah-based Riwaq Organization, which seeks to highlight and preserve Palestinian cultural heritage, in 1991, and the Jerusalem-based Al Ma'mal arts foundation in 1998. He is also a founding contributor to Art School Palestine in London, and served on the curricular committee of Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace Program from 2011 to 2015.
As a Palestinian in the United States during the 1980s, the artist had to confront the complexities of immigration and displacement and cope with a new culture at a time when his own was under siege. During this period, Rabah produced assemblage paintings utilizing folkloric garments as a gesture of protest. He also channeled his despair into performance pieces, such as Self-Invasion (1982), in which he symbolically absorbed the pain of the contemporaneous Israeli invasion of Lebanon by crawling through shards of broken glass. Rabah returned to his native land in the early nineties, at a time between the first intifada and the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords that was characterized by both mourning and hope. His first contribution to the local art scene was the 1991 design of Anadeil, a contemporary art gallery in the old city of Jerusalem that he co-founded with Jack Persekian and Issa Kassissieh. Out of this emerged Al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art in 1998, an interactive, multi-purpose space that remains a hub for visual arts, music, and cultural activism in East Jerusalem to this day.
Rabah’s conceptual art practices include multimedia installations and performances, and frequently explore broad philosophical questions of belonging, displacement, and hybridity as well as pressing, concrete issues like asylum and naturalization. Rabah poignantly examines the deep roots of rhetorical violence in Philistine(1997), an installation that connects a common phrase to the international dehumanization of Palestinians. Rabah takes an Oxford desk dictionary – perhaps the most ubiquitous of English-language dictionaries – and nails it open, covering every inch of text until only the definition of “Philistine” is visible. Framed by gleaming, violent shards of metal, the definition draws the viewer’s eye, confronting her with the word’s meaning as both an ancient inhabitant of Palestine and an uncouth, uncultured, barbaric individual. Most English speakers use this term without knowing its origin, but through his powerful mixed media piece, Rabah suggests that violence and prejudice are spread tacitly, even in this way. In his appropriated painting My Name is Charlie, but I am Khalil (2001) - a Madonna icon divided in two with one half resembling Christ - Rabah communicates the unease of a split identity, prompting reflection on the demands placed on an exile or immigrant by the culture of his host country.
Acknowledging the continuous erasure of Palestinian history and collective memory since the inception of the Israeli state, Rabah seeks to reconnect an isolated Palestine to the international art world through the Riwaq and Al Ma’mal organizations as well as his involvement with Qalandia International, a biennial arts event that takes place across different Palestinian cities. He also engages this theme through his artistic practice, which sometimes flirts with the absurd in its interrogation of history and documentation. Rabah invents heterotopic, fictional institutions as alternative spaces for a Palestinian Nation. In an attempt to make possible the denied existence of Palestine, these establishments fleetingly materialize a Palestinian society with an identity that overwrites and rewrites history. For example, his Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind (2003 – ongoing) is a fictitious institution challenging conventional western notions of museology, in conversation with other fictitious archival projects such as Walid Raad’s Atlas Project. The museum comprises different departments, initiates projects, publishes newsletters, and has its own research center and archival section. Recreated differently in different locations, its form and content vary; indeed, its very instability suggests the difficulty of creating a national Palestinian identity in the face of an occupation which constantly negates that very thing.
Other projects in the vein of Rabah’s “museum” include his United States of Palestine Times (2007) and United States of Palestine Airlines (2008), which addressed alienation and prohibited mobility by opening “offices” in London and Beirut, puzzling passersby.
Biproduct (2010) features a model of a military aircraft carrier, roughly shaped like the Gaza Strip, that has been turned into a mini agricultural structure where tomatoes and strawberries are grown and processed. Presented as if to pitch this idea to investors, the model sits before a huge advertisement for this ship-turned-factory, and on surrounding supermarket shelves, jam-jars and tomato-paste cans are on display for the viewer. Here, Rabah offers us an alternative to Gaza’s present-day reality, in which exports of strawberries and tomatoes are severely restricted, that seems at once both utopian and dystopian.
Rabah’s fictitious projects are interrelated and linked to real events and existing institutions, drawing a fine line between fiction and nonfiction. In 2017, Rabah presented, as part of the Sharjah Biennale, ‘new sites’ dedicated to the museum’s departments. As part of the show, he displayed huge rusted steel sculptures in the shapes of 48% and 67%, intentionally muddling the percentages of lost land since the Nakba and Naksa with the years of the events. Another two, in polished steel, were hung indicating 93%, and 95%, accomplishing the same confusion with relation to the Oslo Accords. As a conceptual artist that toys with non-visual abstraction, Rabah satirically proposed one more number: 0% denoting the unaccounted ‘human element’ loss, and hence humanity and humankind.
Rabah currently lives and works in Ramallah.
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Selected Solo Exhibitions
New Sites for the Museum Departments or four places to visit Heaven, Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut, Lebanon
Khalil Rabah. Proyectos a escala, Casa Árabe, Madrid, Spain
Scale Models, Kunsthaus Hamburg, Germany
Khalil Rabah: Pages 7, 8, 9, e-flux, New York, USA
Review, Beirut Art Center, Beirut, Lebanon
Art Exhibition, Ready Made Representations, Sfeir-Semler Gallery Hamburg, Germany
United States of Palestine Airlines, The London Office, Artist Studio, London,UK
50.320 Names, Brunei Gallery, School of Oriental and African Studies ,London ,UK
The Third Annual Wall Zone Sale, Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center, Ramallah, Palestine
Copy Right, Samaha House, Beirut, Lebanon
Feeling a Part, Townhouse Gallery, Cairo, Egypt
With Out Architecture, Le Repubbliche Dell'Arte, Siena, Italy
Gallery Bangnai, Siena, Italy
a this and a that, Gallery Anadiel, Jerusalem, Palestine
Nine Works, Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre, Ramallah, Palestine
On What Grounds, Gallery Anadeil, Jerusalem
Selected Group Exhibitions
Phantom Limb, Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai, UAE
Vanishing Points, Carré d’Art - Museum of Contemporary Art Nîmes, France
Truth is black, write over it with a mirage’s light, Darat al Funun, Amman, Jordan
Debt, Qalandiya International IV, Ramallah, Palestine
The Lasting Effect, Qalandiya International IV, Ramallah, Palestine
Manifesta 12, Palermo, Italy
Höhenrausch/Thrill of Heights, OÖ Kulturquartier, Linz, Austria
Tamawuj-Palestine After Palestine: New Sites for the Palestinian
Museum of Natural History and Humankind Departments, Sharjah Biennale 13,Sharjah, UAE
After the Fact. Propaganda in the 21st Century, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich
Marrakech Biennale 6, Marrakech, Morocco.
The Time is Out of Joint, Sharjah Art Foundation, UAE
Unravelled, Beirut Art Center, Beirut, Lebanon
Gallery 3010, Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut, Lebanon
Cartagena Biennale, Colombia
Critical Machines, AUB Beirut, Lebanon
4th Thessaloniki Biennialof Contemporary Artists, States Museum of Contemporary Art Thessaloniki, Greece
Arab Express: The Latest Art from the Arab World, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan
Essays on Geopolitics, 8th Mercosur Biennial, Porto Alegre, Basilia
A Plot for a Biennial, Sharjah Biennial 10, Sharjah, UAE
Told -Untold – Retold, Biproduct, Mathaf, Doha, Qatar
Localties, Museum of Contemporary Art, Roskilde, Denmark
Palestine - La création dans tous ses états, Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, France
53rd Venice Biennial, Venice, Italy
8thLiverpool Biennial, Liverpool, UK
In Focus, Tate Modern, London, UK
Memorial to the Iraq War,ICA, London, UK
Home works Beirut, Beirut, Lebanon
Word into Art, British Museum, London, UK
Mercury in Retrograde, De Apple, Amsterdam
Interrupted Histories, Museum of Modern Art, Ljubljana
9th Istanbul Biennale, Istanbul, Turkey
Nuove Acquisizioni, MACRO al Mattatoio, Museo d'Arte Contemporanea,Rome, Italy
Ten Artists Ten Years, Guest Atelier, Aarau, Switzerland
…O luna tu...ARCOS, Museo d'Arte Contemporanea Sannio, Benevento, Italy
Mediterraneans Arte Contemporanea, MACRO al Mattatoio, Museo d'Arte Contemporanea,Rome, Italy
Plug In, Centre for Contemporary Art Futura, Prague, Czech Republic
Unscene, Greenwich University, London, UK
Lust Lies Art and Fashion, Podewill, Berlin, Germany
Disorientation, Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt, Berlin, Germany
Narcisse blesse, autoportraits contemporains 1970-2000,Passage de Retz, Paris, France
Skin Deep, surface and appearance in contemporary art, Israel Museum, Jerusalem
The Change of the Century 1899-1999, Passage de Retz, Paris, France
I never promised you a rose garden, Beelden Buiten, Tielt, Belgium
Roteiros, Roteiros, Roteiros, XXIV Biennale de SaoPaolo, Brazil
Every Day, Sydney Biennial, Australia
Contemporary Palestinian Artists, Institut du Monde Arabe,Paris, France
Beyond the Border, Gwangju Biennale, Gwangju, South Korea
Museum and Archive on the Move: Changing Cultural Institutions in the Digital Era, Ed. Oliver Grau, Wendy Coones and Viola Ruhse
Architecture of Resistance: Cultivating Moments of Possibility within the Palestinian /Israeli Conflict
Laughter in Occupied Palestine: Comedy and Identity in Art and Film, Chrisoula Lionis.
Archives, Museums and Collecting Practices in the Modern Arab World, Sonja Mejcher-Atassi.
India’s Biennale Effect: A Politics of Contemporary Art, Ed.Robert E.D’Souza and Sunil Maghani
An Anthropology of Architecture, Victor Buchli.
The Power and the People: Paths of Resistance in the Middle East, Charles Tripp.
Khalil Rabah: Art Exhibitions: Ready Made Representations, Khalil Rabah
Festivals and Cultural Public Sphere, Ed. Liana Giorgi, Monica Sassatelli and Gerard Delanty
New Vision: Arab Contemporary Art in the 21st Century , Ed. Hossein Amirsadeghi, Salwa Mikdadi, and Nada Shabout.
3rd Riwaq Biennale 2009: A Geography : 50 Villages :Palestine,Venice,Various Venues, 3 June -16 October Venues, Khalil Rabah.
Palestinian Art, by Gannit Ankori
Awards and Honors
LennonOno Peace Award, United Nations, Geneva, Switzerland
British Museum, London, UK
MACRO, Rome, Italy
The Guggenheim, Abu Dhabi, UAE
The Sharjah Art Foundation, UAE
Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar
Kunsthaus Zurich, Switzerland
Ramzi and Saeda Dalloul Art Foundation, Beirut, Lebanon
Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts, Amman, Jordan