Mona Gazala

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On September 3, 2019, I was on the Ag campus of the Ohio State University, waiting to change buses to get to the art studios on West Campus. Just standing there, minding my business, when I happened to turn my head to the left and catch a glimpse of a Hillel poster on the inside of the campus newspaper dispenser. A group photo of cheerful undergrads cheesing it for the camera, and the exclamation in white letters on blue ground: “Free Israel Trip!” It took me a minute to wrap my head around what I was seeing. As a low-wage culture worker and as a Palestinian American, the likelihood of my ever affording or getting an opportunity to visit the homeland of my ancestors seems slim. Essentially I’m OK with that. I read that even Michael Rakowitz, who is of Jewish Iraqi descent, has never been to the land of his parents’ origin, and yet it has not stopped him from mining the rich culture of his heritage in his artistic practice. But this poster, at this bus stop, was like a gut-punch. Yes, look, we are giving away free trips to Israel! But not for YOU. Not for you whose parents were born there. Particularly, pointedly, NOT for you whose parents were born there.

This disturbing message is fully sanctioned by the university, apparently. I mean, it's posted right there, framed and under glass on campus property. At the bottom of the poster is the sentence, "This Trip Is A Gift From Birthright Israel." This Trip Is a Gift.

I recently listened to a presentation by Amer Zahr, the Palestinian comic (and law professor.)  He was recalling a visit to Jericho where he happened to look up at a sign that had been erected over something built with charitable funds; a community building or a park  - he couldn't quite recall which - but he remembered the sign. It read "This is a gift from the American people." "I mean," he says in his presentation, " it's funny isn't it? Because," he waved his hand around, " Isn't all of this (i.e. the occupation, apartheid, etc.) a gift from the American people?"

"This Trip Is A Gift." Yes, I feel like that phrase from the poster really is problematic or funny, depending on how I - as a Palestinian American, care to read it. Like, who really is gifting this trip; wasn’t it my ancestors, who were expelled from the land, that made this entire trip possible? Or, as Amer Zahr contextualized it, isn’t this trip (to recruit more potential colonizers) a “gift” from the American people to the indigenous Palestinians? In any case, because this phrase struck me as so problematic, I used it as the basis for a manipulated photo collage that is a center-piece for the current  exhibition. Repeated and stitched in this work is a single black-and-white family photograph. My maternal great-grandmother, Farida Hishmeh, is surrounded by her adult children and two of her grandchildren. The picture must have been taken before 1938. Because in 1938, Farida was killed by a Zionist sniper bullet while on a bus ride home from Jaffa. The text is embedded into the imagery, overshadowing the benign family scene. Or, the family is overshadowing the "free trip." However you care to view it. This text artwork (a detail of which is in the header above) is exhibited in the UAS gallery as a 9-foot-long wall decal.

A total of three new art pieces are in the works for "Willfully Neglected," as well as some older works that explore the exhibition theme. The second project, above, is called "Letters from Kate." This project is a re-reading and scanning of the book "Digging Up Jericho," published by the archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon in 1957. In this project, I carefully note and photo-document the 88 instances in which the word “Palestine” or “Palestinian” appears in her book. This exercise is meant to counter the erasure of the very word Palestine, which is being labeled as a fabrication by Zionist propogandists because it threatens colonial dogma. 

This, despite the fact that Palestine is the historically-recognized name of this geographic location and its inhabitants, and the word is found in Israel's own organizing documents. 

Above is the third new piece, "Blackout Composition - Balfour." Here, the infamous 1917 Balfour Declaration, which was Great Britain's recognition of the need for a Jewish state in Palestine, is altered to accentuate the forgotten condition within this declaration; that the rights of the indigenous communities were to be respected.

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My exhibition partner, Christian Casas, is Cuban American. For "Willfully Neglected," we will each be exhibiting a separate body of artwork embracing the power of text and archival work. Look for a co-produced video to be posted as part of the UAS gallery programming, in which we discuss migration, immigrant sagas, and questions of justice for people of color.