Rula Halawani

Rula Halawani
By Dr. Tina Sherwell

In the photographs of Rula Halawani, the daily political reality of life in Palestine is represented. The artist creates and captures images that represent the changes and experiences of Palestinians. The artist suggests, "I am a working artist -- a photographer living and working in an intensely political environment…The question of doing 'political art' is not a question in the Palestinian context. Our whole existence is so overwhelmingly defined at every level by our political circumstances." Halawani has worked on numerous series of photographs that capture the transformation of the Palestinian environment in the current political period, from the perspective of someone who has lived through and experienced those changes.
Two of Halawani's most recent series of photographs are ‘Intimacy’ and ‘Irrational.’ Interestingly, the titles are personal and suggestive of close physical and emotional relationship to place. The paradox however, is that what we have in these series are images which document the presence and encounter with representations of the power of the state, in the form of checkpoints, soldiers, and settlements -- an anonymous face but one that epitomizes the inequality of power.

'Intimacy' articulates the contact zone between Palestinians and Israelis, reminding us that as much as current Israeli policy is to remove Palestinians from their visual horizons, there are inevitable contacts between the two sides, which take place at checkpoints. The photographs examine and capture the experience of 'the checkpoint,' which has become a hallmark of the current Israeli occupation. Numerous checkpoints both permanent and temporary litter the Palestinian landscape making, movement from between any two locations difficult and time consuming. There are very few faces among the collection of images by Halawani. Rather, we are invited to view a multitude of close-ups of encounters between soldiers and Palestinians wanting to cross this border. The checkpoint in fact has been one of the main spaces where Palestinian and Israelis encounter one another. One of the distinctive characteristics of the Israeli occupation is its highly personalized quality and the particular way in which it invades and penetrates the space of the individual. At 'the checkpoint' there are no privileges, everyone waits in line, and is reduced to an ID number, and everyone is searched and questioned. It is these qualities and aspects that are conveyed in Halawani's photographs -- in particular the repetition of inspections of papers and personal belongings. However, what is intriguing about the photographs is that the artist documents the nuances of the encounter between the two anonymous parties. In the images we see different gestures of waiting and the postures of the human bodies as they are positioned in an unequal power relation. Via the close-ups we get a sense of the different moods of the individuals, tiredness, anxiety, and the nuances of the way each person responds to questioning at the checkpoint. Shown through fragments, this series of photographs carries a multitude of narratives of the experiences of Palestinians at Qalandia. In a sense, when looking at the images, one can hear the echo of the people's voices as one imagines the all too familiar dialogues that take place. Halawani's intimate shots reveal a contact zone between the two sides -- as a gloved hand for example, requests an ID card or an individual opens their bag for inspection. The artist accentuates the issues of repetition and the distinctions of each separate encounter by the recurrence in this series of the large slab of worn stone that marks the site of exchange. In many of her photographs it is given particular prominence and takes on a symbolic quality marking nearness and distance at the same time. It becomes the fixed element or prop in this absurd theatre. Imposed on the landscape it demarcates the place where the ritual of authority is performed and the site of contact with the 'other'.

Halawani's series 'Irrational' presents us with wider vistas and panoramas that represent the transformation of landscape that has occurred with the building and expansion of Israeli settlements. In her photographs, Halawani imparts the sense of alienation in relation to the imposition on the landscape with road ways, settlements and the infrastructure for the Apartheid Wall. Taken on winter days while driving in her car, the photographs impart a sense of gloom, foreboding and oppression -- suggested both through the way she has captured the image and their perspective. The settlements always loom overhead, and through her photographs the sense of monumental change that one is unable to affect is suggested. Vis-a-vis the architecture of dominance the individual feels isolated and alienated in what was once a familiar landscape. Halawani's images are very much images of the 'everyday' landscape that Palestinian who are able to move from one location to another see. Settlements on the horizon have become a permanent feature of the Palestinian field of vision.

Halawani is constantly engaged in representing the everyday transformation that occurs on the ground in Palestine. The accumulation of these images are a testimony to the details that become the fabric of monumental historical change which is occurring in Palestine.

Dr. Tina Sherwell is the executive director of The Paltel Virtual Gallery at Birzeit University, a new specialised website for the visual arts in Palestine. She is also one of the founding members of The Open Studio in Jerusalem and has written numerous articles on Palestinian artists.