In the second part of the conversation she talks about the way refugees are usually represented and she also mentions the last Berlin Biennale where was exhibited the biggest key of one of the Palestinian camps.
A Skype conversation with Sandi Hilal on the way Palestinian refugees are usually represented by art and architecture
Challenging the right to return
In the refugees’ camps we are working in three very important notions: private, public, and common. In the refugee camps all these notions are blurred together; we are looking at all this and try to understand how we could challenge this right to return. The first step I will speak about is how to combine the culture of exile with the right to return. Then I will move to the next step: so far the refugees where all the time represented as numbers and in relation to the places they belong to. It is all about statistics, about numbers, about private property that was lost in 1948. As if the only way to represent people right is through private property. But then the question is: what is the public sphere of this right to return? How would the Mediterranean Sea for example be part of the loss of the right to return?
So far the refugees have always been represented the same way, and this is again very important within the world of art. If you look for example at the last Berlin Biennial, they took the biggest key of one of the camps and they put it on show. This was for me quite problematic. You take the key out of the camp and again what you are doing, conceptually, you detach the culture of exile from the right to return.
How can you ask to return back home without looking at 63 years of exile, which is indeed very important? We cannot take the key outside of the camp because this means that the camp is not represented in the whole image of the right to return, and if we separated these two things it is for me very problematic in term of artistic representation. Should we keep sticking to 60 years of representation, which is always the same, and which includes only the key and the private property or should we go on? What is the role of art? This is my argument as a Palestinian artist.
The loss of the Mediterranean Sea
So, what about the loss of the Mediterranean Sea? I consider myself a Mediterranean person and I have no access to the Mediterranean Sea and this is for me the main loss of the right to return and this is not there in the artistic representation.
The only thing we are representing is the key which is the private property. But where is the public property? Where are the cities that we lost, where is the Mediterranean Sea that we lost? Why is all this out of any representation? In which way should we look at all this and represent it?
If you look at the camp you see that neither the private nor the public are there. This is because the houses where the refugees do live do not belong to them. So in the camp there is not notion for private or for public. The public, in our mind, is always related to the State and the problem is that the State does not operate nor administrate the camp. Even the UN doesn’t administrate the camp.
The camp is a place that, in the mind of the world, cannot be considered public and cannot be considered private. It is just a third thing that we usually call “common”. It is a place that is totally self-organized by the people; they are the one organizing it.
Campus in Camp
Now the question is: how can we look at all this and represent it? In order to understand it, we decided to work with the refugees. We have this project which is called Campus in Camp which is a university in the camp where we are building a total dictionary in collaboration with 50 young ladies and men from the camp. We are building the dictionary of the exile where we are trying to respond to the following questions. What does it mean for us normalization of the camp? What does it mean private? What does it mean public? What does it mean common? How can we represent differently the right to return? What is the key representing all that now? What is the camp today? In which way we could represent that?
We believe that what is happening in the camp is way forward compared to what the art, architecture, and academia are able to see. There is a lot that is going on in the camp that has not name and that should be represented. In order to do so we are totally engaged in the camp together with the refugees. This is for us the only way that art can be effective. With the refugees we are trying to understand how we can build a new dictionary where all the words that we are using are included: sustainability, normalization, improvement. We try to look at it through the eyes of the camp and we write it down. We try to give names to what we see.
Refugee by default is the figure that put in total crisis the State itself; it is the figure that counterpart the State. By working with them we also understood that the Palestinian refugees are also a way to give names and answers to a lot of crisis happening all over the world. Looking at the refugees is also a way to figure out many possibilities and different ways to look at the world.