‘In 1990,’ Palestinian pop-artist Laila Shawa recalls, ‘I had breast cancer.’
While undergoing radiotherapy, I watched on television the precision bombing of Baghdad by US airplanes, forever linking the two events in my mind and in my art. The body woman and the body land amalgamate; the invasion of one is equated with the invasion of the other and the implicit fact that both leave scars.”
Jo Long made a parallel, beautifully nuanced argument in her ‘Border Anxiety’ essay in Antipode in 2006, but you can literally see what Laila Shaw means in the extraordinary Cast Lead (2011; above left).
Laila is probably still best known for her silkscreen cycle Walls of Gaza (1992-95) – a different take on graffiti to most geographers’, since she insists that the situation was unique:
I believe the Gaza Graffiti differs completely from urban graffiti that one sees in big cities around the world. In Gaza, graffiti on the wall was the only method available to Palestinians to communicate with each other. The Israeli occupiers banned any form of media in Gaza, such as newspapers, radio, or television. The writing is cursive, spontaneous and hurried. It changed almost daily to update whatever was happening in Gaza.
In the Walls cycle she juxtaposed images of Palestinian children and graffiti from Gaza to expose the trauma of war and occupation, a theme to which she returned in Target (2009), a variation on an iconic panel from Walls, in which a photograph of a young child is superimposed against a graffiti-covered wall with a cross-hair centred on his face. ‘War deprives children of their childhood,’ she says.
Much of her work depends on mixed media juxtapositions like this, which she mobilizes to brilliant effect. She explains:
‘Today, when we are desensitized by the surfeit of media violence, new strategies are needed to overcome people’s apathy and weariness for compassion.’
Last year she had an exhibition at London’s October Gallery, The Other Side of Paradise, which was in part provoked by a documentary on a female suicide bomber but which also included the extraordinary images shown below, Birds of Paradise and Gaza Sky, which speak directly to my previous post about other ways of visualizing drones.
Laila was born in Gaza, but Gaza Sky strikes me as problematic; Israel doesn’t use Predators, so far as I know, but manufactures its own Heron drones and leases/sells them to other states. Still, the image captures occupied Palestine since – for me – the reference isn’t only to Roy Lichtenstein‘s Whaam but also to Mahmoud Darwish‘s moving poem The earth is closing on us (which Edward Said used for his collaboration with Jean Mohr, After the last sky):
Where should we go after the last border? Where should the birds fly after the last sky?
I’m left wondering about how to draw together my first and last paragraphs – how to bring these ‘birds’ and the bodies on which they feed into the same frame. This isn’t a compositional problem for my writing; it’s a political-aesthetic one. So I start to think about Laila’s Target again. For The social life of bombs, I plan to end the performance-work with a back-projected image of three children asleep under a checkered counterpane; all you you can hear is the rhythmic sound of their breathing. As the camera moves in, it becomes clear that each checkered square is in motion; the sound gets louder. Closer still, and each square becomes a video feed from a drone. Closer still, and one square fills the whole screen: the compound in which the children are sleeping, seen from high above (and far away). By now the sound of breathing is incredibly loud; suddenly, an even louder explosion. When the smoke clears, the sound dies away, and the lights slowly come up, we see three small figures, clutching the remains of their bedding – a re-staging and reworking of Noor Behram‘s to me iconic photograph of the three Bismullah children, the sole survivors of a drone strike in Waziristan. But it could, of course, be Gaza. Or Yemen. Or Somalia…