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MAPPING PALESTINE WITH NISSREEN NAJJAR

October, 23rd 2020

Shaping her world with asphalt and cement, Palestinian multidisciplinary artist Nissreen Najjar portrays the reality of her people and uses geographical maps to trace the problems they face. Interviewing with Staiy, she talks to José M. Sainz-Maza about creativity, identity and the role of art as an instrument for analysis and reflection.

Words By José M. Sainz-Maza

“Many people don’t know that there are also Arabs living in Israel,” Nissreen Najjar (Nazareth, 1985) tells me from across my Mac screen. The artist, who grew up in occupied historic Palestine within the State of Israel, is currently based in Paris, commuting between the French capital and Jerusalem; or so she did until the pandemic. Being an Arab Christian woman in an area mired in long-lasting religious and ethnic conflict such as her native country has immensely influenced her artistic work, using it to reflect the issues that concern her. “This part of my identity has been essential in my approach to artistic creation,” she shares. 

Nisreen is a woman with a kind face and an air of confidence, and she immediately opens up about her life. Asked about the beginning of her career, she tells me how after studying Fine Arts, she began to teach in Bethlehem and Jerusalem at universities. Art has always been a part of her life. It is a way for her to explore her identity as an individual and a member of a social and historical community, as well as an instrument to denounce the suffering of the Palestinian people. At the same time, it allows her to describe power hierarchies within Israel and across the rest of the world. “I consider myself a translator, I translate what happens in my homeland into my art. I tell the story of my family, of my people, and of my own life. That is my starting point, and with this raw material I construct a web of different interpretations from the perspective of someone who understands perfectly that reality but can also observe it from the outside,” she says.

From the start, I realize that it would be impossible to fully comprehend Nissreen’s artwork without understanding the daily reality of the Palestinian people and their recent history, so I direct my next question around this. “I always try to talk about what I know, what has been part of my own experiences and what catches my attention,” she explains. Nissreen works with video, performance, photography and sculpture. This combination of installations and different techniques provides her with multiple possibilities when it comes to communicating complex themes. “I bring my identity and myself to the ‘white cube’, breaking it down through confession. I baptize my cultural elements and turn them into subversive and obsessive materials.”

Nissreen’s artworks are about her personal and social experience in the public realm of Palestine and Israel. Wanting to illustrate this, she draws my attention to one of her works: “Route 443, exhibited in gallery Alhoash in East Jerusalem, demonstrates the changes in the geography of my country. I used to travel often along a road bearing that name (Route 443) to go to Tel-Aviv and I noticed that there were people and Palestinian villages on both sides of this highway, so I began investigating. I discovered that, in order to build this highway between Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, the government had expropriated lands from Palestinian farmers who had had olive groves there for centuries. The Israeli administration deprived them of their means of subsistence with no consideration for sustainability or the needs of the local population. In addition, people from villages in the area now had to create raw routes and walk an hour to get to Ramallah, a journey which previously took just a few minutes. The road was taking up people’s real space, and I wanted to give it back to them somehow. People can walk on my work, be part of it,” she says, referring to her installation.

The latter leads us to talk about the materials, the formal aspect of Nissreen’s creations. “I love working with building materials that are uncommon in Palestinian art, such as concrete or asphalt. This is partly because being a woman using rough, heavy materials expresses certain principles I stand by. Aside from this, my research on cartography and geopolitics has made me realize that it is essential to build roads in order to colonize a territory, it has been that way throughout history. Asphalt is therefore a material with a very powerful meaning; it represents the earliest stage of occupation. It is also a fluid and very sticky material, almost like caramel, and it has a very characteristic smell. I like to leave that smell in the places where I work” she states.

Nissreen has got her pieces exhibited in France, Italy, Japan, Denmark, Jordan, Palestine, Greece and Sweden. Despite the positive reception she has had as an artist in France and other European countries, Nissreen points out that there are some remarkable differences in the way people see art: “Our way of approaching concepts isn’t the same because our background isn’t the same, it is as simple as that. For instance, it has never occurred to me to paint a flower or talk solely about aesthetics because I feel that I have more important things to communicate. Although it may vary from artist to artist, we [Palestinian artists] generally tend to not have that kind of naivety. We have other priorities since our people are living under occupation, suffering, and dying.”

Nissreen has got her pieces exhibited in France, Italy, Japan, Denmark, Jordan, Palestine, Greece and Sweden. Despite the positive reception she has had as an artist in France and other European countries, Nissreen points out that there are some remarkable differences in the way people see art: “Our way of approaching concepts isn’t the same because our background isn’t the same, it is as simple as that. For instance, it has never occurred to me to paint a flower or talk solely about aesthetics because I feel that I have more important things to communicate. Although it may vary from artist to artist, we [Palestinian artists] generally tend to not have that kind of naivety. We have other priorities since our people are living under occupation, suffering, and dying.” 

The memory of her own experience in Israel still remains fresh in her mind. “As an Arab, you often feel like you are a second-rate citizen, especially every time you pass through a security checkpoint or have to fill in legal paperwork. They don’t look at you or treat you with the same kindness as they do others. This is unfair to the people who experience it on a daily basis,” Nissreen tells me, her face drawn with sadness. “I have nothing against people from my country, regardless of their religion; my objection is towards racism and discrimination,” she explains. Far from Jerusalem and the daily security checkpoints, she has been able to gain a different perspective which is reflected in her most recent artworks. “Since I moved to France in 2014, I have had the chance to retrospectively observe the hierarchical representations of the Palestinian and Israeli landscape maps through a more objective lens.”

Moving on to her current endeavours, the Palestinian artist confesses that she is working on a large installation where she explores various sci-fi landscapes. This project forms part of her latest research, and the name has not yet been fully decided. “I’d rather not tell you the title,” Nissreen says. “You never know exactly how you feel about your art until it’s finished, and sometimes the title changes as you continue to work.” In any case, she declares that it will consist of a laboratory containing growing mountains and floating islands, and where the use of light will be especially relevant. “In this way, my project will be related to the mapping of territories and the formation and transformation of identity.”

As we finish discussing the direction of her project, we realise we have gone over time and bring the interview to a close. Perhaps in the near future, when the pandemic is over, I will visit one of Nissreen’s exhibitions in Paris or in her native land of Palestine.