– Spring 2013

Walls, No Bridges: The Relation Between Revealing and Disguising in Ahlam Shibli’s Photographic Practice

Christian Höller

Tags: Ahlam Shibli, T.J. Demos

Ahlam Shibli, Untitled (Death, no.46), 2011—12, Palestine, chromogenic colour print, 38 × 57cm. Courtesy the artist

‘Photography’, Ahlam Shibli once said, is ‘a practice of actively revealing and disguising at the same time.’1 This active revealing and disguising, precisely by occurring simultaneously and entering into play in one and the same pictorial act, impedes the readability of the images. The process of showing whilst concealing refers, in Shibli's work, to those peoples or issues that generally evade our media-saturated perception; but it also refers to the fact that her photographs avoid ‘pinning things down’ or any spectacularisation of these issues. Shibli’s practice shows — or rather, renders visible — precisely the act of drawing subjects out of invisibility and seeking in the same act to subvert a certain regime of rendering visible, namely the ad hoc and irresponsible dragging-into-the-light favoured by the mass media.

However, the question that immediately springs to mind when considering this is how such a contradictory act of simultaneously revealing and disguising can be possible. How can photographs ‘reveal what is hidden and at the same time […] disguise what is visible’?2 One key to answering this question is to be found in the specific subject matter Shibli has concentrated on since she first exhibited her work. First of all, there are the photographic series on the living conditions of the Palestinian people, within the borders of Israel, in the Palestinian occupied territories that are now partly self-administered territories, and in exile, be it in Jordan or elsewhere in the diaspora. Some of her earliest works address this situation, for example Voyage in Mt. Tabor (1998), Wadi Saleib in Nine Volumes (1999) or Unrecognised (2000), which addresses Palestinian villages that are not

  1. Reinhard Braun and Ahlam Shibli, ‘Ahlam Shibli: Objecting to Imposed Invisibility’, Camera Austria, no.114, June 2011, p.19.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Such as Arab al-Shibli in Palestine, where Shibli was born in 1970.

  4. A. Shibli in ‘Objecting to Imposed Invisibility’, op. cit., p.20.

  5. Kamal Boulatta, ‘Cassandra and the Photography of the Invisible’, in Ahlam Shibli: Lost Time (exh. cat.), Birmingham: Ikon Gallery, 2003, p.58.

  6. See ibid., p.58ff.

  7. Ulrich Loock, ‘Goter’, in Ahlam Shibli: Lost Time, op. cit., p.31.

  8. Ibid., p.29.

  9. T.J. Demos, ‘Recognizing the Unrecognized: The Photographs of Ahlam Shibli’, in Hilde Van Gelder and Helen Westgeest (ed.), Photography Between Poetry and Politics: The Critical Position of the Photographic Medium in Contemporary Art, Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2008, p.133.

  10. Ibid., p.136.

  11. Ibid., p.137.

  12. See Mahmoud Abu Hashhash, ‘Disclosure and Seclusion, Declaration and Disguise’, in Ahlam Shibli — Go there, Eat the mountain, Write the past, Amman: Darat al Funun — The Khalid Shoman Foundation, 2011, p.20.

  13. U. Loock, ‘Ahlam Shibli: Resisting Oppression’, Camera Austria, no.93, March 2006, p.45.

  14. A. Shibli, ‘Trackers’, in Adam Szymczyk (ed.), Ahlam Shibli — Trackers, Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2007, p.43. See also Rhoda Kanaaneh, ‘Tracking Bedouin Soldiers’, in ibid., p.31ff.

  15. To be shown for the first time in 2013 in the exhibition ‘Ahlam Shibli. Phantom Home’ (MACBA, Barcelona; Jeu de Paume, Paris; and Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves, Porto).

  16. See Lisette Lagnado, ‘Home and Homeland: About Ahlam Shibli’s Photo-Series Eastern LGBT’, Nafas Art Magazine [online journal], February 2007, available at http://universes-in-universe.org/eng/nafas/articles/2007/ahlam_shibli/ (last accessed on 11 November 2012).

  17. See A. Shibli, ‘Goter’, in Ahlam Shibli — Go there, Eat the mountain, Write the past, op. cit., p.97.

  18. See A. Shibli, ‘Dom Dziecka. The house starves when you are away’, available at http://ahlamshibli.com/statement/Dom_Dziecka_E.htm (last accessed on 11 November 2012).

  19. A. Shibli in ‘Objecting to Imposed Invisibility’, op. cit., p.19.

  20. See U. Loock, ‘The Trauma Work’, in Ahlam Shibli — TRAUMA (exh. cat.), Tulle: Peuple et Culture Corrèze, 2010, p.26ff.

  21. Adania Shibli, ‘Uncovering the Visible’, in ibid., p.33.