Critics’ Picks

Khalil Rabah, view of “The Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind,” 1995–, mixed media, dimensions variable.


Khalil Rabah

Sfeir-Semler Gallery | Beirut
Tannous Building, 4th Floor Street 56 Jisr Sector 77
January 18–April 7

Despite swelling regional unrest and economic stagnation, the museum boom of the former capital of Arab letters lingers on with Khalil Rabah’s Broodthaersian fictional enterprise, “The Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind,” 1995–. For its most comprehensive presentation in Beirut, the museum debuts a new installation within the Anthropology Department, in addition to bringing together new and old works in all four wings.

Rabah’s project has long moved on from being a tongue-in-cheek museological intervention aimed at introducing a voice and narrative for compatriots who lacked such institutions under Israeli occupation until very recently (the Yasser Arafat Museum and the Palestinian Museum were founded in 2016). In fact, the entrance display in the gallery, showcasing the series “Hide Geographies,” 2017, reveals a self-reflexive institutional critique: Here, four patchwork-style embroidered fabrics in bright red, green, and blue encapsulate the departments on view, tracing the outlines of the Gaza Strip (Geology and Paleontology Department), the West Bank (Botanical Department), the Dead Sea (Earth and the Solar System Department), and the Nova Palestina favela in Brazil (Anthropology Department). Rather than merely engaging mise en abyme as representations of a representation, these maps actively probe, with their imposing size, the possibility of museification as a prohibitive closure—in this case, against a sophisticated understanding of a severely oppressed people.

A double bill of revelation and concealment is similarly at play in the Anthropology Department: In Acampamento Vila Nova Palestina, 2017, the human figures in a quadriptych of large oil paintings, based on photographs of the titular São Paulo favela thriving on unoccupied terrain, are cut out, mimicking the violent power dynamics of certain outmoded anthropological approaches. Yet the work also seems to suggest that internationalization in content (or branches, as in “global” museums) does not necessitate surrendering to marketization—but that it can also be an act of solidarity across and beyond nations.