Taysir Batniji

“I am against boys becoming heroes at ten / Against the tree flowering explosives / Against branches becoming scaffolds / Against rose-beds turning into trenches / Against it all / And yet / When fire consumes my friends, my youth, my country / How can I stop a poem from becoming a gun?” Taysir Batniji’s exhibition reminded me of these verses by the Palestinian poet Rashid Hussein. Notwithstanding their timeliness, they date from the mid-’70s, when Hussein was living in exile in New York. Batniji, who was born in Gaza City in 1966, six months before the beginning of the Israeli military occupation, could have been one of those ten-vear-olds. But at that age, he recalls, he had already discovered the magic of drawing and the mental territory of art.

Twenty-five years later, with the same ironic incongruity that underlies Hussein’s poetic imagery, the visual poet that Batniji has become titled his Paris show “Dessine-moi une patrie” (Draw me a homeland). In fact, there were no drawings, and no homeland, either. The works on view, all but one of which date from Batniji’s return to Gaza in October 2000 after nearly six years spent studying in France, were markers, traces of absence and memory, disappearance and loss. These are themes he has been pursuing for years. But whereas before he had been working in an allusive, metaphorical vein with paintings, imprints, and objects, the situation he discovered in Gaza just after the outbreak of the second intifada prompted him to “come closer to reality” via Photography and video.

The results—a short video, a double photomural, a slide projection (all works 2001)—have nothing to do with reportage, much less, he insists, with “the obviousness and the clichés of media images, or any act of violence whatsoever.” They are “particles of reality” held together with a string of questions: about place and displacement, geopolitics and culture, and ultimately, the possibility of art as an expression of identities that are at once individual and collective, local and universal.

The dialogue between Taysir the Palestinian and Batniji the artist was most explicit in the video Gaza, journal intime (Gaza, diary), in which brief glimpses of the streets and markets of Gaza City were brutally intercut with a recurring sequence of a bloody piece of meat being chopped on a butcher’s block. With the untitled double photomural, the dialogue was rather between the living and the dead. These dense mosaics of ghostly, close-cropped faces—somewhere between icons and X rays—were in fact portraits of some 180 Gazans killed during the intifada, reworked from ID photos and snapshots to transform living images into effigies of the dead that appeared and disappeared like fleeting memories as the viewer walked in front of them.

In the end, Batniji achieved his most eloquent, forceful dialogue with the viewer in an untitled slide projection composed of fifty-eight color photos of the battle-scarred walls of Gaza City, some of them bare, most of them filled with layers of graffiti and posters of the dead, all of them serving as “witnesses” to the passage of time and the effacement of memory. The impact of this work was due not only to Batniji’s incisive eye, the enveloping scale of the slides, and the subtle play on distances within the images that brought the viewer closer and closer to the walls, but also—by virtue of the projector itself—the implacable discontinuity between images. “When I was a child,” Batniji told me, “I could never imagine a continuous line or shape. They were always broken like a spoon in a glass of water.”

Miriam Rosen