Nira Pereg's Patriarchs @ Talbot Rice, Edinburgh

One writer responds to Nira Pereg's beguiling exhibition Patriarchs at Talbot Rice Gallery

Feature by Sofia Cotrona | 08 Dec 2022

Walking into the darkened upper floor of Talbot Rice Gallery, the sound of cacophonic prayer chants and background noises lead visitors towards Nira Pereg’s multi-channel video installations ISHMAEL (2015) and ABRAHAM ABRAHAM SARAH SARAH (2012) –  the first two parts of the Patriarchs trilogy.

In this series, the Israeli artist looks at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, a city in the occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank. The cave is one of the most sacred monuments in both Islam and Judaism, as it contains the tomb of the prophet and common patriarch Abraham and his wife Sarah. It is also symbolic of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian religious and sectarian conflict. The site underwent a strict spatial separation to keep Muslim and Jewish worshippers apart, following the 1994 massacre of 29 Muslim worshippers in the mosque by US-born Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein. After the attack, eighty percent of the site was reserved for Muslim worshippers and twenty percent for Jewish worshippers.

The first two parts of the Patriarchs series focus on the bureaucratic processes of religious separation, as Pereg documents the strictly surveilled protocols that rule the religious use of this site. ABRAHAM ABRAHAM SARAH SARAH captures two of the ten yearly occasions when the spatial separation in the Cave of the Patriarchs is revoked and one religious group gains access to the whole site for 24 hours. Pereg is the first civilian to document the different phases of this process. The audience witness the clearance of religious artefacts from the chambers, the inspection led by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and finally the appropriation of the space for complete use by either Muslim or Jewish worshippers, emphasising the transformation of the Cave into either a mosque or a synagogue. 

Meanwhile, ISHMAEL observes the strictly surveilled steps necessary for a muezzin to call the Adhan – the five calls to prayer – in the context of the architectural division of the site, which left the minaret (used to call worshippers) on the Jewish side. Pereg follows the journey of the muezzin as they call the Adhan, back and forth from the dividing doors, the synagogue and to the minaret, escorted by IDF soldiers. Pereg’s interest in the bureaucracy of religious practices is evident in her decision not to focus on worship in either installation. ABRAHAM ABRAHAM SARAH SARAH focuses on the preparation for prayer, while in ISHMAEL we hear Muslim and Jewish calls to prayer, although the muezzin is concealed behind a green door and the frames of worshippers in the mosque don’t portray them in the act of praying. 

Pereg’s works highlight the mechanisms of exclusions in order to build complex and layered narratives about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, partly influenced by her own positionality – as an Israeli artist, her nationality gave her the ability to record these documentaries, yet it inevitably reduced her access to certain Muslim spaces. For example, at the end of ABRAHAM ABRAHAM SARAH SARAH, the artist doesn’t have permission to record the Muslim worshippers entering the mosque as she does with the Jewish worshippers.

Yet the artist doesn’t shy away from traumatic events such as the 1994 massacre – and the everyday forms of violence and surveillance endured by Muslim Palestinians. ISHMAEL narrates the disappropriation of the Muslim minaret and records an instance where the sunset Adhan is forbidden by Israeli authorities in response to Jewish settlers’ demand to have their own call to the Mincha prayer at the same time. The title itself draws attention to these ideas – Ishmael was Abraham’s firstborn, who was then cast out and denied his rightful place. This religious narrative charges Pereg’s work with the themes of dispossession and disappropriation that defines the experience of living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Pereg rejects binary narratives around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, using fragmented footage to obstruct a linear, frontal viewing of her documentaries. For instance, the simultaneous projection of ABRAHAM ABRAHAM SARAH SARAH on two opposite walls of the gallery forces the audience to continuously alternate between following the actions of one religious group or the other. Viewers are unable to watch Pereg’s work in its entirety, leading to a fragmented and disparate viewing experience. The artist deploys similar tactics In ISHMAEL too, where three frontal screens follow the journey of the muezzin to and from the minaret, while a fourth, displayed at a 90-degree angle, only comes to life to capture the Jewish public call to prayer at sunset. Furthermore, in this installation, the Jewish and Muslim calls to prayer are played simultaneously, creating a multivocal effect which talks of incompatibility yet imagines an alternative reality where the two can coexist. 

Through these fragmented views of religious and ethnic tensions, Pereg’s works present an array of complex narratives, using the Cave of the Patriarchs as a site for producing manifold accounts of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Patriarchs continues at Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh until 18 Feb 2023