Return of the Soul: The Nakbah Project

Nancy Katz anticipates a politically loaded exhibition that brings a touch of international consciousness to the Art Festival

Preview by Nancy Katz | 20 Jul 2008

Scottish artist Jane Frere will present perhaps one of the most thought provoking exhibitions of the Edinburgh Art Festival. Reactionary inter-disciplinary debate will range from the politics of displacement, and most specifically the 1948 Palestinian exodus, to the role, power, purpose and limitations of art. Frere's work is presented as entirely inseparable from its genesis, an insistence which puts the artist’s words, and those of the souls that she strives to represent, at the very heart of this exhibition.

Three thousand small wax figures will be suspended from the ceiling, as if caught mid-flight. Each figure has been made by a Palestinian and holds its own testimony to someone directly affected by the 'Nakbah', literally translated as 'the catastrophe', the term used by Palestinians to describe their own forced exodus. Layered audio clips, from a series of interviews with first hand witnesses, will also be presented as a sound sculpture. The exhibition will be accompanied by a contextualising publication with an artist's statement, Palestinian testimonies and a time line of British Rule in Palestine up to 1948.

Frere declares that it is the journey that the artist takes to arrive at the final 'product' that interests her. Her journey started in the Nazi concentration camp Majdanek in Poland, where an Israeli flag prompted her to consider the next stage in the history of that period, the creation of Israel. Appalled that this "required a very deliberate strategy to pursue what has only latterly become known as ethnic cleansing", Frere would embark on a journey of exploration to learn about the history of Palestine through artistic fieldwork. Working with Al Hoash Gallery in East Jerusalem and with UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, Frere was able to work with Palestinians in the West Bank, Lebanon and Jordan. She engaged artists in a training programme that equipped them with the skills to pass on the methodology for the 3,000 piece exhibition to other young Palestinians. Having found that the "new generation was woefully uninformed about the history of the Nakbah", Frere's workshops consisted of anatomy lessons, costume research and 'cross-disciplinary education'. The resulting figures and testimonies were first exhibited in Jerusalem in May of this year, a duplicate exhibition will be concurrently shown in Ramallah, and the project is scheduled to travel to Beirut in September.

Talking to a small Edinburgh assembly on July 17, Frere admitted that her identity as an artist allowed her to cross borders and say things that a politician or journalist could not. The crossover presented by this project between artistic whimsy and the politically motivated desire to 'launch a cause' and re-address a 'grotesque injustice', is one that many will find difficult to harmonise. Last year, however, the Turner Prize was won by 'State Britain', a faithful re-creation of peace protester Brian Haw's tireless Parliament Square campaign. Haw's display was removed in 2006 for breaching the border of the 1km protest exclusion zone which surrounds Parliament. The edge of this exclusion zone bisects Tate Britain, with the gallery space that housed Wallinger's homage to Brian's display, within it. Art, working from its privileged remove, lends a similarly useful cloak to Frere, as she silently strives to further the voices of others. With the position of artist-facilitator, however, comes great responsibility and the insertion of this exhibition deep into the fabric of Edinburgh's August, is an intriguing and provocative move.