Khalil Rabah Brings Palestine to the Sharjah Art Foundation’s Spring Exhibition

Khalil Rabah displays his new collection, On what grounds, at the Al Mureijah Square in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, on March 4, 2022 (AUD/Lujain Ammar)

The Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) unveiled its spring 2022 program of cultural events that will feature artworks from places like Mumbai, Lebanon, and Palestine.

At the unveiling ceremony on March 4, the foundation featured the works of Palestinian artist Khalil Rabah in an exhibition titled “What is Not?” and curated by Sheikha Hoor bint Sultan Al Qasimi, the foundation’s director.

The exhibition showcases Rabah’s artworks since the 1990s, showing his ongoing projects sectioned into three galleries: The Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind, the Riwaq Biennale, Scale Models, and his most recent Collaborations: by inform, which was commissioned by the foundation. “We wanted to do a type of survey of the projects where the works come from, not the works itself,” said Rabah.

Khalil Rabah (left) and Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi (right) introduce Rabah’s new exhibition at the Sharjah Art Foundation’s Al Mureijah Art Spaces in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, on March 4, 2022 (AUD/Lujain Ammar)

The Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind attempts to “mimic a Western approach of what a natural museum would look like,” said Rabah. One of the significant works placed under the Gaza Zoo Sculpture Garden was that of the Lion. Using the fields of geology and paleontology, Rabah revisited the 2016 Israeli bombardment of Gaza, when an uproar erupted over animal rights within Gaza’s zoo, particularly its lion. The Israeli forces had refused any humanitarian assistance to Gaza citizens but helped move the lion to Jordan, and later found out that it had been smuggled into Gaza through tunnels from Egypt. Through that story, Rabah gave the world a sense of what life is in Palestine and revealed parts of Gaza’s history while also featuring the region’s rich geology. “To me, that became perhaps a notion to think of the geology of the environment there, the reminiscence of what was left,” said Rabah.

Lion, created by Khalil Rabah in 2017, and displayed at the Sharjah Art
Foundation’s Al Mureijah Art Spaces in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, on March 4, 2022 (AUD/Lujain Ammar)
Untitled: All is well, created by Khalil Rabah in 2017, and displayed in the Sharjah Art Foundation’s Al Mureijah Art Spaces in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, on March 4, 2022 (AUD/Lujain Ammar)

Rabah also touched on renowned works made by other artists, connecting them to the conditions of his hometown. Fellow Palestinian artist Sliman Mansour became famous after painting the iconic Jamal Al Mahamel, or Camel of Hardships, which came to symbolize the Palestinians’ struggle for statehood. The painting shows an elderly man carrying on his back the city of Jerusalem. After discovering an image of the painting online, Rabah was inspired to create a “hyper-realistic sculpture” of the elderly man, standing in the same posture but with nothing on his back — symbolizing the dispossession of the Palestinian people.

Born in Jerusalem, the Ramallah-based artist’s work centers on his journey and the hardships of living in Palestine. “I’m from there, and there’s an environment that I lived in and interacted with, events that I have seen, and at some point in my life, I realized that what I loved doing was something that I later found out was called art,” said Rabah. “Palestine is a name, but it represents its people, it’s the conditions that people experience while living in it, we’re the ones that make something out of it.”

Rabah studied architecture before embarking on his artistic career, and was very glad to do so. In some of his most recent work, Rabah uses fragments from hundreds of destroyed Palestinian villages. “The remains and remaining” concept collected structures of the villages, forming hand-embroidered site plans and floor plans of what they could’ve looked like. “It’s a place that I personally feel that I can contemplate and think of new possibilities,” said Rabah.

Khalil Rabah (middle) explains the ideas behind his newest work, On what grounds, at the Sharjah Art Foundation’s Al Mureijah Art Spaces in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, on March 4, 2022 (AUD/Lujain Ammar)

Rabah’s exhibition seems to have touched many. Aiya Akilzhanova, a visitor from Kazakhstan, said “I find it really powerful. It’s my first time here in Sharjah and this exhibition, and I’m enjoying this space,” she said.

Rabah does not really like to explain his art or spell out any specific messages to the visitors. “During the opening, I was not talking. If I do have a message, it’s for people to see and engage with the artwork the way they want to.”

The exhibition runs at the Sharjah Art Foundation’s Al Mureijah Art Spaces in Galleries 1, 2, and 3 until July 4, 2022.

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