Inas Halabi: Palestine’s rising star of art
Palestinian artist Inas Halabi is exploring various historical and political narratives related to collective memory, national identity and forgotten histories – and her rising profile is a testament to her singular talent
It is the morning after the night before and the young Palestinian artist Inas Halabi has reason to be cheerful. “I’m smiling while thinking of all the things I have yet to get done,” she says while at home in Occupied Jerusalem. She is happy, and understandably so. The winner of this year’s Young Artist Of The Year award organised by the AM Qattan Foundation in Ramallah, her star is rising.
When we catch up, Halabi has recently returned to Palestine from Switzerland, where she was an artist-in-residence at the Gästeatelier Krone, culminating in a solo exhibition called Observations From The Margins at the Forum Schlossplatz in Aarau. In photographs she is all curls and eyes, but right now she is consumed by smiles.
On the night of the awards in early October she had been surrounded by those who had also been shortlisted beside her, a huddle of artists reflecting the scattered lives of the Palestinian diaspora. There was Aya Kirresh, also from Jerusalem, Ruba Salameh from Nazareth, Abdallah Awwad from Nablus, and Majd Masri and Asma Ghanem from Ramallah. Others, however, were missing. Somar Sallam, a Palestinian refugee from Syria now living in Algeria, was unable to leave the country for fear of being barred from reentry. Majdal Nateel, best known for If I Wasn’t There, an installation of 400 paintings depicting the silenced dreams of children killed in 2014’s attacks on Gaza, had been unable to obtain a travel permit out of the strip.
Working with video, found and original images, sculpture and text, Halabi’s work explores various historical and political narratives related to collective memory, national identity and forgotten histories, and it was her video installation Mnemosyne that swayed the Young Artist Of The Year judges.
“I’m interested in the unreliability of facts and the impossibility of accessing a complete narrative,” she says. “As such, I find myself constantly experimenting with non-linear structures. [In other words] I try to create a platform from which questions regarding the construction of history, memory and national identity can be examined and explored. There are many similarities in what the role of an artist and the role of an historian is and the overlap between these fields interests me.”
The title Mnemosyne was borrowed from the Titan goddess of memory, while the starting point of the work was a scar on the forehead of her grandfather – the result of an Israeli bullet in the late 1940s. For the project, members of her family were filmed individually as they narrate their version of the same event, with Halabi focusing on the sagas of myth and the construction of memory.
“By scratching the surface of family history, the project explores the scar as a foundational hinge that arranges reality,” explains Halabi. “The project also considers how one can play the role of a historian when the primary source is no longer there. As such, recollection becomes an act of transformation rather than reproduction.”
The starting point of the project was a scar on the forehead of her grandfather – the result of an Israeli bullet in the late 1940s. It focused on the saga of myth
Halabi’s win may raise her regional and international profile, but to her the creation of further work and the continuation of her artistic mission is what preoccupies her the most.
“I’m currently working on a project entitled The Authentic Bedouin,” she tells me. “It focuses on the music industry of Jordan throughout the 1970s and explores the shifts in its cultural production as a form of nationalising the state. Such cultural production included ‘bedouinising’ Jordanian music and song as a way of inventing a shared history and heritage.
“I plan to work with the research material I have collected over the past year, which includes footage shot in various locations in Amman and a collection of musical recordings from the 1950s and ’60s from Jordanian radio archives. Combining found and original images, music and film, it will take the form of an installation that will use music as another way of seeing history.”
The Authentic Bedouin has already been awarded a production grant from Mophradat, a non-profit contemporary arts association based in Belgium that supports Arab artists, with exhibitions planned for Jerusalem and Amman next year. Halabi’s work will also be on display as part of two group exhibitions, one in January at the Mosaic Rooms in London, the other in October at the Forum Schlossplatz in Switzerland.
“I have been living in and out of Palestine over the past few years and having recently returned I have to say that it has become a much more difficult, challenging and frustrating place to live and work in,” she says. “Of course, this applies to all fields, but as an artist there is also the challenge and difficulty of finding and maintaining studio space as well as finding funding for research and production. Nevertheless, and despite these challenges, amazing initiatives and events are taking place within the arts and culture field on an independent and collective level.”