Rehab Nazzal: Driving in Palestine

Courtesy of Rehab Nazzal and MAI (Montréal, arts interculturels)

Rehab Nazzal: Driving in Palestine

April 18 – May 18, 2024
SAW, Ottawa

Curator: Stefan St-Laurent

Opening Reception
Thursday, April 18, 2024, 7pm – midnight
Free admission

Catering provided by Chickpeas

Conversation with Rehab Nazzal (Bethlehem/Montréal) and Wanda Nanibush (Toronto)
Saturday, April 20, 2024, 7pm – 9pm
SAW exhibition spaces
The talk will be in English. Admission is free.

This presentation will be followed by Laylit, an event showcasing music and artists from the Arab/SWANA region and its diaspora, presented by Debaser in Club SAW on April 20 from 9pm to 2pm. Learn more.

For most Palestinians, freedom of movement is denied or restricted; the act of walking or driving within their native land is one that is continuously subject to adversity. Yet those who embark upon such a journey find an embodied experience that not only reveals the effects of settler-colonial control but is also a perilous exercise in resistance against the prevailing circumstances.

Between 2010 and 2020, artist and scholar Rehab Nazzal undertook the ambitious and risky endeavour of traversing the breadth of occupied Palestine. The result is a body of work of profound scope spanning photography and video, conceivably situating her oeuvre amongst the most consequential artistic productions of our age.

With this work, Nazzal adeptly harnessed a methodical documentary modus operandi, a practice she employed with a sense of urgency to capture images and sounds that so many do not get to see or hear: the visual and auditory dimensions of Palestine under the pervasive mantle of settler-colonial military occupation.

In the course of her artistic undertaking, Nazzal confronted mortal danger firsthand. She was struck in the leg by a sniper’s bullet while documenting the Israeli occupation forces’ activities in Bethlehem, in an area where the notorious “Skunk” truck—a vehicle dispensing a noxious substance simulating the stench of sewage and decomposing bodies—had been deployed. Undeterred by the obvious risks, Nazzal persevered for an additional five years, striving to capture the expanse and essence of the Palestinian landscape and the settler-colonial infrastructure imposed upon its land and inhabitants. The resulting trove of tens of thousands of photographs, videos and audio clips represents a substantial artistic oeuvre and an archive of immeasurable historical value.

Driving in Palestine emerges as a catalytic agent for transformative political impetus, lending both agency and legitimacy to the Palestinian cause, which frequently falls victim to media distortion or suppression. This can be attributed to the unremitting pressure of the pro-Israel lobby in Canada and beyond, which effectively stifles unfiltered or critical portrayals of the Israeli military occupation.

The framework of international law unequivocally aligns with the proposition that Israel’s decades of policy squarely satisfy the definition of apartheid. The act of traversing Palestine by foot or vehicle requires navigating an intricate web of barriers to movement: fortifications, checkpoints, barbed-wire fences, earth mounds, watchtowers, blockades, segregated roads and driving systems. The outcome of these mechanisms in forcibly estranging families is poignantly illustrated: Relatives separated by mere kilometres may never see one another again.

The insidious phenomenon of unlawful settlements has culminated in a scenario where, as one section of the apartheid wall approaches completion, another one is already being constructed in front of it, annexing yet more land and further separating Palestinian communities from each other. These constructions evoke parallels with the dystopian architectural drawings of M.C. Escher. As Nazzal navigates Palestine’s contours, meticulously chronicling the orchestrated disintegration of communities, water sources and millennia-old olive groves, the act of driving metamorphoses into not only a brazen act of resistance but a painful grieving process. The gradual and unrelenting dispossession of territory and resources assumes a cadence that resembles nothing more than a calculated regimen of torture imposed upon the Palestinian people.

The 87 stark photographs of watchtowers forming the series Panoptics in Palestine were taken as Nazzal drove on open roads and through restricted areas all over her homeland. In a subversive reversal of roles, the surveilled artist becomes the surveillant. Nazzal thus returns the military’s omnipresent gaze, adroitly amassing essential intelligence along the way. With deft audacity, she concurrently wields a mirror to reflect the actions of the Israeli settler-colonial state, unmasking the devastation it enacts and the atrocities it commits.

Driving in Palestine is a unique topography of present-day Palestine, shaped by Rehab Nazzal’s fearless reclamation of the land. Signs along the roads and highways on which she drove ominously warned of mortal danger. Yet she remained undeterred, and we have the privilege of seeing an entirely new body of work, one that exists against all odds.

Respite comes only once in this exhibition, at the end, in the video work entitled Healing Moments. The indigenous flora of Palestine is filmed without pretense, often in close-up, showing wild plants, trees and flowers gently swaying in the breeze, with the sound of buzzing insects replacing that of drones. And within this semblance of life’s unadulterated beauty lies the poignant aspiration of the Palestinian people—an ardently desired restoration of what once was.

– Stefan St-Laurent, curator

This exhibition was first presented by MAI (Montréal, arts interculturels) in Montréal from September 7 to October 21, 2023. The artist has added 27 new photographs to the exhibition at SAW.


SAW wishes to thank Camille Larivée, Thiago Freitas and Philip Richard-Authier of MAI, Nadim Maghzal of Laylit, Rachel Weldon of Debaser, Wanda Nanibush, Justin Wonnacott and Mariam Janjelo, as well as its members, donors and funders for their support.

Funders Canada Council for the Arts, City of Ottawa, Ontario Arts Council, Government of Ontario, Government of Canada, Ontario Trillium Foundation and Ottawa Community Foundation

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