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Emily Jacir

For Emily Jacir there is no possibility of extricating her art from an enmeshed, sustained enquiry into in artistic practice and Palestinian liberation. Born in 1972 in Bethlehem, Palestine, she was educated in Saudi Arabia, Italy, and the United States, where she completed her MFA at Memphis College of Art.

However, her physical absence did not foster an absence of spirit from Palestine, and as a practicing artist, her time is mostly spent between Ramallah, New York and Rome. Her work takes research as a core process, which yields results ranging between archival installation, film, intervention and the participatory.

Jacir’s 2001 piece Memorial to 418 Palestinian Villages Which Were Destroyed, Depopulated, and Occupied by Israel in 1948 does not leave room for vagueness and misinterpretation. The piece is a solemn memorial for lost sites of Palestinian existence, and calls upon the audience to question the narratives of statecraft in Israeli history. Drawing from Palestinian scholar Walid Khalidi’s historical catalogue, Jacir catalysed a process of participation in which more than 140 people converged at her studio to embroider these names onto the fabric of a refugee tent. The boundaries between art object and immaterial participatory event are indistinct, as video excerpts show an intense conviviality during these sessions, with musicians and singers invoking a defiantly joyous affair.

Emily Jacir, stazione. 2008-2009, (text-based interventions on vaporetto stations) // image via

Jacir was selected to represent Palestine when the country was included for the first time at the Venice Biennale in 2009. Her contribution included ‘stazione’, a series of interventions at each of the vaporetto stops in the city. These consisted simply of text added to each stop, providing an Arabic translation of the Italian names. Like Fernand Braudel, who saw the Mediterranean historically as a smooth system of cultural and societal exchange, here Jacir highlights the emergence of hard socio-cultural borders in more recent times, and a denial of such exchange. And as such, many cultural, linguistic and technological aspects of Venetian history originate in the Islamic world, Jacir explains in an interview. However, this piece’s execution did not go ahead as planned, with opaque sources of political pressure prompting its cancellation. Jacir responded to this by creating a guide map anyway, explaining that once people “arrived at a site, they would wonder why it was not there”… “anyone who came across the map in future would assume that the work had actually been realised.”

Jacir’s Europa exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 2015, curated by Omar Kholeif, explored Palestinian subjectivities in relation to the neighbouring continent. The centrepiece, an installation entitled Material for a film (2004–ongoing), is an demonstration of how the conflict spilled out beyond the Middle East, by recounting the 1972 assassination of Palestinian intellectual Wael Zuaiter in Rome. Wrongly suspected of association with the plotters of the massacre at the Munich Olympics earlier that year, Mossad agents tracked and targeted Zuaiter. Through a distinctly archival work, Jacir portrays him as a good-natured, idealistic man, with insight into his everyday habits. His book collection, family photographs, and even a clip of him as an extra in The Pink Panther (1963) succeed in presenting him as a likeable and relatable personality.

Wael Zuaiter’s copy of A Thousand and One Nights, volume II pierced by his assassins’ bullet. Part of : Emily Jacir, Material for a film, (2004–ongoing) // image via

One of Zuaiter’s long-term projects was translating A Thousand and One Nights directly from Arabic into Italian. The day he was killed, in his possession was the second volume of the story – Jacir displays the book pierced by a single bullet. Material for a film earned Jacir a Golden Lion at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007, and it continues to develop with her ongoing engagement with the subject.

Another piece in the exhibition, ’embrace’ (2005) resembles an airport conveyor belt. The motion of the mechanics activates when approached, and the wheel begins to turn ad infinitum. A functionally useless object, it captures a sense of frustration that a traveller might feel, waiting for their luggage to arrive. The associations can be drawn towards Palestinians’ state of limbo, and the endless recursion of this experience, hoping for an inhuman apparatus to deliver their possessions.

Emily Jacir ‘embrace’. 2005, (rubber, stainless steel, aluminium, motor and motion sensors ) // image via

2017 saw Jacir champion Dar Jacir, a project to renovate and convert her family’s nineteenth century home, just metres away from the West Bank partition wall, into an ‘autonomous cultural centre’: allowing for the local community in Bethlehem to access a program of workshops, exhibitions and visiting artists and scholars. Its location on a street which has become a focal point for border clashes has provided a tumultuous context that Jacir sees as more of a challenge than a deterrent, as she explains in a video pitch for its crowdfunding campaign.

Photograph from a Jacir family wedding at Dar Jacir in 1911 // image via

This year, Emily Jacir is taking part in group shows: her work featured in Nothing Stable Under Heaven at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which includes the likes of Hans Haacke, Taryn Simon and Trevor Paglen; and Margin and Center, a show at the Houston Center for Photography which draws from bell hooks’ writings on the vision of the marginalised, to interrogate the act of separation. In addition, she is spending much of the year working in Ramallah as curator of the Young Artist of the Year Award 2018 (YAYA 2018), a very significant biennial event in the Palestinian art scene, which provides a stimulus for the careers of emerging artists.


By James Elsey