Hazem Harb drew the roman shades in his home studio to block out the shockingly bright desert views and force himself to concentrate. He was finishing the plans for ‘Invisible Landscapes and Concrete Futures’, his upcoming solo show at Salsali Private Museum in Dubai. The show’s press release had come out that day and ours was the first interview he would give of many. As a result, he projected a kind of calm intensity.
Although Harb’s home is Gaza—a place he can’t easily enter and exit—he is also an Italian citizen. Yet he has moved studio more than 20 times, carrying the important things—his sketchbooks, a brown leather suitcase with buckles, old photographs of Palestine—from country to country.
In 2013 the British Museum acquired Harb’s photography series, ‘Beyond Memory’, and the smartly titled ‘Invisible Travels’, installed in the Athr Gallery’s booth at last year’s edition of Art Dubai, caused many visitors to swallow sharply as they came face to face with a line up of 20 steel suitcases hollowed out to represent a Gaza tunnel—a stark reminder of the daily realities just a short journey away from the fair’s luxurious halls.
Harb has been honing the concept for ‘Invisible Landscapes and Concrete Futures’ for more than two years, wrestling with the junctions between history, memory, power, and the future in the context of Palestine. To-scale renderings of architectural models and sculptures for the exhibition were piled on every possible surface of the studio (other than his wife’s pristine white couch) in evidence of an obsession with structures and their destruction.
He turned down the classical music, poured us each a glass of strong Arabic coffee, and sketched in a thin notebook as we sat speaking in muddled light.
Danna Lorch: Since you left Gaza for Italy at age 22 you’ve inhabited more than 20 studios, and you’ve moved spaces somewhat nomadically. Does the actual studio in which you work and live matter, or is just a shell to wear on your back, unpack, create from, and bundle up again?
Hazem Harb: First of all, I am outside my original country. I have always combined my home with my studio. It requires physical time to ground myself and I often don’t have long enough to form a connection with each place. It doesn’t matter where my studio is; the studio is the studio.
DL: Why are you an artist?
HH: The answer to that question involves the historic photographs of Palestine (before the Nakbah) that are connected to my upcoming show at Salsali. As a boy, I used to beg my mother to take out black and white photos. I remember she kept them in an old Arabic sweets tin. This was my first feeling of nostalgia, the moment I began to question why I was different from the other children. Now, with this show I am answering my childhood self.
DL: Archival drawings, maps, and photographs of Palestine are taped to all four of your studio walls. The theme of memory returns again and again in your work. How are you grappling with it this time?
HH: By examining the archaeology of the Occupation I am proposing a memory of the future. I am enquiring into what will be uncovered regarding Palestine in the decades and centuries to come. Will we find [only] a piece of concrete? I have a dystopian vision.
DL: This is intriguing. By focusing on the future you are pointing out how politics have not only caused Palestinian culture to be interpreted in a certain vein now, but may result in a distinctly conflict-centric memory of the land in the future.
HH: In one of the main installations in the show, I will be reconceiving a room from the Baramki House* in Jerusalem, which talks about the history of that home. Thousands of Palestinian homes were occupied after the Nakbah and this is a memory of all of them. This house is especially interesting because it has recently been turned into a museum.
DL: You are considering the way that a culture is “museumized,” and this case is poignant because many of the people who originally inhabited this home and their descendants are not able to gain access even to the museum.
HH: I have taken Mr. Baramki’s architectural plans and reimagined the original home. I’ve also experimented for the first time with a video sculpture installation.
DL: In a recent TV interview you were positioned as a political artist and a Gazan artist. Is that representation accurate?
HH: I don’t care about the political situation, but I do feel a responsibility for the work because it fulfils a personal need. Even if I am talking about human life under a difficult situation, it doesn’t mean that I am a political artist. I am an artist and a human being; I am everyone.
DL: If in the future there were no longer a conflict in Gaza, do you imagine your practice would continue to revolve around the history of the place?
HH: Even if the situation changed, the memories of the place would never be removed from the land. Every single meter of Palestine contains them. As an artist, the resource of my work is the human experience, so I’d imagine I’d continue to focus on Gaza but not on the suffering—on the collective memory.
Note: *The Baramki House sits in West Jerusalem and is a villa originally designed in the 1930s as a family home by the prominent Palestinian architect Adoni Baramki, then appropriated by the state of Israel. Following that time, Baramki never had the chance to live in the house he had built but circled it on foot nearly daily until his death in 1972. The building now serves as The Museum on the Seam, listed as a socio-political contemporary art space.
Good Ideas: ‘Invisible Landscapes and Concrete Futures’ opens at Salsali Private Museum on Alserkal Avenue in Dubai in March, 2015 and will be curated by Lara Khaldi. To see more of Hazem Harb’s work visit Athr Art.
Credits: This interview was originally published on ArtSlant. Special thanks to Hazem Harb, Salsali Private Museum and Athr Art.