Emily Jacir’s “Memorial to 418 Palestinian Villages Destroyed, Depopulated and Occupied by Israel in 1948” is a simple refugee tent, like those that can be seen in the camps in Gaza, but whose astute title acts like a mandatory aide-memoire, forcing whoever talks about it, whatever they think of Jacir’s work or the present geopolitical situation, to repeat over and over again the events of 60 years ago. Repetition – Memory – Stitching wounds.
The artist, who was awarded the Golden Lion at the 52nd Venice Biennale for her installation Material for a Film, had decided to sew the names of these 418 Palestinian villages on the tent’s side and roof with thick black thread but realising the enormity of the task decided to open her New York studio 24 hours a day to anyone who wanted to help. Hundreds of people came, mainly Palestinians from these very villages but also Israelis who had grown up on their remains. As people sewed, they read, sang, discussed politics, drank, told stories but above all remembered. Jacir’s studio became a place in which people felt safe from hostility, where they could share their thoughts and fears. The memory of these days, as the artist explains, have become part of the work itself, and whenever the tent is exhibited it is also a “document of that period of time, of all those people, all the conversations, all those hands.”
“Memorial to 418 Palestinian Villages Destroyed, Depopulated and Occupied by Israel in 1948” can be thought as a collective act of writing which conceptually reclaims lost territory as well as a mobile text challenging the confines of a traditional book. As part of its nomadic wanderings, the tent could perhaps have been pitched for a few days outside the controversial Paris Book Fair where the guest country, Israel, was celebrating its 60th birthday. As historian and novelist Tariq Ali said in a recent article explaining why he refused to take part, “this is also the 60th anniversary of what the Palestinian call the ‘nakba’ the disaster that befell them that year, when they were expelled from their villages, some killed, women raped by the settlers.”
Unlike other memorials that attempt to provide a fixed site for memory (such as Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial or Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial in Vienna) the tent’s fragility and its portable nature evoke the idea of displacement, not only of Palestinian people but also of their memories and histories. Moreover, as Jacir explains, “it was left unfinished, because quite simply, it is not finished.” How does one keep memory alive when the same trauma is inflicted over and over again and its traces erased? Stitching memory is an endless task.