According to what Ahlam Shibli told me, the two photographic “reportages”—I use the term here for want of space to debate it—that will be presented at documenta 14 have precedents in her work. One made in al-Khalil/Hebron, a description of the Palestinian city’s territory, in Unrecognized (2000); the other, an investigation conducted in Kassel on communities created by exile, expellees from the eastern territories of the former German Reich after World War II and the “guest workers” who came from southern Europe and North Africa from the 1950s to 1970s, in Trauma (2008–09). Unrecognized is an account of a Palestinian village that the Israeli state does not acknowledge. Trauma reveals buried memories (or those perverted by nationalist dogma) of the colonial wars led by the French state in Indochina and Algeria, in a martyred city of World War II (Tulle).
Shibli was born in Palestine in 1970. She has always been interested in the living matter that is formed and transformed in inhabited areas. This matter transcends the divisions between private and public; it is a mosaic of gestures and places that includes “views” (landscapes), speech situations (elicited by the artist), and biographical documents (excerpted from family archives). I have known few artist-photographers capable of creating what the Middle East most lacks today: a position of trust and basic understanding (allowing for misunderstandings), against identity politics.
For Shibli, the friend/enemy structure is a matter of experience and a condition of action, but she puts it aside to combine the distance of documentary with the proximity of dialogue; she avails herself of the dual possibilities of critical remove and empathetic participation. Each situation is essentially problematic (she does not thematize), and the central problem is one of home and borders, both mental and territorial. Shibli knows that oppression, censure, and disinformation are not only practiced by the winners. She has learned to be wary of the pathos of the victim, in order to better get at the confused reality of reactions to oppression.
She works outside the system of the news, toward an understanding of the present. The dramatization of information that is a part of today’s “fake news” environment calls for deeper attention to everyday life, to the mechanisms of appropriation that determine the intimate experience of a land, in times of peace (and the enjoyment of collective property) as in times of war.