Jordan Nassar’s new apartment exhibition lives between the Israel, Palestine binary – Document Journal

Posted By on December 2, 2019

A Palestinian-American artist ruminates on intersecting identities at his new home in Tel-Aviv.

Every year since 1908 people have flocked to a giant exhibition in London to revel in interiors porn. The event is called The Ideal Home Show, and is intended to seduce and arouse design fetishists through its juxtaposition of idealized kitchens and living rooms and bedrooms. Each decade reflects the aspirations of its timein the 1960s you could tour a home in space; in the 1970s visitors ogled at home saunas and groovy lava lamps.The show is a fantasia of how perfect life could be if you had the means to create the domicile of your dreams. The fact that most people dont have the means is not the point. Dreams arent designed to come true.

At the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv right now you can see another take on an ideal homethis time created by Jordan Nassar, a Palestinian-American artist widely acclaimed for his fantastical embroidered landscapes. For Nassar, who has an actual home in Brooklyn where he lives with his husband, Amir Guberstein, the exercise in imagining a dream apartment has nothing to do with futuristic appliances or luxury wall hangings. Instead, its freighted with questions around identity, nostalgia, and belonging. What would his apartment look like if he returned to the land of his grandparentsnot in some hypothetical future, but in the here and now? The answer is surprising, moving, and deeply satisfying.

In The Sea Beneath Our Eyes, a studio apartment is fully furnished with items that Nassar has made in collaboration with local craftspeople, from textiles woven by Bedouin Arabs to baskets by Ethiopian Jews, to ceramic tiles from Armenians in East Jerusalem. While the apartment is distinctly histheres a copy of The Odyssey on the bedside tableit could also be any number of apartments in Tel Aviv or Jaffa, an apartment that reflects in its furnishings the multiethnic melting pot of the region.

For Nassar, the apartment expands on his interestexemplified in his embroideriesof interrogating the complexities and nuances of his identity. What emerges from the exercise is a soulful meditation on community and co-existence. I wanted to think about returning to this land now, in 2019, says Nassar. Its not the Palestine of my dads imagination, and its also not the Ashkenazi dreamland that the Israeli government wants to project. So, I thought the best way to address the question of what Id be returning to now is to look at the demographics of the country based on what crafts are here.

Those crafts include challah covers hand embroidered by Ethiopian women, a carved wood mirror from Gaza, tiles made in Jaffa, ceramics glazed by Armenians in Jerusalem, and olive wood tableware made in Bethlehem. There are even bamboo geodesic domes from a kibbutz in northern Israel. In each case, Nassar has collaborated with the artisans by specifying a few requirements, but leaving the rest of the design choices to them. It follows a pattern hes established in his own artcommissioning Palestinian craftswomen to embroider areas of a canvas in the colors and style of their choosing, but leaving an area blank that Nassar completes at his studio in Brooklyn. The result is a kind of multi-level collaboration that functions as a dialoguein his case between a diaspora Palestinian, and a Palestinian in the homeland.

I want to leave as much as possible up to them because I want to capture the tendencies of the living cultural tradition and practice, says Nassar. So, when I get the piece back, and theres an empty space smack in the middle of it, I respond to their aesthetic choices, and finish the piece accordingly. It becomes a nice back-and-forth.

The same back-and-forth is evident in The Sea Beneath Our Eyes, but the dialogue has expanded. Nassars interplay with the designers reflects the broader dynamics in the countrya hundred daily interactions between people of different faiths and backgrounds. Im hoping a lot of Israelis walk in here and say, I have a bowl like that, I have a basket like that, says Nassar. They might think of it as an ethnic thing they got at a market, but my point is that from the outside its an Israeli thing nowthe Ethiopian ladies are Jewish and they live here, now.

The symbiotic relationship between different people harkens also to the regions long history as a trade route, which predates the political complexities of the modern nation state. For that reason, Nassar avoided listing countries of origin in the zine he created to accompany the shows opening, choosing to list only cities. Im not ignoring the political differences between Palestine and Israel, but for this project thats not what Im talking about, says Nassar. Im talking about it more holisticallythe river to the sea, the land where my ancestry is from. Over the past 1000 years control and the name of this land has changed so many times that Im ignoring the temporality of nation states. In Israel there are Bedouins and Druzepeople who, for many thousands of years, its never mattered to them who was controlling the land.

The observation illuminates a question that runs through Nassars work. On the wall of his apartment at the CCA is a hamsa, an amulet in the shape of an open palm that is popular in Arab countries and Israel as a defense against the evil eye. Who appropriated who? And does it even matter? For Nassar, the concept of cultural appropriation in a part of the world where cultural identities are so enmeshed has limited value. He finds the binary division of Israel and Palestine into Arab and Jew equally problematic, pointing out that half of the Jews in Israel are MizrahimJews from Arab countries. Like Arabs, they have been systematically excluded by the white Ashkenazi establishment, albeit to different degrees. In the 1970s, he points out, the Mizrahim even had their own Black Panther-style movement.

Arabs and Mizrahim are not supposed to mix, because if they were to form one group it would way overwhelm the Ashkenazis, he says. People will throw things at [me], [saying], like, The Mizrahim are actually the most right-wing, and Im like, Yeah, because they have spent generations trying to prove to Ashkenazis that theyre not Arabs so that people dont treat them like Arabs.

Nassar, who is included in the new Whitney Museum show, Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 19502019, can speak to the historical interplay between Arab and Jew better than most. Some years ago he discovered that his mother has Jewish roots in Poland, although she was raised as a practicing Catholic. Meanwhile his father, a psychiatrist, has spent chunks of his career in Gaza and the West Bank supporting traumatized children.

The Sea Beneath Our Eyes, is ultimately a study in layers of identities, waves of migration, the synthesis of cultures. But its also the story of Nassar told through crafts that speak to him. Its not a didactic exercise, like I came up with a hypothesis and Im now trying to prove it, he says. Its personal, its my experience, its my apartment. I feel in art you can do that, in such a way that people cant get that mad at you because youre talking about your life, your family. While concepts and notions in these exhibitions might be universally applicable theyre coming from a very personal space of my own experience. I have an Israeli husband, a Palestinian father, its just my life. No-one can hold that against me.

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Jordan Nassar's new apartment exhibition lives between the Israel, Palestine binary - Document Journal

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