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Emily Jacir's work tells human story

11:32:34 AM CDT - Thursday, January 20, 2005

By Shannon Littlejohn

For Emily Jacir, place and dislocation are large themes larger, in a basic way, than the history and politics behind them. Her internationally acclaimed exhibit, "Where We Come From," provides literal snapshots of day-to-day living under restrictions that many Americans will probably never experience, much less understand.

The Palestinian artist's work will be on exhibit starting today (Thursday, Jan. 20) as part of the Ulrich Museum of Art's Project Series, a showcase for up and coming artists of national and international reputation, said David Butler, director of the Ulrich Museum.

Jacir a Palestinian-born artist who lives and works in two places, New York City and Ramallah, when not touring with her exhibits is a conceptual artist, Butler said.

"She uses words and images drawn from her own experiences," he said. "It's very matter of fact and deadpan; it doesn't look like art."

As a contemporary museum, the Ulrich shows as many approaches as possible, said Butler. "Conceptual art is something we haven't done a lot; that use of word and text goes back a long way."

Combining photography, drawing, video, text and objects, Jacir attempts to put a human face on generations of geopolitical issues in the Middle East.

She was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Saudi Arabia, went to high school in Italy, and received her bachelor and master of fine arts in America (University of Dallas and Memphis College of Art, respectively). She has shown extensively throughout Europe, the Americas and the Middle East, and was represented in the recent Istanbul Biennale and the 2004 Whitney Biennial in New York.

"Where We Come From" has gained her much critical acclaim. Less obviously political than some of her previous work, the exhibit is known for its everyday images and powerful messages. New York Times art critic Holland Cotter called it "one of the most moving gallery exhibitions I've encountered this season." A Village Voice review said that "her efforts reverberate with the complexities of fear, longing, and travel restrictions "

Jacir asked Palestinians around the world, "If I could do something for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?" With an American passport giving her relative freedom of movement, Jacir crossed artificial and dangerous borders to fulfill the desires of people who have limited or no access to their former homeland. The presentation is simple: photographs record a child playing soccer, a family separated, a bill paid, a mother's grave visited. Text in Arabic and English records each request and its outcome.

"She let other people determine the content of her work in this case," said Butler. "It was very open-ended. The requests that were made of her determined what the artwork would be. She documented the request and then took a photograph, documenting how she fulfilled the request."

The result is a very human story, Butler said.

 "The exhibit appealed to me because it shows the street-level consequences of difficult political situations, what it means on a day-to-day basis. The artist doesn't explain why the situation is the way it is," he said.

Of course, people will bring their own history to these narratives, said Butler. "And I think that's one reason the exhibition has been very controversial."

In fact, some in Wichita's Jewish community have called the exhibit anti-Semitic and asked for an accompanying museum display to present dissenting views. Most are objecting to the wording of the text describing the photos.

Meanwhile, the local art community has swirled with Internet rumors of possible censorship, prompting a mid-December statement from the university about "going forward with the exhibition without conditions or limitations" that could compromise the integrity of Jacir's work as an artist.

The attention has thus far garnered news stories, an editorial and several letters to the editor in The Wichita Eagle for an exhibit that hasn't been seen by the Wichita public yet. Some individuals are reportedly organizing peaceful protests on campus and will be handing out literature presenting the Israeli point of view of Palestinian travel restrictions.

"Because of the subject matter of the exhibition," said Butler, "we thought this would be a good opportunity to provide information about the very complicated Israeli-Palestinian situation. We've been working with the Fairmount College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to bring in recognized experts."

With LAS as a co-sponsor, the Ulrich Museum will host a two-part lecture series in February in conjunction with Jacir's exhibit. Titled "Two Peoples, One Land: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict," the first lecture Feb. 14 will be "Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism: A Historical Assessment" with Derek Penslar (University of Toronto). The second in the series will be "Palestine at the Crossroads: From al-Nakba to the Aftermath of the Peace Process" with Issam Nassar (Bradley University, Illinois) on Feb. 24. Both lectures start at 7 p.m. in the Ulrich.

"There is so much history and grief and pain behind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," said Butler. "I hope this exhibition will inspire people to educate themselves about this difficult situation."

Emily Jacir's exhibit, "Where We Come From," will be at the Ulrich Museum of Art from Thursday, Jan. 20, through Sunday, March 6. The artist will be on campus on Thursday, Jan. 27, for an opening reception from 5-7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 27, with a brief gallery talk by the artist at 6 p.m. Jacir will also discuss her work from 4-5 p.m., prior to the reception. Museum galleries are open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free. For more information, call (316) 978-3664 or e-mail ulrich@wichita.edu.