Line of Fire
In March 2003, when many of us were sunk deep in a sense of voicelessness and futility -- depressed by the ineffectuality of our anti-war marches and protest rallies, our demonstrations, letters, phone calls and petitions -- Xero and her partner Gordon travelled as volunteers to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Their mission, undertaken through the Palestinian-led International Solidarity Movement, was to participate in non-violent actions of resistance in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. These actions would include placing themselves in and around Palestinian homes and businesses to prevent their destruction by Israeli forces; removing roadblocks and monitoring Israeli army checkpoints; and helping, where possible, to move people, vehicles, and much-needed supplies and textbooks through these obstacles.
As with other ISM volunteers, Xero and Gordon would also act as observers and reporters, sending news bulletins back to Canada concerning ongoing Israeli occupation of and incursions into Palestinian towns and villages. Part of ISM's mandate is to raise public awareness of the concerted brutalities, human-rights violations and apartheid-like conditions in Occupied Palestine, all of which are too little covered by mainstream Western news media. Xero and Gordon have written that ordinary Palestinian people are too often identified in the media as fanatics and terrorists, and that the large numbers of civilian casualties amongst the Palestinian population, especially its children, are routinely overlooked and under-reported in the West.
Xero also determined to produce a visual record, through drawings, photographs, journals, and found images and objects, of everyday life in Occupied Palestine, and it is this record of which her exhibition is composed. Although she has been strongly identified with an aggressive and confrontational graphic style, worked in black-and-white on scraper board, she counter-intuitively resolved to execute her Palestinian images in the more muted and painterly medium of chalk pastel.
Initially, she also chose to represent covert or symbolic rather than overt or explicit violence: destroyed fields of vegetables and uprooted olive trees; burned-out shops and expropriated houses; Israeli tanks rolling across the countryside; mounds, ditches, and swales of raw earth, ploughed over roadways and around Israeli army installations; helpless detainees, their dangling hands red with the cold; impounded taxis, stranded livestock and line-ups of ambulances waiting, waiting, waiting at checkpoints. In honour of her hosts, she also produced a suite of portraits of Palestinian people, met and befriended during her month in the Occupied Territories. The richness and facility of Xero's drawings compel our gaze, pitching us into a dilemma between curiosity and complicity, between voyeurism and outrage.
The ruined landscape and the scores of people and vehicles waiting for hours and days at Israeli army checkpoints struck Xero as essential metaphors for what she witnessed of the Occupation. These images both compress and convey the dehumanizing conditions Palestinians are daily forced to endure, and the concerted campaign waged against their ability to lead ordinary lives, to work, farm, shop for food, attend school, visit friends and relatives, or seek medical help.
Xero also resolved to create, within the context of her installation, a variation on R.B. Kitaj's painting, Eclipse of God. Kitaj's work is itself an homage to Paolo Uccello's Breaking Down the Jew's Door, an investigation of his own identity. In Xero's quartet of drawings -- as she witnessed repeatedly -- the door and home under assault are Palestinian. In her exhibition, history cycles relentlessly on, victims and oppressors churning through centuries of hate and inequity. Recently, too, the artist has shifted her medium to oilstick, and her images have become more crude and confrontational. They've become more explicit, too, such as her record of a day of oppression, intimidation and brutality in Arayoun Square in Nablus.
From Francisco Goya to Kaethe Kollwitz and from Honore Daumier to Sue Coe, there is, in the West, a long tradition of social-protest art -- art that records and deplores the many and various cruelties, brutalities, deprivations, and injustices human beings inflict upon each another, in times of both war and peace. Xero is no stranger to social and political art: from the beginning of her career, she has aligned her practice and her imagery with the oppressed and the marginalized, taking on issues that range from women's rights, AIDS, and nuclear proliferation to mental health, corporate hegemony and the environment. What is striking about her Palestinian project, however, is her willingness to place herself, quite literally, in the line of fire in support of her political beliefs. Among fine artists, this is a rare commitment.
In travelling to Occupied Palestine and taking part in non-violent actions there, Xero chose to do more than bear witness. She chose to actively intervene in what she saw as an unjust and unequal conflict. After involving themselves in a number of projects in Nablus and Asseera, Xero and Gordon were posted to Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, near the Egyptian border. They arrived there the day after American activist Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by an armoured Israeli bulldozer while she was attempting to block the destruction of the house of a Palestinian, Dr. Samir Masri. Xero and Gordon helped handle the media, gave support to its cadre of young volunteers, participated in memorial ceremonies for Corrie, filed news reports, and slept in Dr. Masri's home in a continued effort to protect it.
In separate incidents shortly after they left Rafah, British documentary filmmaker James Miller and British activist Tom Hurndall were each shot in the head by Israeli army snipers, one killed, the other declared brain dead. Both Corrie and Hurndall were volunteers with ISM, both were engaged in non-violent actions at the time they were attacked, and both must have believed that their status as international peace activists would somehow protect them. In recent weeks, the Israeli government vowed to expel ISM activists from the country, alleging a connection with two British suicide bombers. Israeli forces raided ISM's central office in Beit Sahour near Bethlehem, ransacking it and carrying off its computers.
Here is Xero's record of her time in the West Bank and Gaza, eloquent testimony to the depth of her perceptions and the breadth of her convictions.
by Robin, June 2003