“Ghosts of Presence – Bodies of Absence”: the art of John Halaka

The “Peace Doers” blog concludes this month’s focus on Arts in Palestine with today’s post.  There is an exciting renaissance of arts taking place in Palestine so a month does not begin to expose the rich mix of creativity.  Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture in Bethlehem is one of the hubs of this renaissance. Each year they have hosted a major international conference on “Arts and Resistance”.  At the 2017 conference, Faten Nastas Mitwasi, the coordinator of the university’s visual arts program, presented a paper about the latest work of internationally recognized artist John Halaka. Today’s blog post is drawn from her presentation.

 John Halaka is a Palestinian American visual artist working in the fields of Painting, Drawing, Photography and Documentary Filmmaking.  He teaches at the University of San Diego and his work has been exhibited worldwide.  His current exhibition is now on display at Gallery One in Ramallah. He was a presenter at the 2016 Dar al Kalima Arts and Resistance Conference and gave a talk to students.  

We are grateful to Faten Nastas Mitwasi for this insightful introduction to John Halaka’s work:

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Ghosts of Presence – Bodies of Absence” presents very delicate and mysterious artworks, created carefully with thousands of brush strokes and rubber stamped words. The drawings have been developed on top of digital photographs that have been printed to appear faded and ghostly. At close up observation of the details of the drawings, the strokes that John Halaka uses to develop the images seem to present an abstract drawing. With careful scrutiny, the viewer begins to recognize words that have been repeatedly stamped on the drawing as if it is a conceptual art work. Only when looking from a distance, one discovers the landscape scenes as well as the portraits that have been drawn in relationship to the faded digital photographs. This combination of the faces of people and images of destroyed villages, results in an ever-shifting relationship between the presence and absence of the figures and the landscapes.

Thinking deeply about it, “Ghosts of Presence – Bodies of Absence” represents “the highest form of art” which Nietzsche explains extensively in his book The Birth of Tragedy. The highest form of art results from the mixture of both Apollonian and Dionysian elements into one seamless whole, allowing the visitor to experience the full spectrum of the human condition. The spirit of Apollo is brought forth through the representation of order, beauty, and presence while the life-force of Dionysus is summoned through the depiction of chaos, destructions and ghosts. According to Nietzsche, we cannot live healthy lives by following only one of those two drives; we need to learn to create a dynamic balance between both of them. Halaka realizes the balance and creates “the highest form of art” both on the technical and conceptual level. Each of his works suggests a balance between abstraction and realism, documentation and conceptualism, beauty and brutality, nostalgia and pain, as well as the absence and presence of the very figures and landscapes that he invites us to scrutinize and contemplate. Halaka draws the beautiful landscape of the Palestinian villages; with some architectural scenes, cactus plants and other elements. He has a unique style in drawing, somewhere between expressionism and pointillism, until he reaches nostalgic realism in presenting the landscape. Yet, the scene is not complete, the beauty is not real; Halaka adds to it a layer of words. The words are imposed by a rubber stamp on the landscape to bring it to the present reality. The words remind us of the brutality the Palestinian people experienced and recall the pain they lived through: remember, resist, survival, sacrifice, return, memorial, memory, survivors, desire, genocide, forgotten, freedom.

Whether they are survivors or were sacrificed (martyred) or dead, Halaka’s drawings evoke the souls of the displaced that are still dwelling in their native landscape. 69 years ago, these landscapes, the trees, the fertile fields and dense clusters of cactus belonged to these people. The stones and the architectural ruins that are present in the drawings, were once flourishing homes that sheltered generations of evolving and expanding families. Halaka commemorates the people and presents them as immortal ghosts who are part of and witness to the history of an usurped nation.

Through basic techniques; drawing, stamping and photography, Halaka recalls layers and decades of history. Through modest materials, ink and digital photographs on drawing paper, Halaka evokes deep memories. Through his art works in this exhibition, Halaka echoes John Berger’s statement “as long as there are people who tell the story, the same story, their nation will continue to survive “.

The art of John Halaka rises from, and is based on the story of the Palestinian nation, as well as the experiences and desires of the Palestinian people. He draws specific landscapes and destroyed Palestinian villages that he searched for, walked through and documented, as well as develops portraits of individual Palestinian refugees that he sought out, sat with, interviewed and inquired about their personal experiences. Yet, with the continuous brutality imposed on and experienced by various nations, especially in the Levant, Halaka’s artwork investigates the struggle for human rights and dignity on an international dimension. Halaka’s artwork not only tells, documents and commemorates the story of the Palestinian nation, but investigates the crisis of exiled people at any place in the world, and reflects their tragedies using his powerful art. John Berger identifies the ability of art to speak “Truth to Power” and addresses the responsibility of the artist to identify and challenge injustices inflicted on the powerless. Berger explained that “art has often judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past has suffered, so that it has never been forgotten. I know too that the powerful fear art, whatever its form, when it does this, and that amongst the people such art sometimes runs like a rumour and a legend because it makes sense of what life’s brutalities cannot, a sense that unites us, for it is inseparable from a justice at last. Art, when it functions like this, becomes a meeting-place of the invisible, the irreducible, the enduring, guts and honour.”

Art also functions as an international common language through which artists can communicates with their audiences, and trigger them to think, feel and contemplate. Through his breath taking art works, John Halaka communicates his universal vision of justice, and in the words he repeatedly stamps in his drawings, recommends a set of guidelines to all uprooted people: to realize Freedom one should resist, sacrifice, remember, survive, return and to never forget.  

Faten Nastas Mitwasi

Faten Nasta Mitwasi is chairperson of the Visual Arts Department at Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture.  She is author of the book: Reflections on Palestinian Art: Art of Resistance or Aesthetics.

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