If, in the Anthropocene, few parts of this planet remain unaffected by human activity, then perhaps it follows that in nature we might find ample evidence of historic events and insights into humanity. We might, for instance, study trees and seas through an anthropological lens. Artist-researchers, with their proclivity for disciplinary promiscuity, have conducted promising experiments in this vein. Maria Thereza Alves and Candice Lin, for example, consider the impact of colonialism on the land, as does Khalil Rabah, whose compelling semi-fictional institution, “The Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind” (a project he started in 1995 and intends to continue through 2025), is on view as part of a survey titled “What Is Not” at the Sharjah Art Foundation. Within this sprawling installation, the Ramallah-based artist presents absurdist spins on science exhibits—the museum includes Botanical, Earth and Solar System, and Anthropology departments—that tell the story of the Israeli occupation of Palestine from the perspective of the natural world, including instances where the state has “weaponi[zed] climate change,” as one wall label puts it.
For example, in one of nearly a dozen exhibits, titled “The lowest point on earth memorial park” (2017), a series of four sculptures commemorates the portion of the Dead Sea that Israel allocated to Palestine, knowing full well that rising temperatures would cause it to dry up soon, leaving salt-scorched earth behind. One piece, Untitled, is a rusted rectangular container meant to evoke an open casket. At the bottom, scattered like bones, are white neon tubes spelling out the Hebrew acronym for the Palestinian Liberation Organization, as if the movement, like the land, had been sucked dry. These and other works paint searing portraits of real events.
Elsewhere, Rabah indicts Israel’s greenwashing. Despite its abysmal track record in human rights, Israel proudly claims to be the world’s most vegan country. In Lion (2017), part of another exhibit titled the “Gaza Zoo Sculpture Garden,” a wooden sculpture of a big cat sits in a found truck bed, illustrating the story (explained in the wall text) of a lion rescued from a zoo in the Gaza Strip, where blockades and bombardment had led to poverty for Palestinian residents and suboptimal living conditions for animals in the zoo. The Israeli government has largely denied culpability for these conditions and refused humanitarian aid, but many Israelis participated in a campaign to save the animals.
Rabah’s Museum, which took up most of this three-gallery show, is often framed as a work of institutional critique, but in fact, he uses the museum format to draw attention to issues that far exceed art and its publics—and always with a dose of dark humor. Riwaq Bienniale, another of his semi-fictional institutions, began on the West Bank in 2005. For the 2009 version, Rabah brought his biennial to Venice, where he was one of seven artists invited to participate in Palestine’s first contribution to the global event, though still without an official pavilion. Rabah has also turned ephemera from various editions into artworks. In Sharjah, he displays canvases listing pseudo-collateral events he programmed as part of the Venice Biennale in the Palestinian town of Birzeit. The lines of text, in both English and Arabic, were painstakingly hand-painted and adopt the Venice Biennale’s recognizable red-and-white graphic design. Obviously bootleg, the signs call attention to Palestine’s prior absence from the Venice Biennale, partly because Italy does not recognize it as a sovereign nation. But the listed events seem earnest and germane—they include a reception, video screenings, lectures, and exhibition tours with notable artists and scholars from the region. Rabah’s commentary on museums and biennials can be hard to parse. How meta are they, exactly? If the Riwaq Bienniale does not in fact adhere to a biannual schedule, what else is made up? When it comes to critiquing institutions, chaotic absurdism is Rabah’s modus operandi, but when it comes to critiquing Israel, nothing is left ambiguous.